Review: The Woman Warrior Is a Surreal Tribute to Storytelling

Laced with fantasy and folklore, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior is a surreal tribute to storytelling through the memoir form. 

Hey, y’all! I’m back with a review of The Woman Warrior. Maybe five years ago, my adviser recommended me this book when I was working on a thesis re: Vietnamese American literature, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until now. It’s a seminal Asian American work, and for that reason, I kept it on the back burner — until recently, I was interested in weirder, more modern stories that weren’t about intergenerational trauma and tragedy linked to the loss of the homeland. It’s indisputable that Maxine Hong Kingston changed the landscape of Asian American literature. 

I enjoyed The Woman Warrior. The book has a quality of magical realism to it. Kingston technically presents us with a memoir or autobiography but weaves her experiences with folklore and fantasy. The book title, for example, is named after the legend of Fa Mulan. In the chapter “White Tigers,” Kingston ties in her realities with Mulan’s story, discussing her life in America. While both she and Mulan live strikingly different lives, she decides to look for their similarities. 

I could see how critics might have levied criticisms of her work reinforcing stereotypes about Asian mysticism or patriarchy. But I don’t think Kingston sought out to be the definitive, all-encompassing Chinese American voice. To me, the book’s fantasy-laced framework was more about the concept of how we tell stories, particularly which ones we tell and how we tell them. In the first story, “No Name Woman,” Kingston recalls her mother telling her about a late aunt who had a child out of wedlock and died in a well. She gets us to thinking about why her family no longer tells this story, tinging the narrative with elements of scandal and sadness. Many chapters in the book grapple with shame and tragedy, whether it’s about Moon Orchid mustering the courage to see her estranged husband or Kingston bullying a quiet Chinese girl at school. 

By no means is Kingston a reliable narrator, and that’s kind of the point. I appreciated how Kingston plays around with the fundamental idea of storytelling. Ultimately, The Woman Warrior is a short, engaging, thoughtful read that may bring light to inspiration and criticism simultaneously. 

You can purchase The Woman Warrior on Bookshop.org. (This is an affiliate link.)

Published: 1976

Grade level: Teen+

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