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memoirs, The Woman Warrior and Angela's Ashes, Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank McCourt, respectively, present unique and complete views of worlds that widely diverge from the sort of lifestyles and experiences that are enjoyed by the average citizens of the United States of America. Part of the most simple reason for this is their "outsider" statues. As an immigrant, in Frank McCourt's case, and as the child of immigrant parents, in Maxine Hong Kingston's case, both memoirs are narratives of lives marked by travel, travail, and cultural differences that haven an enormous and massive impact upon their authors' lives. In the case of Maxine Hong Kingston, she experiences a home life and a cultural heritage that wildly conflicts with the extremely divergent notions afforded to her by the imprinting and socialization process of American society, whereby the social morays of Chinese culture were questioned by western logic and capitalism. McCourt similarly, after facing a brutal and deprived childhood, is then forced to deal head-on with the issues of American life, and, despite the many claims about the sorts of opportunities that are available in America, he discovers firsthand that it is necessary to work much harder and endure all sorts of unexpected difficulties within the American context such that the traditional concept of the American dream seems absurd and obsolete.
Given the relative hardships and difficulties of their respective lives, it is very interesting that both Frank McCourt and Maxine Hong Kingston have chose to write memoirs about such difficult and inexplicable experiences. Indeed, however, it is the very ineffable qualities of their experiences that seem to drive both Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank McCourt to write about their experience and to discover something that can be stated about those experiences in a meaningful and communicative way. Indeed, this very concept of the ineffability of experience is the very thing that drives them to try and express those same things that they realize cannot be expressed. Although the goal is unobtainable, both seem to have a sort of therapeutic goal in mind in which the telling of the story also releases some of the burdens of their onerous pasts, such that the telling itself is both an absolution and a freedom. Thus, the goal in the works of both is to be able to express their stories in a way that is both entertaining and educational, but, aside from this more didactic purpose lies a secondary purpose of sounding a plangent bell of remorse over the ineffable frustrations of their childhood and rearing in a manner that can transform those experiences from narratives of deprivation into the raw creative material that one uses as the basic colors of the palette in painting a realistic and impassioned visage of a life.
Indeed, Maxine Hong Kingston, in her memoir The Woman Warrior begins immediately with a quotation that reveals the fact that her memoir will be largely if not completely involved with the admission of details that would normally be considered either verboten or at least inexpressible: "You must not tell anyone,' my mother said, 'what I am about to tell you.'" (Kingston 1). As an opening to a book of any stripe, whether fiction, non-fiction, creative non-fiction, or memoir, certainly Kingston's opeing is a master-stroke in that it not only initially hooks the reader into the plot and the narrative, but also it shows and reveals the main sorts of themes, issues, and leitmotifs that will be of a central and immediate concern. Indeed, from page one, we feel as though we are involved in an intimate and secret dialogue -- by opening with this line, Kingston presents the illusion that we, too, as the reader are about to get the inside scoop, the skinny, the lowdown, on some important information. Moreover, there is an obvious and humorous fact that the mother is telling her not to tell this information to anyone, and yet, by beginning with this quotation in a book, Kingston is clearly violating her trust and telling it to the entire world. Thus, we see that this book will be about exploding secrets, revealing that which cannot be revealed, and exposing hypocrisy.
Form this point, Kingston goes on to reveal the substance of the story, itself, which entails the details of Kingston's aunt getting pregnant out of wedlock. The story itself reveals many exceptionally telling details that reveal further information about the purpose of Kingston's memoir:
I remember looking at your aunt one day when she and I were dressing; I had not noticed before that she had such a protruding melon of a stomach. But I did not think. "she's pregnant," until she began to look like other pregnant women, her shirt pulling and the white tops of her black pants showing. She could not have been pregnant, you see, because her husband had been gone for years. No one said anything. We did not discuss it. In early summer, she was ready to have the child, long after the time it would have been possible.
Here we see that there will be several important issues, especially those which polite Chinese society did not allow to be spoken of, as, in this case, her sister's pergancy out of wedlock. It also reveals a great deal about the fact that ways of knowing for Kingston's mother were based very much in societal images. She did not even realize that her sister was pregnant, "until she began to look like other pregnant women." Thus, her mother's concept of preganancy was based completely on the socially received idea of what "pregnancy" per se was supposed to look like, rather than on empirical fact. Moreover, Kingston's considers the fact that her sister "could not have been pregnant" based on the fact that "her husband had been gone for years." Here, the empirical fact of her sister's pregnancy is overruled by the societal claim that one cannot be pregnant without a husband there to do it, ignoring other obvious possibilities that society does not permit. Here we see that Kingston's mother comes from a society in which what is seen is only that which is considered acceptable, and what's real, if it is unacceptable is ignored. Hence, the members of her family do not discuss the pregnancy of Kingston's mother's sister, also known as her aunt, because it is alleged to be an impossibility.
Throughout her novel, we see Kingston railing against the sorts of received notions both in her parents expatriate society and in the sort of absurd claims that the Chinese government makes about Communism providing for everyone. She has become too entrenched in Western logical way of viewing things and thus she desires to go to China to see for herself whether or not these things are true. Ultimately, she wants to cut through the lies and the magic to experience firsthand the actual truth of things:
Be careful what you say. It comes true. It comes true. I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation. I enjoy the simplicity. Concrete pours out of my mouth to cover forests with freeways and sidewalks. Give me plastics, periodical tables, t.v. dinners with vegetables no more complex than peas mixed with diced carrots. Shine floodlights into dark corners: no ghosts.
In this passage, Kingston suggests that she has received a new epistemological understanding of the world -- a western empirical one -- which greatly conflicts with the type of worldview that both her mother and her extended Chinese family seems to have entertained. Moreover, this worldview has become a part of her and it appeals to her greatly. Indeed, she makes this more clear when she claims that "concrete pours out of her mouth," effectively equating the western empirical emphasis on "concrete," tangible qualities with the western technological achievements, like the paving of freeways and sidewalks. Nonetheless, it would be a grave mistake to accept Kingston's claim that she has totally received and accepted an empirical view of the world at face value, because, in reality, Kingston still holds on to older ways of seeing. The very fact that she belies, as the first three sentences of the above passage suggest, that uttering a thing will cause it to come true proves that she still holds on to many of the same magical and superstitious ways about which the world operates that her parents and her ancestors did. Thus, Maxine Hong Kingston inhabits a marginal world between these two cultural extremes that makes her position ineffable and drives her on to write about it.
Frank McCourt, similarly, in his beautiful and exquisite memoir, Angela's Ashes, deals with the sorts of issues that are exceptionally important to his early childhood, but which have the same fingerprint of inexpressibility that Kingston's experiences also have. McCourt, however, makes a more conscientious effort to employ humor in an attempt to…[continue]
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