Gender Crossing in Maxine Hong Kingston's 'Tripmaster Monkey.'(Ethnicities/Sexualities)

By Chang, Hsiao-hung | MELUS, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Gender Crossing in Maxine Hong Kingston's 'Tripmaster Monkey.'(Ethnicities/Sexualities)


Chang, Hsiao-hung, MELUS


When alone, I am not aware of my race or my sex, both in need of social contexts for definition.

Maxine Hong Kingston, "The Coming Book"

Not quite the Same, not quite the Other, she stands in that undetermined threshold place where she constantly drifts in and out. Undercutting the inside/outside opposition, her intervention is necessarily that of both a deceptive insider and a deceptive outsider. She is this Inappropriate Other/Same who mocks about with always at least two/four gestures: that of affirming "I am like you " while persisting in her difference; and that of reminding "I am different" while unsettling every definition of otherness arrived at.

Trinh T. Minh-ha, "Outside In Inside Out"

The gender gap within ethnic groups has been highlighted in recent critical discussion of identity politics. Split between the loyalty to ethnic and to gender identity, minority women writers, especially those who receive both scholarly attention and commercial success, encounter severe attacks from male writers within the ethnic group to which they belong. This gendered loyalty/betrayal complication tends to set limits on further reconceptualization of the issue of identity politics, while "racism versus sexism"--a theoretical framework of binary oppositions--seems to dominate the critical scene. In view of this, this essay attempts to take Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book and its embedded confrontation of ethnic and gender formations as a point of departure to explore possibilities of transformation. With a central focus on the notion of gender crossing, this essay will demonstrate how Tripmaster Monkey destabilizes static binary oppositions such as male/female, ethnicity/gender, and racism/sexism through a constant shifting of positions and a radical theorization of gender as both a product and a process.

Published in 1989, Tripmaster Monkey is the third book by Kingston, after The Woman Warrior (1976) and China Men (1980). Set in San Francisco in the 1960s, it portrays a twenty-three year old, fifth-generation Chinese-American male, Wittman Ah Sing, a paranoiac English major graduated from Berkeley, an unemployed would-be playwright, and an unrelenting anti-racist. The book starts with Wittman's wandering through Golden Gate Park contemplating suicide and ends with his theatrical attempt at staging a Chinese-American combined version of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, A Journey to the West and Water Margin. Revolving around the physical and psychological activities of this main character, Tripmaster Monkey creates an open literary space of heteroglossia, simultaneously incorporating various genres, transcending time and space, and making allusions to a variety of works from Shakespeare to Hollywood films.

This hybrid form can thus successfully destabilize any single fixed structure of oppositions. It makes Tripmaster Monkey, like The Woman Warrior and China Men, constantly oscillate between Chinese/American, reality/fantasy, truth/fake, history/myth, and writing/speech. It complicates further the social and cultural construction of masculinity and femininity--a major concern developed in Kingston's other two books--by fabricating two conflicting lines of argument: gender ambiguity on the thematic level (feminized man, masculinized woman, anxiety over androgyny and so on) and gender shifting on the narrative level (female author-narrator and male character). Though these two layers of border crossing both disclose the flexibility and indeterminacy of gender boundary, they lead to completely different gender (de)compositions.

Accordingly, the first two parts of this essay will try to provide one micro and one macro frame of reference--the gender coding of Kingston's first two books and the gender conflict in the Chinese-American literary community--in an attempt to contextualize Tripmaster Monkey as a meta-response to these debated issues. …

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