There is a subversive laughter in the pastiche-effect of parodic practices in which the original, the authentic and the real are themselves constituted as effects.
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
The epigraph might have easily been written to describe the technique of Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. In fact, the quote comes at the end of Butler's book-length critique of feminist politics which assumes that a universal identity is necessary for effective political action. This insistence on a "real" or "authentic" unifying definition of women overlooks (or perhaps, underemphasizes) the social, cultural and economic differences that combine with gender in the shaping of women's experiences. Judith Butler asserts that feminism should not insist on the need for articulating a foundationalist frame (the preoccupation with defining an essential and thus unifying characteristic for all women) prior to political action, but rather, should recognize that gender identities are constructed through political practice. An equally divisive monologism can be seen in the identity politics practiced by many within ethnic communities. One need only look as far as the debate spawned by Kingston's The Woman Warrior to see how individuals can get caught between two such unifying groups and find themselves not doubly represented but, rather, twice denied individual identity and agency.
Parody, through its ability to question notions of the real or authentic, can be read as a defensive mechanism in Tripmaster Monkey, protecting the text from the antagonisms provoked by Kingston's earlier work and, beyond that, as a positive gesture towards healing the rift between the various communities with which Kingston and her work is connected. This essay will explore Kingston's use of parody in confronting the conflicting desires of individuality and community by focusing on how it works to question and subvert monologic constructions of identity pertaining to her male protagonist, Wittman Ah Sing. It will also examine her use of parody not only as a tool for dismantling foundationalist notions of identity and community but as a model for building an inclusive community that is made up of individual identities rather than in opposition to an individual's identity.
I am using parody in the sense of a form of mimicry or imitation which, while requiring a degree of similarity to be recognized in connection with the thing parodied, also contains the imperative for difference, something distinguishing it from the object of the parody.(1) The seemingly paradoxical coexistence of similarity and difference, imitation and originality, commonality and uniqueness is at the heart of Kingston's novel. This definition of parody is informed by Judith Butler's concept of gender parody which "does not assume that there is an original which such parodic identities imitate. Indeed, the parody is of the very notion of an original" (138).
In this concept of parody, the act of mimesis asserts a relationship or membership in a tradition with the thing copied even as it questions the authenticity or "original" status of the thing copied. This essay will analyze parody on the textual plane of Tripmaster Monkey but will also rely on the work of Judith Butler in terms of her analysis of identity formation to analyze the politics of Kingston's parodic practices and their relationship to community formation. To discuss the text in terms of community, one must first place the novel within the context of the reception Kingston's work has received in its several reading communities.
The feminist community has largely embraced Kingston's work. Yet many within a predominantly white readership have appropriated The Woman Warrior as a catalogue of sexism in Chinese and Chinese-American culture. In her essay "French Feminism in an International Frame," Gayatri Spivak describes the trap that Western-trained feminist academics often fall into when they think about women in a cultural context different from their own as "a web of information retrieval inspired at best by 'what can I do for them? …