Authorizing Female Voice and Experience: Ghosts and Spirits in Kingston's 'The Woman Warrior' and Allende's 'The House of the Spirits.'(Intertextualities)

Article excerpt

Authors have long woven supernatural elements into their fiction for a variety of reasons: to heighten suspense, enhance setting, or complicate plot. The use of the supernatural, however, can also reveal alternative experiences that formal realism can neither portray nor contain sufficiently, and while present in both male- and female-authored texts, the use of the supernatural by women may also serve as a specific rhetorical strategy both to expose and counter the androcentric social and literary scripts that circumscribe "acceptable" behavior. In the Eurocentric canon, however, the presence of the supernatural as a plot device has traditionally marginalized the work -- whether male or female authored -- reflecting the dominant values of Western culture, which privilege formal realism, the understandable and ordinary rather than the unexplained and fantastic. In The Rise of the Woman Novelist, Jane Spencer analyzes this privileging of formal realism against the romantic and fantastical qualities of much women's writing (181-82), asserting that it "has meant that much of women's fiction has been devalued as unrealistic" (183). Similarly Terry Lovell, in Consuming Fiction, addresses this coupling of women's fiction with the unrealistic, arguing that with the nineteenth century, fiction became male dominated and returned to realism (74).

What happens, though, when the female writer produces supernatural fiction within a culture that embraces the other-worldly? How is that fiction received not only in her own culture but in terms of the Western literary canon? Does she find her writing doubly marginalized -- first because it articulates female experience and then because it reproduces that which seems "unrealistic"?

Maxine Hong Kingston and Isabel Allende are two such writers who establish significant connections between the supernatural and female voice; more specifically, The Woman Warrior (1975) and The House of the Spirits (1985) explore the authority provided by ghosts and spirits to articulate an alternative story from those endorsed by patriarchal cultures. Whether reclaiming suppressed histories like that of the "no name woman" (Kingston 3) or bearing "witness to life" (Allende 115) through Clara's notebooks, both authors narrate and preserve authentic female experience.

Kingston produces a multivoiced narrative reflective of her girlhood among ghosts -- both American and Chinese. In The Woman Warrior Kingston balances her childhood experiences against those of female ancestors and Chinese legends. In this narrative, ghosts challenge tradition (established "good manners" [199]) and culturally inscribed gender roles by resurrecting women and their stories that have been silenced. Like the songs that Ts'ai Yen composed to compete with her captor's flutes, songs which graft together Chinese language and phrases thought by the barbarians to be in their tongue, Kingston weaves together the secret life of her "forerunner" aunt, her mother's talk-stories, and her own severed tongue to produce a talk-story memoir.

Chronicling the Trueba family through the public and private transitions of Chilean society in The House of the Spirits, Allende explores three generations of female experience: Clara, Blanca, and Alba -- grandmother, daughter, and grandchild. In this novel, she examines both the empowering quality of spirits for women and their threat to the Chilean society which, while in transition, remains nonetheless patriarchal. Alba survives her torturous captivity by the "saving idea of writing" the spirit of her Grandmother provides (414); earlier Clara's powers provoke and disturb her priest (who pronounces her "possessed by the devil" [7]), her father (who anticipates "damage to his political career...caused by having a bewitched child" [9]), and her husband. Allende, like Kingston, explores the tension between silence and voice, authentic experience and that constructed for a patriarchal ideology, folklore and sanctioned history. …

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