Cultural Politics and Chinese-American Female Subjectivity: Rethinking Kingston's Woman Warrior

Article excerpt

Asian American cultural studies as part of US minority studies has witnessed an increasing interest in questioning the formation of the ethnic canon and critiquing institutional functions which some specific Asian American literary texts have performed in constituting the curriculum of US literary and cultural studies. In her critique of the canon and Asian American literature, Lisa Lowe argues that Asian American literary expression cannot be adequately evaluated in canonical terms because of its unequal material condition of production, and its contradictions in the canonical sense should be deployed as moments to think about alternative subject formations, cultural identities, and critical positions. (1) In a postmodernist sense, Lowe suggests the necessity of developing a new critical framework for Asian American cultural analyses, as well as the importance of intervening in the aesthetics and ideologies of the dominant canon from that vantage point. Meanwhile, in her case study of what she calls the "Amy Tan phenomenon," (2) Sauling Wong examines the circumstances which have conditioned and produced Tan's popularity and considers her success as compliance with the changing ideologies and demands of the dominant culture. Arguing that Tan mediates and repackages the Orient for a white readership, Wong calls for a new Asian American canon which should be independent of Orientalist interests and concerns.

As the interest in Asian American canon evolves, critical attention has also turned towards Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, a text which, since its publication in 1976, has not only been the focus of a major controversy and extensive scholarship in Asian American studies, but also earned credit in the academy as "the most widely taught book by a living writer in US colleges and universities"(Talbot, qtd. in Li, 8). In a recent analysis of The Woman Warrior, Sheryl Mylan observes that Kingston unwittingly constructs an Orientalist framework in her book to differentiate herself from her mother and Chinese culture and, in the process, duplicates the ideologies and problematics of the US dominant culture. By the same token, in reconsidering Kingston's work, David Li suggests that The Woman Warrior has served as a means of contesting power between the dominant culture and the ethnic community; its value lies precisely in foregrounding the "representational issues that have accompanied the growth of Asian American creative and critical production" (Imagining 62).

The tendency to reconsider Kingston's work has also extended to critical studies of Kingston. Tomo Hattori argues that feminist psychoanalytical interpretations of The Woman Warrior, as exemplified by Leslie Rabine's reading of Kingston, are usually preoccupied with an Orientalist unconsciousness which privileges Western cultural traditions and historical developments as the standard, and construes Asian and Asian American social realities only as a psycholinguistic function "within a Western process of psychic, cultural, and no doubt moral redemption"(133). Such an interpretative approach, Hattori concludes, demonstrates the "appropriations of minority culture by dominant US cultural theory" and the failures of critical theory in considering minority discourses in their own terms and contexts (133).

The critique of Orientalist disposition both inside and outside of the text of The Woman Warrior has revived the decade-long controversy over Kingston, which was first formulated along the lines of autobiographical accuracy, cultural authenticity, and ethnic representativeness. Often loosely defined as cultural nationalists, (3) Jeffery Chart, Benjamin Tong, and Frank Chin, among others, accused Kingston of distorting Asian American reality on the one hand, and catering to the demand of the dominant culture for exoticism and stereotypes on the other. Chin not only continues to caricature Kingston's work as "the fake," but also challenges her very use of the autobiographical form, arguing that autobiography with its basis in the Western metaphysical tradition and the Christian confession would never capture the sensibility or the imagination of Chinese America. …


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