This was supposed to be published on International Women’s Day, but I was swamped by school work. So instead, I am publishing this today in honor of Women’s History Month. It may seem strange, but I’ve decided to reminiscence about a book which has been accused of distorting Asian American culture and of pandering to white American feminists.
At this point, I should point out that I am, in fact, a feminist, and that is one of the main reasons I read this book. My take on it might be somewhat different. But everyone is going to have a different experience reading the same book.
I first read The Woman Warrior for an English non-fiction reading assignment in my junior year of high school. My English teacher had given us various books to choose from, and I chose this story because I was curious about someone else’s Asian American experience. Kingston belonged to a different time and even a somewhat different culture. (Her family speaks Cantonese, and as anyone who speaks Mandarin is quick to point out, they are different. There’s a bit of an elitist attitude from Mandarin speakers that I won’t deny.) Besides, this was the first time in school where I even had a chance to read a piece of work by an Asian American writer critically. So I jumped at this chance and read this book.
It’s been a few years since I’ve read the book, but there are a few things I remember from discussing this book with my peers:
– One of my friends told me “An Asian feminist book? Is this some kind of oxymoron?”
– I was the only person in my class who chose to read this book.
– I didn’t really understand all of it when I first read it.
So let me address the first point: yes, many East Asian countries are quite sexist, but America is by no means the perfect model of equality. This is country where women are still getting paid less than men and rape culture is still dominant. If you want to deny any of this, consider how much famous actresses get paid in comparison to their male counterparts and how Ke$ha’s court case proceeded. Consider that Chris Brown still has a career, while Rhianna gets a great deal of shame. You might not be interested in rich celebrities, but these are still evidence that American still has a long way to go.
Which brings me to my second point. Women’s literature is considered a niche genre, and Asian American is considered even more of a niche genre. I went to a high school where a decent portion of the student body was composed of well-off white kids. Considering that this was a suggested reading for an AP English class, I’m pretty sure all of you have a good idea of what kind of people were in that class.
(In even put in more context, we had a discussion about making English the official language of the United States in which one of my classmates actually said, “If you’re not going to learn our language don’t even bother to come here.”)
So why are these both such niche genres? Women read so-called “men’s books” all the time, and Asian Americans digest European and American literature in school. There’s been a push for expanding more diversity into literature (I did read some Mexican-American authors in school. Their works were wonderful, by the way.), but there still seem to be some groups left out or put on some kind of a weird pedestal.
Something I’ve noticed about earlier women’s literature is that much of it is focused on being a woman. Nothing wrong with that. Women should embrace womanhood and they should not be ashamed of who they are. But whenever we read “women’s literature” we end up discussing the fact that they are women more so than who they are as people. I cannot think of a one book I read in school in which we didn’t analyze the female characters as females. Male characters, and especially male protagonists, are predominantly analyzed as human beings. While I agree that many books with female protagonists are trying to make a point about what it’s like to be a woman, I wish we would analyze them more as people that as simply women.
I can say the same for most Asian American literature I’ve read. The Woman Warrior was one of the later Asian American books I read. As a child, I had digested a good amount of Laurence Yep and a small amount of Amy Tan. All of those books seemed to focus so much more on the cultural context that the characters live in rather than who the characters are themselves. I enjoy that these books promote stories about Asian Americans and write on Asian American culture. But I also think that it is because of these kinds of books that Asian American books are such niche books.
So I have an unconventional wish.
I want books where we focus on the core personality of the female character. I want books where we focus on the core personality of an Asian American character. I want books where the main protagonist could easily be of any gender and cultural background and not have it be the main point of the book.
Because in my opinion, that’s how we bring women’s lit and Asian American lit out of the niche and into the mainstream. And that is how we establish that “chick lit” isn’t just for women, and “Asian” lit isn’t just for Asians or people interested in Asian culture. It’s also how we can end stereotypes and recognize that at the core, we are all human.
Because it’s we who put distance between ourselves. And we can definitely close that distance.