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A Poem Turned into a Sword

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Possibly because we wish we were creative, but aren’t, publishing editors like me tend to be proprietary about the books we publish. You’ll frequently hear an editor speak of ‘my’ book, meaning not that he or she has written it, or seriously edited it, or in fact done much more than read it. Still, it’s ‘my’ book.

I’ve always regarded this as a fairly innocent practice. It doesn’t hurt anyone and it makes the editor feel better, something that – given his hours and rate of pay – he roundly deserves. And it contributes a powerful incentive to the publishing operation itself. A book is often successful exactly to the degree that everybody involved in publishing it is personally enthusiastic about it, and this enthusiasm generally starts with a possessive editor.

The Woman Warrior was my book. I say this not to avoid accusations of parti pris – after all, everybody who writes about a book for Slightly Foxed can by definition be accused of that – but simply to make clear where I come from. In the winter of 1975 an agent sent the manuscript to Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in New York, where I was a senior editor. It ended up in my hands, because I was supposed to be the house China expert. (I had picked up some Mandarin when I was in the army.) I remember reading it in a bleak, smoke-filled room in the Criminal Court Building on Centre Street while waiting for jury duty, and being stunned. I had never read anything like it before. I convinced my boss to take it on for publication.

Maxine Ting Ting Hong Kingston, I learned, was a young Chinese-American woman; this was her first book, in fact her first publication of any kind, apart from a story for which she received a prize when she was (I think) 8 years old. Yet there was in the clarity and control she displayed, as well as her narrative precision, real mastery. Beyond that, far beyond that, there was the terrible richness of the stories she had to tell. If t

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Possibly because we wish we were creative, but aren’t, publishing editors like me tend to be proprietary about the books we publish. You’ll frequently hear an editor speak of ‘my’ book, meaning not that he or she has written it, or seriously edited it, or in fact done much more than read it. Still, it’s ‘my’ book.

I’ve always regarded this as a fairly innocent practice. It doesn’t hurt anyone and it makes the editor feel better, something that – given his hours and rate of pay – he roundly deserves. And it contributes a powerful incentive to the publishing operation itself. A book is often successful exactly to the degree that everybody involved in publishing it is personally enthusiastic about it, and this enthusiasm generally starts with a possessive editor. The Woman Warrior was my book. I say this not to avoid accusations of parti pris – after all, everybody who writes about a book for Slightly Foxed can by definition be accused of that – but simply to make clear where I come from. In the winter of 1975 an agent sent the manuscript to Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in New York, where I was a senior editor. It ended up in my hands, because I was supposed to be the house China expert. (I had picked up some Mandarin when I was in the army.) I remember reading it in a bleak, smoke-filled room in the Criminal Court Building on Centre Street while waiting for jury duty, and being stunned. I had never read anything like it before. I convinced my boss to take it on for publication. Maxine Ting Ting Hong Kingston, I learned, was a young Chinese-American woman; this was her first book, in fact her first publication of any kind, apart from a story for which she received a prize when she was (I think) 8 years old. Yet there was in the clarity and control she displayed, as well as her narrative precision, real mastery. Beyond that, far beyond that, there was the terrible richness of the stories she had to tell. If there was one thing the book accomplished, it was to explode for good and all the Western assumption that Chinese literature was no more than a heap of chinoiserie. Maxine grew up in Stockton, a fairly poor agricultural town north-east of San Francisco. Her parents were minimally integrated immigrants from South China. The atmosphere in the Hong home was still intensely Chinese, peasant Chinese; to the family, the white world outside was in many ways a mysterious place ‘full of machines and ghosts – Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts’. Yet to Maxine the China of her mother and father was equally strange, especially as it emerges from the tales her mother tells her, the ‘talk-story’ that fires her imagination and shapes this book. So many of the stories are about women – about women and violence and bravery. ‘No Name Woman’, for example, describes an aunt who became pregnant long after her husband, along with so many of the other young men of the village, had sailed off to America. ‘The village had also been counting,’ her mother said.

On the night the baby was to be born the villagers raided our house . . . At first they threw mud and rocks at the house. Then they threw eggs and started slaughtering our stock. We could hear the animals scream their deaths – the roosters, the pigs, the last great roar from the ox.

They smashed the house and ruined all the aunt’s belongings. ‘Your aunt gave birth in the pigsty that night. The next morning when I went for the water, I found her and the baby plugging up the family well.’ The aunt’s name was never mentioned again, could never be mentioned again. It was as if she had never existed. Yet Maxine cannot resist speculating about her and the terrors that must have marked her life as a woman in a culture where women had few rights, and inhibitions were absolute. ‘Adultery is an extravagance.’ What could it have been like to commit it? ‘Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told us stories that ran like this one.’ But talk-story was not all warnings. It could also inspire. Maxine’s mother – her name, appropriately, is Brave Orchid – makes plain that a girl did not need to grow up as a slave or a wife. She could be a heroine, a woman warrior like the legendary Fa Mu Lan. She could bring vengeance. It is difficult to do justice to the chapter called ‘White Tigers’, in which Kingston imagines the education and training of a woman warrior. It is a brilliant amalgam of the hallucinatory and the absolutely specific, based upon legend but grounded in human detail, seamlessly moving back and forth between myth and the quotidian. She is trained in dragon ways; she learns ‘to make my mind large, so that there is room for paradoxes’; she submits to having the list of grievances she is to avenge carved on her back with knives (‘If an enemy should flay me, the light would shine through my skin like lace’). She assembles an army, acquires a husband and fights many battles, finally beheading the corrupt emperor and seating a peasant on the throne. In the end, having killed the fat greedy baron who has oppressed her family (he ineffectively pleads that people are happy to get rid of girl-children, ‘maggots in the rice’), she returns to her home village and settles down. As her mother tells it, the tale is one of triumphant feminist power. But not for the young Maxine. Her reality is far more complicated and painful. ‘My American life has been such a disappointment.’ Nobody cared about her straight As. ‘You can’t eat straight As.’ And when one of her parents or a fellow emigrant villager remarked ‘Feeding girls is feeding cowbirds’, she would scream so hard that she couldn’t stop. ‘“I’m not a bad girl,” I would scream. “I’m not a bad girl. I’m not a bad girl.” I might as well have said, “I’m not a girl.”’ And how could she save her village when she was not even sure what her village was? Apart from Maxine herself, the most extraordinary character in The Woman Warrior is her mother Brave Orchid. In China, before she emigrated to join her husband, Brave Orchid took the unusual and daring step of enrolling in a college of midwifery in Canton, and spent two years learning to be a doctor. The students there were China’s ‘new women, scientists who changed the rituals’. So when Brave Orchid returned with her degree to New Society Village, she was welcomed as someone with knowledge of a wonderful and unfamiliar kind. She set broken bones and brought babies into the world safely and acted as ‘a capable exorcist’. After all, there were still ghosts to be dealt with. Yet as if no revolution had ever occurred in this ‘new’ China, she had a slave girl, purchased at the Canton market with care and hard bargaining. America was for her a terrible comedown – no more doctoring, but hard work in her husband’s laundry and, after urban renewal brought that enterprise to an end, stoop labour in the tomato fields. Nothing, however, diminished her energy or constrained her splendid passion for talk-story. At the very end of the book Maxine Kingston offers an apposite bit of talk-story of her own, the true tale of the poetess Ts’ai Yen, who in the second century ad was captured by a barbarian prince and bore him two children. She spent twelve years away from China before being ransomed, twelve years of alienation and homesickness. But she brought back a poem called ‘Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe’ that somehow bridges the distance between the cultures and is still sung by Chinese. ‘It translated well.’ Knopf published The Woman Warrior in September 1976 in a small printing. Needless to say, I talked it up. For a while it received only modest, though enthusiastic, attention from reviewers, until John Leonard, the chief daily book critic of the New York Times, weighed in with what can only be called the ultimate selling review. ‘A remarkable book has just been published,’ he wrote. ‘It is one of the best I’ve read in years . . . It burns the fat right out of the mind. As a dream – of the female avenger – it is dizzying, elemental, a poem turned into a sword.’ What can I say, except that Leonard was right? In the years since, plenty of people have agreed with him. Garlanded with prizes, The Woman Warrior now exists in dozens of translations (including Chinese) and has sold – in America alone – well over 1.5 million copies. Not Fifty Shades of Grey, perhaps, but quite enough to please any proprietary editor puffing ‘his’ book.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 38 © Charles Elliott 2013


About the contributor

Charles Elliott is a retired editor and author of several books of essays, the latest of which is Why Every Man Needs a Tractor.

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