When Maxine Hong Kingston wrote her first book, “The Woman Warrior” in 1976, she originally intended to publish it as fiction, but her editor told her that nonfiction would be “the most accurate category” for her work because the label was so all encompassing that it even included poetry. And this sounded good to Kingston. She aimed to invent a new form for telling her stories and thoughts, and she believed it would be an honor to be shelved with poetry.
It’s hard to overstate the effect of Kingston’s work. According to Hua Hsu, writing for the New Yorker in 2020, it changed American culture, “For those who understood where Kingston was coming from, it was encouragement that they could tell stories, too,” Hsu wrote. “For those who didn’t, ‘The Woman Warrior’ became the definitive telling of the Asian immigrant experience, at a time when there weren’t many to choose from.”
Though “The Woman Warrior” received a lot of praise in its time, it was also criticized harshly by some Asian Americans for stereotyping, playing to the white gaze and airing the community’s dirty laundry. Many of her literary choices were read in the harshest possible light. For example, her translation decisions — rendering kuei as “ghost” rather than “devil” or even “asshole” — were seen as exoticizing or purposefully misleading rather than potentially just being her interpretation of the words or even a genuine mistake. These criticisms attacked not just Kingston’s work, but the authenticity of the experiences she described and her own integrity.
We are not kind to trailblazers. It’s not just books. People are mad at Mindy Kaling for her “careless conservatism” — always writing self-loathing Indian girls who fall in love with terrible white boys — and most recently, for losing weight. And it’s not just now. In the 1920s, people criticized Anna May Wong as a “female traitor to China” because she took roles which perpetuated Asian stereotypes. It’s a weird double edged sword in which we root for BIPOC creators and creatives to break into the mainstream but turn on them once they’ve reached a certain level of success. Although we know on an intellectual level that every individual work or representation can’t stand in for a community, that’s not how we act when evaluating the people and stories that come out of marginalized communities.
And this seems to happen regardless of the person’s thoughts on what they have to do break into their respective industries or their actual politics. Anna May Wong was very critical of Hollywood’s racist casting practices. And a few years after “The Woman Warrior” came out, Maxine Hong Kingston wrote an essay titled “Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers” criticizing misreadings and exoticization of her work. In it, she lamented that many reviewers that rated her book favorably “praise the wrong things.”
“I have a horrible feeling that it is not self-evident to many Caucasian Americans why these reviews are offensive.” she wrote. “I find it sad and slow that I have to explain. Again. If I use my limited time and words to explain, I will never get off the ground. I will never get to fly.”
Kingston never set out to be the Asian American writer. It’s not her fault that her book was commercially successful or that she inadvertently created what we would today recognize as the tropes of Asian immigrant narratives. And it’s sad that many young Asian American writers either never read her work or intentionally avoid it because of the emotional baggage it carries — until recently, I was part of the latter group.
The kinds of representation that break into the mainstream do matter. Mainstream media is definitionally consumed by most people, and for better or for worse, blockbuster films, token Asian American novels and supporting characters written by non-Asian writers have informed the way people think about Asian Americans. And the stories we coalesce around, for better or for worse, shape the way we think about others. There is room for discussion and even debate about what kinds of stories we should tell about ourselves, but to descend on an individual for telling their own story or even for fudging it a little to get their foot in the door ignores the broader system. In the U.S., what is good for an individual is often not what’s good for an entire group of people, and we need to stop pretending that those interests aren’t in direct competition.
We can critique trailblazers all day, but we wouldn’t have anything to critique or anything better if they weren’t the first. We actually know this for a fact. Contemporary Asian American literary superstars such as Ocean Vuong, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Celeste Ng have all publicly stated about how they were influenced by Kingston’s work. Nguyen was even a student of hers at University of California, Berkeley. There’s a bravery to speak your experience into the record when there was previously nothing, even if you have to modulate that experience to get something on the page.
This article was originally published in the Yale Daily News as part of my biweekly column, “Reading the Room.” For more on books, check out the dearyall book archives or my last column on book-to-movie adaptations.