The Fictions That Are Our Consciousness:
Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Talk-Story”
Research/Essay by: Damian C. Koshnick
Preface: This essay was written 11 years ago. It corresponds to coursework particular to earning my degree in Teaching English Writing at Humboldt State University. It is an essay which I still find interesting to read, though I will never do anything more with it to formally publish it. In the years since, amidst those occasional courses when I teach literature, I have found course-after-course this book challenges college readers in a manner that not many other books can, nor do. … Enjoy!
Iris Murdoch stated in Existentialists and Mystics that, “Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble the picture.” If this is true, then Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior is a sketch pad. And the narrator is a woman, eraser in hand, attempting to sketch again and again the intricate tapestry of her childhood. As Martin Heidegger said in Metaphysics and Ethics, “Being-a-self is . . . only in its process of realization.” Kingston’s memoir, is the narrative of a narrator who is, before our very eyes, ‘yet-realizing’.
Kingston’s work is atypical precisely because of this ‘yet-realizing’. In most memoirs, we, as readers, expect to encounter that which the writer has already come to realize, or already knows. The state of ‘knowing’ in Kingston’s work is very different than most non-fiction. In The Woman Warrior, we witness the narrator very much amidst the events that she is attempting to relate. This lack of rhetorical distance, on the part of the narrator in relation to the material that she is presenting, is one of the most unusual aspects of this book. Typically we expect in a memoir, a narrator that has a certain distance, a relative mastery over the events that she is relating. We expect the narrator’s voice to be relatively certain, to state facts and to demonstrate, to an extent, that they understand the scope and implications of the stories that they tell. However, the narrator’s voice in Kingston’s work seems much more spontaneous, and imaginative, much more concerned with the contexts of meaning, the social possibilities of self, than with coming to artificial, or simple conclusions about the meaning of things.
Kingston’s narrator is atypical because Kingston is using her, in part, to express an authentic phenomenology. Through the literary devices that she employs in The Woman Warrior and in interviews published since, Kingston demonstrates a unique understanding of the ways in which stories come to inform and shape individuals. Her philosophical stance mandates that we reconsider traditional distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. The ‘ways of knowing’, the phenomenology expressed by the voice of the narrator, represents Kingston’s fascinating literary style, but more than that, it demonstrates Kingston’s philosophical belief that human beings come to knowledge through dialogue and through stories and not, as most perhaps believe, through any ‘pure’ perceiver, or ‘knower’ that exists beyond the contexts in which one finds oneself. Kingston’s narrator represents the struggle inherent in us all- that we learn to live gracefully with ambiguity. Or as the narrator puts it, “I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.” Kingston’s memoir attempts to relate ambiguities, as opposed to presenting a human, removed from contexts and absorbed in overwrought ‘retrospective’ understanding.
By ‘pure’ perceiver in the last paragraph I was referring to something like the Cartesian person. In Descartes well known Meditations on First Philosophy, he opens in stating, “Today is my chance; I have banished all care from my mind, I have secured myself peace, I have retired by myself; at length I shall be at leisure to make a clean sweep, in all seriousness and with full freedom, of all my opinions.” I cite this passage because one could easily imagine these being the words of a writer sitting down to begin their ‘memoir’. This passage captures the sense that many people bring to memoir writing. Kingston’s inspiration and aspirations are much different than this model. She writes not from a beginning of distance or removal, but from immersion and re-entry into the confluence of social, historical, ideological, familial, cultural –i.e. the contextual influences that come to bear upon any individual at any given moment in their lives. All of these factors do not produce in the individual a sense of certainty, but rather a sense of incongruity, disjunction and dislocation. Our struggle then, according to Kingston, is to integrate these great many influences and possibilities. Or as Debra Shostak puts it, “Clearly, her [Kingston’s] interest lies less in history per se than in events as they are remembered . . .That accounts of the past are multiple and contradictory is a testament to human invention instead of a failure of record keeping.” Wendell Berry paints a similar picture of the modern dilemma when he states:
“ . . . we all suffer in modern times from the same problems of cultural discontinuity as the migrants of Rushdie (or Kingston or Naipaul), it seems to me that we might also benefit from some of the same ‘equipment for living’ as these characters, from some of the same tactics of cultural adaptation or ritual self-transformation. How do we slough off our old constrictive or inadequate selves to take on new more commodious or supple ones?”
Central to both of these quotes is this notion of ‘invention’ or needing to ‘transform’ one’s self in the face of contradiction and contingency. Kingston believes that, to a large extent, the dynamic factor that makes a ‘moderate-coherence-of-self’ possible is our ability to construct, tell and recognize stories. Our ‘record keeping’ is not in facts, or certainties, but in stories full of possibilities and imagination. Kingston satisfies the identity imperative described by Berry through an exploration of the ways in which stories help us to moderate discontinuities, to be flexible, insightful, and imminently adaptable. She calls this faculty, or equipment-for-living ‘talk-story’.
The term ‘talk’ placed before ‘story’ represents Kingston’s belief that our phenomenologies-of-self are primarily based on a dialogic model of knowing. ‘Knowing’ is not dialectic, black or white, but it is a great many possibilities at any given moment and we must ‘talk’ ourselves through these possibilities-addressing the needs of the self, as well as appreciating the circumstances from which these possibilities were born.
The ‘talk in ‘talk-story’ also highlights the social nature of what it means to be a ‘self’. In ‘talking’ we are usually engaged in some sort of back and forth; we are coming to terms with things as selves attached to larger networks of interpretation. Thus in coming to know the self, one cannot simply look inward as Descartes might suggest; rather, one must also account for those networks of interpretation that have always been external and largely beyond the self. Much of The Woman Warrior is a demonstration of this very activity. The narrator is trying to reconcile many different possibilities in the midst of family members and cultures that have tendencies and intentions of their own-often these intentions conflict.
In “No Name Woman” for example, ‘talk-story’ operates on many levels. First, the narrator recounts her mother’s telling of the aunt’s death. The mother, in this instance, is using a story as a lesson. As the narrator puts it, her mother tells such stories to ‘test our abilities to establish realities’. The ‘talk-story’ in this chapter occurs mostly after the narrative reporting of the mother’s speech act. We witness ‘talk-story’ from within the mind of the narrator herself. This writing technique is particular to Kingston, especially in light of the fact that this is a memoir. A majority of this chapter is us, the readers, suddenly inside the narrator’s mind witnessing her ‘realizing’ possibilities.
The narration begins with the subjunctive, with perhap’s and could have been’s as one would expect when we are witnessing possibility as opposed to known fact. The narrator imagines for example–“Perhaps she [the aunt] had encountered him in the fields or on the mountain . . . perhaps he first noticed her in the marketplace.” But very subtly these sentences change to simple declarations in past tense, for example- “Such commonplace loveliness was not enough for my aunt.” On the grammatical level, this change suggests that the narrator is stating real and known events. Without the modals, we are left to assume that the narrator is speaking about facts; however, all the while we know that the narrator’s relationship to the past has not changed. We know that her mother tells ‘only what is necessary’ and that she is representing ‘truths’ where there are only uncertainties.
Kingston is performing a unique act by way of this grammatical trope. She explains this phenomenon, in part, in an interview with Paula Rabinowitz when she says that:
“The power of imagination leads us to what’s real. We don’t imagine fairylands. I’ve begun lately to realize that if I were to know you, as my friend, the best way is for me to imagine you at life so well that I sympathize with you. Well, that means that imagination is reaching toward a real person . . . To have a right imagination is very powerful, because it’s a bridge toward reality.”
Typically, we associate imagination with ‘fancy’ or creativity, as a supplement to our daily lives. We think of imagination as that which is useful and fun as opposed to a crucial element in our ability to organize and make sense of the ‘reality’. This is part of Kingston’s unique phenomenology of ‘knowing’ because she is expressing the manner in which imagination and sympathy are crucial toward understanding. Returning to “No Name Woman” for example, the aunt happens to be someone lost to history and a part of a culture very much removed from the narrator. And so the narrator’s understanding requires that she not only hear the words of warning from her mother, but that she takes these words and makes them relevant to herself, no matter how removed or distant that self is from the subject of the story, or from the understandings and intent of her mother. The narrator, in this story, is trying to approximate familiarity and certainty. She is using her imagination in order to understand the story better.
The story shifts in the span of this chapter from the narrator recreating these words- something initially from her mother’s mouth, to something that is inside the narrator’s head. We, as readers, are able to witness this transformation in the text. M.M. Bakhtin writes of this phenomenon when he says:
“language . . . lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his [sic] own intention … Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language…, but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own.”
This ‘appropriation’ process is very similar to Kingston’s notions of ‘talk-story’. An example of this can be witnessed in the mother’s words, “In China your father had a sister who killed herself . . . He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us . . .The villagers are watchful.” In this instance, this warning –the villagers are watchful- means something entirely different to the mother than to her daughter. The ‘us’ includes the mother, unlike her daughter. The mother knows directly what the social implications of living in China are. She is likely able to recall actual faces that correspond to this warning ‘the villagers are watchful.’ The daughter on the other hand, is entirely at one-remove from the immediate impacts of such a statement. She has to imagine what such a community of people would be like. She does not know directly what these faces, or these ‘villagers’ would look like, but has to invent them for herself. As such, we could imagine another chapter of “No Name Woman” entitled something like “Faceless Watchful Villagers” if the narrator happened to choose to document her imaginings, or ‘yet-realizing’, or coming to ‘know’ –a knowledge based on imagination through self-story, not coldly through facts alone.
Stories in Kingston’s view, even when these stories occur strictly within the mind of the narrator, are events worth documenting. Even though such documentation seems like fiction, it is but fiction that is in service of reality. Kingston says, “These are real people in my books, and I try to depict them as accurately as I can, I tell what they make up about themselves.” We invent our histories. We tell fictions, to know better the shape and nature of entities that are not at all obvious, even when that entity is as intimate as us, or our mother, or the country in which we live. As such, stories are negotiations of reality. They are essentially discoursive happenings. As Kingston describes it, “In talk-story, every time you tell a story it changes, it grows. In writing it doesn’t. I hope you see that these stories live on.” Kingston, in this quote, is making a distinction between oral and written stories. When stories are written they tend to be codified, made into static things that seem to represent actualities. She wants to avoid this in her writing. Kingston is trying to remind us that all texts are born of primary moments of experience and all primary moments of experience are subject to multiple interpretations. Kingston re-invents established realities about the interplay of story and the nature of ‘meaning-making’ in our lives. Her writing does not adhere to category, or convention because Kingston is concerned with writing realities; and in reality, people are much more dynamic and playful than most literatures admit.
Paul Skenazy and Tera Martin state in their introduction to a book of collected interviews with Kingston that, “In her books, one rarely encounters a finality that is not qualified, framed by doubt, enmeshed in uncertainty.” Kingston writes based upon the assumption that contingency is a reality for real people. Kingston’s narrator is unorthodox not because Kingston is trying to invent new literary forms for art’s sake, or for notoriety, but because she believes that the phenomenology represented by her narrator is a way of experiencing and coming to know the world that is practiced by people in general.
Despite numerous claims otherwise, Kingston is, then, a pragmatic author. What seems like fiction, is actually Kingston’s interpretation of our realities. She is a social constructionist who believes that people’s realities are ever-changing and very dependent upon the social networks in which they find themselves. Her purposefully disjointed, disharmonious, and multi-various narrative style in The Woman Warrior is a reflection of this. Kingston is, in this memoir, consciously attempting to portray the ways in which we are always at issue with ourselves; we are constantly reassessing our relationships to our family, to our culture(s), to our interpretations of history, to ideologies, etc. As Kingston demonstrates repeatedly, stories –the ones that are told to us by others, and the ones we tell to ourselves, are our way into ‘knowing’. Stories are constantly happening all around us, within us, and they, more than facts or certainties, are what give us our senses of identity.
Mark Turner in his book The Literary Mind explores just this notion when he says that stories, “. . .are not essentially exotic, but rather represent the carefully worked products of a fundamental mode of thought that is universal and indispensable.” Turner, like Kingston, has an expanded notion of what a ‘story’ is. For example, when you see something as basic as a baseball break a window, a person’s natural tendency is to look back along the trajectory of the ball to see who threw the ball; Turner says that in doing so, we are essentially constructing a story. This story begins simply through witnessing the baseball go through the window, but very quickly we are caught amidst the meaning of things whereby we wonder who threw the baseball, why and what does it mean to us.
Now imagine that someone picks up a stone and throws it at us. Turner says that we do not need to wait for the stone to hit us before we can recognize the story and respond to it. When we duck, it is because our mental capacities have allowed us to recognize a pattern whereby we are hit by the stone. Turner’s most fundamental point is that stories help us organize our experiences. Through stories, we are able to recognize patterns in a world that would otherwise be relatively chaotic. The implications of these notions can be better witnessed and are more obviously relevant to the discussion at hand when we realize that, as Turner explains:
“Even stories exceptionally specific in their setting, character, and dialogue submit to projection. Often a short story will contain no overt mark that it stands for anything but what it purports to represent, and yet we will interpret it as projecting to a much larger abstract narrative, one that applies to our own specific lives, however far our lives are removed from the detail of the story.”
When, for example, we read about an important battle in World War II, or when a friend tells us a story about his long dead father, these stories are meaningful not just because they may be told well, but because we are able to project these stories alongside our own lives, with implications that the story-teller probably had no way of predicting, or intending. The Woman Warrior, for example, begins in just this manner. As mentioned previously, this is the very activity that the narrator engages in, in coming to understand her mother’s story about her aunt. The narrator is removed from her aunt -temporally, culturally, etc. Despite this, she is able to reconstruct and imagine a coherent story. Through imagination and ‘talk-story’ she is able to recognize the relevant patterns inherent in the story. Such is Kingston’s emphasis on our ability as humans to construct, tell and recognize stories both within the environments around us and within us –we being an amalgamation of our environments.
As is demonstrated by the narrator, stories actually inform us about realities. In this manner stories are not, as Turner puts it, ‘exotic’. They are in fact often times the very way we come to appreciate the world. Returning to the analogy of a stone –the mother, in this instance, throws the stone, the story about the narrator’s aunt in China- and, as Turner suggests, the narrator looks immediately back to begin to understand who threw the stone and why. In the very next paragraph she begins to appropriate the story, to make it her own by filling in the gaps through imagination.
Kingston, in an interview, explains of her style that:
“Our usual idea of biography is of time-lines, of dates and chronological events; I am certainly more imaginative than that; I play with words and form . . . I’ve decided that I am writing biography and autobiography of imaginative people. I am writing about real people, all of whom have minds that love to invent fictions. I am writing the biography of their imaginations.”
The unique aspect revealed in these words from Kingston rests primarily in this idea that ‘real people’ understand and utilize ‘fictions’ in their everyday lives. She is, in this statement, using the term ‘fiction’ in a very unconventional way. She is using it to describe the consciousness of real people. Typically, fiction is strictly a literary term for what is done by a writer in the ‘writing realm’. Kingston is suggesting that fiction, more than just a writer’s tool, is also an everyday tool used by the average person; in short Kingston has, and employs in her writings, a distinct notion of what might be termed ‘real-fiction’. In other words, ‘fictions’ are not just playful, creative and the stuff of literature, but also essential, everyday and real. According to Kingston, stories, fictions, and the rich, inner, imaginative narratives of our minds are a crucial part of our everyday consciousness.
1. Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Michael Holquist, ed. Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1981.
2. Cook, Rufus. The Art of Uncertainty: Cultural Displacement and the Devaluation of
the World. Critique (Atlanta, Ga.) 41 no3 227-35, Spring 2000.
3. Descartes, Rene. Descartes Philosophical Writings. Trans. Anscombe, Elizabeth and
Geach, Thomas Peter. Indianapolis, Ind.: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.,
4. Heidegger, Martin. Existence and Being. Trans. Stefan Schimanski. South Bend, Ind.:
Regnery/Gateway, Inc., 1979.
5. Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.
New York: Vintage International Books, 1989.
6. Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
7. Shostak, Debra. Critical Essays on Maxine Hong Kingston. “Maxine Hong Kingston’s
Fake Books” New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1998.
8. Ed. Skenazy, Paul and Martin, Tera. Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston.
Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
9. Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
 Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics. New York: Penguin Books, 1997 (preface).
 Heidegger, Martin. Existence and Being. Trans. Stefan Schimanski. South Bend, Ind.: Regnery/Gateway, Inc., 1979.
 Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage International Books, 1989 (page 29).
 Descartes, Rene. Descartes Philosophical Writings. Trans. Anscombe, Elizabeth and Geach, Thomas Peter. Indianapolis, Ind.: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1971 (page 61).
 Shostak, Debra. Critical Essays on Maxine Hong Kingston. “Maxine Hong Kingston’s Fake Books” New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1998 (page 51).
 Cook, Rufus. The Art of Uncertainty: Cultural Displacement and the Devaluation of the World. Critique (Atlanta, Ga.) 41 no3 227-35, Spring 2000.
 Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage International Books, 1989 (page 6).
 Ed. Skenazy, Paul and Martin, Tera. Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston. “Eccentric Memories: A Conversation with Maxine Hong Kingston”. Int. Paula Rabinowitz/1986. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1998 (page 71).
 Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Michael Holquist, ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981 (page 294).
 Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage International Books, 1989 (page 5).
Ed. Skenazy, Paul and Martin, Tera. Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston. “An Interview With Maxine Hong Kingston”. Int. Kay Bonetti/1986. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1998 (page 38).
 Ed. Skenazy, Paul and Martin, Tera. Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston. “Kingston at the University”. Int. Paul Skenazy/1989. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1998 (page 149).
 Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996 (page 7).
 Ed. Skenazy, Paul and Martin, Tera. Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston. “Eccentric Memories: A Conversation with Maxine Hong Kingston”. Int. Paula Rabinowitz/1986. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1998 (page 75).