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Selections from Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism

December 3, 2009

Selections from: Warhol, Robyn R., and Diane Price Herndl. Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

“Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship” (1979) by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

  • Interested in Harold Bloom’s concept of “the anxiety of influence” (derived from psychoanalysis applied to male authors as Oedipal boys and the precursors who represent fathers), Gilbert and Gubar extend this concept to female writers who must necessarily experience their male precursors differently.
  • Because male writers have defined women as crude stereotypes, female writers must engage in “revision” (ala Adrienne Rich – “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction…an act of survival”) to define themselves as women against those definitions and seek out female precursors in order to engage the female writerly subculture, which is so different from its male counterpart.
  • Males engage in their own kind of revision, but Gilbert and Gubar make this distinction: “Her battle, however, is not against her (male) precursor’s reading of the world but against his reading of her” (24).
  • The authors find that the anxiety of authorship is profoundly debilitating, and they explain illnesses such as anorexia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, or others like hysteria, faintness, delicateness, etc as being caused by patriarchal society not only because they were byproducts of societal training for women, but because they were themselves the goals.
  • Reading short excerpts from Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood, the authors find that “whether she is a passive angel or an active monster…the woman writer feels herself to be literally or figuratively crippled by the debilitating alternatives her culture offers her, and the crippling effects of her conditioning” sometimes appears to be passed on from other literary foremothers (29).
  • The authors claim that concern with disease as a subject appears to occupy much of 19th-century women’s writing, and they cite Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte, and Elisabeth Barrett Browning.

“Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism” (1980) by Annette Kolodny

  • Kolodny introduces her essay as a response to the variety of dissonant voices among what may be called feminist literary critics ten years after its loose formation.  She concludes that though the lack of coherence may be an outsider’s most substantial criticism, it is in fact evidence of a type of coherence because feminist literary critics value a kind of pluralism that uses interpretive methods without being bound by one.
  • “Our task is to initiate nothing less than a playful pluralism responsive to the possibilities of multiple critical schools and methods, but captive of none, recognizing that the many tools needed for our analysis will necessarily be largely inherited and only partly of our own making” (184).
  • “The fact of differences among us proves only that, despite our shared commitments, we have nonetheless refused to shy away from complexity, preferring rather to openly disagree than to give up either intellectual honesty or hard-won insights” (184).
  • “If feminist criticism calls anything into question, it must be that dog-eared myth of intellectual neutrality” (186).
  • Previous to this conclusion, Kolodny organizes her essay into two other sections.  The introductory section summarizes the past ten years of criticism and its focus on studying previously ignored texts by women and making them more generally available as well as the feminist critique of male authors both of which reveal a view of literature as a social institution shaped by patriarchy and able to be shaped by feminist ideals.
  • The second section introduces and explains 3 propositions she marks as the theoretical core of most current (1980) feminist literary criticism: 1) Literary history (i.e. the canon and how we read it as canon) is a fiction.  We read the past based on the choices we make today.  2) The way we’ve been taught to read engages paradigms—not texts.  Men are not knowledgeable about women’s worlds and therefore may not be able to appreciate women’s texts.  3) We must reexamine our aesthetics as well as inherent biases and assumptions which inform the critical methods we have used to read (and make aesthetic judgments).  There is no right way to read, and we have to challenge what we’ve accepted and acknowledge what value there is in each way of reading.

“Recycling: Race, Gender, and the Practice of Theory” (1992) by Deborah E. McDowell

  • McDowell argues for a way of reading that restructures knowledge rather than merely annexing it.  Her general argument is that “theory” (e.g. poststructuralism) has been historically defined and determined by men and co-opted by white women.
  • Though many theorists have paternalistically encouraged African American feminist criticism to learn to become fluent in theoretical academic discourse in order to come out of marginality, McDowell claims that marginalization is “often structured into the very theories” that black women are encouraged to master.
  • We need to understand “how theory has been made into an exclusively Western phenomenon inextricably attached to the view that it does not and cannot exist outside a Western orbit” (244).
  • McDowell critiques white women’s use of Sojourner Truth as an example in their theoretical claims.  She later critiques Michael Awkward for pressuring black feminists to adopt theoretical discourse and looks to Rey Chow and Edward Said when discussing how theory has been created as Western and ought to be seen in that context.

“The ‘Wild Zone’ Thesis as Gloss in Chicana Literary Study” (1993) by Cordelia Chávez Candelaria

  • Candelaria doesn’t put forth much of an argument but instead defines and contextualizes the “wild zone” thesis originally put forth by anthropologists Edwin and Shirley Ardener in 1975.  She then demonstrates its use for contemporary women of color—specifically Chicanas then does a light reading of this “wild zone” in works by Estela Portillo-Tranbley, Denize Chávez and Sandra Cisneros.
  • “Zone” denotes both physiologically-derived space (women are bound by the social structures caused by biological difference) and stereotype-derived space (women are weak and not as smart as men).  “Zone” is used in other fields to mark space defined by both physical and social phenomena (i.e. climate and parking zones).
  • The “wild zone” identifies a paradox of female identity: “a distinct female experiential, cultural space” unmediated by imposed definitions of identity (as in women are living in some organic women’s culture) yet this space is defined by and located in a patriarchal system that is oppressive (249).
  • “The ‘wild zone’ schema acknowledges the legitimacy of questions regarding the idea of an essential woman-ness and the critique that dismantles such an idea, but it simultaneously recognizes that a crucial consequence of patriarchy is the persistent and empowered ‘perceiving’ of ‘women’ in essential(ist) terms” (250).
  • Because the dominated class (women above but can refer to people groups) is policed by the dominating class, they must learn the dominating discourse.  Yet there is an unmediated discourse among the dominated class which is inaccessible to the dominating class.  This inability to access the dominated discourse is spoken of briefly in Kolodny’s essay as gender inflections outside canonized norms.

“The Madwoman and Her Languages: Why I Don’t Do Feminist Literary Theory” (1984) by Nina Baym

  • Baym takes issue with French feminists and those who buy into their theory that women’s language is fundamentally different in men’s and out to appropriately separate from the common language (dominated by men).  Proponents she names of this theory are: Cixous, Iragaray, Christiane Makward, and Domna C. Stanton.
  • After mentioning deconstruction as a tool utilized by these theorists, she says, “More often the theory is an agenda for the way women might or should write in future; to me it seems a guarantee of continued oppression” (282).
  • “When you start with a theory of difference, you can’t see anything but” (284) in reference to sexual difference shaping how we view language.
  • Baym particularly takes issue with the image of the madwoman by Gilbert and Gubar for insisting on a reading of Bertha that happens to fit in their suggestive mold relying heavily on psychoanalytic principles that are based on outright misogyny.
  • “To my perception…this attachment to Freud…manifests precisely that masochism that Freud and his followers identified with the female.  We are most ‘daddy’s girl’ when we seek…to seduce him.  Our attempt to seduce him, or our compliance with his attempt to seduce us, guarantees his authority.  If Freud is right, there is no feminism” (285).
  • Baym and Kolodny’s call for pluralism.  Both are uneasy about using the old tools for a new structure.

“Feminist Politics: What’s Home Got to Do with It?” (1986) by Biddy Martin and Chandra Talpade Mohanty

  • This article reacts to the critique offered by come feminists of color against Western feminism because of an assumption that Western feminism as it has become known is only useful for white women in the west.  The authors argue that this assumption because “the reproduction of such polarities only serves to concede; feminism; to the ‘West’ all over again.  The potential consequence is the repeated failure to contest the feigned homogeneity of the West and what seems to be a discursive and political stability of the hierarchical West/East divide” (294-295).
  • The authors choose to read an essay be Minnie Bruce Pratt because it explores the exclusions and repressions supporting a seeming homogeneity in white identity.  Pratt positions herself as narrator and reader by acknowledging her situatedness and resituating herself in material situations.
  • The authors are not very clear about what they are arguing for in the essay, but it seems that they read Pratt as an exemplar (though they note an imperfect one) of one enacting the kind of self-referentiality as well as theoretically-rich questions needed for feminist inquiry.
  • Being home refers to being in a safe, familiar space with protected boundaries, and not being home is a matter of realizing that home was an illusion.
  • Regarding the opposition between victims and perpetrators: “The exposure of the arbitrariness and the instability of positions within systems of oppression evidences a conception of power that refuses totalization, and can therefore account for the possibility of resistance” (307).

“Upping the Anti (sic) in Feminist Theory” (1990) by Teresa de Lauretis

  • The author responds to the presumptuous attitude of poststructuralist feminists who see cultural feminism/essentialism/feminist practice as the outcome of poststructuralist feminism/anti-essentialism/feminist theory.  Rather the second came out of the first, and essentialism is not as simplistic as one might imagine.  We ought to see the essence of women as similar to the essence of triangles—both essences are complex and defined by specific historical moments.
  • The author examines essays by Chris Weedon and Linda Alcoff, the first which she criticizes severely.  She brings many questions to the second and concludes that we must examine the history that brought about these oppositions between cultural feminism and poststructuralist feminist theory.
  • She finds that an account of the history of feminism reveals two concurrent drives: an erotic drive that values images of difference and subversion and rejects images of victimization or passivity and an ethical drive that values community and accountability.  These two drives fuel polarizations and the construction of oppositions, and it is the negotiation between and challenging of these two drives that is characteristic of the kind of discourse that moves beyond internal opposition and into more complex analysis.
  • “upping the anti” means “by analyzing the undecidability…of the alternative as given, such critical works release its term from the fixity of meaning into which polarization has locked them, and reintroduce them into a larger contextual and conceptual frame of reference” (336).

“The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975) by Hélene Cixous

  • This essay is addressed to women (though the impossibility of a homogeneous group called “women” is acknowledged) and calls them to write.  The essay criticizes the cultural and masculine “economy” that has placed value on men’s writing and women’s writing has been repressed.
  • Women are valued in this essay for their potential for subversive thought and therefore social transformation.  Women are encouraged to write to other women to affirm them and bring them out of silence.
  • The author opposes a conception of bisexuality which annuls sexual difference but values one that stirs up sexual differences, pursues them, and increases their number.  This bisexuality seems more apparent in women, and its men who suffer the result of phallocentric monosexuality in which they repress femininity (354).
  • “I want all of me with all of him.  Why should I deprive myself of a part of us?  I wasn’t all of us” (360).
  • The author compares women’s writing to “The Dark Continent” which has been called dark and made scary by phallocentric thinking.  She also uses the image of Medusa, who has been told that she will turn people to stone, but who in fact is beautiful and laughing.
  • The author focuses on the need for writing about the female body.  The language she encourages women to adopt is unlike the masculine language women are encouraged to overturn and explode.  This language appears to be highly embodied, but this may be a metaphor.  It’s difficult to tell what kind of language she envisions women adopting.

“This Sex Which Is Not One” (1977) from This Sex Which Is Not One by Luce Irigaray

  • Responding to traditional psychoanalysis, Irigaray critiques the representation female genitalia only in relation to male genitalia.  She instead offers the image of female genitalia as two lips in constant erotic contact and claims that when engaged in sexual penetration with a male, this erotic contact (and therefore the woman’s sexual pleasure) is disrupted and violated (the logic appears to be that during heterosexual intercourse, the vagina replaces the masturbating boy’s hand, and this results in pleasure.  But there is supposedly no corresponding replacement for the woman).  The pleasure a woman receives during this type of sex is only a “masochistic prostitution” of her body that she has been trained to take pleasure in.
  • Irigaray notes that women have a separate language that evades reason and coherence.  This separateness from men is related to her biological difference—specifically her touching genitalia.  Women are often misinterpreted because they operate under a different “economy.”
  • Women have been forced to hide their sexual desire, speech, and imaginary but ought to be let free to develop them.  She considers homosexuality a possible tactic but determines it will only reverse the order of things.
  • “Woman is never anything but the locus of a more or less competitive exchange between two men” (368).

“Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l’écriture feminine” (1981) by Ann Rosalind Jones

  • Jones focuses on three French feminist theorists (Kristeva, Irigaray, Cixous, and Wittig) and notes that they share an interest in shared female nature that resists phallogocentrism.
  • Kristeva does not think that a coherent women’s language is desirable.  Rather “woman” represents not so much sex as an attitude, “any resistance to conventional culture and language; men, too, have access to the jouissance that opposes phallogocentrism” (372).  She focuses on women’s difference as mothers.
  • Jones calls Cixous’s “Laugh of the Medusa” her manifesto for l’écriture feminine.  Jones also notes that Cixous insists on the libidinal differences between men and women as evidence of their distinctly different unconsciousnesses.  While Irigaray focuses on differences of genitalia.
  • Jones argues that gender and sexuality (not talking about sexual orientation) is not a biological given but rather a social phenomenon (375) and argues that femininité (a bundle of Everywoman’s psychosexual characteristics) is insufficient because it fails to recognize the diversity of women and culture (378).
  • Jones notes the importance of femininité as an alternative idea and lens used to asked important questions
  • Wittig recognizes that “women” is a category produced by social relationships (377).

“Introduction” from Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985) by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

  • Sedgwick argues that changes in the structure of the continuum of male homosocial desire were bound up with more visible changes, that “the emerging pattern of male friendship, mentorship, entitlement, rivalry, and hetero- and homosexuality was an intimate and shifting relation to class,” and that all elements of that pattern are related to women and the gender system (507).
  • ”The historically differential shapes of male and female homosociality…will always be articulations and mechanisms of the enduring inequality of power between women and men” (510).
  • When examining the relationship between sexual desire and political power requires an investigation along two axes: forms of analysis that historically describe asymmetrical power relations (race, class, gender) and the analysis of representation, which reveals the “range of ways in which sexuality functions as a signifier for power relations” (511).
  • She notes the value of Marxist feminism in investigating gender difference diachronically through historical and economic analysis, but she also admits its inability to deal with the question of sexuality.  She then looks to radical feminist theory and its strength of synchronically interrogating sexuality, yet she acknowledges that it has failed to adequately address how sexuality has changed or can change.  Sedgwick therefore proposes to utilize both theoretical bases and the category of ideology as she investigates the subject of sexuality.
  • Her study discusses a continuum and a shifting relation of meaning between male homosexual relationships and the male patriarchal relations by which women are oppressed: homophobia directed by men against men is transhistorically misogynistic (521).

“Introduction: On the Politics of Literature” (1978) by Judith Fetterley

  • Fetterley claims that American literature is by and large male, and the politics of literature involves the issue of power—power/powerlessness experienced by readers who feel included or excluded from literary narratives.
  • Through consciousness, power can be gained.  “To create a new understanding of our literature is to make possible a new effect of that literature on us” which requires asking questions of the ways we read and opening up the systems of power embodied in literature to questions and to change (569).
  • “Clearly, then, the first act of the feminist critic must be to become a resisting rather than an assenting reader and, by this refusal to assent, to begin the process of exorcising the male mind that has been implanted in us” (570).

“Women’s Time” (1981) by Julia Kristeva

  • Kristeva comes from a Marxist perspective and looks to psychoanalysis for some limited inspiration.
  • Kristeva defines two kinds of temporality (she gets some help from Nietzsche): cyclical (related to cursive time or linear history), which constitutes identities via historical sedimentation, and monumental (another history, another time that contextualizes supranational, sociocultural ensembles within even larger entities), which causes loss of identity through its connection of memories escaping from history “only to encounter anthropology” (861).
  • Both temporalities are traditionally associated with female subjectivity, yet the second is thought of as necessarily maternal and the first is inherent in the logical and ontological values of every civilization and is related to language (grammar is linear?) (862-3).
  • Although she recognizes the political usefulness of the term ‘woman,’ she sees its assumed intelligibility as negative because of its homogenizing effect and argues that it is perhaps time to reveal the “real fundamental difference “ between the sexes, which she does not as such define (perhaps the future perfect she hopes to have been true?) (863).
  • Kristeva elsewhere argues against the notion that women have been excluded from the linguistic system and thereby rejects what she calls “fetishistic reification” of the feminine (others might call it cultural feminism).  In this essay, she refers to the problematic search for a “woman’s language” and its relationship to social marginality rather than any kind of sexual difference.  She says that the interest in phenomena such as this is a mark of the second generation of women whose main social concern is “the sociosymbolic contract as a sacrificial contract” (869).
  • The first generation focuses on universal equality and has been incredibly useful, but it homogenizes women’s experience.
  • One of the translators of this essay writes in the introduction to its first English publication in Signs writes “For Kristeva, the moments when women deny culture, reject theory, exalt the body, and so forth are moments when they risk crossing over the cultural borderline into hysteria” (though hysteria is potentially liberating).
  • Kristeva uses Freud’s notion of penis envy to investigate how sexual difference and language may interact.  She finds that both sexes are subject to the same forces and, “That certain biofamilial conditions and relationships cause women (and notably hysterics) to deny this separation [of language from a presumed state of nature] and the language which ensues from it, whereas men (notably obsessionals) magnify both, and terrified, attempt to master them” (867).
  • The third generation she advocates: “The very dichotomy man/woman as an opposition between two rival entities may be understood as belonging to metaphysics.  What can ‘identity,’ even ‘sexual identity,’ mean in a new theoretical and scientific space where the very notion of identity is challenged?  I am not simply suggesting a very hypothetical bisexuality which, even if it existed, would only, in fact, be the aspiration toward the totality of one of the sexes and thus an effacing of difference.  What I mean is, first of all, the demassification of the problematic difference, which would imply, in a first phase, an apparent de-dramatization of the ‘fight to the death’ between rival groups and thus between the sexes” (875).
  • Kristeva places particular importance on the biological ability of females to give birth: “Pregnancy seems to be experienced as the radical ordeal of the splitting of the subject: redoubling up the body, separation and coexistence of the self and of an other, of nature and consciousness, of physiology and speech” (873).

“Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” (1985) by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

  • Spivak reads three works as a way of explaining how literary works reflect the imperialist narrativization of history.
  • In Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is cast with an animalistic exoticism of the Other, and Jane’s salvation comes from the winds of Europe.  St. John Rivers, the missionary in the novel who goes to India, is a vision of the subject-constituting project Imperialism created.
  • She defines discursive fields such as ‘imperialism as social mission’ as having a system of signs based on a specific axiomatics.
  • Spivak also does readings of Wide Sargasso Sea (Christophine is marked as Other) and Frankenstein (a text that does not deploy the axiomatics of imperialism).
  • “No perspective critical of imperialism can turn the Other into a self, because the project of imperialism has always already historically refracted what might have been the absolutely Other into a domesticated Other that consolidates the imperialist self” (904).
  • “Attempts to construct the ‘Third-World Woman’ as a signifier remind us that the hegemonic definition of the literature is itself caught within the history of imperialism” (905).

China Boy (1991) – Gus Lee

November 19, 2009

Structure: Told in the first-person past from the perspective of an adult Kai.  There are thirty numbered and named chapters followed by a brief epilogue (that picks up only hours after the preceding chapter).  Page breaks inside chapters sometime separate sections.  A family tree precedes the title page.  Chinese (Songhai or Mandarin) is represented in English with Kai noting that a character is not speaking in English.  Spanish is often represented in italics, but it is brief and seldom.

Setting: In the Panhandle (an urban neighborhood near the narrowing of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA).  This neighborhood has a near one hundred percent black population.  The first chapter begins when he is seven years-old and is being beat by Big Willie Mack.  The second chapter begins the narrative proper by telling the stories of his family’s arrival to San Francisco, their stories in China (often sprinkled with storytelling moments such as Kai asking Mah-mee what the name of the dog was), his early childhood, then Mah-mee’s death, the arrival of Edna, and his negotiation with the streets.  In the middle of talking about the YMCA, the narrator sometimes refers to the time he would spend there or how well he would know the men he introduces.


Kai Ting – The main character (age 7 and sometimes younger in the beginning) and narrator (an adult voice reflecting on his growing up).  He is the youngest and only son of a family with three daughters.  He is the only American-born child yet the only one who struggles with English because the others had had formal teachers.  Mah-mee considers him very special because he is the first-born son, yet after she dies he has absolutely no advantages.  He can’t see very well, is small, and get’s beaten up a lot even by small kids who want to prove they’re tough.  Kai had learned from Mah-mee that fighting was bad for his karma, so he struggles with fighting back and learning to fight.

Mah-mee – She and her daughters arrive in San Francisco in 1944 after traveling mostly by cart from Rangoon to Free China (which the family calls “The Run”) to India (where the girls are able to practice their Imperial English) and then to the US.  Despite the cultural pressure to be quiet, she asserted her independence.  She drove terribly, was superstitious, and seemed to do many eccentric things like turn on all the lights (because she thought electricity was rather miraculous, comparison of kitchen god vs. General Electric), sit in the bathtub and talk to her father (she felt great filial duty toward him and used that devotion as evidence that she was traditional despite her refusal to be governed), pull over on the side of the highway to go to the beach and light joss sticks to her father.

Father (Baba, TK, the Colonel) – A second-born son of a wealthy family in 1906.  His father was an opium addict who embarrassed the family and died terribly in a re-education camp after the war.  A Former National Army Officer, a masculine figure compared to American male movie stars.  His best friend is Norman Schwarzt, an American missionary’s son and army officer.  He embraces the traditionlessness of America and resists his roots.  He recognizes the debt owed the peasantry by the likes of his father.  He works at China Lights Bank in Chinatown.  He travels much of the time and is entrusted to transport money.  He never steals, though others do.  His destiny was to be a soldier, but because of his children and wife, he did not go to war again (everyone was being sent to Korea at the time).

Jennifer – Kai’s sister.  The first-born of the family.  She and her two sisters were named by Tutor Luke on their last night at their grandparents’ house.  She and Megan are in college by the time Mah-mee dies.

Megan – Because she disappointed Mah-mee by being a girl and didn’t have the protection of being first-born (Jennifer) or having been sick as an infant (Janie), Megan is not treated well by Mah-mee.  She doesn’t seem to hold a grudge.

Janie – Was sick as an infant in China.  During the Run, she was so young, she was lucky to have resisted all the diseases and dangers.  When Mah-mee dies, her older sisters can’t decide if they’re supposed to tell Janie, so they decide not to.  Janie figures it out, but out of respect, holds on to the fiction.  When Edna arrives, Janie eventually resists the physical abuse and tells Edna she will kill her if she hits her again (she tells Kai she might drive the car over her).  Kai acknowledges that Jaine has it the worst as far as Edna’s treatment goes.

Edna – Originally from Philadelphia.  Still mourning the death of her first husband, a poor law student, whom she disowned her rich family for, she marries TK.  She seemed not to want children and insists the children call her stepmother Edna.  She slowly strips the family of all their Chinese-ness from food (insists on Irish American food) to language (English only).  She beats the children and makes Kai stay out of doors at all times except during dinner and at night.

Toussaint LaRue (Toos) – A kid Kai’s age, who gives him some fighting pointers, tells him fighting has roots in slavery because men could prove their manhood, and wants to hear stories about his father because his died in WWII.  Toussaint’s mother is a maternal figure for Kai.  She is very poor, but shares her food and love.  Toos tries to help Kai talk in a way more appropriate for his neighborhood.

Big Willie Mack – The biggest and meanest among many bullies Kai has to deal with.  After a significant fight with Jerome “Lucky” Washington, whom Kai beats (The book details Jerome’s story–his family and abusive father), Big Willie Mack beats Kai to a pulp, which causes Kai to lose all confidence.  Kai’s teachers at the Y find out this is the source of his disconnection with boxing, so they train him to beat him in an epic battle.  Of course Kai is victorious.

Hector Pueblo – A mechanic at Cutty’s garage, one of the first non-black and non-Chinese people Kai meets.  He tells Kai to call him tío, influences him to go to the YMCA, teaches him some Spanish and to walk in a more appropriate way.  He believes you should never hide from a fight.  He’s a war vet and has tattoos.

Mr. (Tony) Barraza – A former heavyweight fighter, who had known a lot of success, but after his wife left him and took away his young son, moving eventually to an unknown place in Italy, he allowed his characteristic power punch to disappear.  Though he could have taught at a boxing gym and made real money, he works at the Y and lives in the Y’s hotel out of penance for not being faithful to his wife.

Uncle Shim – A good friend of Kai’s father, but a closer friend with Mah-mee.  He was to be Kai’s tutor (like Tutor Luke had been to the girls) and when TK was gone, he’d come to stay with the family.  Uncle Shim is a traditional Chinese intellect and calls Kai Haushehen (able student), which is a great honor.

Miss Angie Costello– Mr. Barraza convinces her to let Kai eat on his card, and she feeds Kai, gives him a job, which provides spending money for Chinese food though he has to give the majority to Edna.  Miss Costello is kind, and Kai looks to her as a maternal figure.

Mr. Miller – White boss at the Y, promises Kai’s father they can teach Kai.  Mr. Miller used to be an instructor

Mr. Punsalong – An instructor at the Y, teaches Kai to let pain pass through him.  He takes a tougher approach with Kai, teaches him the dirty moves like throat punching.  Kai and his friends watch him practicing some sort of martial arts on the Y’s roof.

Mr. Lewis – African American instructor at the Y, supervisor over the other instructors.  He believes in a mind-first approach to boxing.  Encourages Kai to speak clearly.

Key moments in text in chronological order:

  • 3 – Street Fighting like menstruation for men—an effort to fix identity
  • 4 – Kai wants to become an accepted black male youth
  • 11 – in the run, the girls are dressed like peasant boys
  • 13 – Mah-mee carries from China a book written by Tutor Luke of philosophy written from a female perspective
  • 13 – Kai always anticipates an epic journey
  • 14 – The Handle’s population changed because of migration and economics
  • 18 – Mah-mee refused silence and acted like a male
  • 19 – war brings peace which invites colonization
  • 20 – Kai’s father a masculine army officer in an army that centuries before was hyper masculine then feminized, welcoming colonization
  • 24 – Mah-mee resists attitude of women being worthless
  • 26 – The family loved escapism provided by going to the movies
  • 29 – The Handle is a refugee camp
  • 31 – Kai’s father says it’s a good thing Americans are without traditions
  • 42 – Chinatown is Cantonese (they speak Songhai and Mandarin), and they’re not even very near it
  • 49 – Mah-mee dies of Cancer when Kai is 6, but he’s sent away for a month and not told.
  • 51 – The rituals of mourning are confused and forgotten because there’s no elder women there to advise the sisters.
  • 55 – Edna arrives
  • 65 – Edna tells Janie and Kai they are burdens—the first of much emotional abuse and then physical abuse
  • 68 – Mah-mee had valued and used facial expressions to communicate especially with Kai.  Edna hates Kai’s facial expressions.
  • 68 – Kai wanted to be black, but when he met some white girls (Edna’s nieces), he thought they were better because they were better fed and had nicer clothes.
  • 69 – Edna had been captivated by stories of TK’s former wealth and had not realized the family’s finances were waning.  When it becomes obvious, she tells the children it must be a secret.  They should tell others the family is saving up for something.
  • 69 – TK’s boss, Madame Amethyst Jade Cheng, had escaped from China with ample wealth.  She is invigorated everyday by her freedom, brought about by wealth.
  • 70-71 – Victoria Lum Ting, a leader at the local family association, stops by the house, purposely talks only Songhai to alienate Edna.
  • 85 – Edna burns Mah-mee’s crate, which contained all the family’s treasures and was miraculously brought in the Run from China.  Everyone including Kai’s father is angry.  Edna tells Kai his mother is dead.
  • 87 – Kai realizes he’s losing his Songhai
  • 97-100 – Kai becomes friends with Toussaint
  • 111 – Janie reads the neighborhood kids (including the ones who want to taunt Kai) Hansel and Gretel (though Edna had thrown it out)
  • 113 – Kai tries to run away again (the first time, Edna stopped him), goes to Toussaint’s building but leaves after finding Suds (the drunk who used to be a fighter)
  • 121 – When Kai tries to fight back for the first time, the kid runs away with a bloody nose, but his older sister finds him and beats him badly in a garbage can.  Hector has to say something to convince her to stop.
  • 123 – Hector cleans him up in Cutty’s garage (a masculine domain) then talks to Kai’s dad about him needing to learn to box at the YMCA.  Edna is very judgmental.
  • 125 – Kai and his father have the best talk to date about having been in the war, his brother Han being a Chinese boxer, and how he (TK) is American, but maybe China would be better for Kai (because he’s apparently more delicate).
  • 126 – Kai’s father pulls out the gun Norman (Na-men) gave him when he was to come to the US as “an invitation to survive in the New World”
  • 125, 127 – Kai is intoxicated with having communicated with his father
  • 166 – Kai understands that he’s at the Y to make a man out of himself
  • 182 – Kai’s father takes him out of school to go with him to the bank to deliver the money he had been trusted to transport.  He wants to teach him honesty and work ethic, but they communicate poorly.
  • 195 – Mr. Lewis says not to fight with gonads.
  • 209 – Studying Chinese philosophy (a la Uncle Shim) compared to boxing (a la Mr. Barazza and Mr. Lewis)
  • 210 – in a scene told of the past, Mahmee tells Uncle Shim he needn’t pretend a famous poet was a male.  In the US, they can acknowledge that she was female.
  • 212 – Kai’s father tells him he must choose to be Chinese or American and never change his mind.
  • 215 – Kai visits Uncle Shim
  • 227 – Kai visits Mr. Barraza’s room when he freaks out over his wife.
  • 246-251 – Uncle Shim buys Kai new clothes, which make him look very Chinese, and takes him to the chess association meeting, where they fawn over him because they are men without families.  Shim who discouraged boxing now gloats about it.  Kai feels like a first-born son.
  • 252 – Uncle Shim says Kai is their collective only son, and the hope for a new China.
  • 253 – Uncle Shim compared to Hector
  • 273 – after fighting against Jerome (Lucky) Washington and winning, Kai realizes it’s all so stupid but is relieved he won.
  • 275 – reference to soldiers coming back from Korea after killing gooks, chinks, and commies
  • 278 – Kai discovers gender difference when he realizes his sisters won’t learn to box
  • 279-280 – Big Willie Mack then Jerome beat him up.  He’s depressed and skips the first Y lesson of the new year to go to the beach and remember his mother
  • 284-292 – Christian images/biblical passages invoked.  Mr. Lewis finds out Kai is upset because he was beat up and because he can’t remember his mother’s face.  Kai’s fight with Big Willie is to be a baptism of boyhood
  • 304 – The night before the fight, Kai sleeps with his talisman (his blankie, a picture of his mother, Hector’s Yankees hat, the tractor oil Hector gave him to throw on Willie to make him angry) in the bathtub.
  • 317 – Kai beats Willie so badly he looks like Jerome’s mother after she was almost killed by her husband.  Parts of the description of the fight is in present tense
  • 319 – after win, he says “Tsou gou wan ba dan” ?
  • 319 – In his emotional recovery from the fight he wants to thank his coaches—Fathers.
  • 322 – After the fight and having gotten cleaned up by Toos’s mom, Kai goes home, rings the doorbell, and when Edna won’t let him in, he puts up his dukes and says, “You not my Mah-mee…I ain’t fo’ yo’ pickin-on no mo’!”


  • War as an impetus to displacement, diaspora, migration, resettlement – From China, From the Handle, to the Handle, to Korea, to Europe.  Bringing Kai’s family to the Handle and Edna to them, bringing blacks to the Handle.  Fighting as an impetus of Kai leaving the Handle, finding friends, finding some economic independence which provides Chinese food and recreation.
  • Gender difference.  The negative attitudes toward women and the revisions of traditions that give specific women agency.
  • Obviously: masculinities, race, culture, coming of age, manhood vs. boyhood.  Feminized masculinity vs. masculinized masculinity.
  • Violence: War, boxing, fighting, domestic violence, child abuse, guns, fists.  Who negotiates each, what rules exist, who’s an agent and who’s a victim, what terms are agreed upon and what terms are asserted by the party with the most power?

What Some Critics are Saying:

  • The book rewrites the story of the typical American underdog by using the tension that comes from mixing races and ethnicities to produce humor (So 143).
  • Lee’s novel as an example proving the following.  “In the Chinese American novel, Asian American masculinity Americanized itself in the most ironic fashion, by affirming patriarchy through violence that had previously been directed at Asian Americans en masse” (Nguyen 134).
  • Cheryl Alexander Malcolm sees Edna as a representative white American figure to whom Kai rebels.
  • Yichin Shen explores the relationship between domestic violence and intrafamilial power politics and the emasculation of the Chinese immigrant father figure.

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1978) – Maxine Hong Kingston

November 17, 2009

Structure: Generic hybrid: short stories, memoir (nonfiction), novel.  Told mostly in first-person past from the perspective of the author.  The narrator does not identify herself as Maxine Hong Kingston, but the subtitle calls the narrative a memoir [In these notes, I will distinguish the author from the narrator by calling the former Kingston and the latter Maxine.]  Only “At the Western Palace” is in third-person past focusing on the perspectives of Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid.  Each section is marked off from the other by a title page with a graphic of a crane followed by a blank page.  The time of each narrative appears to be the present moment, though the action of the section is always past—often distantly.   These stories are framed very aurally in the sense that Maxine introduces them as stories, interrupts them to reflect upon them.


Maxine – The narrator.  In her fifties.  Living away from California but visits parents there.  American-born Chinese, one of 4 children (three girls and a boy) born in the US (two siblings died in China).  Born in the middle of WWII.  Speaks English and Cantonese (with a seventh-grade vocabulary).

Brave Orchid (Maxine’s mother) – Born in China, stayed there until 1939 then to NY then to CA.  She was trained as a midwife/doctor in Canton, China and practiced in and near her village for several years.  In the US, she has worked in family-owned laundries until they were taken away.  When the laundry in CA was taken away, she continued working in the fields while her husband stayed retired.  She is very frugal, believes in ghosts, talks story, is loud.

Moon Orchid (Maxine’s aunt) – She is Brave Orchid’s sister, and a less serious version of her.  She is married to a younger man, whom she hasn’t seen in a very long time.  She has one daughter who moved to the States to marry an American (Chinese) man.  Moon Orchid moved from China to Hong Kong and has lived there so long, she speaks in that more sophisticated dialect.  Her husband has faithfully sent money but never mentioned the possibility of her coming to the US.

“No Name Woman”

  • Setting: Story of the aunt told in quotation marks by Maxine’s mother for about 5 pages.  Maxine’s framing and reflection told outside the quotation marks.  This story told her when she starts her period.  Story takes place in a rural Chinese village after the men had all married then gone to the Americas to work (1924).  Brave Orchid (not known by this name till “Shaman”) lives with her husband’s household: his parents, brothers’ wives, and sister (No Name Woman).  Brave Orchid and No Name Woman share a room.  Outside the quotation marks, Maxine offers multiple versions of similar events and imagines possibilities and hopes for what happened, muddling any coherent narrative of what actually happened.

Key moments in text in chronological order:

  • First line: “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.”
  • 3 – No Name Woman is pregnant.
  • 4 – The villages break in kill livestock, break things, steal things, leave.  That night No Name Woman gives birth in the pigsty and then is found in the morning dead in the well with her child.
  • 5 – This story is a warning not to shame family or you will be forgotten
  • 5 – “story to grow upon”
  • 5 – emigrants (1st generation Americans) threatened by offspring (American-born Chinese) “because they always try to get things straight or name the unspeakable”
  • 5-6 – Maxine acknowledges difficulty of knowing what about your experience is particular and what is Chinese
  • How No Name Woman gets pregnant and why she lives in her father’s house:
    • She was forced.  A man told her what to do, and since she was trained to do as she was told, she did (6).
    • She lived in her father’s house even after marriage because she was already disgraced, so she subtly enjoyed the man (8).
    • She was a wild woman? – no (8).
    • She tended to her appearance when no one was supposed to and made her own happiness (9).
    • She left her husband’s household because the men there wanted her (10).
    • She was unusually beloved by her parents (her father had briefly traded Maxine’s father for a girl at one point) (10).
  • 11 – No Name Women gives silent birth so as not to reveal the man’s name.  Silence is not Chinese-feminine because only sick people were quiet.  But silence at the table is expected as a form of complete attention.
  • 12 – Maxine used to secretly add a “brother” title to the boys she knew, desexualizing them and herself.
  • 13 – No Name Woman is punished for having a private life
  • 15 – multiple version possible for why she gave birth in the pigsty (shame, as implied when mother tells the story or out of love to keep the spirits from finding the child).
  • 16 – Maxine has participated in punishing No Name Woman because she has not remembered her.  No Name Woman forced to be a hungry ghost without family to leave food for her.
  • 16 – Maxine is haunted because she tells this story and in a sense tells on No Name Woman—that she was a spite suicide, poisoning the water supply.

“White Tigers”

Setting: There are three sections within “White Tigers” marked by a line break and the capitalization of the first letter of the first sentence.  Most of the story takes place in a fictive China, the rest is in the present time reflecting back on childhood.

Key moments in text in chronological order:

  • 19-20 – The first section speaks generally about how Maxine and other Chinese girls listened to adults “talk story” and how they should grow up to be heroines.  The story of crane boxing told by her mother.  Maxine hears the chant of Fa Mu Lan as an adult and recalls that she knew it as a child.  Sets up Maxine as imagining herself as Fa Mu Lan following a bird up a mountain.
  • 19 – Stories and dreams mix because her mother told stories before bed
  • 20-45 – The second section describes Maxine imagined as Fa Mu Lan growing up, saving China, and returning home.
  • 20 – ideographs and stories intertwined (stories not just as oral/aural, but as written documents that are read)
  • 24-27 – After 7 years on the mountain taken care of by the old couple, (Maxine as) Fa Mu Lan is led blindfolded to the mountains of the white tigers, told to run, then left there to survive and journey eventually home.  She sees dancers of all kinds: African, Indian, American Indian, Hindu, Javanese [I see this as evidence that this story is a New World version of Fa Mu Lan].  In the story, this is Fa Mu Lan’s moment of epiphany – she sees centuries as moments and comes to understand time.
  • 27-28 – She tells the couple of her survival test journey.  The old couple more like siblings or friends than as married
  • 28-29 – They train her in dragon ways for another 8 years.  Dragons must be inferred from the parts.  They are paradoxical and require adult wisdom.  Closest she came to seeing one whole was under the bark of a 3000 year-old pine, whose sap gave immortality (apparently what the old couple had drank)
  • 33-36 – She leaves the old couple, dresses as a man, and returns to her parents.  Her parents carve their grievances on her back.  She leaves and founds an army.  There are constant references to her being like a man.
  • 37 – She sings to her army at night to inspire them
  • 39-41 – Her husband arrives.   They are partners.  Soldiers together.  She becomes pregnant, gives birth, when the boy is 4-months, they perform a ceremony, then she sends her husband and son away.  She misses them.
  • 40 – When pregnant she is a strange human being.  Pregnant and with scars on her back recording grievances.
  • 42-44 – Victory, sets up a peasant who is king.  Returns to village, kills baron and says, “I’m a female avenger.”  He tries to say women are worthless, and he did nothing he (Fa Mu Lan) wouldn’t have done.  She says he stole her childhood.  She rips off her shirt to show the grievances, and when he stares at her breasts, she cuts his face, then slices off his head.
  • 44 – In the Barons house she finds a locked room full of abandoned women with bound feet (abandoned by servants and presumably the men who were to pay them).  She frees them giving them a bag of rice each thinking the women are good for nothing.  The later reportedly became a band of swordswomen on horses who raise abandoned girl babies.  Fa Mu Lan says she could not vouch for their reality.
  • 45 – She reports to her husband’s family to be a dutiful daughter.  They say she is allowed to go visit her parents.  Her parents would be happy and living well with the money she had sent.  “The villagers would make a legend of [her] perfect filiality.”
  • 45-53 – Maxine reflects on her American life in light of that story and imaginative exercise.
  • 45 – Her American life a disappointment because she can’t translate the story to her life
  • 46 – Maxine doesn’t want to be a bad girl so she doesn’t want to be a girl.
  • 47 – She attempts to fight back by not getting As, becoming American-feminine, refusing to cook, cracking dishes.  Trying to be a bad girl so she can be closer to being a boy.
  • 48 – She doesn’t want to be supported but wants to be loved enough to be supported by a man
  • 49 – Trying to fight against racism in America, trying to imagine how she could avenge her family in China by getting back the farm that was taken by the communists, avenging family in US by getting back the laundry in NY and the one in CA.
  • 51 – Her family was the type that was executed in China like the baron in the story.  “It was confusing that birds tricked us” as in the bird that led the listener into the story.
  • 52 – She has had to remove herself from her family because such proximity to sexism makes her hate them.
  • 53 – Idioms for revenge are about reporting crimes or telling people about them.  Maxine says she has many words on her back (like chink and gook) that inspire her revenge.


Setting: Brave Orchid is 37 but pretending to be 27.  Two of her children have died, and since her husband keeps sending her money, she uses it to leave the village, go to Canton, and enroll in medical school (a school begun in the 1800s by European female doctors).  Maxine begins the story with a prompt about the diploma her mother would take out and show her (only four times in her life).  There are three sections within “Shaman” marked by a line break and the capitalization of the first letter of the first sentence.

Key moments in text in chronological order:

  • 57-75 – Story prompt, Brave Orchid arrives at school, smokes the ghost out
  • 59 – There is a focus on photographs and perspectives of those gazing at them.  While looking at a photo of her mother graduating from medical school, she can’t tell if she’s pretty except by comparing her to the other women in the photo.  She can tell she is intelligent, alert, and pretty, but not if she’s happy.  Her mother now sees photographs of her relatives in China as she at one time saw photos of her husband smiling and posing with friends in America.
  • 62 – Communism gave women in China a job and a room of their own.
  • 64 – Most of the girls at the school were in their early twenties, and since there was an expectation that age made one smarter, Brave Orchid secretly studied so that she would appear naturally intelligent.
  • 67 – Brave Orchid a dragoness; danger is an opportunity to show off.  She goes to the haunted room.  A sitting ghost sits on her chest till morning; she manages to fight against it.
  • 72 – Brave Orchid tells the story of the night to the girls in the dormitory.
  • 75-87 – Brave Orchid is on her way back to the village, buys a slave, revered as a doctor, travels around healing people (only those who will recover), Maxine grows up with nightmares of babies that are not protected
  • 76 – Names are important, real names important, chanting address and descent line so that the spirit of the person comes back to its body.  They smoke the ghost out.
  • 79 – Brave Orchid returns to the village after 2 years.  On her way, she buys a slave (all the slaves there are female).
  • 85 – Brave Orchid’s father’s third wife was brought back from travels.  She was “a barbarian from the West” and apparently black.
  • 86 – girl babies killed, there was a baby born without an anus who was left in the outhouse to die.
  • 87 – Chinese is the language of impossible stories. Chinese people stuff their children’s heads before they leave their parents.
  • 87-109 – This section is broken up into short sections separated by a line break
  • 87 – Story prompt of how ghost stories were told at the family’s laundry.
  • 88 – Brave Orchid comes across ghosts (Sit Dom Kuei) on a bridge she uses often,
  • 95-96 – Villages stone the crazy lady because they think she’s signaling planes.  Brave Orchid tries to intervene then gives up when she can tell the woman wouldn’t live.
  • 97-98 – Ghosts are everywhere.  Every foreigner is a kind of ghost.
  • 99 – Maxine reflects on the last time she visited her parents.  Her mother has a hard time dealing with the fact that she doesn’t visit more often.
  • 102 – There’s confusion about how old Brave Orchid is.  76, 72 and 73 in Chinese years, or 80/81.  Brave Orchid doesn’t insist on an answer only says what do numbers matter.
  • 103-105 – Brave Orchid still working in the fields along with Mexicans, hobos, winos, and junkies, complains that time goes to fast in the US, work always necessary
  • 106-107 – Brave Orchid says there’re definitely not going back to China now because her husband has given final permission for the villagers to take over the land (that has been in dispute for years and cost the lives of his brothers).  Maxine’s response: “We belong to the planet now, Mama.  Does it make sense to you that if we’re no longer attached to one piece of land, we belong to the planet?  Wherever we happen to be standing, why, that spot belongs to us as much as any other spot.”
  • 108 – Maxine defends why she lives “elsewhere.” It’s safer, and better for her health.  Her mother seems to get it.
  • 109 – Her mother dreams dreams about a Chinatown bigger than the one here.

“At the Western Palace”

Setting: This section is the only one presented in third person, and it mainly centers on Brave Orchid’s perspective, though at times it rests on Moon Orchid.  Brave Orchid is 68 and going to pick up her sister from the airport in San Francisco.  Her sister’s daughter and two of her kids accompany them.  Brave Orchid helped arrange her niece’s marriage to a domineering man in LA.  She has paid for her sister to fly from Hong Kong so that she can go to LA and reclaim her husband, who has been sending money for years.

Key moments in text in chronological order:

  • 118 – The sisters meet and are shocked to find old women.
  • 121 – Over the years, Brave Orchid performs lots of traditional Chinese ceremonies, but refuses to tell her children about what they are and mean.
  • 133 – Brave Orchid’s children speak as if they are from the village.
  • 138 – Villages are people from the village or those who have been together so long in California
  • 141 – Moon Orchid narrates everything as it happens (her image of American life filtered through her Chinese and Hong Kong viewpoint), and it annoys Brave Orchid’s kids.  She’s useless at the laundry, where everyone in the family works.
  • 142 – Brave Orchid’s son drives her and her sister and niece to LA.  They drop off the niece then go to the address they have for Moon Orchid’s husband, which turns out to be a doctor’s office in a skyscraper.
  • 143 – Story of the Western and Northern Palaces: The Emperor had four wives in four palaces.  The Empress of the West connived for power, and Empress of East was good.  Brave Orchid tells Moon Orchid she’s the Empress of the East who needs to save the Emperor from imprisonment in the Western Palace.
  • 144 – He turns out to be married to his nurse.  She’s also Chinese but can’t speak very well (must be American born).  They convince him to come out to the car (They say a woman’s been hit by a car) and then confront him.  He’s much younger than they’d expected, and he does not want her there because he has important American guests in his home, and she can barely talk to him.  He says he will continue to send money.
  • 153 – Moon Orchid’s husband says that when he had been in America, it’s like he became a different person and forgot about her as if she was a person in an old book he had read long ago.
  • 154-155 – Moon Orchid goes to stay with her daughter then starts acting paranoid (afraid the Mexicans are going to get her).  Brave Orchid asks that she be sent to her house then explains to her children that the empress who loses in battle was sent to the Northern Palace and her little feet would sink little prints in the snow.
  • 158 – Moon Orchid’s behavior becomes increasingly strange and disruptive.  Requires that the photos be taken off the wall, cries when the children leave the house then doesn’t recognize them when they come home.  The kids blame her behavior on being Chinese.  Brave Orchid tries to rub her ears and chant her home.
  • 159-60 – When Brave Orchid realizes Moon Orchid won’t recover (her talk story has no variety), she sends her to an asylum where she is very happy, finds new stories, then eventually slips away.
  • 160 – The lesson Brave Orchid’s daughters learn is not to let men be unfaithful.  The also all decide to major in math and science.

“A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe”

Setting: There are four sections within “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe” marked by a line break and the capitalization of the first letter of the first sentence.

Key moments in text in chronological order:

  • 163-197 – First section
  • 163 – Maxine suggests that the story of her brother driving her mother and aunt to LA was better told by her brother, who told it to her sister, who told it to her.  His version was less twisted into designs.  She would have been an outlaw knot-maker.
  • 164-65 – Maxine asks her mother why she cut her frenum when she didn’t cut the other children’s.  Mother says she wanted to keep her from getting tongue tied—so she could speak other languages freely.  The Chinese say “a ready tongue is an evil,” but her mother said things are different in this country.  Maxine says she has a hard time talking and her mother must not have cut enough.  Elsewhere she conjectures her mother cut her tongue to keep her from saying rude things (192).
  • 166 – Maxine was very quiet in school.  Silent for three years except for interactions with other Chinese kids, Japanese kids, Negro kids.
  • 172 – When pressured to speak at school, some shook their heads and remained silent.  Others eventually adopted an American-feminine persona.
  • 173 – One girl wouldn’t even talk in Chinese school and hangs out with her older sister.  Maxine hates the silent girl for being a silent Chinese feminine stereotype.
  • 175-181 – Maxine taunts silent girl in the bathroom during a game of hide and seek.  She pinches her cheeks, tries being super mean, tries offering rewards if the girl will talk or even make a noise.  Finally the girl’s sister comes, and Maxine says she was trying to teach her to talk, but she was uncooperative.
  • 182 – Maxine becomes mysteriously ill, a line in her palm breaks, and she has to stay in bed for a year and a half.  Lived like a Victorian recluse, nothing happened, and she loved it.
  • 184 – There are secrets not to be said in front of ghosts (foreigners).  Sometimes she hated the ghosts for keeping her from talking.  Sometimes she hated the Chinese for their secrecy.
  • 185 – Ghosts have no memory and poor eyesight.  Everyone encouraged to lie to immigration and anyone else when it’s necessary.
  • 185 – Even the good things are secrets.  The older generation did not tell the younger generation why certain days were observed in certain ways.
  • 186-192 – A list of crazy female characters given.  Maxine is afraid of being the crazy one, fear of being sol, of going to China, being married off.
  • 194 – She fights back when an FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) comes to her house interested in marrying someone.  She breaks dishes, spills soup, pretends to have a limp.
  • 195 – Man with some sort of disability keeps coming to the laundry to watch Maxine.  Her parents seemed to encourage it.  She stopped limping and started getting As so her parents wouldn’t think they were a match.  He has a portable porn collection, and when her mother finds out she is delighted he isn’t too stupid to want to find out about sex.  Old women whisper that he’s rich.
  • 197-206 – Second section
  • 197 – Because she doesn’t talk much she’s saved up all these things she needs to tell her mom.  She feels like if she confesses them it might relieve the pain in her throat.  The things she confesses are things she’s done wrong and things she thinks will offend her mother (like wish for a white horse—white an unlucky color).
  • 200 – She tells her mother one thing, then the next night another.  Her mom is annoyed with the whispering and tells her to go away and work.  Maxine is relieved, but she feels her throat scratching with growing numbers of things she must say.
  • 200 – She guesses that she had interrupted her mother’s own quiet time of imagining her own stories.
  • 201-206 – Third section
  • 201 – Maxine yells at her parents that she does not want the retarded boy around.  She calls him a hulk and gorilla-ape.  She says “You think we’re [the girls] odd and not pretty and we’re not bright.  You think you can give us away to freaks….I may be ugly and clumsy, but one thing I’m not, I’m not retarded.  There’s nothing wrong with my brain.”  She talks on about how smart she is and full of potential.  Tells them she’s sick of Chinese school and tired of their stories because she can’t tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction.  Gloats that she can’t be stopped from talking now despite the fact her mother cut her tongue.
  • 204 – She realized she was spitting things off her list but no one was listening anymore.  Her mother calls her Ho Chi Keu as in second-generation person.  Keu means ghost, but the rest of the translation in dispute, multiple possibilities.
  • 205 – “I continue to sort out what’s just my childhood, just my imagination, just my family, just the village, just movies, just living.”
  • 206-209 – Fourth section – a story told her by her mother, but the ending is hers (Maxine’s).
  • 206-207 – Maxine’s grandmother was a big fan of the theater.  When a local theater group came to give a performance, she insisted everyone—even the slaves—attend with her despite the danger of thieves coming to the empty house.  Thieves arrive at a theater, and kidnap women, but everyone in her family comes safely home.  Her grandmother interprets the events such that they are to always go to the theater.
  • 207 – Maxine likes to think they heard the poetry of Ts’ai Yen, who was captured by barbarians for 17 years and gave birth to two children who did not understand Chinese.  The barbarians shot arrows that sung, then she heard them playing flute music, which disturbed her.  The barbarians then heard her singing to her children in a tone the same as the flutes.  She was eventually ransomed in order to marry a Han and produce grandchildren for her father.  She wrote “Eighteen Stanzas For a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” which is played by Chinese on their own instruments.  She says it translates well.


  • Issues of cultural and gender identity and development, silence as a motif, sexism in Chinese culture vs. the empowering narratives of women told by her mother, importance of education/intelligence, underlying focus on economic independence.

What Some Critics are Saying:

  • The story of Fa Mu Lan is a mixture of the well-known stories of Yue Fei and Hua Mu Lan (Zhang 17).
  • Many Chinese and Chinese Americans are offended by this book, and it has been criticized for being racist or overly critical of Chinese culture.  Her generalizations and retellings are inaccurate and mislabeled as nonfiction.
  • There is a pressure to represent autobiography written by Asian Americans or African Americans as “ethnic experience” and to homogenize aspects of the narrative to put a “best face” forward.
  • This is a postmodern book that is the most fitting example of women’s autobiography.  Storytelling is the means through which Maxine confronts the complexities and ambivalence of individuality meeting community and offers “textual alternative to the constricting patriarchal circle Kingston has had to transgress” (Sidonie Smith 58)
  • Kingston’s works reveal gender systems change across cultural boundaries and how the distinction between symbolic and social gender change between cultures.  She makes the contradictions between the two work for her (through playing with writing and oral legend) so she performs a writerly liberation with social implications (Leslie W. Rabine 88).
  • King Kok Cheung points out that in looking at gender in this book, it’s necessary to examine the historically enforced “feminization” of Chinese American men, racial stereotypes, nationalist reactions, and notions of masculinity and femininity in both Asian and Western cultures (114).

Obasan (1981) – Joy Kogawa

November 13, 2009

Structure: First person, present tense, from Naomi’s point of view.  The epilogue precedes a note from the author thanking those who provided documents and is from the Bible—“To him that overcometh / will I give to eat / of the hidden manna / and will give him / a white stone / and in the stone / a new name written.”  After the title page that reads simply “Obasan” the book opens with a poem that addresses silence and that uses imagery of stones that burst into sound.  The first chapter is dated August 9, 1972 and describes Naomi, Obasan, and Uncle walking their usual trail near Obasan and Uncle’s house—the coulee (valley).  The second chapter is dated September 13, 1972 and describes how Naomi came to find out Uncle had died (She was in her classroom in Cecil, Alberta—within easy driving distance to Granton).  Time alternates between the present and past—dictated by Naomi’s present thoughts.  At times it seems like a letter written to Aunt Emily (chapters 9 and 29).  When Japanese is spoken, it is always contextualized so the meaning is clear or it’s translated.  In chapter 38, the narrative is addressed to her silent mother.

Setting: The present time of the novel is 1972, but a past narrative is given through Naomi’s thoughts and memory and her interaction with Obasan, various pictures, Aunt Emily’s diary, and several documents gathered by Aunt Emily.  Starting with chapter 3, the main action of the present narrative only lasts about one 24-hour period.  The past is called upon by Naomi and at first seems to grab random points in time (i.e. description of a photo of Stephen’s birth prompts her to describe her family, thoughts of her mother, memories of Aunt Emily discussing injustice), but when she begins to read Aunt Emily’s diary, a solid narrative of the past begins with Naomi’s early childhood—at age 4 (probably in 1940) and ends in 1954 when Naomi is 17 and Aunt Emily had come to Granton for the first time with news of Naomi’s mother and grandmother in Japan.  The time between 1954 and the present is called upon throughout the book (and told in past tense), but there are two main stories: the present (1972) and the past story of Naomi’s childhood (1941-1954) (both told in present tense).

There are a few central locations:

  • Vancouver, British Columbia – Naomi and her family have lived here for several years – Uncle and Obasan were born in Japan, but Naomi’s parents were born in the US.  Everyone in the family appears to be of upper middle class status.  Detention camps are set up at Hastings Park, and people are forced to live in stables.  A dense bureaucratic system determines who must go and when.  Naomi’s father (Mark) and Aunt Emily file for numerous extensions but are ultimately forced to leave.
  • Slocan City, British Columbia – a small town in the mountains, where Uncle, Obasan, Stephen, and Naomi move after being forced to leave Vancouver.  They arrive via train (Naomi leaves her favorite doll—and her connection with her mother?—on the train).  The four live in a very small hut (with Nomura-obasan until Mark arrives) with no electricity or plumbing (there is a public bathhouse).   The school the children attend is Japanese-only.
  • Granton, Alberta – In 1945, after the war ends, the family is sent by the Department of Labor to Granton to work on beet farms.  They live at first in a hut (smaller and in worse shape than the one in Slocan) located on the Barker’s beet farm.  The climate is much harsher, and their accommodations and working environment are miserable.  The school the kids attend is integrated, and all the Japanese-Canadians anglicanize their names.  About 1951, the family moves to a house in town.
  • Other locations discussed:  Cecil, Alberta, where Naomi lives and teaches as an adult.  Toronto, Ontario, where Aunt Emily moves with Grandpa Nakane when forced to leave Vancouver.  Stephen moves in with Aunt Emily there after high school.


Naomi (Megumi Naomi Nakane) – The narrator.  A school teacher in her mid thirties.  She is five in 1941.

Uncle (Isamu “Sam” Nakane) – Obasan’s wife, uncle to Naomi.  His death initiates the narrative.

Obasan (Ayako Nakane) – Uncle’s wife.  She had two children who died during childbirth.  She was 42 when Stephen was born.  She raises Stephen and Naomi.

Aunt Emily (Emily Kato) – Sister to Naomi’s mother. Trained as a teacher, she was unable to get a position and helped Grandpa Nakane in his medical practice.  Later she earned an MA and became an activist for Japanese Canadians.

Stephen Nakane – Naomi’s brother.  He does not like things that are too Japanese, preferring sandwiches in his lunch.  He enjoys music, and music is what allows him to escape Granton.  As an adult, he is not helpful.  When Naomi sees him, she hadn’t seen him in 9 years.

Mother – Naomi’s mother, who was born in Canada, but went to Japan with her mother before the war broke out to tend to her sick grandmother (Naomi’s Obaa-chan).  She was badly injured at Nagasaki and had to wear a cloth mask at all times.  She did not want her children to know what happened.

Father (Tadashi “Mark” Nakane) – Naomi and Stephen’s father.  A university graduate, he helped Uncle design boats, but he had a great interest in music.  He was sent to a labor camp when Uncle and Obasan and the kids went to Slocan.  He contracted TB, was in hospital at some point, arrived in Slocan momentarily, then they were separated.  He later dies, but no official word is sent.  His letters just stop.  Naomi thinks of him as a frog prince.

Grandpa Nakane – A boat builder and small business owner.  The first of Naomi’s grandparents to come to Canada.  Married to Grandma Nakane, step son is Isamu/Uncle, younger son is Mark/Tadashi (Naomi’s father).  He and Grandma Nakane were sent to Hasting Park Prison.  He and Grandma Nakane are later sent to New Denver (probably another internment camp).  He’s Buddhist and requests that Grandma Nakane’s ashes be sent to him.

Grandma Nakane – The widow of a cousin of Grandpa Nakane.  She married Grandpa Nakane and joined him in Canada along with her son (Isamu/Uncle).  Later gave birth to Mark/Tadashi. She was sent to the Hastings Park prison, and she dies after Naomi had moved to Slocan.  Naomi and Obasan attend the funeral in Slocan, where the body is burnt.

Grandpa Kato – A doctor, the father of Aunt Emily and Naomi’s mother.  He volunteers at the Hastings Park prison and sees Grandma Nakane.  He and Aunt Emily move to Toronto after they leave Vancouver.

Grandma Kato – Mother of Naomi’s mother.  Her mother is Naomi’s Obaa-chan.  When Grandpa Kato was a medical student, she left him and took Naomi’s mother to Japan.  She later returned, but she often went to Japan and took Naomi’s mother with her.  It was because of Grandma Kato’s letters to Grandpa Kato telling the truth of what happened during and after the war, that the family knows what happened.

Nakayama-sensei/Reverend Nakayama – Anglican minister who the family knew in Vancouver.  He was living in Slocan before they arrived and later moved in relative proximity to Granton.  He prays for the family just before they are forced to separate from Mark and move to Granton.  He also attends the family in the wake of Uncle’s death when Stephen and Aunt Emily have arrived.  He reads the letters from Grandma Kato and initiates the discussion with Naomi and the rest of the family about what happened to Grandma Kato and Naomi’s mother after the war.

Nomura-obasan – an older woman who lives with the family in Slocan.  She is mainly bed-ridden.

Key moments in text in chronological order:

  • Contrast between her two aunts.  Obasan silent, Emily loud and searching to uncover everything.
  • 38 – seeking invisibility
  • 58 – Grandma Kato and Naomi bathe (past)
  • 60 – it does not bear remembering vs. remember everything
  • 68 – Story of Momotaro – it’s Canadian because it’s told by Canadians
  • 77 – Old Man Gower abuses her, but she goes there unbidden
  • 80 – her mother leaves for Japan – she imagines spending time with her mom doing all the things they’ve done before
  • 84 – Naomi asks her father if they’re Japs, he says they’re Canadian
  • 94 – Naomi and Obasan bathe (present)
  • 95-130 – Aunt Emily’s letters and journal
  • 132 – Romantic vision of Japanese-Canadians building the country
  • 167 – Neighborhood Japanese-Canadian children are playing in the woods, and a King bird.  They say a King bird will cut out your tongue if you tell lies
  • 172 – Rough Lock Bill tells Naomi and Kenji about an Indian brave who brought his tribe to Slocan (Slow can go) and how all but maybe one of the tribe are dead now.
  • 177 – Kenji and Naomi go in the raft, Naomi almost drowns, Rough Lock Bill saves her
  • 183 – Stephen almost fights with white kids who are taunting him, one of the Japanese-Canadian kids kills a chicken in the field on the way to school
  • 186 – All the Japanese-Canadian teachers take very seriously their morning routine of showing how patriotic they are
  • 188 – The girl with the white hair taunts Naomi about how she is supposed to get a kitten out of the outhouse.  Naomi hears the cat then doesn’t, so she assumes it’s dead.
  • 197 – the incident at the public bath – Naomi is shunned because her father has TB
  • 199 – Naomi feels that something is happening with her mother.  It is the day after V-J day, and only later do we discover that her mother was at Nagasaki.
  • 201 – her father comes, but they are soon forced to leave Slocan
  • 209 – Church service in their home
  • 218 – Naomi (in the present) says she wants to break loose from the heavy identity
  • 241 – The thistles at Granton are a metaphor for Naomi’s misery at school
  • 246 – Naomi finds a frog with a broken leg (he later escapes from the house) and sees him similarly to her father
  • 250 – Naomi recognizes that her father is dead.  The family move to town.
  • 259 – Stephen says Aunt Emily is not like Uncle and Obasan (she is more Canadian, talks more, etc)
  • 260 – Uncle asks if Emily will marry (when she visits for first time)
  • 262 – Sakana fish is Uncle’s pidgin for Son of a bitch.
  • 263 – Emily and Uncle talk about the letters from Grandma Nakane and whether to tell the children (Stephen is in college, Naomi is 17).  Obasan only sits in the background.  Then prays.
  • 269 – Mr. Barker and his new wife come over (in present) to give condolences.  Both talk stupidly about “out Japanese”
  • 273 – Naomi (at 17) has bad dreams about her mother.  Stephen says he had bad dreams too, but playing music in them made them go away.  (Image of how music allowed him to forget the past and move on).
  • 274 – Sexual image of Grand Inquisitor understanding speech and silence
  • 281 – letters from Grandma Nakane
  • 290 – “We were lost in our silences”
  • 295 – “Somewhere between speech and hearing is a transmutation of sound”
  • 296 – Naomi returns to the coulee


  • Fairy tales are used: Rapunzel, Snow White, Goldilocks, Humpty Dumpty, Chicken Little, Momotaro (66) (a tiny child magically comes out of a peach, then grows up and moves away from his adopted parents), Ninomiya Kinjiro (62) (boy who read books while carrying firewood).
  • The Nisei are second-generation Japanese, the Sansei are third-generation, and the Issei are first-generation (132).
  • Time is woven together and eased back and forth and in between.  It is now always easy to figure out when everything is occurring.
  • Nationalism is questioned in light of the loyalty to Canada and the Crown by Japanese-Canadians.  When Naomi can’t attend school at first in Slocan, Obasan has her make a scrapbook on the royal family.  When the family leaves Slocan, the reverend prays especially for the king and that they would be well governed (210).  The school for Japanese-Canadians in Slocan makes a show of singing the national anthem everyday.  In addition, the dialogue between Aunt Emily and Naomi presented in the past tense demonstrate a clear critique of the Canadian government during that time and the time since.  The book ends with a government document dated 1946 condemning the actions of the Canadian government since the war.
  • The relationship among family members is highly significant.  Mother-daughter, Aunt-niece are the most significant, but so is family interaction in general.  The way Obasan takes care of Nomura-obasan and the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter for example.
  • Language is a signifier for cultural difference.  Stephen is said to have made himself unfamiliar with Japanese (277) and Naomi views him very harshly for moving away from the family and his cultural roots.  Japanese is not often incorporated into the text—only snippets that are generally translated.  The phrase, “Kodomo no tame” (for the sake of the children) for instance (26).
  • Imagery of silence, stones, and animals are predominant reflecting the need to express pain and to see representations of emotions characters are projecting (for example, the frog and her father, the king bird and a desire for an enforcer of morality?)

What Some Critics are Saying:

  • The novels use of visuality (photos for example) to seek political rights associated with visibility (versus selective sight or invisibility).  A way of seeing events and experiences as history opposed to as stories.  This phenomenon is further complicated by the fact that her work is documentary or history, but fiction.  Balancing of family photos and official photos.
  • “The plurality of narrative position this text employs signals both the writer’s refusal to adopt the terms of the colonizer and a sing, coherent, linear narrative in the retelling of the past” (Snelling 22).
  • The book (along with others such as Mrs. Dalloway) attempts to resuscitate the past and bring it back with all it’s complexity and fullness.  The process that leads to her reaching the wholeness we see her represent at the close of the book is one by which she escapes the conflicts and contradictions inherent in time-bound phenomenal existence (Cook 55).
  • The discourses of loss, mourning, and the victim were reshaped after the publication of Obasan (Goldman 363).
  • Critics have argued that the silence in Obasan should be read in a way that resists the tendency to valorize speech unconditionally but rather nonverbal gestures are a form of articulate silence.  Attentiveness is also significant as either a cultural or maternal legacy.  Another critic focuses on Naomi’s attentiveness to touch, space, and time in terms of non-verbal lexicons that resonate when speech seems somehow insufficient.
  • As a story about female ethnic kinship.  Reads the amniotic space is the literal and figurative center of the novel and that abortion of the potential ethnic reproduction is the central metaphor of the novel (Tourino).

Bless Me Ultima (1972) – Rudolfo Anaya

November 13, 2009

Structure: First person, past tense, from Antonio’s view.  Numbered chapters named simply Uno, Dos, Tres, etc.  This particular edition has an introduction by the author (not dated, but publishing info indicates 1999).  After the novel’s end, a “Reading Group Guide” follows with an interview with the author and discussion questions for a reading group.  The novel lasts about two years (ends the summer after Antonio’s second year of school).  Antonio’s vivid dreams are told in italics—usually at the beginning or end of chapters.

Setting: Set in New Mexico during and after WWII.  Antonio is born in Las Pasturas on el llano (open plain), where his family once lived and where his father is from.  Ultima is also from Las Pasturas and helped deliver Antonio and his brothers.  Antonio’s family now lives on the edge of el llano, which is a short distance from Guadalupe, where he goes to school.  They moved because his mother wanted to live close to town.  Antonio’s father and three brothers built the house they live in.  The land surrounding the house is not especially fertile (like the land they would have had if they had lived further from el llano), and the soil is very rocky.  Antonio’s mother’s family lives ten miles away in El Puerto (de los Lunas).


Antonio Luna Márez – 7 years-old when the story begins (the summer before he is to begin school).  He feels divided by the two sides of his family and by Catholicism and Native religion that accepts the Golden Carp as a god.  In the end he recognizes his ability to choose both.  Even the priest on his mother’s side whom the family desires him to be like was not a pure Catholic.  Ultima the curandera is an example for him of one who mixes things (magic) with Catholicism.

Maria Luna – Antonio’s mother.  She wants Antonio to be a priest like the founder of the Lunas, who led the conquering of the area (it’s a family secret revealed to Antonio only near the book’s end that this priest had a wife and children).  Her family are farmers, and her brothers quiet men.

Gabriel Márez – Antonio’s father.  He comes from people on el llano, a rough people.  The book opens with discussions of how the lifestyle of the vaquero is “as ancient as the coming of the Spaniard to Nuevo Méjico” (2) and how much Gabriel misses the comradery he had on el llano with men like Benito Campos (to whom he gave his horse), Bonney, and the Gonzales brothers.  Gabriel had great hopes his three sons would move with him to California to begin a new life.  They encourage his idea but don’t believe in it because they want freedom.

Deborah Márez – Antonio’s eldest sister who along with their sister Theresa has an absolutely marginal role in the book.  Deborah is older than Antonio and Theresa and does not generally have good manners (because there’s “too much Márez blood in her” (11).   She has been to school for two years prior to the summer which begins the books.  She prefers to speak English even at home.

Theresa Márez – Antonio’s sister.  Most people assume she is younger than Deborah and older than Antonio.  This is probably because Ultima says that Antonio is the last child she pulled from Maria’s womb (13).  But Maria says Ultima attended the births of her sons (4) (not necessarily her daughters).  Theresa may actually be younger than Antonio—Deborah is teaching her English (11) (not the school), and Deborah rocks her to sleep when she’s scared of the owl (14).

Andrew Márez – After Eugene and León leave for Las Vegas or Santa Fe (both are mentioned), Andrew stays on at his parents’ house and works at the local grocer’s.  Though his mother thinks he has a girl in town, he secretly spends his money on prostitutes at Rosie’s.  Narciso goes to Rosie’s during the big snow storm to get him to go warn his family that Tenorio was making threats against Ultima, but Andrew refuses to take him seriously.

Eugene Márez – He suggests the brothers move to Las Vegas or Santa Fe.  After Narcisso dies, the two brothers return briefly after wrecking the car they bought then all three leave for Santa Fe shortly after.

León Márez – The eldest brother, he has nightmares after returning from the war.  Ultima talks with him and gives him medicine to help him stop having them.  The three boys helped their father build the house on the edge of the llano.

Narciso – A friend of Antonio’s father.  He’s known as the town drunk even though he has some sort of magically fertile garden (Cico takes Antonio there and tells him Narciso’s garden is so fertile because he plants by the light of the moon—as in some sensitivity and femininity mixed into his identity).  He’s the only one to speak up that someone should try to talk with Lupito when he goes nuts after coming home from the war (he kills the sheriff, Jacob’s father’s—Chávez—brother).  He speaks up for Ultima to Tenorio a few times.  After warning Andrew, Narciso tries to go to the house himself.  Tenorio waits for Narciso under the juniper tree and shoots him.

Samuel – Only a year or so older than Antonio, Samuel tells Antonio that Cico will show him the Golden Carp (though because Cico is gone for much of the summer, he has to wait).  Samuel mysteriously says the Vitamin Kid (who races everyone on the bridge) is his brother.  Antonio and Samuel often go see the golden carp and discuss what he means.

Florence – A catechism student along with Antonio.  Florence did not pass, however; he only came to be with his friends.  He does not believe in God because his parents are dead and his sisters prostitutes.  He is punished (must stand in shape of cross) but Antonio forgiven when they are late to catechism class.  Samuel and Antonio discuss how the Golden Carp would be a better god for Florence, and Samuel says he may be ready.  In the summer when Antonio and Samuel are on their way to see the carp, they discover that Florence has drown.

Tenorio Trementina – His daughters are witches who cursed Antonio’s uncle Lucas after he tried to call them out on their witchcraft.  Because Ultima used their curse to curse those who cast it, the women get sick and die one by one.  After the first dies, Tenorio comes to Antonio’s house with a mob and threatens Ultima (After she passes under a cross—or does she break the cross first?—they are convinced she’s not a bruja/witch).  He fights with Narciso a couple times then kills him.  He gets away with it because the police rule his death as self-inflicted even though Antonio witnesses the murder and hears Narciso’s last confession.

Uncle Pedro – The brother of Antonio’s mother who feels terrible after not standing up for Ultima after she had saved his brother Lucas’s life.  He drives to Antonio’s house when Antonio has run the ten miles to warn Ultima about Tenorino’s plans to kill the owl (Ultima’s spirit).  When Tenorino points the gun at Antonio, Pedro shoots him.

Ultima – She comes to stay with Antonio’s family at the beginning of the book.  An owl accompanies her whether she’s at their house or in El Puerto healing Lucas.  She is a good woman, but there is some ambiguity about whether or not she’s really a witch.  After healing Lucas, she reverses the curse, and uses little clay figurines to represent Tenorio’s daughters to curse them.

Key moments in text in chronological order:

  • He follows his father to the bridge one night and witnesses the death of Lupito.  He thinks he hears Lupito say, “Bless Me,” then Antonio prays the Act of Contrition for him (the last prayer Catholics are to say before death) while he runs home.
  • Tony blesses his brothers in a dream
  • Antonio’s uncle Lucas is cursed by 3 witches.  Antonio goes with Ultima (driven by his uncle Pedro) to lift the curse because “he is a Juan” (whatever that means).
  • Cico takes Antonio to see the Golden Carp and tells the stories of the presence, Hidden Lakes, mermaid, the carps, the return of the golden carp to signify punishment on the town for its wickedness (they are not to eat the carp, who were once people).
  • Mob raised by Tenorio comes to kill Ultima.  Antonio’s family is warned by Narciso, who along with his father reason with the mob.  Ultima passes their test of passing under a cross (though it had broken (141)).
  • Antonio realizes he had lost his innocence when he sees his brother Andrew in the whore house.
  • Narciso is shot.  He hears Narciso’s last confession. prays the Act of Contrition for him, blesses him, and holds him as he dies under the juniper tree.
  • He’s very sick for a while.  His brothers return temporarily, then all three leave.  He returns to school and begins catechism, very aware that he seeks knowledge.
  • Antonio and Florence help Horse down the aisle when he’s sick while praying the stations of the cross.
  • While waiting for their first confession, the children make Antonio pretend to be the priest taking confessions.  After Horse and Bones make a game of who’s sin is the worse (best), the group forces Florence to confess his atheism.  When Antonio absolves him, the kids strip and beat Antonio.
  • Antonio takes his first communion and feels nothing though he continues to diligently pursue knowledge from God.
  • He beats the Vitamin Kid across the bridge for the first time only because the Kid was walking with a girl.
  • Ultima agrees to lift a curse on the house of a friend of Gabriel’s.  Telléz’s house is cursed because the Indian souls have been cursed (most likely by Tenorio’s daughters).  The procedure amounts to an Indian Burial.  Antonio and his father burn the items that look like bodies.
  • Samuel and Antonio ask if it’s necessary to choose gods.  They are on their way to go see the Golden carp after deciding that Antonio is probably ready to meet him too when they come across a bunch of their friends and a place where kids aren’t supposed to swim.  It turns out Florence has drowned.
  • Antonio realizes he can be both Luna and Márez just as the wind and earth work together.  While talking to his father, he realizes he can form a new religion out of Catholicism and mysticism.
  • Antonio spends the summer with his mother’s family learning how to work in the fields.
  • After Tenorino’s second daughter dies, he makes all kinds of threats, and Antonio’s uncle Juan brings news of the threats to Uncle Pedro and Antonio.  They are to go to Ultima and warn of the threats, but on Antonio’s way in from the fields, he is almost run down by Tenorino and his horse, and Tenorino says he will kill the owl, Ultima’s spirit.
  • Antonio hides from Tenorino then runs the ten miles to his parents’ house.  Just when he is almost there, Uncle Pedro drives by in the truck.  Tenorino shoots the owl, Antonio yells, then when Tenorino points his gun at Antonio’s head, Pedro shoots Tenorino.
  • Ultima immediately goes to bed, and is sick and dying.  Antonio takes the dead owl to her.  She blesses him, he goes out to bury the owl under the juniper tree.  She dies and is given a proper Christian burial (unlike Tenorino’s daughters).


  • The sisters are not only marginalized, but they are consistently forgotten in the text.  Seems like an extreme case of female characters being marginalized (except Ultima and Antonio’s mother) in combination with shoddy writing.  The shoddy writing is also indicated when one of the characters keeps talking about lawsuits against teachers (not likely for a child in the 1940s when in other places in the text children are being beaten at school).
  • Men are said to be like wild animals.  “Men walk the world as animals” (32).  “It’s a sin for a boy to grow to be a man” (33).  Some characters are referred to as wild animals: Lupito when he’s gone crazy, his brothers, sometimes children when they’re acting out (Horse and Bones are two of Antonio’s rowdy friends).  To be a priest is definitely feminized (“to be his mother’s priest of his father’s son” 45).  God is a man, and is unforgiving, but the Virgin is a woman and forgives all.  “Ultima in wisdom, mother in dream, father in rebellion” (59).
  • Antonio is surprised to learn that the Golden Carp is a god, and he feels very conflicted because he assumed there was only one god.  He had been aware of something called “the presence” watching him.  Cico tells him it’s not good or bad—he also discusses the Hidden Lakes and the mermaid.

What Some Critics are Saying:

  • Critics see it as a case study for Chicano narratives of family life, or a book on New Mexican local color, or as a classic bildungsroman.  How it fits into Chicano literature.
  • Bilingualism giving characters agency.  Bilingualism being a signal for biculturalism as in Woman Warrior.
  • The novel transcends the seemingly contradictory categories of the mythic/magical versus the social relevancy of Chicano lit, awareness of historical forces from colonization by Hispanic farmers and ranchers to the coming of Anglos and WWII
  • Criticism over the denial of indigenous peoples in the book, i.e. Jasón’s Indian.  Antonio’s search for social identity is not based on ethnicity in the vein of the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 70s.
  • Antonio’s dual inheritance of familial, religious, influences signifies the mestizaje a la Anzaldúa or hybridity.
  • Critiques the novel for not allowing his readers to question or understand his narrative as in Saldívar’s understanding that the Chicano narrative should use open forms to produce creative structures of knowledge.  How the conflicts of acculturation affect the Chicanas in the novel in ways that do not affect Chicanos.

Exam List: Contemporary Literature of the Americas (In English)

November 13, 2009


Bless Me Ultima (1972) – Rudolfo Anaya (US, Mexico)

Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1978) – Maxine Hong Kingston (Chinese US, China)

Obasan (1981) – Joy Kogawa (Japanese Canadian)

Annie John (1985) – Jamaica Kincaid (US, Antigua)

Beloved (1987) – Toni Morrison (US, black)

China Boy (1991) – Gus Lee (Chinese US, China)

Infinite Jest (1996) – David Foster Wallace (US, Canada, white)

Tropic of Orange (1997) – Karen Tei Yamashita (US, Mexico, Japanese American)

The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) – Junot Diaz (US, DR)

Short Stories

In a Free State (1973) – V.S. Naipaul (Trinidadian)

A Piece of Mine (1984) – J. California Cooper (US, black)

Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991) – Sandra Cisneros (US, Latina)

Out on Main Street and Other Stories (1993) – Shani Mootoo (South Asian Canadian)

Interpreter of Maladies (1999)– Jhumpa Lahiri (US Indian)

Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999) – Annie Proulx (white US)

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fight in Heaven (1993) – Sherman Alexie (Native American, US)


For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide (1976) – Ntozake Shange (US black)

Remembrance (1977) – Derek Walcott (St. Lucia, Caribbean, US)

Bellywoman Bangarang (1978) – Sistren Theatre Collective (Jamaica)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1985) – August Wilson (US, black)

The Rez Sisters (1986) – Tomson Highway (Canada, Cree)

Dog Lady (1988) – Milcha Sanchez-Scott (US, Latin America)

Angels in America (1990) – Tony Kushner (US, white)

Heroes and Saints (1992) – Cherríe Moraga (US, Chicano/a)


Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems (1986) – Adrienne Rich (US, white)

Martin and Meditations on the South Valley (1987) – Jimmy Santiago Baca (US, Mexico, Apache)

Omeros (1990) – Dereck Walcott (US, St. Lucia)

Hoops (2006) – Major Jackson (US black)

Beneath My Heart (1990) – Janice Gould (Native American US)

Selections from Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993) – Yusef Komunyakaa (US, black)

Exam Field List: Postcolonial Literature (In English)

November 13, 2009


Things Fall Apart (1958)  – Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) – Jean Rhys (Antigua, Jamaica, UK)

A Grain of Wheat (1967) – Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya)

The Joys of Motherhood (1979) – Buchi Emecheta (Nigeria)

Midnight’s Children (1980) – Salman Rushdie (India, Pakistan)

Clear Light of Day (1980)– Anita Desai (India)

July’s People (1981) – Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)

Foe (1986) – JM Coetzee (South Africa)

No Telephone to Heaven (1987) – Michelle Cliff (Jamaica)

Cracking India (1991) – Bapsi Sidhwa (India, Pakistan)

Paradise (1994) – Abdulrazak Gurnah (Zanzibar)

The God of Small Things (1997) – Arundhati Roy (India, UK)

Short Stories

Selections from Colonial and Postcolonial Fiction: An Anthology (1999) edited by Robert L. Ross

  • “A Matter of Taste” (1967) by Alex La Guma (South Africa)
  • “The Gold Watch” (1958) by Mulk Raj Anand (India)
  • “Do You Love Me?” (1979) by Peter Carey (Australia)
  • “The Perfume Sea” (1970) by Margaret Laurence (Canada, West Africa)
  • “A Horse and Two Goats” (1970) by RK Narayan (India)
  • “The Hills” (1987) by Patricia Grace (New Zealand)

Selections from The Arnold Anthology of Post-Colonial Literatures in English (1996) edited by John Thieme

  • “Incidents at the Shrine” (1987) by Ben Okri (Nigeria)
  • “The Whale” (1970) and “This Life is Weary” (1989) by Witi Ihimaera (New Zealand)
  • “A Resurrection” (1974) and “Towards a New Oceana” (1976) by Albert Wendt (Samoa, South Pacific)
  • “Five Fingers” (1974) by Lee Kok Liang (Malaysia)


Death and the King’s Horseman (1979) – Wole Soyinka (Nigerian)

Anowa (1970) – Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana)

Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967) – Derek Walcott (Caribbean)

No Sugar (1985) – Jack Davis (Australia)

You Strike the Woman, You Strike the Rock (1986) – Phyllis Klotz et. al. (South Africa)

Tell It To Women: An Epic Drama (1995) – Tess Onwueme (Nigeria)


Selections from The Heinemann book of Caribbean Poetry (1997)

Selections from The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry Fifth Edition (2007)

Selections from The Collected Poems of AK Ramanujan (1976) – AK Ramanujan (India)

The Humble Administrator’s Garden (1985) – Vikram Seth (India)

Theory and Criticism

Selections from The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (1995) edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin

  • “Can the Subaltern Speak” by Gayayti Chakravorty Spivak
  • “Signs Taken for Wonders” by Homi K. Bhabha
  • “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse” by Benita Parry
  • “The Scramble for Post-colonialism” by Stephen Slemon
  • “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern” by Kwame Anthony Appiah
  • “Postmodernism or Post-colonialism Today” by Simon During

Home and Harem : Nation, Gender, Empire, and the Cultures of Travel (1996) by Inderpal Grewal

Beginning Postcolonialism (2000) by John McLeod

The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English (2001) by Jahan Ramazani