Sun, May 16, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Two classics revisited for clarification

Maureen Sabine gives an insightful analysis of Maxine Hong Kingston's `The Woman Warrior' and `China Men'

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Maxine Hong Kong's Broken Book of Life
By Maureen Sabine
229 pages
University of Hawall Press

Maxine Hong Kingston is currently the living author most-widely taught in American universities. She rocketed to fame in 1976 with The Woman Warrior, a book now simultaneously prescribed by university departments and read for pleasure by ordinary readers -- quite some achievement.

Four years later Hong Kingston published another work, China Men, dealing with the lives of the males in her family. This had comparatively little success. Male problems didn't have the same sort of appeal that those of women had, apparently. So whereas there is today a massive bibliography of books and learned articles analyzing The Woman Warrior, its successor has received scant attention. This imbalance Hong Kong academic Maureen Sabine seeks to redress.

Her main strategy is to note that the two books were originally one vast manuscript. Either Hong Kingston or her publishers considered this too unwieldy, however, so the book was broken into two. This is why Sabine calls her book Maxine Hong Kingston's Broken Book of Life. The two books were originally one, and to understand either properly we should see them as two faces of the same coin. In practical terms this means giving China Men its due.

Is this maneuver in effect an affront to feminism? Of course Sabine doesn't think so. Not only is she a woman herself, but her first book, Feminine Engendered Faith (Macmillan, 1992), looked at the 17th-century English poets John Donne and Richard Crashaw from a female's perspective.

In addition, she is herself something of a woman warrior. She bases her analysis of Hong Kingston on her own brand of feminist, mytho-poetic Catholicism, sharply at odds with the varieties of Marxist-based radicalism at the moment dominant in the Western academy. Few other critics are mining Sabine's particular seam, but it could become a powerful viewpoint as the cycle of change moves away, as inevitably it will, from current preoccupations.

Sabine is not slow to point out that Hong Kingston's title China Men contains a veiled reference to the words "Chinaman" and "Chinamen," nowadays considered racist terms. It's important to keep a sense of historical perspective, however, and remember that the words weren't always insulting. As recently as 1939, the Irish poet W.B.Yeats used them in his poem Lapis Lazuli, and in an immensely complimentary context, with three carved Chinese figures emblematic of the very philosophic tranquillity and wisdom the whole poem sets out to praise.

As for other literary figures, Sabine brings in Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, A.S.Byatt, Andrew Marvell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Doris Lessing and more. She is, in other words, interested in literature, in contrast to the subversive zealots who are primarily interested in using it as target practice for their socio-political strategies.

This is not to say that Sabine isn't concerned with winkling out the psychoanalytic significancies that lurk below the surface of even the most serene imaginative works. Thus Sigmund Freud features prominently in this book -- slightly strangely as he is more often encountered as part of the reigning Marx-Freud-Derrida trinity.

The Oedipus Complex is central to Freud's view of human life, and incest is at the heart of the Oedipus story as told by Sophocles. For both Freud and Sophocles, the family is a squirming nest of terrible secrets, and Maureen Sabine honors Hong Kingston by adding her to this select company. Incest between father and daughter, Sabine argues, may be an unmentioned and unmentionable ingredient in Kingston's narrative. She adds it to that dark trinity of Chinese taboos -- suicide, menstruation, and the trauma of childbirth.

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