On Maxine Hong Kingston’s Silence

Jorge Ávalos

We write stories about our past so that we can define who we are. A definition of our identities begins by recognizing that we exist in history, that our stories make up that which we call history.

An autobiography takes us back into the past, but not a past disguised as history but exposed as memory. Memory brings into the writing of the autobiography a double perspective, for just as we bring into the present the baggage of the past, we take into the past the baggage of the present. Maxine Hong Kingston’s autobiographical essay, Silence, carries this double perspective with astonishing clarity. The Chinese immigrant girl Kingston once was is met at the crossroads of memory by the adult Chinese-American writer. From this encounter springs forth the woman who, had she lived in China, would have been an outlaw knot-maker, as in the legend Kingston uses to open the essay:

Long ago in China, knot-makers tied string into buttons and frogs, and rope into bell pulls. There was one knot so complicated that it blinded the knot-maker. Finally an emperor outlawed this cruel knot, and the nobles could not order it anymore.
The “cruel knot” of the legend is a powerful image. By telling us that she would have been an “outlaw knot-maker,” had she lived in China, Kingston is also telling us that what she is (as a writer, at the time of writing Silence) is equivalent to being an “outlaw knot-maker.” The essay recounts a time during her childhood when her silence was “thickest” (total), the time when she first became conscious of her speech. Kingston draws the relationships between language, culture and society in the making of her identity. Identity is the complicated knot made out of these relationships. To prevent “blindness,” Kingston never loses sight of her identity as a Chinese-American writer, as an author of books that seek to define her own self in relation to American society —as she does in The Woman Warrior, 1975, from which this essay is taken. While there are no “nobles” in American society, Kingston confronts through her writing a set of social expectations, a set of racial, gender and economic divides.

Kingston’s language is rhythmic and vivid, but the most startling aspect of her style is her complete disregard for a linear progression. Kingston identifies the specific time in her life when speech became the main tool of social interaction and, by removing the layers of memory, she takes us to the core of her search: the significance of language in the formation of her identity. Kingston freely explores and contrasts her experiences as a student during the three-year period between kindergarten and the second grade. For this reason, Silence is not structured chronologically but, rather, in thematic blocks. The first section is a complex introduction to the essay; the second and third sections deal, respectively, with her education in American and Chinese schools.

The opening paragraph, quoted above, is only loosely connected with a “maybe” to the story that follows, a graphic depiction of how Kingston’s mother cut her tongue in order to free it, to make it ready for speech. It is a story that fills the young Kingston with both terror and pride. The story suggests the breaking of a taboo: “a ready tongue is an evil”; but it also introduces myth as an answer to the riddles posed by immigration: “Things are different in this ghost country”. But the reality doesn’t match the story. The young Kingston’s frenum appears to be intact. Hungry for understanding, she questions her mother until her mother looses her patience and says, sharply: “Why don’t you quit blabbering and get to work?”. Her mother’s words come unexpectedly, and must have hurt Kingston profoundly because the pain is still present: she should have cut more, scraped away the rest of the frenum skin, because I have a terrible time talking. Or she should not have cut at all, tampering with my speech. That Kingston still has “a terrible time talking” comes as a revelation. Kingston traces the origin of her broken voice back to the time when she first had to speak English, but instead became silent.

At first, Kingston enjoyed the silence. As a child, in fact, as any child during the first year of school, Kingston was simply being herself, in herself. To be in society, a child must communicate, must speak. Through the interplay in society we arrive at our own sense of self. This is true for every child in every society. However, for an immigrant child this is complicated by the fact that identity is a construction made mostly through the mediation of language. Kingston is explicit on this point as she sums up her experience in an American school:

It was when I found out I had to talk that school became a misery, that the silence became a misery. I did not speak and felt bad each time that I did not speak. I read aloud in first grade, though, and heard the barest whisper with little squeaks come out of my throat. “Louder,” said the teacher, who scared the voice away again. The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl.
Kingston’s essay is packed with autobiographical details, cultural references and historical allusions. Kingston is very skillful in weaving together anecdotes and reflections in a seamless narrative that quickly shifts focus from the broader issues to the viewpoint of a little girl and back. In one characteristic passage, Kingston states plainly that reading was easier than speaking because she did not have to make up what to say. She then brings the narrative back into the classroom by simply mentioning the teacher. The heart of the passage contains a micro-essay on Chinese ideographs that illuminates the relationship between language and culture: The Chinese “I” has seven strokes, intricacies. How could the American “I,” assuredly wearing a hat like the Chinese, have only three strokes, the middle so straight? . The young Kingston’s difficulty in reconciling these differences gets her in trouble during reading sessions. At the end of the passage, Kingston is sitting with the noisy boys, identified as a bad student, as someone who resists learning.

The intricacies of the Chinese “I” parallel the concept of the “cruel knot.” In keen contrast with the American “I,” the Chinese identity is portrayed as intricate, as more substantial. So it is remarkable that Kingston’s mother would say that they, the Chinese immigrants, like the ghosts, have no memories. Kingston, the writer, the knot-maker, seeks to reconcile her two identities. She may have lost her ancestral memories, but she is no less Chinese for that reason, and she is no less American for being of Chinese ancestry. In a country of ghosts, immigration is a transgression. Language and culture are not the borders of society, but the arenas in which the conscience of a people are shaped. Even the Chinese school, where the children read together, not alone with one voice, can’t escape the transgressive nature of immigration. At one point, a new teacher calls for the first time on the second-born to [recite] first and the children are nearly overcome by fear.

Not all of the children who were silent at American school found voice at Chinese school, writes Kingston. Her own voice, she tells us was like a crippled animal running on broken legs. But she was loud, and she was glad she didn’t whisper. There was one little girl who whispered. Something must be lost for those who live between two worlds. A precious memory or the attachment of the tongue, perhaps. But then, something must be gained. Certainly, a distinctive voice. Scarred by experience, the sharpness of Kingston’s tongue can open a wound in the present.


Photograph of Maxine Hong Kingston by Christopher Felver.