Autobiography, by far the more durable tradition, has never been honored for art the way fiction has, presumably because it lacks the requisite property of “invention.” But it might be argued that to impose significant form on the chaotic materials of life lived, instead of fashioning them from the more restricted, more determined, more orthodox contents of the imagination, or from the more restrictive conventions of fictional genres, requires a superior faculty of invention, or at least the grace and clear-headedness of an inventor. The artist writing his memoir is in double jeopardy; first he must lead the risky life worth reading, must come through it and face in retrospect the awful disparity between what it meant and what he had intended. Then he must make a fiction of it, a work that has many or most of the formal properties of fiction.
Autobiography, that is, requires some strategy of self-dramatization. It normally contains, as in fiction, a crisis and denouement, and it appears, very generally, that the form of this crisis in autobiography by men has tended to be different from that of women, and that fully fictionalized dramatizations tend to be different still. Men, for instance in the great nineteenth-century autobiographies (Mill, Carlyle, Newman, and countless others), recount disillusion and depression, followed by recovery and action. In fiction this is, curiously, often dramatized as crime, as in much of Dickens.
In writing, as in mourning, it sometimes appears that women have reserved or been assigned the duty of expressing human resentment, leaving men to fashion the consolations. Perhaps this is division of labor, rather than native querulousness; but it has meant that wisdom and “adjustment” are often qualities of the masculine tone, and women since Margery Kempe have tended to write in tones of protest and madness. The crisis is of silence or withdrawal, and is dramatized as “being silenced.”
There are exceptions, of course, but three recent memoirs, by N. Scott Momaday, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Carobeth Laird, reflect these sexual distinctions and also suggest that the distinction between what is autobiographically true and fiction has become somewhat arbitrary; fiction and memoir have come to resemble each other more and more. Novelists make real historical figures speak to fictional characters. Memorialists dramatize the thoughts and speeches of their forefathers, as in a novel about them. The access of the autobiographer to dramatic techniques has allowed him to handle root meanings, the mysterious crises of spirit, even the intangibles of heritage more essentially, that is more truly, than he once could.
Ancestors in autobiographies seem really to belong there, unlike the fashionable gramps and grannies whose rather boring recurrence in contemporary fiction probably arises from the same nostalgic impulse. How much more immediate the sometimes baleful influence of real ancestors than the academic caperings of those prehistorical ancestors whose tribal arrangements and religious rituals we are asked so often lately to believe have determined our “reading readiness,” our attitudes toward violence, to motherhood, and so on.
Momaday is an American Indian man, and Kingston a Chinese-American woman. Both explore the way in which their ethnic traditions have made them as they are. The differences in tone between the two memoirs, the one nostalgic and approving, the other vital and angry, reflect, no doubt, cultural differences, but also perhaps sexual differences.
Momaday’s Indian father was born in a tepee, and wanted to become a painter. His part-Indian mother, the daughter of a Kentucky sheriff, wanted to write. Both parents became teachers. Momaday tries to imagine the things they saw and felt. He can imagine what old Pohdlohk, his grandfather, must have seen as he visited the woman Keahdinekeah, and he can remember Keahdinekeah’s memories. Through myth, imagination, affinity, and empathy come ancestral qualities—a love of the plains, of Indian ways, of animals and old stories—that Momaday understands as part of himself. He has wonderful photographs of old wizened Indians sitting blanket-wrapped on chairs on the prairie, and of his parents—marvelously beautiful people who look rather like Theda Bara and Rudolph Valentino—somewhat self-consciously dressed in feathered headdresses for their wedding picture.
Except for his Indian background, Momaday’s upbringing seems to have been a lot like that of other American kids, especially ones brought up in that period (he was born in 1934) in that region. His parents, educated middle-class people, made sure to send him off to a good prep school so he could go to a good college. Now he is a professor of English at Stanford. In spite of the recent vogue for emphasizing ethnic differences instead of identifying what is central or American and shared by many groups, from the tepee to Stanford is really the good old American story.
Momaday does not appear to feel, or does not discuss, any conflict of the Kiowa and the white traditions; he is their product, an artist, heir of the experiences of his ancestors and conscious of the benignity of their influence. As a child he was taken to see his great grandmother Keahdinekeah: “Long afterwards I think: That was a wonderful and beautiful thing that happened in my life. There, on that warm, distant afternoon: an old woman and a child, holding hands across the generations. There is great good in such a remembrance; I cannot imagine that it might have been lost upon me.” If he will discover disillusion and crisis, it lies beyond this book, which ends when he is about fourteen, just beginning his journey.
How manly is this reverent sense of the past bequeathing to the present the special intention that the present shall include oneself. But what of malevolent ancestors who harry the living and blight the life of the young American with their old ways of terror? Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir of a Chinese-American girlhood presents another side, perhaps the female side, of growing up in a tradition, perhaps any tradition. Women perform for any society the service of maladjustment that Kingston here brilliantly performs for the society of Chinese immigrants in California. She, like Momaday (and unlike most Chinese-Americans), fulfills an American pattern by moving away from an ethnic tradition the distance required to memorialize and cherish it; but she is unlike Momaday because her ancestors have hurt and haunted her.
The little girl grows up in Stockton’s Chinatown surrounded by the ghostly similar Americans and other foreigners, and by the many ghosts her family has brought with them from China. There is the ghost of an aunt who drowned herself in a well after the people of her village savaged the house, protesting her illegitimate pregnancy. Afterward the family killed her name, so little Maxine, who hears the story from her mother Brave Orchid, does not know the name of that ghost. Then there is the sitting ghost who sat on Brave Orchid’s stomach all one night; and the ghosts of all the murdered women and little female babies left out to die back in China.
In Maxine’s imagination she is herself a ghost, a swordswoman, a female avenger of these cruel murders. She has been given hints of female power, and also explicit messages of female powerlessness, from her mother, who in China had been a doctor and now toiled in the family laundry where they wore masks and burned candles to avoid “the germs that fumed out of the ghosts’ clothes.” “She said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the story of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman.”
The warrior woman of Maxine’s imagination avenges with her sword the injustices that a real little California girl can only throw tantrums about. When other Chinese said, “Feeding girls is feeding cowbirds,” she would scream and cry.
“What’s the matter with her?”
“I don’t know. Bad, I guess. You know how girls are. ‘There’s no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls.’ ” In China, she has heard, girls were often sold by their families. The Chinese word for the female “I” is “slave.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up, little girl?” “A lumberjack in Oregon”—that is, American and a man. She was glad to be a bad little girl: “Isn’t a bad girl almost a boy?”
I read in an anthropology book that Chinese say, “Girls are necessary too”; I have never heard the Chinese I know make this concession. Perhaps it was a saying in another village. I refuse to shy my way anymore through our Chinatown, which tasks me with the old sayings and the stories.
Messages which for Western girls have been confusingly obscured by the Victorian pretense of woman worship are in the Chinese tradition elevated to epigram: “When fishing for treasures in the flood, be careful not to pull in girls.”
Like many other women, Kingston does not wish to reject female nature so much as the female condition, and at that she would reserve the female biological destiny: “marriage and childbirth strengthen the swordswoman, who is not a maid like Joan of Arc.” But she is not without a sense of its difficulty:
Do the women’s work; then do more work, which will become ours too. No husband of mine will say, “I could have been a drummer, but I had to think about the wife and kids. You know how it is.” Nobody supports me; …I am not loved enough to be supported. That I am not a burden has to compensate for the sad envy when I look at women loved enough to be supported. Even now China wraps double binds around my feet.
But of course these are the bindings on every woman’s feet. In the vivid particularity of her experience, and with the resources of a considerable art, Kingston reaches to the universal qualities of female condition and female anger that the bland generalities of social science and the merely factual history cannot describe.
Women may reject the culture that rejects them, but such brave and rare disassociations are not without serious cost. Kingston is dealing here with the fears and rebellions that recur in much women’s writing, often displaced in other ways, and dramatized or actually experienced as suicide, catatonia, hysteria, anorexia—maladies common to many female protagonists, both fictional and alive, from Brontë heroines to Sylvia Plath. Kingston recounts such a gesture of protest in her own life, a period of refusal to play culture’s game.
In a strange scene, she tortures another little girl in the bathroom after school, a passive little Chinese girl who never speaks. Maxine pulls her hair, twists her nose and ears, pinches her cheeks, derides, berates her. The other child weeps but will not speak even so, goading Maxine to greater desperation and fear:
You don’t see I’m trying to help you out, do you? Do you want to be like this, dumb (do you know what dumb means?), your whole life? Don’t you ever want to be a cheerleader? Or a pompon girl? What are you going to do for a living? Yeah, you’re going to have to work because you can’t be a housewife. Somebody has to marry you before you can be a housewife. And you, you are a plant. Do you know that? That’s all you are if you don’t talk….
But the other child never speaks, and in her silence is triumphant. This scene has many fictional analogues, for instance Susan Yankowitz’s recent novel Silent Witness, where the woman protagonist is a mute, accused of a crime, and is raped by the other women in prison. In life, the protests she cannot make the other girl utter are Maxine’s own, and consume her; she must spend “the next eighteen months sick in bed with a mysterious illness. There was no pain and no symptoms, though the middle line on my left palm broke in two.” She herself recognizes the tradition of this illness, its relation to women in general: “I lived like the Victorian recluses I read about.” One thinks of Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights, consuming herself in her willful decline until death. But Maxine thinks her malady is particularly Chinese, too. In all the Chinese households she knows, women fall into implacable protesting silences; every family has its “crazy woman,” and she is afraid she is hers.
The Chinese-Americans are a notably unassimilated culture. It is not unusual in San Francisco to find fourth- or fifth-generation American-born Chinese who speak no English. Generations have not eased their mistrust of American culture, and they will not tell Americans certain things about theirs. Once Maxine’s teachers, concerned because her school paintings are entirely covered in black paint, call her parents in, but there can be no communication, only in part because the parents speak no English. The parents would say nothing anyway, because in China, “the parents and teachers of criminals were executed.” All the Chinese children in the class laugh at one of their number who does not know his father’s name, pretending to think, as the teacher did, that he was stupid, but knowing, really, that a Chinese child does not know his father’s name. They pitilessly abandon anyone who attracts the special attention of the ghosts. Their own parents have given them fake names to say.
There is much Americans would not know. There, in Stockton in the 1940s, the mother was cooking them raccoons, snakes, garden snails, turtles, hawks, city pigeons, wild ducks and geese, catfish, a skunk, flowers from the garden, weeds. Chinese people began coming to California before the gold rush, but still the names, the food, the shape of the parapets, defying the earthquake rules, remain Chinese.
But since the revolution in China, many of these people are being forced to relinquish a dream of someday returning there. Torn between the reality of the known America and the mysteries of the new China, many make their peace with the idea of staying. To Kingston this was welcome because it would reduce the likelihood of being sold.
While the adults wept over the letters about the neighbors gone berserk turning Communist…I was secretly glad. As long as the aunts kept disappearing and the uncles dying after unspeakable tortures, my parents would prolong their Gold Mountain [California] stay. We could start spending our fare money on a car and chairs, a stereo.
They do. With the loss of the old, the new becomes more possible. Her generation turns with less reluctance toward America, let the ancestors scold as they were used to do. Third Grand-Uncle is in the habit of denouncing all the girls in the family:
“Maggots! Where are my grandsons?… Eat, maggots…. Look at the maggots chew.”
“He does that at every meal,” the girls [his granddaughters] told us in English.
“Yeah,” we said. “Our old man hates us too. What assholes.”
There are no ghosts in Carobeth Laird’s memoirs, and no ancestors. She is self-created, and, writing when nearly eighty, has the tone of an old intelligent woman for whom the terrors and impressions of youth have congealed into meanings and facts. Her anger, like the price of a car or the color of a dress, is just another fact, all arrayed together like treasures on a tea tray, for the reader to select among. She does not urge on us the impression that she was a remarkable woman, but that is the one we select; in her day she flouted nearly every conceivable convention, first by having an illegitimate child, then by abandoning the ordinary role of wife for a brief career as a talented anthropologist, and finally by marrying an Indian. The fact of her anger follows from the sum of many matter-of-record details. We see that the early twentieth century was a very different time for women warriors.
Born in 1896, she met the now famous anthropologist John Peabody Harrington when she was nineteen and enrolled in his summer-school class in linguistics. He was already in the grip of his obsessive passion to record all that could be known about American Indians and their languages, an obsession that ultimately produced literally tons of data, most of it still stored in Washington DC warehouses and virtually unanalyzed. She was already the mother of an illegitimate child. He was attracted to her, perhaps because of her talent for linguistics; they were married and for several years lived a rough life in the field collecting data. They had one child, who was raised, together with the first one, by Mrs. Laird’s mother. Further pregnancies, which would have hindered her helpfulness to Harrington’s work, were prevented by the adoption of a “perversion” (undisclosed) which she found distressing. In time she fell in love with an Indian informant, George Laird, and, after divorcing Harrington, married him and lived with him on a small farm until his death in 1940. She bore Laird four children.
Mrs. Laird’s subject is, ostensibly her life with Harrington, with a view to shedding some light on his curious personality, in response to recent interest in him and his work. She is not of an age or an inclination to talk of “role conflicts” and “female frustrations”; yet the things she leaves unsaid are almost as interesting as the things Kingston says, and they afford a significant historical comparison. She, like Kingston, responded to the sexual and cultural tensions of which she was a victim—to the double bindings on her feet—with a silent breakdown.
Her life with Harrington had been by certain contemporary standards ideal; she was valued for her intellectual accomplishments, freed from ordinary domestic cares that she might pursue them, guarded from pregnancy yet a mother, and a mother without the constant responsibility of child care; and she had, for the era, considerable personal freedom and professional responsibility. But she was not happy.
Instead she yearned for the traditional perquisites of female life—“nice” things, a home, proper entertainments, pretty clothes. She yearned for legitimacy. In Kingston’s terms, that she was not a burden could not compensate her for the sad envy she felt when she thought of women loved enough to be supported. Probably, though she does not say so, her longing for a conventional female life was a reaction to the terrifyingly unprotected experience of being a teenage unwed mother, the shocking consequence of her first attempts at self-assertion. (She told Harrington she was a widow.) Harrington treated her like a man. But that was a condition a woman of her generation could not easily accept, until she had made her peace with what society had directed her to believe was woman’s destiny.
Now an old woman, she is alert but not self-aware. Her work, not her former, young self, interests her. Through her testimonials to the happiness of her years with Laird, it is up to us to catch a glimpse of the price she must have paid. Unlike Momaday, who in the masculine tradition receives his culture from his fathers with pride and gratitude, and Kingston, who must resist hers to triumph over it, Laird, who wishes to play culture’s game, becomes its victim. Married to George Laird, she is poor, they have to sell ten of their twenty acres for debt. Rapid pregnancies wear her out. A child is stillborn, her parents die. It is now, in these “happy” years, fulfilling her destiny, that she too falls silent, like the Chinese crazy women, like women in books. “I drifted further and further into a realm of dreams, then abruptly lost all but tenuous contact with everyday reality. The ‘nervous breakdown’ lasted five months. All the guilts and fears I had repressed since infancy came flooding into consciousness, assuming strange and terrible forms.”
She saw Harrington in later years, after Laird’s death. He had changed some, but “I had changed more drastically. I was over-weight, had lost several teeth, and child-bearing, physical toil, poverty, illness, anxiety, and the ultimate grief had left their mark.” Still later, when she was in her seventies, she was to take up again her Indian studies, write a book about the Chemehuevis Indians, write this memoir, publish papers in the Journal of California Anthropology, and is still at work. But most women, after such long silence, do not speak again.
February 3, 1977