Considering: No Name Woman, Maxine Hong Kingston

The Considering series is a place to focus on one particularly amazing essay or short piece of non-fiction. If you’d like to contribute, get in touch!

I came across No Name Woman in my current favourite essay collection: The Best American Essays of the Century (edited by Joyce Carol Oates). I later learned the essay is the first section of Maxine Hong Kingston’s beloved 1976 memoir: The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Amongst Ghosts. 

It begins with an arresting first sentence. “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.”

From there, it’s the story of a missing aunt, one who is never mentioned, who shamed the family and was betrayed by them. An illegitimate pregnancy, a suicide. A broken heart. A family stitching itself together again with only silence for thread.

It’s written in sparse, mysterious prose, requiring a close read to figure out what might be fact and what might be imagined.

Kingston reveals how she spent years dwelling on the story her mother gave her. Imagining first an illicit love for her aunt, she then gave her a wild romance. And then, a realisation: maybe it was something awful. Or maybe her aunt just wanted sex.

But that’s not the whole story. Kingston is a Chinese-American woman, and in her hands, the tragedy of her father’s sister also becomes a story about identity in diaspora. It becomes a story about being Chinese and American, and about trying to work out what is an essentially Chinese experience… and what is just her family’s, her mother’s, her unique experience. She doesn’t know how to handle the story her mother has told her, of the no-name woman, and she asks, “Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?”

Like Kingston, I also grew in up two cultures, though mine were Indian and American. And for me, this essay gets something exactly right about the experience of growing up Western and being from a culture that thinks low of women. It’s a familiar wide-eyed horror of knowing you could have, so easily, had another life entirely. The no-name woman could have been your mother. Or you.

This essay is a beautiful, striking piece of non-fiction writing. It’s fascinating and visceral. Kingston faces the scary stories, the spite suicide and ill-meaning ghosts, in her past, reminding us that we, too, may have scary stories behind us.

No Name Woman