This is depicted in the references to the effects of patriarchy, racism and in some of the crueller aspects of the Chinese traditions that the narrator has been made privy to through her parents’ stories. The first chapter, for example, relates the until now unpublicized story of the narrator’s aunt who killed herself and her baby after the local villagers raided the family home to punish her for her adultery.
Oppression is seen to occur in a hierarchy where the white English-speaking male is privileged and those who do not belong in this category are seen to be marginalized the further down one goes in the descending structures of power.
As a Chinese-American woman, the narrator is taught to realize that she may potentially be treated as a slave and a second-class citizen in the wider society. Her mother also teaches her to challenge this, though, in the stories she tells of warrior women. This narrative re-lives these stories and so challenges the oppression that has become naturalized in both Chinese and American cultures.
The fear of deportation and of revealing too much to the dominant group permeates this work. It is made apparent when the narrator recalls that she never referred to her father as a gambler at school as this would have been seen as being detrimental to his and the family’s safety. It was regarded as a secret best kept from the authorities.
Secrets are also held on to from the time the family lived in China, most notably the truth as to why the narrator’s aunt committed suicide by throwing herself in the well. The narrator tries to imagine the true story behind her aunt’s past, as her mother has said she must never mention her again, and comes up with a number of conflicting and overlapping versions. Such secrets from the past are seen as both a way of remembering past hurt, as they are being held on to, but also are a form of punishment as, according to the narrator, her aunt continues to be punished by the silence surrounding her narrative.
The silence of the narrator as a young schoolgirl is related to the difficulties of the use of the second language of English. More complexly, it is seen to also be tied to her own understanding of what it is to be ‘American feminine’ rather than Chinese, and to how she attempts to be quiet in order to assimilate her self into the dominant culture. By doing this, she loses her voice and, therefore, a part of her identity.
Stories are referred to here as a way of connecting to the past. They are also a means of coming to terms with the present and for remembering and learning. This book continues this tradition of the narrator’s and author’s ancestors and also uses the narrative to question what has gone before. In this way, Kingston re-vitalizes the idea of ‘talk-story’ to unpick the workings of patriarchy and to examine the strength of women, of warrior women, in the past and present. This particular story places itself alongside these older tales and so reminds the readers that there is nothing natural or right about the subjugation of women or of non-white people.