MINDS, SOULS, AS WELL AS HEARTS : Employment of Ambiguity in Narrating the Heterogeneity of Marginalized Subjecthood

In Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No-Name Woman,” the first story of her widely taught novel The Woman Warrior, we must rely on Kingston’s narration to piece together No-Name Woman’s story, a “secret … you must not tell anyone,” but everyone, including Kingston, understands the narrative differently (1). Now, in America, the aunt continues to “haunt” her and her family. Kingston returns to No-Name Woman’s story, dedicating “pages” to her (16). Throughout her narration, Kingston is constantly trying to piece threads together. Anything that cannot be answered, Kingston fills in with a possibility, the ghost of an answer. 

In “No Name Woman,” Kingston applies language of possibility in her narrative that emphasizes not certainty, but the limits of her narration—that is, an inevitable lingering of erasure. Despite devoting “pages” to No-Name Woman, the ghost never leaves the story (16). I argue that Kingston uses intentional ambiguity as a narrative technique to assert the subjectivity of No-Name Woman by emphasizing that her narration—nor anyone else’s—is inadequate to fully understand the complexity of a person. Kingston’s effort to establish the interiority of No-Name Woman moves her beyond the product of simple imagination, refusing any totalizing attempts to interpret No-Name Woman, and thus asserts that Chinese-American femininity cannot be understood without acknowledging the mobile heterogeneity of individual female consciousness. 

Kingston begins by transcribing her mother’s version of the story, the most concrete access she has to this past. When Kingston’s mother notices her aunt’s protruding belly, she initially denies the possibility of her pregnancy, holding that it “could not have been” (1). By prefacing the concrete act of “having” with a modal verb, the emphasis is on the tentative “could” that fixates the rest of the sentence on a spectrum of interpretative possibility. What is expressed after “could” becomes indefinite, leaving us to trust the narrator. Then the story confirms what her mom has just deemed impossible a moment earlier. No-Name Woman gave birth “long after it was possible” (1). Although the story is submerged in the past tense, Kingston chooses to supply the complete train of thought, including her mother’s initial misreading. Her mother is Kingston’s only source of direct access to the story of No-Name Woman and yet Kingston quickly destabilizes the credibility of this first-hand source, pushing readers further away from certainty and into question. She crucially reminds us that her mother, in fearing the wrath of the village, has given her a judgment of No-Name Woman that precludes us from an impartial retelling. The first error in the story comes quickly, a result of her mother’s refusal to challenge the possibility of what she does not know. Kingston uses her mother’s assumption to warn us on the consequences of “not thinking” by choosing silence (1). 

Kingston scrapes together everything she knows to make sense of this story. The doubt of only being able to outline the bones of her aunt’s story stretches a ghost-like feeling across the pages,. Neither Kingston nor we ever find out the identity of her aunt’s secret lover, and Kingston’s speculation hardly narrows it down. She contemplates that her aunt “had to have dealings with him other than sex” (6). It’s possible that he “may have been somebody in her own household” (11). Have, defined as “to be in possession of,” takes on different tones (OED). When writing that her aunt “had to have dealings,” have becomes associated with transaction. There is a neutrality in the term that associates both the sex and multiple “dealings” between her aunt and him; dealing to possibly mean division, intercourse (friendly or business), connection, and trading (OED). Kingston opens up a window for a woman who is not a “sinner” or “victim” but also a scenario of chosen transaction where agency was mutual. While acknowledging the endangerment from the gaze of the village, Kingston wrestles between her confusion, inserting a possible bud of freedom. This assumption is careful. It sounds definitive, an assertive “had to” emphasized with “have,” compounding both the past and present tense of have to create a situation where a double positive actually creates a negative tone of exaggerated certainty that in fact, emphasizes a doubt that then revisits itself with the specter of unpinnable violence. 

In writing that he “may have been somebody,” the possession quality of have finds itself lacking in any definitive quality. Multiple dimensions of ambiguity linger. For one, the individual becomes abstracted to “somebody,” suggesting proximity but never establishing it. The entire suggestion is also modified with a possibility verb, rendering its own premise vague. By not offering a concrete geography, our doubt cannot settle in any one place. The feeling of doubt becomes ghostlike. Anywhere—therefore everywhere—becomes a possible site of violence. This is in juxtaposition with the specificity of the suggestion placed later, from “her own household” (1). That a close kin of her aunt’s “own” family unit may have been the perpetrator brings danger close, sprinkling doubt onto the family as a source of reliable chronicler of No-Name Woman. Kingston seems to reject the notion that kinship means automatic relatability or reliability, removing kinship with the assumed bond over a shared truth. Her unwillingness to trust any singular source for truth necessitates uncertainty as the only way for the story to continue. By drawing on the multiple positions of “have,” Kingston evokes a rhetorical resistance to certainty that establishes No-Name Woman as someone who cannot be easily accessed. Approximation is the furthest we can go. 

Along with the multiple possible truths she has posited to us, Kingston continues her story. It is as if her speculations—meshed with the partial truth of her mother’s storytelling—are coming true as she speaks. Kingston moves beyond the rote act of telling to sympathizing with No-Name Woman as she continues to postulate that “she might have separated the rapes from the rest of living” (7). While taking the first step to deny the possibility that her aunt was “a wild woman … free with sex,” she pursues the difficult truth that her aunt may have been a victim of rape over which she had no agency (8). After Kingston imagines the possibility of “transaction,” she consolidates her story by understanding her aunt as a recipient of continued, all-consuming violence, where the neutrality of the former “transaction” is blunted by any emotions. Kingston does not see any way for her aunt to escape the tyrannical nature of her sexual agency taken by the men who are absent, and the collateral damage that is the “rest of living.” While both postulations, “dealings” and “separation,” evoke a sterile tone, Kingston comes to two opposing conclusions. In doing so, the possibility of sexual agency is never too far from the possibility of sexual coercion. 

As Kingston leads us through possible sites of violence, she also brings them together to suggest that in fact, their shared work obscures the voice of No-Name Woman. Yet, Kingston refuses to simply understand her aunt as a victim. Kingston contradicts her own certainty that this was just an incident of rape between a domineering man and submissive woman. Instead the tale is complicated by drawing out the multiple spaces that her aunt occupies in the story: a woman of taboos, victim of sexual violence, free-willed lover. Kingston does characterize, with certainty, her aunt as silenced and fearful, as a reaction to the consequences of angering the village, but rattles that singularity of submission by depicting the image of a woman drawn to a frowned-upon pleasure for romance. 

Kingston furthers the image of a romance-yearning, dreamy daughter who must “have been unusually beloved” (11). While destabilizing the credibility of the various kins surrounding the story, she also rejects vilifying the family unit. She generously imagines her aunt as a daughter who is loved by a paternal figure, someone who truly treated her as kin and family. Although Kingston is also quick to point out the “unusual” nature of that relationship between daughters and fathers, she offers greater credibility to the alternative imagination of a woman who, outside of scenarios of sexual coercion, possessed an interiority that dreamed of her own romance. Kingston further imagines that there “must have been a marvelous freeing” where her aunt’s manual labor, for sustenance, for recreational labor, and for personal refinement, is offered the possibility of personal, freeing reprieve (10). While the “must have” again evokes a double positive that gives it away as a product of the imaginative, Kingston uses optimistic repetition, pairing “must have” with “marvelous freeing,” creating a string of positive associations marked in the past tense, as the narrator sincerely hoping that such a moment, albeit temporary, was possible. Here, the door opens to personal freedom beyond the sexual sphere. Her body is not attached to anyone, but simply imagined here as possessing the potential to labor and enjoying a moment of self-rule. 

The secret—the story of No-Name Woman—is not topographically limited, carrying itself across the Pacific. Kingston tells us that her family, “having settled amongst immigrants…needed to clean their name” (16). Even as they settle in a new country, there is a lingering fear for the family’s chastity. Fear drives caution as Kingston, a woman who has never known the village of her story or the China her parents call home, is asked to participate in this silence, to which she admits, “I have” (16). Here, have is no longer cushioned with a modal verb, but the only verb in the sentence, indicating no other possibility. She admits, with a concrete tone, that her inability to finish the story is another byproduct of her own silence. As the story draws to its close, we are reminded of Kingston’s own nonlinear, changing relationship with the kinship of the story, drawing out the constant feeling of not knowing. By establishing No-Name Woman’s ability to guard a secret, she is given a measure of agency, an interiority that acknowledges her humanhood. 

Acknowledging the incompleteness of the story legitimizes the narrative in its full form. She does not assume herself, an Asian-American woman narrating the story of a “third-world subaltern who cannot represent herself and has to be represented,” knows any more than the subject she is profiling (Shu, 208).1 Kingston leaves readers with her confusion, her fumble to tell a story of which she had “not asked for details” (16). The project of transpacific storytelling that Kingston takes on never gets closure. Truth and fiction mix, memory retrieval is slippery. This underlying mobility becomes a way to fuel the No-Name story across generations. 

The Woman Warrior cannot be boxed into one genre; it has been honored as a memoir, the genre etched onto its title, but the book also acknowledges itself to be a “blend of autobiography and mythology,” a striving to piece together a girlhood that isn’t bookmarked by certainty, but continuous imagination, illustrating a dynamic movement of narratives across time and space. Kingston, is fully aware of, and repeatedly applies, her verbs of possibility, wielding its rhetorical range in an incomplete narrative. Kingston takes on the story of the No-Name woman with curiosity, filling in the unknown with avenues of possibilities. By not offering simple completion, Kingston simultaneously highlights the generative capacity of doubt and curiosity to open new avenues of interpretation, fusing her own story with the voices of her mother’s storytelling, which she brings in as a springboard, and acknowledges the multitude of narratives that surround No-Name Woman, using her information-historical access as a way to critically understand rather than undermine the “Chinese” past. As Kingston acknowledges a shared complacency in this silencing tradition, undermining her own authority as a narrator, she presents another possibility beyond silence. To Kingston, the story of a single—tabooed—woman is important subject matter. Her family’s stories about China is revisited by Kingston, their Chinese-American daughter who traces the story of No-Name Woman with a critical wonder that leaves space for us to doubt the narrative’s singular truth, question those who have the voice in crafting the narration of the No-Name Woman—including Kingston—and to imagine what lies outside the page

1. Shu, Yuan. “Cultural Politics and Chinese-American Female Subjectivity: Rethinking Kingston’s ‘Woman Warrior.’” MELUS, vol. 26, no. 2, 2001, pp. 199–223. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3185525. Accessed 10 Nov. 2023.

Author Bio

Helen Chen (she/they) is a current junior double majoring in English and Creative Writing. Her main interests lie in postcolonial/anticolonial feminist thought, Asian-American literature, contemporary fiction and poetics. She is curious about her grandma’s scarf.