“What We Have In Common Are The Words At Our Backs”

My Great Grandparents

My Great Grandparents

I wonder how my grandmothers took their tea.

I wonder what women influenced them to have strength.  I actually wondered this one today when I put a temporary tattoo on my mother’s wrist.  It was a blue bird with a banner that said “strength” in bold black letters.  There was a station at my nephew’s birthday party.

I wonder if my great-grandmothers had cold feet and an affinity for tall, or bulldog-like men.

My Aunt June

My Aunt June

I wonder what my great, great, great, great grandmother did with the house and the eight out illiterate members of this house when my grandfather was shot in the arm and died during the Civil War.  I have great ideas that she didn’t just shrivel up and set all her worries into a far off gaze while resting her chin in her palm and her elbow on some window mount.  My great, great, great, great grandmother may have worn aprons, but a later census shows she kept the house running, possibly with or without a wealthy gentlemen heir.  I can’t know because these stories have been lost in the clouds of perfume and cigarette smoke that my grandmother’s wafted out.

All I have for those later women in my family tree are census records and collected data of years of birth, years of death and household numbers.  I do have a lot of heirlooms from my grandmothers, but beyond that it’s black and white photos and the last whispers of “talk-story” that my Aunt June still has left.

The Woman Warrior | Memoirs Of A Girlhood Among Ghosts @ Book Critics

This gets me to the pinnacle of my jealousy over Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir The Woman Warrior | Memoirs Of A Girlhood Among Ghosts.  I don’t know if it’s the Chinese culture, or just this woman, but her writing was insane, literally and her cultural stories and history were both whimsical and brilliant.  I feel like I would know her sitting at a dinner table after reading this collection of narratives about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be Asian-American and what it means to know your own voice based on the voices that you’ve come from.

Fa Mu Lan Woman Warrior @ Chinese Swords (.net)

I’m a bigot in the sense that I don’t believe we’re ever just who we make ourselves, and I will NEVER believe that.  There will be no change of opinion.  We’re an odd conglomeration of the histories kneaded into our hometowns, the deep-seeded truths of how our parents or guardians were raised, even if we go against those truths, our family trees, and the people we encounter in this lifetime (if not other lifetimes that we may have lived).

Off topic branch:  I believe in old souls, not necessarily reincarnation, but I meet people sometimes and they’re my people.  I’ve known them before.  Grey’s Anatomy said it best, “You’re my person.”  One of my closest friends at school is a 60+ year old woman who owns a horse farm and hunted foxes when she was younger.  We should be the least likely people to form close bonds (I’m deathly afraid of horses and I can shoot a gun, but definitely not hunt anything) and yet I love her and I’ve known her forever.  The same goes with my best friend, Seth, who couldn’t break up with me if he tried, and my boyfriend right now who has the thigh muscles of a Greek champion so we must have been sea-faring lovers.  There are ancient traditions of my history with these people, but I can’t tell you what they are because I have very little knowledge of my own family history in order to puzzle these things together. It’s not a miracle of science, just a miracle of miracles and being the Catholic (with a few twists) girl that I am, I have to believe that God purposely put each of these people in my life because they make me comfortable and they’re my partners through the journey.

Orchid for “Brave Orchid” @ Envy GFX

I bet Marie Hong Kinsgston would know all the answers to my questions about this because she has the rich stories of her kin to explain life’s trials, life’s expectations and life’s roads.  I could read four more books on her history without batting an eye, that’s how inspiring this work of literature was.   She has the major story of three women that determine what she believes it is to be a woman with an Asian-American background.  There’s the story of a woman fighter (who I think is the inspiration behind Mulan) and Kingston takes the soul of this fighter on within herself.  Then there’s the history of her Aunt and Mother who in my eyes belong to one single history of womanhood.  Her mother is a doctor in Asia only to “escape” to America and run a laundry mat. Her Aunt is not brought to America until late in her own life because her husband never sent for her, and she is over saturated.

Maxine Hong Kingston @ UCLA International

Then, there’s the history of Kingston which I believe is a weaving of the last three histories and the idea of “talk-story” which is this idea that women in the family pass on … well everything.  Any knowledge of her mother’s past, of Asia, of heroic tales from Asia, comes from the elder women in Kingston’s life and whatever they determine the girl’s should know, they know.  It’s an odd coming of age because when this memoir was written (and probably still although publicly dormant), it wasn’t bountiful to have a girl and girls were assumed to be mostly worthless as far as aging parents were concerned.  At one point, Kingston’s Mother, Brave Orchid, talks about cutting her daughter’s talk so that she can “talk story” which is probably my favorite part of this story because she literally raised a daughter who “talked-story” enough to write an award winning and eye opening memoir.  I really liked Brave Orchid because I think she knew how to live the dichotomy without being found out, she managed to make a living as a medical doctor but still follow the deeply embedded codes restricted to women within in Asia.  I think, even though she comes off abrasive in the book, she influenced her daughters to do the same in their own ways and through their own narratives.  I definitely can appreciate a strong women who must live inside boundaries, but has discovered ways to approach and climb the fence.

“Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound” (23). 

Bound Feet @ Danwei.org

Last thing, my favorite story in Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering At The Creek is “Salvador, Late Or Early.”  I always start my students off with this reading at the beginning of the semester and then I have them do a fill in the blank to learn how much they know about figurative language and to see what they reveal about themselves based on what they say in the blanks.  Some students take this very seriously, some students joke about it, and some students just plain hurt me with their raw descriptions of themselves and who cares about them most (or least, unfortunately). In this story, Salvador’s brother drops his cigar box of crayons and I always told my students that that was because he was so poor that he had to hold his crayons in a cigar box.  However, I was reading Woman Warrior and found this quote, “After American school we picked up our cigar boxes, in which we had arranged books, brushes, and an inkbox neatly, and when to Chinese school from 5:00 to 7:30” (194).   I love when cultural things blow my mind a little.  I originally thought that this was a hispanic way of carrying school supplies, but obviously I was wrong.  This is just a little bit of proof that we’re constantly being educated by literature.  It doesn’t matter what country, what language, or what source, books can teach about our world in big or small ways, we just have to want to read between the lines.

6 thoughts on ““What We Have In Common Are The Words At Our Backs”

  1. lucysfootball says:

    I love this (of course I do, you wrote it) but what I love most is your allusion to “your person.” That’s what I call my nearest and dearest, too, the ones not necessarily linked to me by blood – the ones I’ve found along the way and we’ve made our own tribe, and it’s like we were meant to meet, and we’ve known each other all along, and were just waiting to re-acquaint. It’s one of the best things I’ve discovered as an adult, that there are people out there that are yours, and anyone can be one of your people – it’s like they’re a puzzle-box, and once you figure out how to open them, there’s that magic link between the two of you that was just waiting for you to find it.

    I love when books can do this, can take you to this place. It’s by far my favorite thing about them, when they bring to mind things like this.

    • Cassie says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Those people are so important to find and this book was amazing. Not just because of the history it made me think about, but because it’s such an odd infusion of magic, family, storytelling and history. You truly feel it when you read it. Shockingly good.

  2. Anne says:

    “…books can teach about our world in big and small ways”

    This! I feel more intelligent about the world because I’m a reader. When someone tells me they don’t read, I pity them. That are missing out on becoming a more rounded, informed person.

    You sound like an awesome teacher!

  3. Bea says:

    I loved your review, the book sounds amazing, but that picture of a foot that had been bound was so unsettling. It never fails to shock me when I see the lengths that people/women go to in the name of beauty. Of course, I do understand that the process started when the women were young, very young. How sad the whole thing is.
    You do seem to be able to find the most interesting books that lead our minds to wander. Good review!


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