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The individual and the social

  1. Top of page
  2. The individual and the social
  3. Traditions of mixed memories
  4. The Asian American autobiographical tradition
  5. Ghosts have no memories
  6. Extending the individual frame of memories
  7. Remembering no-name woman
  8. References
  9. Biography

Most concepts and theories of social memory have emerged in opposition to the notion of memory as an individual capacity. In fact, the western conceptual history of social memory since Maurice Halbwachs can be viewed as developing against an individualist and self-centred understanding of memory, an understanding that has underlain modern philosophy of mind and personal identity since Locke. It also has shaped the psychology and neuroscience of memory since its inception by Ebbinghaus, the psychopathology of memory since Freud, and the literary discourse of autobiographical remembering since the end of the eighteenth century and, even more, since modernism. As a consequence, two distinct traditions of memory research have developed, one focusing on the individual and his or her mental and neurobiological capacities, the other on social and cultural contexts, practices, technologies, and traditions of remembering.1 Both the individualist and the sociocultural camp are well established, conceptually and academically. Organised independently from each other, they investigate their specific versions of memory fairly self-referentially – which is to say, memory researchers are typically at home in one camp or the other and hence only rarely need to confront each other.

Despite this orderly division of labour, there are some troubling questions. Are there really two distinct forms, parts, or entities of human memory, one individual and one social? And if so, how are they linked, overlapping, or mingled?

Indeed there are not many who doubt the existence of both social and individual practices of mind and memory; yet another issue is how to define them and understand their relationship. This issue has haunted many human sciences. The spectrum ranges from the more inside-focused approaches of psychology and neuroscience, philosophy, and psychiatry to the more outside-focused anthropology, sociology, and history, with the inside–outside gamut reiterated within each disciplinary context. This is even reflected in two different approaches to social or collective memory, one individualist and one collectivist; one refers to collective memories as the aggregation of socially framed individual memories, whereas the other conceives of collective memories as phenomena sui generis (Olick 2011). At stake in all these different fields are two questions: how are we to understand the social habitation of thought, mind, and memory, on the one hand, and the anchorage of meaning or, perhaps more exactly, of personal meaning-making, on the other.

Take anthropology. Considering these two questions, Clifford Geertz (2000) has described the entire history of the discipline as a continuous struggle to understand the cultural nature of mind by bringing, as it was variously put, individual and social, inner and outer, private and public, psychological and historical, experiential and behavioural into an “intelligible relationship”. For psychology, Jerome Bruner (1990) has sketched an analogous history of the tension between the individual and the cultural. Oddly enough, within psychology, it is memory research that has been exclusively concerned with the individual as site of mnemonic processes (see Danziger 2008), while the social, cultural, and historical dimension of memory has been explored in quite a different field, that of cultural psychology (see Brockmeier 2002). The conviction of experimental psychologists that human memory can be investigated independently from humans’ cultural forms of life – an idea that also finds support in much of today's neurosciences – has strongly contributed to the isolation, if not seemingly irrelevance, of traditional psychology of memory within the broader field of social and cultural memory studies.2

But there is another question that arises from cultural studies of mind and memory such as those by Geertz and Bruner, and here the answer is more complicated. Is it not precisely this presumption – that what is problematic and needs to be determined is, in Geertz's terms, “some sort of bridging connection” between the world within the individual mind (or brain) and the social and material world outside of it – which brings up the problem in the first place? Differently put, perhaps it is the very juxtaposition of the individual and the social that not only implies the invention of “some sort of bridging connection”, but also resurrects the Cartesian opposition between the world within the individual mind and the world outside of it.

This question has become even more substantial through recent research in a number of fields suggesting that humans’ mental and neurological capacities, including their mnemonic faculties and practices, coevolved with culture. “Our minds are not in our bodies”, writes Geertz (2000), “but in the world. And as for the world, it is not in our brains, our bodies, or our minds: they are, along with gods, verbs, rocks, and politics, in it” (Geertz 2000, p.205). As a consequence of this view, there has been a growing tendency to treat the biological and the social, as well as the individual and the cultural, no longer as “discontinuous, sovereign realities, enclosed, stand-alone domains externally connected (‘interfaced’, as the jargon has it) to one another by vague and adventitious forces, factors, quantities, and causes”, to again borrow Geertz's terms (Geertz 2000, p.206). Instead, because they are constitutive of one another, as Geertz goes on to say, “they must be treated as such – as complements, not levels; aspects, not entities; landscapes, not realms” (Geertz 2000, p.206).

In the wake of such arguments, some authors have wondered whether the three categories of mnemonic phenomena often used in the field – individual memories, social and cultural frameworks of memories, and social memory representations – are really separate things. The term social memory – with its sometimes more, sometimes less clear contrast to individual memory – seems to imply just that, as Jeffrey Olick (2008) has remarked. Olick therefore argues to understand social memory as merely a broad, sensitising umbrella concept, and not as a precise operational definition. What is defied in this way is the idea of a clear borderline between social and individual memories. Social memory comprises a wide variety of what Olick calls “mnemonic products and practices”, many of which fly in the face of the social/individual distinction. Take mnemonic products such as stories, rituals, presentations, speeches, images, records, books, historical documents, buildings, landscapes, and many others. Or consider mnemonic practices such as reminiscence, recall, commemoration, celebration, regret, and autobiographical remembering – the latter being in the centre of this essay. Memory practices occur in an infinity of contexts and through a multiplicity of media, but they only work because they are always individual and social, because they have personal and societal meanings, and because they have these meanings at the same time. “To focus on collective memory as a variety of products and practices”, writes Olick, “is thus to reframe the antagonism between individualist and collectivist approaches to memory more productively as a matter of moments in a dynamic process” (Olick 2008, p.158).

In this article, I want to advance this perspective by reframing the putative antagonism between individualist and social approaches to remembering with respect to one particular category of mnemonic practices and products. This is the category of autobiographical remembering. I make the case that autobiographical remembering – which I view primarily as a process organised by its narrative dynamic – cannot be situated within either the individual or the social camp; nor does it represent some sort of “bridging connection” between the world within the individual mind (or brain) and the sociocultural and material world outside of it. Rather, one of the main functions of the autobiographical process is to allow the individual to localise himself or herself within a cultural and historical world. On this view, not only the process of autobiographical self-localisation but also the very idea of autobiographical identity – the idea of personal identity as rooted in the conscious remembrance of one's life history, as first outlined in its modern form by John Locke – are themselves deeply embedded in a particular cultural world. This world is the western culture of autobiography.

I want to spell out this argument by presenting, in the second half of the article, a case study in autobiographical narrative. By examining the memoir of a Chinese-American writer, I offer a closer look at the merging of individual remembering, narrative, identity construction, and cultural memory. There are a number of reasons why the family of narrative genres labelled autobiographical narrative or life writing, to apply the more generic term used today (Jolly 2001; Saunders 2008), seems to be most appropriate for such an inquiry. Self-referential life writing, oral or written, is a significant discursive practice by which individuals socialise themselves. Moreover, there is not only an important trend in contemporary theory investigating practices and products of life writing to demonstrate the extent to which ideas of memory permeate the fields of literature, arts, and other cultural discourses (Rossington and Whitehead 2007). There also is growing recognition that changes in the dominant conceptual and scientific conception of memory as an archive of the past are influenced by literary and artistic approaches to remembrance that have been spearheading a new vision of memory beyond the archival model (Brockmeier 2010).

Yet before presenting my case study, let me outline some essential assumptions of my discussion. One is the conviction that there is no such thing as an autobiographical process that exists outside of the ensemble of social and societal practices, rules, and skills provided by traditions of cultural memory. This includes the use of a given narrative repertoire, literary and every day, into which we are born and according to which we have learnt, in one and the same developmental process, how to autobiographically remember, forget, and tell stories about ourselves. The cultural matrix of this joint ontogenesis of narrative, remembering, and discursive interaction has been well researched.3 The impact of cultural traditions of memory practices makes itself especially felt when someone tries to break with them. One way this happens is when different traditions meet and mingle and in this way new traditions come into being, traditions of mixed memories.

Traditions of mixed memories

  1. Top of page
  2. The individual and the social
  3. Traditions of mixed memories
  4. The Asian American autobiographical tradition
  5. Ghosts have no memories
  6. Extending the individual frame of memories
  7. Remembering no-name woman
  8. References
  9. Biography

The stories people tell about their lives and the lives of those around them leave footprints across history. Others follow these traces, often without being aware of it. Whether oral or written, public or private, the telling of and the listening to life narratives is conventionalised by local cultural standards and traditions that may give more or less importance to practices of autobiographical remembrance.

That autobiographical memories are meaning constructions rooted in multilayered cultural traditions has become an experience increasingly bound up with what is called global mobility. The term global mobility may ring euphemistically in view of its many dramatic and violent forms. Migration, displacement, flight, exile, social and cultural uprooting have come to determine the existential condition of a steadily growing number of people, “the wretched of the earth”, in Frantz Fanon's (1961 1967) famous expression. New hybrid life forms emerging in the wake of modern migration and displacement have not only undermined long-established traditions, a phenomenon that sociologists have described as part and parcel of globalisation and its creation of “liquid modernity” (Bauman 2000). They also have generated new experiences and novel cultural traditions. These also comprise new memory traditions or, perhaps more precisely, narrative traditions shaping and handing down these new experiences. I am particularly interested in how, in this way, novel forms and practices of autobiographical remembering turn into new traditions of cultural memory.

Stories that recount what it means to leave your home, or be forced to do so, migrate, and try to settle in an unknown world, most likely, continuing a life as a victim of exclusion and social stigmatisation, speak to what it means to live in more than one cultural and symbolic universe – and not to feel at home in any. These stories report about the experience of members of so-called minorities that have been described as a prototype of the postmodern experience. To be sure, we are talking about a wide range of different things: about oral autobiographical accounts and forms of life writing from many diverse narrative traditions; about stories told by a great variety of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers; about testimonies by boat people, guest workers, adventures, and many others who have become members of the new tribes of global nomads.

Considering this diversity, we may ask if there is anything in common that is behind the formation of specific migrant or immigrant cultures of remembering. In her study of immigrant self-understanding, Andreea Ritivoi (2002) maintains that there is a specific mental and narrative attitude that is brought about by the immigrant condition – we may call it a particular autobiographical sensitivity. This kind of self-reflexivity, according to Ritivoi, is essential for making sense of one's past under conditions of radical change and an uncertain present and future. Immigrants are commonly more aware than most people of their ongoing autobiographical efforts. In leaving the original settings of their life they are led to understand, perhaps more urgently than others, that one's identity is never finished but always an open story. It is a work in progress that produces ever changing versions of oneself, with autobiographical remembering playing a central role in this work.

Examining personal letters of British immigrants to America from the nineteenth century, David Gerber (2006) writes about this kind of autobiographical self-reflection where it is revealed that the self is “seen as a process, fluid and relational, that continuously works at integrating change and continuity” (p.69), something that needs to be understood in narrative terms, that is, in stories. In contrast with earlier emigration/immigration, the nineteenth-century situation was part of an emergent global modernity that demanded people not only meet the material, cultural, and psychological challenges of such a radical break, but also confront a “second project”: resolving “the challenge posed to personal identity” (Gerber 2006, p.69). For Gerber, the self-awareness that is part of this effort is the awareness of one's self as a process – regardless of whether one's self was once (or was believed to be) stable, rooted, and substantial. Often this is the source of the nostalgic memory of “yesterday's self”, as Ritivoi (2002) put it. The immigrant condition thus is unavoidably bound up with the experience of “self-as-process”, the “continuing work of self-making amidst the creative work of living” (Gerber 2006, p.70).

A portion of this kaleidoscope of the modern experience that has been particularly well examined is the immigrant condition in North America. For many years investigated by social and cultural scientists, it also is an important issue in literature, the arts, and the study of life writing. One reason for this is obvious: the immigrant condition is, in one way or another, part of the cultural memory of most, if not all people in America, including the expropriated and displaced Aboriginals. Again, there are few possibilities that better afford us insights into the subjective side of the immigrant condition than autobiographical accounts told, written, filmed, performed, and otherwise created and recreated.

But just to say they offer an inside perspective, the perspective of the experiencing subject – which typically is a first-person perspective – would leave out an essential complication of this perspective: the “autobiographical self” often did not exist in the indigenous cultural traditions of many immigrants to North America. As already pointed out, this inside perspective is closely linked with the fascination of the individual self and its focus on his or her autobiographical time, a fascination – if not an obsession – that is so much part of the western tradition (Brockmeier 2007). Many of the memory accounts of non-western immigrants speak extensively to the dilemma of how to remember your past when your autobiographical story leads back to cultural places and times without such a self-centred focus and without autobiographical genres that would fulfil the specific expectations of North American and European individualism.

In North America, the land of immigrants, this dilemma has countless variations. As a consequence of the truly global nature of migration, very different forms of autobiographical narrative practices have developed. They vary according to the ethnic and cultural origins of immigrants, as well as in respect to their social and political status and education. For a long time, Asian immigrants, for instance, were subject to far-ranging discrimination – socially, economically, and legally. Moreover, whereas there are century-old traditions of literary and philosophical models of modern western individualism and autobiographical self-reflection – as, for example, the plot models of Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Robinson Crusoe which Ian Watt (1996) has described as the only genuine myths of modernity (because they do not stem from ancient and biblical myths) – “Asian-Americans” did not find any narrative genres, plots, and styles allowing them to articulate their specific “hyphenated experience”.

It is a remarkable process in which, irrespective of these obstacles, a robust Asian American tradition of autobiographical literature has emerged over the course of the second half of the twentieth century (Davis 2007; Niiya 1999).4 In 1988, Asian American literature: an annotated bibliography lists at least 50 published unambiguous autobiographies. In addition there are numerous non-fiction works containing oral histories, reports, and biographies, non-book length autobiographical accounts, and a significant number of autobiographical novels and works of fiction that articulate autobiographical experiences of Asians in North America. Although we know that behind these experiences are the lived realities of millions of people, the question remains how we explain this outpouring of personal memories that could not draw on specific narrative forms and conventions; nor were they backed up by institutions in the world of literature, academia, publishing, and media conducive to its emergence.

This question becomes even more interesting if we keep in mind that in many of the countries from which the authors emigrated we do not find traditions of autobiographical writing and self-reflection comparable to those in western countries. In traditional Chinese literature, for example, the thematic and psychological focus on human individuality is typically interwoven with a strong concern for social relations, as Brian Niiya's literary and cultural-historical investigations point out. In resonance with Confucian and Taoist traditions, the focus tends to be on what characters do in their familial and institutional roles and their relationships to others vis-à-vis a set of moral obligations, rather than what they do, feel, and remember as autonomous and “outstanding” individuals, as in much of western life writing (Wu 1990). Only recently this orientation seems to have lost its absolute moral and aesthetic hegemony under the influence of western ideas and models of the self and self-reflection (Dongfang 2001a, 2001b).

In searching for clues on the Asian American autobiographical tradition, Niiya remarks, we thus must look not at Asia but at America. So let me seize this suggestion and take a look at the literary and cultural history of this tradition. That this history also comprises political, economic, and institutional constraints – societally given structures which define how the autobiographical memory of individuals is supposed to be working – might be surprising for those who take the workings of autobiographical remembering to be an exclusively individual and mental enterprise. There is, however, little surprise when we consider that there is no individual microcosmos of remembering that is not part and parcel of the macrocosmos of cultural memory (Wang and Brockmeier 2002).

I thus first review some of the political, economic, and institutional constraints of the Asian American autobiographical tradition before I turn to its narrative and psychological features.

The Asian American autobiographical tradition

  1. Top of page
  2. The individual and the social
  3. Traditions of mixed memories
  4. The Asian American autobiographical tradition
  5. Ghosts have no memories
  6. Extending the individual frame of memories
  7. Remembering no-name woman
  8. References
  9. Biography

There are a number of aspects that stand out in the first decades of (published) Asian American autobiographies and memoirs. One is that almost all writings have in common that their authors are known for little else except their autobiographies. There is one exception of an author who was known to a broader public outside his immediate community (Hawaiian Senator Daniel K. Inouye, who published his Journey to Washington). All others represent for the American public what Niiya (1999) calls the idea of a collective self. People read their writings because they spoke for memories of a group, not of particular individuals. “The story of the Asian American autobiography is the story of the collective self imposed on writers who never intended it” (Niiya 1999, p.430).

For many years publishers turned out autobiographies that confirmed a widespread picture of the Asian American experience, supposing that the public would read these books as what they believe to be true and authentic representations of lived reality. Only autobiographical memories that lived up to the stereotypical expectations of Americans (or at least, American publishers) had a chance to go into print. On Niiya's account, the rationale behind this was twofold: a preconceived notion of what Asian Americans should be like and an interest in conveying a particular political message. Yet what was this message?

Again, there are some features shared by nearly all the published autobiographical literature by Asian Americans. First of all, there is optimism. It is the optimism of America during the Second World War, the post-war and pre-Vietnam era of the Cold War, a time of unshakable faith in the American way of life with its virtues of hard work and smooth assimilation. During the Second World War, while Japanese Americans on the West Coast were being held in concentration camps, two “explicitly happy” autobiographies by Chinese Americans were published.5 Likewise during the 1960s, while ghettos burned, racial minorities took to the streets, civil rights and Black Power movements marched, more “happy autobiographies” appeared.6 Until the mid-1970s, “nearly all published Asian American autobiographies were books that supported the status quo” (Niiya 1999, p.430). It seems that the periods when the most, and the most popular, autobiographical books appeared coincided with periods when the status quo, including that of minorities and immigrants, was questioned the most – by democratic and liberal critics, civil rights and women movements, and anti-colonialism and anti-Vietnam war protesters.

A second remarkable trend, especially among the first wave of Asian American autobiographies (a great number of which appeared in the 1960s), is the profusion of woman autobiographers. This is all the more striking as the number of female immigrants was minuscule compared to the number of male immigrants at the time. We need to bear in mind that these are the years of large scale labour emigration from Asia. Most of the immigrants were working class migrants who settled in largely poor ethnic ghettos (for example, the Chinatowns) or in farm or transport worker camps. Thus it is all the more peculiar that almost all published autobiographies of Asian Americans reflected the perspective of female visitors who were mostly upper or at least middle class.

This preference by the American public and the publishing industry for autobiographies by Asian women over those of Asian men becomes more comprehensible if we recall the representation of beautiful, exotic, and deferential Asian women in film, photography, and popular culture. This marks a stark contrast with the image of men who, after decades of wars against Asian countries – Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, to mention only East Asia – and decades of films, books, and media coverage showing Asian men in such contexts, might have been less inviting.

And there is another female linkage. Practically all of the women autobiographers addressed issues of female identity speaking to both the liberal and conservative women of the middle classes. “All of them”, writes Niiya (1999), “attack their traditional cultures for repressing women and praise the West for allowing women more freedom” (p.432). Amy Ling (2009), a critic and scholar of Asian American culture, argues that the works receiving the most accolades in their time reflected more their audience and its taste rather than the quality of the books themselves. Ling refers not only to autobiographies like that of Jade Snow Wong, but also to the works of Winnifred Eaton who played a crucial role in setting up the tradition – including the canon of conventions according to which Asian Americans were expected to remember their lives. Born to an English merchant and a woman from Shanghai who had been adopted by English missionaries, Eaton wrote enormously successful books in the first two decades of the twentieth century, delineating the template of what she saw as the Asian American experience. Some of her books were written with an explicit autobiographical claim, such as Me, a book of remembrance (1915). Her book A Japanese nightingale (1902) was turned into a Broadway play and, in 1919, made into a motion picture. Its success later led her to directly write screenplays for the burgeoning film industry.

By selecting these books, films, and plays, publishers, studios, and the entertainment industry obviously wanted to appeal to the taste and cultural prejudices of an audience that, to be sure, was not particularly interested in learning about the Japanese or Chinese and their sophisticated culture of memory. “The frail Japanese or Eurasian heroines”, as Ling (2009) explains, “romantically involved with dominant Caucasian men in high positions, the Chinese American success story at a time when the United States was at war with Japan, satisfied a public that sought to confirm its own myth, in stories about its superiority, generosity, and openness” (Ling 2009, pp.83–84).

Finally, there is another commonality, Christianity. To different degrees, the majority of the authors remember their Americanisation as journeys to the Christian faith. I find Niiya's (1999) interpretation convincing that such life stories served to reinforce to the predominantly Christian American readers the idea of Christianity as a cultural bridge. At the same time they subtly confirmed the superiority of the western idea of autobiographical remembering as an individual and inward-looking mental operation, an operation that had been viewed, in the Christian tradition, as an act of soul examination since Augustine's Confessions (Brockmeier 2007).

All these factors contributed to a complex dialectic of selection and reinforcement operative in the emergence of the Asian American memory tradition. In synchrony with television and film industry, schooling, and educational programmes, a white middle class projection defined not only what it meant for Asian Americans to live a morally proper life, but also their ideas and practices of what they were to remember about their past, what they were to consider as their new autobiographical identity and, most importantly, what they were to convey to their children as a central part of their immigrant cultural memory: a moral blueprint for growing up as “real Americans”.

Only in recent years have novel forms of Asian American life writing emerged that break with this tradition. In challenging the inherited scripts of assimilation and hyphenated self-understanding, they explore more individual approaches to self-representation, cultural memory, and ideas of national belonging (see Davis 2007, 2011). Individuality is a key concept here because the new autobiographers leave behind the idea of a collective Asian (or, at best, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc.) self defined by the expectations of American readers. Experimenting with genre and narrative techniques and using new ways of life writing such as graphic novel and diary, contemporary Asian American autobiographers are committed to what Rocío Davis (2007) has described as two intersecting projects. One is reclaiming history, that is, a particular history that goes beyond the canonical Euro-American models appropriated by earlier Asian American writers; the other is building community, a community that is different from what was seen as a merely transitory community of foreigners/immigrants on their way to “real Americans”. Despite its heterogeneous composition, the Asian American community – or perhaps better, communities – remembered and evoked by a new generation of autobiographical writers can be conceived of as part of a larger project. This is the creation and preservation of a new cultural memory which, as Davis suggests, also comprises a new history:

From a generic perspective, life writing narrativises memory, reflection, and imagination, as the autobiographer configures his or her past into a shape that takes its formal design from established modes. But because the content of the narration in the context of Asian North American writing necessarily involves racial negotiation, social experience, and political engagement, the narrative becomes “history” – the public story of a past shared with others and assumed to have actually occurred. (Davis 2007, p.4)

Ghosts have no memories

  1. Top of page
  2. The individual and the social
  3. Traditions of mixed memories
  4. The Asian American autobiographical tradition
  5. Ghosts have no memories
  6. Extending the individual frame of memories
  7. Remembering no-name woman
  8. References
  9. Biography

Many critics and cultural observers agree that it was one autobiography that first broke with the imposed Asian American culture of memory, one book that triggered discussions of such range that would change this situation decisively: Maxine Hong Kingston's The woman warrior: memoirs of a girlhood among ghosts. Whereas in the last section I pointed out the structural and political constraints of a hegemonic cultural discourse on the notion of autobiographical remembering, my analysis of Hong Kingston's memoir in this section foregrounds the workings of a counter-narrative. It explores how the rules and conventions of a memory tradition are broken, at least sometimes, and in this way adds weight to the claim that the individual microcosmos of autobiographical remembering is always part and parcel of the macrocosmos of cultural memory.

Published in 1976, Hong Kingston's The woman warrior seemed to ignore what until then had been the narrative canon for autobiographical writing, defining what and how the Chinese American was expected to remember in order to become a real American. Constituting a novel genre unto itself, this memoir opened a new way of autobiographical self-localisation in a world of diverse cultural traditions. In carrying out an individual merger of American and Chinese traditions of cultural memory, Hong Kingston created an hitherto unknown form to reinterpret the existential framework of the “hyphenated condition”.7

She happened to do so at a particular historical moment in the United States, in the politically and culturally turbulent 1970s. A period of openness, these also were times of new interests, new audiences, and new editors sensitive to issues until then excluded from the world of learning, literature, and published autobiographical self-reflection – such as race, class, and gender. In this way an immigrant condition came to the fore that was rarely smooth and pleasant, but often miserable and brutal. It certainly did not have much in common with the fantasy vision of the exotic Asian beauty and her successful Americanisation and Christianisation.

In The woman warrior, Hong Kingston remembers her childhood and youth as the daughter of Chinese immigrants Tom and Ying Land Hong who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in Stockton, California. Her world is that of a community of Chinese Americans, and her main theme is to strike a balance between her Chinese past that permeates all aspects of her life and her American present and future. Maxine's parents, highly educated people in pre-revolutionary China, owned and operated a laundry in California. Having settled among immigrants who had also been their neighbours in the ancestral land, they only spoke Chinese. Living in the midst of their memories, they seemed to never really arrive in the American present. Aside from helping with the laundry business and attending an official American school and, in the evenings, a privately run Chinese school, Maxine immersed herself in reading the Chinese literary classics her parents brought with them. The second big thing was watching movies, mostly Chinese operas, that were presented at the local Confucian Church, the cultural and intellectual centre of the community. “Remembering Confucius”, Hong Kingston would later call the recollections of these experiences.

And, of course, there was the world of “talk-story”, the omnipresent oral narratives from China that were told in the family, especially by her mother, Brave Orchid. A strong woman deeply rooted in Cantonese traditions, her voice commanded, as Hong Kingston writes, “great powers”. With the thermometer in the laundry reaching more than a hundred and ten degrees, Brave Orchid would say that it was time to tell another ghost story so everyone would get some good chills up their backs. The lively family tradition of storytelling and reminiscing about the Chinese past, which involved personal experiences and family histories as well as traditional myths, legends, Confucian parables and maxims, created a unique space of everyday cultural memory. For the young girl, individual and collective remembering blended, and real characters, imagined figures, ghosts, and other heroes of fantasy became even more indistinct as is usually the case with children. This densely populated space, the space of a “girlhood among ghosts”, emerges as the emotional home of the autobiographical self of the future author who would incorporate many of the meandering memories of her parents and other family members into her own memories.

It is easy to imagine these narratives as a nostalgic account, a Proustian reminiscence about enchanted childhood days. But Hong Kingston's tone is different. She makes it clear that the coming-of-age of an, after all, American girl in the middle of a continually reiterated Chinese family memory that at the same time operates as a pressure cooker of a much larger cultural macrocosmos, comes with irksome uncertainties and contradictions. In contrast with her parents she has – and wants – to enter, indeed, inhabit the outside reality, figuring out “how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhood fits in solid America”. And she wonders:

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's family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what are the movies? (Hong Kingston [1976, pp.5–6)

Not surprisingly, whenever the little girl gets in touch with “solid America” she encounters difficulties. As so often, school is the place where they manifest themselves most obviously. But are these difficulties of the school, of America, or of herself? Kingston's memories recount touching episodes from the classroom. “I could not understand ‘I.’ The Chinese ‘I’ has seven strokes, intricacies. How could the American ‘I’, assuredly wearing a hat like the Chinese, have only three strokes, the middle so straight?” (Hong Kingston 1976, p.166)

Like all children learning to write, Maxine wonders about the oddities of the characters, their personalities, their imagined inner life, and an entire comparative folk psychology becomes visible. “Was it out of politeness that this writer left off strokes the way a Chinese has to write her own name small and crooked? No, it was not politeness; ‘I’ is a capital and ‘you’ is a lower case” (Hong Kingston [1976, pp.166–167). At the same time, it was all but clear who is the Chinese self and the American self. More than that, who is the self and who is the other? And when and with which voice do they speak?

I remember telling the Hawaiian teacher, “We Chinese can't sing land where our fathers died”. She argued with me about politics, while I meant because of curses. But how can I have that memory when I couldn't speak? My mother says that we, like the ghosts, have no memories. (Hong Kingston 1976, p.67)

Is there a difference between “me” and the silent ghosts? An unsettling question, all the more as Maxine has trouble not only writing but also speaking “the other language” at all. During her first three years at school she fell into total silence.

Extending the individual frame of memories

  1. Top of page
  2. The individual and the social
  3. Traditions of mixed memories
  4. The Asian American autobiographical tradition
  5. Ghosts have no memories
  6. Extending the individual frame of memories
  7. Remembering no-name woman
  8. References
  9. Biography

Hong Kingston's memoir is split into five parts, each section tracking different aspects of the development of the young girl into an avenging woman. “I could make myself a warrior like the swordswoman who drives me” (Hong Kingston [1976, p.48) is the vision Maxine forms of herself, sifting through the surrounding universe of stories. Was there any better way to survive the many challenges, both Chinese and American? Playing through different autobiographical possibilities, each section interweaves personal memories with the story of an inspirational female figure, each of which is autobiographically appropriated and turns, in one way or another, into a woman warrior. Three of these role model women belong to Maxine's family: her mother Brave Orchid, her aunt Moon Orchid, and a mysterious “no-name aunt”. Two of them belong to the universe of collective imagination, the original woman warrior Fa Mu Lan and the poetess Ts'ai Yen, both legendary Chinese figures and protagonists of many tales.

In extending the individual frame of her memories, Hong Kingston sets out to simultaneously inhabit both her everyday Chinese American world in Stockton and the imagined world of her family's memories and popular Canton stories of ghosts and demons. She remembers when her girl self opens an old metal tube that holds her mother's documents, “the smell of China flies out, a thousand-year-old bat flying heavy-headed out of the Chinese caverns, where bats are as white as dust, a smell that comes from long ago, far back in the brain” (Hong Kingston [1976, p.57). In tracing her autobiographical self, as this metaphor suggests, Hong Kingston lays out a meandering network of cultural memory – oral, written, painted, smelled, and otherwise performed: an endless cultural intertext that inextricably mingles with history itself.

Emphasising the interplay between an individual's sense of self and the community's stories of selfhood, Sidonie Smith (1991) has remarked that it is through this oscillation that the narrator in Hong Kingston's narratives brings herself into existence. Smith goes on to write that The woman warrior offers us “the occasion to consider the complex imbroglios of cultural fictions that surround the autobiographer who is engaging two sets of stories: those of the dominant culture and those of an ethnic subculture with its own traditions, its unique stories” (1991, p.1058). More than this, we may add, we are offered an occasion to view the merger of these two sets of stories into one stream. This is the stream of Hong Kingston's own autobiographical process. Again and again she shows that this process has its own dynamic that will not stop if she leaves the times and places of her upbringing – “before we can leave our parents, they stuff our heads like suitcases which they jam-pack with homemade underwear” (Hong Kingston [1976, p.87).

No wonder, then, that even the banal aspects of American everyday life appear to be elements of a new plot, as in these early memories:

But America has been full of machines and ghosts – Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars. There were Black Ghosts too, but they were open eyed and full of laughter, more distinct than White Ghosts. (Hong Kingston [1976, pp.96–97)

More than one generation after Maxine Hong Kingston, another Chinese American autobiographical writer, Yiyun Li, wrote that “a foreign country gives one foreign thoughts”. In her book A thousand years of good prayers, this is a thought of Mr Shi who is visiting his daughter in America. Yiyun Li came to the USA in 1996, at the age of 24 years. She describes the same strangeness and fascination of talking, thinking, and remembering in a language and culture so different from the one she inhabited before. Though they share several themes, Hong Kingston's experiences differ from Li's in that they were made within a world of immigrants, a world she perceived from within. The perspective behind the memories of The woman warrior is not that of an adult Chinese who faces America from the outside, as an isolated immigrant or visitor, but of a girl who had to develop, from the inside, her own genre that reflects her hybrid point of view as a native Asian American. In contrast, Li's likewise highly acclaimed book, although echoing her Chinese linguistic background, has fascinated critics in the way it ably bows to the forms of the western tradition. Colm Tóibín (2006) noticed that Li's collection of stories may be her first book written in English but it shows her utterly at home in a narrative style and a kind of psychological empathy shaped by Chekhov and Maupassant, and in tones used by William Trevor and Alice Munro.

Significantly different was, at the time, the reaction of readers to Hong Kingston's book. Many of them were confused by her floating of different and unfamiliar genres with what was supposed to be a personal autobiographical account. Hong Kingston (1982) replied to her critics in a piece that she called “Cultural miss-readings by American reviewers” where she expressed her frustration that even those who praised her book could not see beyond their own stereotyped thinking. This included what she called the painful “exotic-inscrutable-mysterious-oriental reviewing”, according to which everything unfamiliar to an established pattern of autobiographical remembering and identity appeared to be “obscure” and reinforcing the feeling that, as one critic wrote, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet” (quoted in Ling 2009, p.84).

There is no doubt that reading Hong Kingston's memoirs often makes one wonder who is speaking. Who is the remembering I? Are we listening to a narrator who is a young girl, her mother, the author, or all of them? Some may even hear the many voices – Chinese voices, that is – of those who told these stories before. Moreover, readers may feel confused by the continuous blurring of borderlines considered as canonical in the western culture of memory and life writing, one of them separating the personal from the collective. This is related to the expectation that autobiographical narratives are to be true accounts of individual experiences, clearly distinguished from folk narratives, fairy tales, myths, epic poems, and other social discourse forms. This borderline partly coincides with the one assumed to distinguish fact and fiction, the real and the imagined (e.g., Lejeune 1989). These distinctions entail a complex economy not only of narrative but also of ethical conventions (Eakin 2004). In addition, Hong Kingston's memoir draws on many resources of the English and the Chinese language. At times her English reads like a literal translation of a Chinese epic poem, at other times the protagonists from Chinese stories and myths speak with a strong American accent. And sometimes we are addressed by a voice that ironically or, perhaps, even sarcastically performs a parody of what “a Westerner” imagines to be Chinese American lingo.

Finally, there is no stable distinction between the male and the female. Not least for this reason the book has been read as echoing feminist discussions of the 1970s, even if most of its fury and bitterness is articulated vis-à-vis the history of oppression and disrespect for girls and women in China. Yet, undeniably, it also takes a critical stance towards America, especially its racism and class distinctions. The woman warrior makes it clear that her author also remembers the long history of economic exploitation of and discrimination against Asian immigrants. “I've learned exactly”, she asserts, “who the enemy are. I easily recognize them – business-suited in their modern American executive guise, each boss two feet taller than I am and impossible to meet eye to eye” (Hong Kingston [1976, p.48).

Although eventually successfully established in the American reality, Hong Kingston has not forgotten what “the Laws” meant in the everyday life of her community. “The Laws” were special legal restrictions limiting the civil rights of Asian immigrants in the United States, forcing them, among others, to live in special ghettos, the infamous Chinatowns at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Her memoir, then, is about a childhood determined as much by Chinese and American memory traditions as by experiences linked to race, class, and gender. And what's more, it shows that in her autobiographical process the two traditions are inextricably intertwined.

Obviously, personal anger is one of the driving forces behind this autobiographical quest. It also seems to have motivated the desire to identify with the half-mythical figure of The woman warrior. However, as Hong Kingston writes, the weapon for the autobiographer is not “the sword of the swordswoman” but the act of remembrance of events that for a long time were not allowed to be remembered, let alone reported. “The idioms for revenge are ‘report a crime’ and ‘report to five families’. The reporting is the vengeance – not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words” (Hong Kingston [1976, p.53).

Remembering no-name woman

  1. Top of page
  2. The individual and the social
  3. Traditions of mixed memories
  4. The Asian American autobiographical tradition
  5. Ghosts have no memories
  6. Extending the individual frame of memories
  7. Remembering no-name woman
  8. References
  9. Biography

A telling example of the power attributed to the act of remembering – the “true weapon of the woman warrior” – is the story of the “no-name woman”. Don't tell anyone you had an aunt, said her mother, before going on to recount to her daughter the gruesome tale of Maxine's aunt's illegitimate pregnancy. An unacceptable offence in a patriarchal society, it brings the village to ostracise and terrorise the aunt who eventually kills herself by jumping into the family well. In order to punish her even after her death and, at the same time, out of shame, neither her story nor her name is ever mentioned again. Even Maxine, the girl, does not dare ask or talk about her aunt, though this nameless woman hovers as an unspeakable memory, a permanent “absent presence”, as Helena Grice (2002, p.52) puts it, through her life.

Such ritual silencing is well known; not only in the Chinese tradition does it constitute an important part of the collective memory of ethnic communities (Anderson 2006; Halbwachs 1950 1992). Yet oppression typically entails subversion, and this is also true for the dialectic of remembering and forgetting (Middleton and Brown 2005). An exclusionary framing of collective memory provokes acts of individual remembrance and endows them with uncontrolled subversive power, and this is what Hong Kingston is interested in. Why, she wonders, does she only many years later talk and write about her memory of the story her mother told her about her aunt? Apparently the emotional weave of her autobiographical process has changed. Now the affective tenor is radically different. “My aunt haunts me – her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her” (Hong Kingston [1976, p.16). A belated sense of horror and ire has her writing down her memories of this forbidden Chinese story in English. Trying to articulate the unspeakable, she begins with naming the nameless, using the possibilities of English to turn No Name Woman into a proper name. In this way her aunt is given an existence. She is remembered and her suicide reported as an act of revenge against patriarchal brutality. Leaving the realm of ghosts and shadows, she too transforms into a woman warrior; her story becomes that of an avenger, of an ally in the same rebellious spirit of the autobiographer.

I read this episode as significant for Hong Kingston's autobiographical memory work in a number of ways. For one, it demonstrates how a terse narrative, once told by Brave Orchid to warn her daughter to obey the rules of tradition, is recalled decades later and, in the light of the remembering subject's changed self-understanding, acquires new meanings and feelings. Hong Kingston leaves no doubt that there is no way to retrieve any of the original or historically authentic events. Anyway this is not the intention that drives her autobiographical process. Her memories – many of which are, as we have seen, memories of the stories she heard and whose traces she followed – revolve around ideas of resistance and subversion. These are ideas that work for her in her present American life, the life of an adult woman and writer she leads at the time of writing her memoir. Her entire project of remembrance-reimagining, as Shu-ching Chen (2000) has remarked, is rooted in her real life predicament in which she finds herself unable to formulate an Asian American identity for the lack of appropriate narrative models.

Yet, as my reading has suggested, there is more to this project. It shows that the act of autobiographical self-localisation is also an act of self-localisation within the universe of stories, an act of writing oneself into a huge cultural intertext, a symbolic space. To put the same point another way, The woman warrior shows that collective memories – memories that go far beyond the lived experiences of one individual – can be lodged in the autobiographical memories of that very individual. And this also holds for the lacunae of these memories, that is, what they forget and repress and black out. Such “memories” may be dormant until circumstances wake and draw them into the dynamic of the autobiographical process. As the story of the No Name Woman demonstrates, in this process of re-composition, re-interpretation, and re-evaluation the rememberer's subjectivity unfolds even within the narrative space of a given cultural memory. What makes this space in Hong Kingston's Chinese Californian world all the more interesting is that it is populated with two very distinct traditions of cultural memory.

Instead of confining her autobiographical memories to her own individual experiences, the narrator links them to comprehensive frameworks of cultural memories, frameworks that also embrace the wider ethnic community of her childhood. We could call this an extension of individual remembering towards the social. At the same time she accommodates the western tradition of autobiographical narrative, transforming cultural memories into personal events: into stories that were told to her by her mother and other members of that childhood community. These are the stories from the hot and steamy laundry in Stockton, Confucius's wondrous cinema, and secretive whispers in the kitchen – from mnemonic places that once more blur the distinction between the social and the individual, fusing the microcosmos of individual experiences and self-resolution with the omnipresent macrocosmos of collective memories. In so doing, they provide one of the crucial devices that allow the individual to localise herself, in and through the autobiographical process, within a cultural and historical world.

Notes
  1. 1

    The concepts of social memory, collective memory, and cultural memory are sometimes used distinctively, sometimes synonymously. Concentrating on the relationship between individual and social memory, I apply, for now, social and collective interchangeably. Whereas social memory is often referred to in contrast with individual memory, cultural memory contrasts with biological memory and thus – emphasising the semiotic, noetic, artistic, and technological traditions of social and societal life – suggests a slightly different focus than social memory. In this sense, I have used cultural memory in my own work as a notion encompassing both individual and social forms of memory.

  2. 2

    Among the ninety-one papers included in The collective memory reader (Olick et al. 2011), considered to be classics and landmark contributions defining the field, there are only two authored by psychologists, both from the first half of the last century – Sigmund Freud and Frederic Bartlett.

  3. 3

    For example, Fivush and Haden (2003), Nelson (2007), Wang (2004), and Wang and Ross (2007).

  4. 4

    In line with today's common usage I employ in the following the term Asian American without a hyphen.

  5. 5

    These were by Pardee Lowe and Jade Snow Wong; the latter was to become the most widely read piece of Asian American literature until the 1970s.

  6. 6

    For example, by Daniel Inouye and Daisuke Kitagawa.

  7. 7

    Davis argues that Hong Kingston's The woman warrior not only revealed an important intervention in the political and cultural understanding of what it meant to be Chinese American, but also challenged established concepts of feminism, narrative identity, and the autobiographical mode. After Hong Kingston, Davis writes, “American autobiography was never the same” (Davis 2007, p.4).

References

  1. Top of page
  2. The individual and the social
  3. Traditions of mixed memories
  4. The Asian American autobiographical tradition
  5. Ghosts have no memories
  6. Extending the individual frame of memories
  7. Remembering no-name woman
  8. References
  9. Biography

Additional references common to Memory Studies can be found at the end of this dossier in the selected bibliography, pp.197–202.

  • Anderson, B., 2006. Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London and New York: Verso.
  • Bauman, Z., 2000. Liquid modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Brockmeier, J., ed., 2002. Narrative and cultural memory. Special volume of Culture and Psychology, 8 (1).
  • Brockmeier, J., 2007. Lifetime and eternity. In: J. Belzen and A. Geels , eds. Auto/biography and the study of religious lives. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 1938.
  • Brockmeier, J., 2010. After the archive: remapping memory. Culture and psychology, 16 (1), 535.
  • Bruner, J., 1990. Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Chen, S.-C., 2000. To report a crime: The woman warrior as a live/life testimony. Intergrams: studies in languages and literatures, 2 (1) [online]. Available at http://benz.nchu.edu.tw/~intergrams/intergrams/002/002-chen.htm [accessed 24 November 2010].
  • Danziger, K., 2008. Marking the mind: a history of memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Davis, R. G., 2007. Begin here: reading Asian North American autobiographies of childhood. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
  • Davis, R. G., 2011. Relative histories: mediating history in Asian American family memoirs. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
  • Dongfang, S., 2001a. China: 1949 to the present. In: M. Jolly , ed. Encyclopedia of life writing: autobiographical and biographical forms. Vol. 1. London and Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn, 210211.
  • Dongfang, S., 2001b. China: 19th century to 1949. In: M. Jolly , ed. Encyclopedia of life writing: autobiographical and biographical forms. Vol. 1. London and Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn, 208210.
  • Eakin, P. J., 2004. The ethics of life writing. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Fanon, F., 1961. Les Damnés de la Terre. Paris: La Découverte [The wretched of the earth. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967].
  • Fivush, R. and Haden, C. , eds, 2003. Autobiographical memory and the construction of a narrative self: developmental and cultural perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Geertz, C., 2000. Available light: anthropological reflections on philosophical topics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Gerber, D., 2006. Authors of their lives: the personal correspondence of British immigrants to North America in the nineteenth century. New York: New York University Press.
  • Grice, H., 2002. Negotiating identities: an introduction to Asian American women's writing. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Halbwachs, M., 1950. La mémoire collective. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France [On collective memory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992].
  • Hong Kingston, M., 1982. Cultural misreadings by American reviewers. In: G. Amirthanayagam , ed. Asian and Western writers in dialogue: new cultural identities. London: Macmillan, 5565.
  • Hong Kingston, M., [1976] 1989. The woman warrior: memoirs of a girlhood among ghosts. New York: Random House.
  • Jolly, M. , ed., 2001. Encyclopedia of life writing: autobiographical and biographical forms, Vol. 2. London and Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn.
  • Lejeune, P., 1989. On autobiography. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Ling, A., 2009. Chinese American women writers: the tradition behind Maxine Hong Kingston. In: H. Bloom , ed. Asian-American writers. New York: Chelsea House, 6385.
  • Middleton, D. and Brown, S. D., 2005. The social psychology of experience: studies in remembering and forgetting. London: Sage.
  • Nelson, K., 2007. Young minds in social worlds: experience, meaning, and memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Niiya, B., 1999. Asian American autobiographical tradition. In: G. J. Leonard , ed. The Asian American heritage: a companion to literature and the arts. London and New York: Garland, 427434.
  • Olick, J. K., 2008. From collective memory to the sociology of mnemonic practices and products. In: A. Erll and A. Nünning , eds. Cultural memory studies: an international and interdisciplinary handbook. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 151161.
  • Olick, J. K., 2011. Collective memory: the two cultures. In: J. K. Olick , V. Vinitzky-Seroussi and D. Levy , eds. The collective memory reader. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Olick, J. K. , Vinitzky-Seroussi, V. and Levy, D. , eds, 2011. The collective memory reader. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Ritivoi, A., 2002. Yesterday's self: nostalgia and the immigrant identity. Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • Rossington, M. and Whitehead, A., eds, 2007. Introduction. In: M. Rossington and A. Whitehead , eds. Theories of memory. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 116.
  • Saunders, M., 2008. Life writing, cultural memory, and literary studies. In: A. Erll and A. Nünning , eds. Cultural memory studies: an international and interdisciplinary handbook. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 321331.
  • Smith, S., 1991. Maxine Hong Kingston's woman warrior: filiality and woman's autobiographical storytelling. In: R. R. Warhol and D. Price Herndl , eds. Feminisms: an anthology of literary theory and criticism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 10581078.
  • Tóibín, C., 2006. A thousand prayers. New York Review of Books, 53 (19), 5053.
  • Wang, Q., 2004. The emergence of cultural self-constructs: autobiographical memory and self-description in European American and Chinese children. Developmental Psychology, 40 (1), 315.
  • Wang, Q. and Brockmeier, J., 2002. Autobiographical remembering as cultural practice: understanding the interplay between memory, self, and culture. Culture & Psychology, 8 (1), 4564.
  • Wang, Q. and Ross, M., 2007. Culture and memory. In: H. Kitayama and D. Cohen , eds. Handbook of cultural psychology. New York: Guilford Publications, 645667.
  • Watt, I., 1996. Myth of modern individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wu, P.-Y., 1990. The Confucian's progress: autobiographical writings in traditional China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. The individual and the social
  3. Traditions of mixed memories
  4. The Asian American autobiographical tradition
  5. Ghosts have no memories
  6. Extending the individual frame of memories
  7. Remembering no-name woman
  8. References
  9. Biography
  • Jens Brockmeier, a Senior Scientist at the Free University Berlin, a Visiting Professor at the University of Manitoba, and a Senior Research Fellow at London's Centre for Narrative Research, has a background in psychology and philosophy. His research is concerned with the cultural nexus between narrative and the mind, with a focus on memory, identity, and the autobiographical process.