By Colorado Review Associate Editor Michelle Thomas
This spring, at AWP in Portland, I met Maxine Hong Kingston. It was your typical AWP meet-cute: I attended her panel and then hovered in the meet-and-greet line. I had so many thoughts that I wanted to share. Namely, that I had first read The Woman Warrior in high school and a certain image had stayed with me throughout the years between then and graduate school: a knife slicing through a tied tongue. Looking back at the meeting, this image of the tongue is even more appropriate because, when I opened my mouth to talk to her, my tongue failed me. Instead of talking, I cried.
Fortunately for me, Maxine Hong Kingston is an incredibly kind person. She waited patiently for me to find the words to thank her. Still, the moment surprised me. My tongue would not function; my eyes would not stop functioning. When the body stops responding to the commands of brain, it is a sign—to stop, to pay attention. Was I crying to let her know how much that book meant to me? It has been over a decade since I last read it. Or was I crying for myself?
I was a silent high schooler. I remember traveling down the hallways, mostly, as a pair of eyes. I remember watching people greet, text, read bunched up in the courtyard, or high-five after a big game. I do not remember doing these things, my own hands and voice out of the frame. What I remember is watching.
Returning to Fort Collins, I got a copy of The Woman Warrior. As a writer and an intern, I am always looking for work that create spaces and empathies for characters who are, in essence, people whose whole existence is shaped by ink and paper. The trick of caring is the main bulk of the work. Rereading now, as a graduate student and an apprentice of fiction, I see what I could not articulate as a teenager, or even in front of Maxine Hong Kingston in Portland: her work creates the physical and emotional landscape of empathy. It opens with a story that is meant to be passed from woman to woman, a story that is meant to be held silently, a story of a woman who died without speaking against a collective narrative that had turned against her. As a female writer, I think a lot about silence and its costs. It is important to return to examples of works that make a reader feel—it is an exercise that allows a person to step outside of the limits of her own skin and be, for however short a time, less isolated. And this book, this work, is one that takes a knife to the silence. It cuts the tongue, it cuts the ties. It opens.
And I did manage to thank Maxine Hong Kingston. I took a few quick sips of water and I got my tongue back. I said to her, “I used to be silent.” I said to her, “When I was silent, this story helped me to speak.”