Guest Post: Malinda Lo on The Woman Warrior

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Malinda Lo debuted in 2009 with Ash, which has made an enormous splash, getting shorlisted for gazillions of prizes and being loved by readers all over. I have heard wonderful things about it.1 I invited Malinda to be a guest blogger because I have become a big fan of her blog and I’d like to encourage more of you to read it. *hint* *hint* Also Aussie & Kiwi readers take note: Ash will be published here next week!

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Malinda Lo is the author of Ash, a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian twist. Published last fall in the U.S. and Canada, Ash comes out in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand on 4 March. Ash was a finalist for the ALA’s 2010 William C. Morris Award and a Kirkus Best YA Book of 2009. Her next novel, Huntress, a companion to Ash, will be published in spring 2011. She lives in Northern California with her partner and their dog. Her website is

Malinda says:

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about race and representation in young adult books. Justine’s blog has become one of the centers for that discussion, and because of that, when she asked me to guest blog I jumped at the chance to share one of my experiences of encountering race in the pages of a book.

Many of the posts about this subject have focused on the importance of publishing books about people of color so that people of color can see themselves represented in print. Reading these posts made me remember my junior year in high school, when my favorite English teacher gave me a book to read because she thought I might identify with it. I am Chinese American; the book was The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, an autobiography subtitled “Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts.”

She meant well, but the book made me feel like a total foreigner. I hated it.

It made me wonder: Was this the way white Americans saw my family? Did they really think that I came from a family that believed in ghosts and treated their daughters like property?

I remember being distinctly disturbed by the book, and when I decided to write this post, I went back and re-read the first chapter. In retrospect, I’m stunned that my teacher gave it to me, because that chapter alone includes sex, rape, misogyny, and suicide.

I was probably 16 years old when I read it, and while I’d like to think that my teacher thought I might be mature enough to handle the content, I wonder if it was simply the only book she knew of that involved a female Chinese American main character. I have to give her points for attempting to find me a book that mirrored my life, but the fact is, The Woman Warrior made me cringe.

It’s not that the book is poorly written. Reading through it again, I find much to enjoy in Kingston’s prose. It’s that the book seemed to have nothing to do with me or my background, and the idea that my teacher thought it did shocked me. I thought: Was this what being Chinese American was supposed to be like?

(Notably, the book has been criticized as much as it has been praised, with some Asian American writers arguing that Kingston uses Orientalist stereotypes to present an exoticized vision of Chinese America for white readers. Kingston herself has asked why she should be required to represent anyone but herself.)

I was born in China, but I moved to the U.S. with my family in 1978 when I was 3 years old. I come from a long line of intellectuals, and some of my family were persecuted for their political backgrounds by the Communist Party. In addition, my paternal grandmother was white. She was one of the few Westerners to actually live in China during the Cultural Revolution, and when she returned to the U.S., she wrote a memoir about it (In the Eye of the Typhoon by Ruth Earnshaw Lo).

Because of all this, I grew up thinking my family was special. I’m pretty sure it made me (as a teen) a bit self-important and defensive about all things related to China.

On the other hand, I also grew up as one of only four Asian American kids in my high school class. The four of us knew each other and we had overlapping friends, but we did not group together out of any shared “Asian American” identity. There were too few of us. Instead, I think we all tried to blend in as much as possible. We didn’t advertise our different cultural traditions; we didn’t speak foreign languages at school even if we did at home; we did our best to be normal—to be white.

But Woman Warrior—and the fact that my teacher gave it to me specifically—forced me to acknowledge that I was not like everyone else, and it was an awful feeling.

In high school, we have a lot of chains on our feet. The way you dress; the street you live on; the group you belong to. I didn’t want another one. I was happier ignoring the fact that other people perceived me as different.

It took many years for me to accept that other people will see me through their own preconceptions, regardless of my wishes.

I joined (and left) Asian American student groups at college. I majored in Chinese Studies, then got a master’s in East Asian Studies. I went back to China. I dated Asian Americans. I attempted to become part of the Asian American community. But I never felt like I really fit in. The ghost of Woman Warrior, I admit, has been difficult to dodge.

And then there’s the fact that I’m a lesbian. Being queer and Asian can be problematic, because many Asian American families are quite homophobic. There wasn’t much room for queerness in the Asian American community when I was coming out, and I felt as though I had to choose between identities.

Sometimes, it’s still a struggle, especially when meeting new people who only know what they see on my face. They see Asianness, but they don’t see my white ancestors. They see a feminine woman; they don’t understand how I could be gay. As recently as last fall, I’ve gotten the comment, “You speak English so well.”

For those of us who occupy the spaces between identities—because of our personalities or because we have a foot in more than one subgroup—finding representation anywhere, in any form of media, can be extremely rare. It can be tempting to hand a person a book and say, “This is where you fit in,” but in many, many cases, that won’t be true. It may end up alienating the person more than making them feel welcome.

I want to make sure to state that I wholeheartedly believe that it’s important to publish books that incorporate diverse characters and stories. In my experience, every book, TV show or film that includes difference makes a difference—even if I personally disliked it. Woman Warrior did not mirror my life, but it gave me something to reject, and that played a valuable role in the continuing evolution of my own identity.

I have always identified much more with Jo March or Anne Shirley than any of the people in Woman Warrior. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t appreciate — eventually — my teacher’s suggestion that I read the book.

After all, twenty years later, I’m still thinking about it.

  1. Yup, Ash is on my to be read list. My reading for my 1930s book means it’s taking me a long time to get to more recent books. []


  1. Vendela on #

    Representation is a tricky thing, isn’t it? I sometimes feel like I’m stubbornly collecting books and stories and movies where women fall in love with women and it doesn’t end unbearably tragically (or irritatingly conformist–“Kissing Jessica Stein” was great until the last, oh, ten minutes or so). “Ash” was such a novel, and it made me very, very happy for that reason (and many others).

    I’m not arguing that queerness is the same thing as race, of course–it’s frequently very annoying and frustrating to pass, but it’s a privilege as well. One of my areas of research is in translations of books written in two languages (like Oscar Wao) and one of the things I’m beginning to see (hardly a revolutionary insight) is that the chosen translated novels tend to be a certain kind of ‘different’ narrative, which in itself is conformist–giving the audience the story they expect, and this is often furthered by the language of the translation as well. And I don’t mean that the novels chosen are necessarily the wrong novels, but that a diversity of stories might need to mean more than offering alternative POVs that are made to sound more like each other, if that makes sense. As if the subject matter is more important than the language of the text; as if Dominican-American authors sound the same as Indian ones.

    In essence, I want more stories. Always. *grins*

  2. London on #

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts; this is a really beautifully written and interesting post. I can relate to your experiences to some degree. I’m half Middle Eastern and half Irish, which means I look, if anything, sort of Jewish. I get quite a lot of anti-Semitic comments, actually. I also constantly get, “Gosh, you look just like so-and-so,” ands so-and-so is, 99 times out of 100, not someone I actually look like. At all. Instead the commenter is trying to place me–trying to identify that otherness about my face or shape or whatever and put me in a box. Consequently the odd role of those of us with blended backgrounds or cultural experiences is of great interest to me…. One of the many reasons why I find myself reading Justine’s blog so frequently. 🙂
    Thanks again… Your book has been on my TBR pile for a long time, but I think I’ll shuffle it to the top. It sounds fantastic.

  3. Julia Rios on #

    Another great guest post. Thank you for this, Malinda. There’s a lot to think about here, and I don’t have anything terribly useful to contribute to the discussion, but I’m wondering if there are any books featuring Asian American characters that you loved.

  4. Gillian on #

    I was given The Diary of Anne Frank to read when I was eleven, because it reflected so very deeply the life of an Australian Jewish child in the 1970s.

  5. A. Grey on #

    I might be way off base, but for myself I see many parallels in the way you grew up as an Asian American, and how it was for me growing up as a twin. Twins were still novel back then, especially identical twins. People have the weirdest ideas of what it’s like to be twin. They would blatantly obsess over which one of us was older, who had more friends, who was dating, if the other one would date and so on and so forth – right in front of us but without including us in the conversation. It was like being a strange new species of animal and having people discuss your behvioral habits.

    And it persists even now, because my sis is married and expecting her first child and I’ve never even dated.

    I’ve noticed more and more that twins are showing up in books right now, but oddly enough, most of the people writing those books (not all of them) have no idea what being a twin is like. They have no actual experience with twins. Which makes it very strange to me that they would write about it. I don’t have anything against these authors, but it makes reading the books weird, especially since most of those twin characters fit perfectly into the ‘twin’ stereotype, when there really is no such thing.

  6. Kristan on #

    I wonder, have you read any Amy Tan, and if so, did you find that to be as foreign as Maxine Hong Kingston?

    I ask because I’m half-Taiwanese (my mother was born & raised there) and I too didn’t really identify with The Woman Warrior, but Joy Luck Club? God, that was like someone taking my innermost thoughts and turning them into a story. Ditto some of her other books (Bonesetter’s Daughter, Hundred Secret Senses).

    So I was just curious.

    Regardless of your answer, thanks for this great post. I had very different experiences (went to Chinese school, had lots of Chinese friends, *wanted* to feel more Chinese but instead always felt not-Chinese-enough) but I agree with your points all the same. No book is going to represent the experience of every group it encompasses. (For ex. I’m sure not all Dominicans feel Junot Diaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is representative of them; I’m sure not all Anglo-American women feel Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life is representative of them.) But it’s important to have things both to accept and to reject.

    (Also, I’ve heard great things about Ash, so congrats! It’s on my to-read list. :))

  7. Kate Marshall on #

    I have heard such criticism of Woman Warrior before, and I have heard extremely similar criticism of Precious/Push. (Note: in saying all this, I’m in a position of pretty lofty privilege; I’m young enough that even as a queer girl I could get my hands on many queer-girl stories in middle school/high school. All that said…) I think this falls under the idea of “the danger of a single story.” Since those are the most visible stories, it may (and does) lead people to believe them to be wholly representative. That’s a problem, but I don’t think it’s a problem solved by not publishing/popularizing such stories, because they are valid stories, and real experiences for some people. I think that this is one of the greatest problems with the lack of diversity in publishing; when good stories from unusual perspectives crop up, they’re seized upon and become symbolic of whatever group they portray. Since there isn’t a wide field to draw from, you don’t get the rest of the story, the other experiences of people with the same ethnicity, skin color, education level, disability, sexual orientation, etc, etc. I guess to boil it down, the stories aren’t the problem, the lack of all the other stories is the problem.

    Those are my initial thoughts, anyhow, and I’m leaving the issue of well-meaning teachers for another train of thought. On a side note, I did quite enjoy Ash, and would have loved it in indecent ways in high school.

  8. Tansy Rayner Roberts on #

    Hi Malinda!

    Thanks for a great post. I really liked Ash – turning fairy tales inside out and showing alternative ways of telling those stories is one of my favourite things, and giving your Cinders an alternative to the prince was very gratifying (I have developed over my life a deep loathing of the Prince Charming concept).

    Have people’s perceptions of you as a Chinese American affected the way they received or reacted to Ash?

  9. Ah Yuan // wingstodust on #

    It’s interesting that you mention how your teacher handed you Woman Warrior, because something similar happened to me back in middle school. My school librarian, whom I see on a regular basis because I was always borrowing books on almost a daily basis, must have noted my Chinese-ness or something because she constantly rec’d me books like Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah and A Leaf in the Bitter Wind by Ting-xing Ye. Which, were, you know, very fine and interesting memoirs, but I didn’t see myself or my experiences as an ethnic Chinese reflected in those books. I think Communist Mainland China is interesting to read about and all, but I don’t feel close to that history (my family left the Mainland before Cultural Revolution etc).

    This post also reminded me of a speech made by Chimamanda Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story”. ( Because the Chinese culture has lots and LOTS of stories to tell, and yet what we get access to may be only one and that this one story may be considered to be representative of the whole culture erases the other varied and diverse voices that are also part of the cultural experience, and um, Adichie says all this better than I can, so I recommend that people watch the video instead of reading this ineloquent babble. ^^;

  10. Joe Iriarte on #

    What a great post! Parts of it certainly felt familiar to me. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with a latino protagonist, but I do throw people off because I don’t conform to their expectations of what latinos are like. Other latinos tend not to realize I am one, and Anglos tend to see it as an affectation when I call attention to my culture, like that’s not really me. So what you had to say about there not being one way to be a part of X cultural group really rang true for me.

  11. annie on #

    @A. Grey – have you read the book Wish by Alexandra Bullen. the main character is a twin, her sister died and then the family moves to San francisco. i’m not a twin so i don’t really know what it’s like, so i’m curious if you’ve read it and had a response to it?

    the book is set in san francisco, i’m born and raised there so i was kind of nit picky when i read the details of the places in the city & of public transportation. she did a pretty accurate job, just tiny details that stuck out that only locals would know about.

    on the other hand, i read the woman warrior when i was a sophomore in high school and i found it to be fantastical, scary and very interesting and sad. i think i did relate to some of the details, like burning paper clothes and money for my deceased relatives but it’s definitely not the defining book for chinese-americans. i can’t say any book about an ethnic group is, and i think it sucks that people latch onto what kate marshall said about “the single story.” which is why we need more stories! for me, growing up in san francisco with a big asian and latino population, going to a high school with the majority of chinese-american kids is definitely a different experience than yours malinda.

  12. christine castigliano on #

    My gosh, isn’t every story and every character extremely individual? Isn’t that the point? Does anyone set out to write a novel to create a single, definitive POV of an entire ethnicity/gender/socio-economic class/sexual preference/profession/etc.?

    Like snowflakes – or patterns in the Mandlebrot set (fractals), we mirror the whole, but are uniquely ourselves. Our characters are the same.

    Perhaps the well-meaning librarian didn’t intend you to find yourself in the pages of Warrior Woman, but rather to discover another unique POV, with an ethnicity that matched yours.

    Thanks for a very provocative post. I am very excited to read Ash!

  13. Justine on #

    Christine: That is Malinda Lo’s point. That what we identify with is enormously variable and just because someone is Chinese American does not mean that they will identify with every book about a Chinese American person. Yet many well-meaning librarians/teachers/parents etc keep making that assumption.

  14. Belongum on #

    That never happened to me. I wonder what book – if anything – any of my teachers at that time, would have handed me? There simply wasn’t much around then for young ‘blackfellas’ in an Australian country town high-school in the early 80’s. They probably wouldn’t have trusted me with it…

    No end of assumptions based on all the same stereo-types though… I hope one day this changes for all of us…
    thanks to writers like you eh?! Goodonya… 😉

  15. Malinda Lo on #

    Thanks to all of you who commented and said you enjoyed Ash!

    @Vendela – That’s so interesting about the translation thing. I do agree that books about difference tend to fit into a narrative about difference — e.g. many, many Asian American books following the model of Joy Luck Club. It’s a mixed blessing. It means people want to read that stuff (I guess), but also, they push aside other experiences of difference.

    @Julia Rios – I tend to read more Asian American memoirs than fiction, actually. I remember enjoying PAPER DAUGHTER by M. Elaine Mar, though it’s been several years since it was published. It’s about a Chinese girl who immigrates to Denver. Memorable!

    @Gillian – Just: WOW.

    @A. Grey – Interesting! A good reminder to think carefully about our assumptions.

    @Kristan – I have read JOY LUCK CLUB, and I admit I did not care for it. I know that many millions have loved that book, and actually I really enjoyed the movie. I think partly because it was such a novelty to see an entire cast of Asians on the screen! But the book … didn’t work for me.

    @Tansy – Hmm, I think that people’s perceptions of me as a Chinese American may have led them to believe there would be Chinese American characters in the book, which … is a big enough topic for a whole other blog post. 🙂

  16. N. on #

    What should well-meaning librarians etc. be doing, then?

    Recent guest posts have suggested that there are “not enough” YA books with a character of X race or Y sexuality getting Z results… but Malinda coherently outlines why even when those books exist, the smallest minority is really the individual and one may not relate with one’s “group.”

    So what should librarians do–recommend books with Asian characters to Asian students, books with queer characters to queer students, books with male characters to male students…

    ..or not?

  17. C. Cooper on #

    The way “race” as a cultural narrative has played out in the USA, the only two categories with any visible political reality in this country have been “white” and “non-white.” Sadly, no multi-culti, rainbow, hyphenate hair-splitting is allowed that would make any real difference. Most modern humans are genetically mixed. But there are no figurative or literal prizes for having an Indian, a Jew, an African, or a Scot in an otherwise homogeneous family tree.
    This hasn’t really changed much in the four decades since desegregation battles were waged almost school by school in this country through the 1960s. In the last 30 years even suburbia has seen an influx of different non-white nationalities: Vietnamese to Texas; Ethiopians to California; Nepalese to New York; Tamils and Punjabis to New Jersey. In 30 years, American-born kids of this first wave of new(er) immigrants have had time to graduate high school or college, marry, and have children of their own. Some of those marriages were “interracial,” creating babies of blended heritage too. But America still makes her people *choose* their identity. It’s not enough to just be whoever you are. And by the time we hit puberty we all know there are distinct social benefits and penalties attached to whatever identity you choose.
    “White” is still the default category, the presupposed NORM against which all other qualities are judged, not only in the U.S., but also in other countries where the biological fantasy of race is still taken seriously. If there is a baseline “American” personality which incorporates multiple ethnic retentions (and I believe there is, although I have seen kids raised all over the world who display similarly pluralistic personalities,) then why does “fitting in” for so many ambitious American-born children of color in white-majority settings still mean being as indistinguishable from “the white kids” as possible?

  18. angharad on #


    My thoughts when reading Lo’s post were that Readers Advisory is a nuanced business that cannot be reduced to checking boxes and pushing a submit button to get a recommendation. We’ve talked about the importance of seeing ourselves in books. That can mean seeing someone who looks just like me, or it can mean seeing someone who seems to feel like I do inside. So my feeling is there’s no rubric that works a hundred percent of the time. You have to ask questions and listen to the answers and then make suggestions. It takes time, attention, and experience. I love librarians who do good RA, but I’ve run across a lot that are really embarrassingly bad at it. (Really. Embarrassing.)

    I’d like to encourage people who love their local librarian to send their library directors or their school principals letters that say so. (IANAL by the way.) I think librarians are pretty self-effacing and people take the work they do for granted.

  19. Joe Iriarte on #

    Excellent comment, angharad. I’ve been thinking about this very question all day, and I think you nailed it.

    I’ve often commented on how I wish there were more positively portrayed latino characters in fiction, but it’s really a different issue than that of wanting to identify perfectly with a character. As a kid and as an adult, I had no problem reading about and walking in the shoes of female characters and anglo characters. I want to see latinos as characters because I don’t want kids of all cultures growing up with the unchallenged notion that heroes are always white, and that latinos are always comic sidekicks or drug dealers. I want those characters to exist for the latino kids to see, yes, but also for the *white* kids to see. (And I *don’t* want one work to be the “definitive” book with good latino characters. I want latino protagonists in proportion to the number of potential latino readers out there, and of all different types so that we learn to take it as understood that “latino” is not any kind catch-all.)

    I can only imagine it’s similar for people from other minority backgrounds.

    But if a kid asks you for a book recommendation and you don’t look past the color of his or her skin when coming up with something, then you’re not looking very far at all!

    These are two different, albeit closely related, conversations, I think.

  20. A. Grey on #

    @Annie I haven’t read ‘Wish’ but I’m going to look it up right now!

  21. Josh on #

    As a multicultural educator, I gotta thank you for this post, Melinda. My take on WW is that there’s nothing wrong with what Kingston (or Tan, or Alice Walker) chose to do; but The System disproportionately rewards books by POC that can be read, or misread, as enforcing certain stigmas and stereotypes. The librarian wasn’t exactly doing that, just engaging in garden-variety tokenism . . .

  22. Josh on #

    Excuse me, “teacher,” not “librarian.” Don’t what the Library Mafiya to come after me for that mistake.

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