The Past and Present Self in Memoir
VIVIAN GORNICK’S FIERCE ATTACHMENTS AND MAXINE HONG KINGSTON’S THE WOMAN WARRIOR
If memoir tells the story of the past, it often starts with the premise that the past does not understand the past.
Within this dialectic, the writer, in the present, forges the voice of the memoir and a complexity of consciousness that the past self did not possess. The struggle is not simply to put down what happened or who one was; it is also to reveal or discover a fuller and more layered reading and understanding of the past and who that past self has become.
In this way, memoir is the expression or creation of a new identity or self and a new relationship to the past.
Though the description I have just given does not apply to all memoirs, I would assert that it applies more often to those memoirs that obtain the richness and complexity we seek in other forms of literature—namely, literary memoirs. In such memoirs, the voice of the narrator in the present looking back on the past is generally established very early on, often through the use of contrasting perspectives.
Here, for example, is the opening paragraph of Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments:
I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment onto the second-floor landing. Mrs. Drucker is standing in the open doorway of the apartment next door, smoking a cigarette. My mother locks the door and says to her, “What are you doing here?” Mrs. Drucker jerks her head backward toward her own apartment. “He wants to lay me. I told him he’s gotta take a shower before he can touch me.” I know that “he” is her husband. “He” is always the husband. “Why? He’s so dirty?” my mother says. “He feels dirty to me,” Mrs. Drucker says. “Drucker, you’re a whore,” my mother says. Mrs. Drucker shrugs her shoulder. “I can’t ride the subway,” she says. In the Bronx “ride the subway” was a euphemism for going to work.
What does the eight-year-old Gornick understand of this conversation between her mother and Mrs. Drucker? “I knew that ‘he’ is her husband,” Gornick writes. But however worldly this eight-year-old might have been, she surely did not understand all that the two adults holding this conversation understand. The reader can intuit this adult understanding without it having to be explained. So it would seem, at first glance, that the “show don’t tell” aesthetic allows this little incident to proceed succinctly and vividly.
But examine the next paragraph:
I lived in that tenement between the ages of six and twenty-one. There were twenty apartments, four to a floor, and all I remember is a building full of women. I hardly remember the men at all. They were everywhere, of course—husbands, fathers, brothers—but I remember only the women. And I remember them all crude like Mrs. Drucker or fierce like my mother. They never spoke as though they knew who they were, understood the bargain they had struck with life, but they often acted as though they knew. Shrewd, volatile, unlettered, they performed on a Dreiserian scale. There would be years of apparent calm, then suddenly an outbreak of panic and wildness: two or three lives scarred (perhaps ruined), and the turmoil would subside. Once again: sullen quiet, erotic torpor, the ordinariness of daily denial. And I—the girl growing in their midst, being made in their image—I absorbed them as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face. It has taken me thirty years to understand how much of them I understood.
The perspective of this paragraph is not that of the eight-year-old Gornick; it is that of the adult woman, thirty years later. This present self assigns the adjectives “crude” to Mrs. Drucker and “fierce” to her mother; it voices the wonderful line that “they performed on a Dreiserian scale” and portions out the stages of existence in her tenement as “sullen quiet, erotic torpor, the ordinariness of daily denial.” This last phrase implies that the narrator self in the present will pierce through that denial of the past; as she makes clear in the next two sentences, that piercing cannot come from her younger self. Indeed, the women and the environment she grew up in instead induced or instructed in the younger Gornick a state of unconsciousness: “It has taken me thirty years to understand how much of them I understood.” As a child, Gornick experienced this world of women and imbibed, without knowing, certain ways of acting in the world and perceiving other women and herself. But the child could not articulate that this process was occurring, much less how or why or what it entailed. Only the adult Gornick can do this.
Two voices are present then: that of the past self and that of the present narrating self.
As I mentioned in the preceding essay, at the beginning of The Woman Warrior Maxine Hong Kingston tells one of her mother’s stories, about an aunt back in China who got pregnant while her husband was away in America. After she is reviled and attacked by her fellow villagers, the aunt gives birth to her child and then drowns herself and the child in the family well. The aunt’s tale is a story about the breaking of taboos and what inevitably follows from such transgression; it is a story about extravagance and profligacy in a world of poverty and austerity, a story about silence and shame. Kingston’s mother ends it with an admonition and a warning: “Don’t let your father know what I told you. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us. . . . The villagers are watchful.”
Kingston’s memoir recounts the struggles between her and her Chinese-born mother and her mother’s stories of the past, and it contrasts her mother’s past with Kingston’s childhood growing up in America as the daughter of immigrants. Throughout the book, the mother’s interpretations of the past and the present weigh heavily on and inform Kingston’s own sense of herself. In the process, Kingston attempts to understand her childhood in terms of both how she as a child experienced it and what it means to her now, in the present:
Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on. She tested our strength to establish realities. Those in the emigrant generations who could not reassert brute survival died young and far from home. Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America.
For some readers, it is the mother’s stories, her past and her character, that dominate the book, but for other readers, especially the children of immigrants, just as crucial, and perhaps more essential, is Kingston’s development of her own voice and her own perspective on the past. The mother knows she is Chinese and thus who she is. Kingston, on the other hand, is a Chinese American, and what that means is neither obvious nor clear to her. The book is a struggle for self-definition, a search for a language to describe who she is. When she starts the memoir, her identity is a question or, rather, a series of questions. Though in certain ways she never answers these questions with any finality, asking them and searching for answers propel the memoir forward.
Near the end of the memoir, the adolescent Kingston confronts her mother with an outburst of grievances, which ends with the following declaration:
And I don’t want to listen to any more of your stories; they have no logic. They scramble me up. You lie with stories. You won’t tell me a story and then say, “This is a true story,” or, “This is just a story.” I can’t tell the difference. I don’t even know what your real names are. I can’t tell what’s real and what you make up. Ha! You can’t stop me from talking.
In writing her memoir, Kingston acknowledges both the gift of her mother’s stories and their mystery; they have helped form who she is as a person and as a writer. Her charge as her mother’s daughter and as a writer is not an ultimate determination of the truth or falsehood of her mother’s stories; no, it is to uncover their multiple meanings and interpretations. To understand this, the present narrating self must reexamine her own history and how she became the person she is. The daughter acknowledges that she had to leave home “in order to see the world logically” and that away from home, in college, she “learned to think that mysteries are for explanation.” But that is only the viewpoint of one of her selves, the self who obtained a college education. This self became conversant with the America outside her parents’ home, the place where they “shine floodlights into dark corners: no ghosts.” But in her memoir, the ghosts are present and won’t go away. The person who writes about them, in the present, is divided and haunted, is able to see her childhood both from the eyes of outsiders and from the eyes of her mother.
Kingston’s memoir now serves as a model for memoirs by other immigrant children, asking the same questions concerning the story and meaning of their hyphenated selves.