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Dragons of the Soul

4/4/21

The Soul as Unknowable Space:

Dragons, Deconstruction, Polymorphy, and Non-Binary Identity in The Woman Warrior

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Kingston is many things; it is also a book.

           I begin with such esotericism because this sense is necessary for my queer spiritual reading of Kingston’s imaginatively deconstructive work. We will be dissecting a section of the book in which Maxine [1] becomes Fa Mu Lan by describing an illustration from a childhood book, deftly morphing into the first-person perspective of the myth [2] (Kingston 20, 21).

     This transition is effortless; there is no boundary between the mundane world of childhood and the supramundane [3] world of the myth. It is at this moment that two old people greet Maxine/Fa Mu Lan; they are described in a binary fashion: man and woman (21). This is important, as they ARE these things. We must remember that we are not in the real world. We are in a mythical world the instant that Maxine transitions into the character of Fa Mu Lan. Myths are always representative of something else; they point to ideas and feelings. They can be wrong; they can be right. They will always reflect those values of the teller or culture that they derive from.

     This version of the Fa Mu Lan myth is being told by a Chinese-American. However, it holds values that are distinctly Chinese, as that is ultimately where its first telling occurred [4]. The binaries seen here are thus constructed from that cultural ocean: the old man and old woman can be thought of as the divine father and the divine mother. This construction is seen ubiquitously across many cultures [5]. But what does it mean? How has it evolved? I cannot answer all these questions today, but I can use Kingston’s work to describe its current evolution.

     After Fa Mu Lan has trained for seven years, the old people take her to the mountains. She is left to roam and survive with nothing. She feels hunger. While hallucinating from hunger, her world starts to tear apart, displaying unto her the incredible polymorphic quality of the human body and the “sacred binary” (27). This polymorphy I refer to is the ability of humanity to assume infinite forms and still be entitled “human”. Kingston succinctly describes polymorphy via the dancing of two people, ungendered, that become many different cultures throughout time as they do so. Then, out of this polymorphy comes two figures, a binary. It is obviously constructed and no longer human. The old people are referred to as angels, brilliantly lit (27). This deconstructs gender from its binary, showing the glorified status of the two extremes [6] outshining the more muted gold of the previously non-gendered people [7]. This is enforced later, when Fa Mu Lan says, “I talked to no one except the two old people, but they seemed to be many people” (33). That beautiful gold that is more rewarding than the binary, lies just beneath: a feeling.

 

     Let’s look at another example in the text that breaks deeply held binaries and confronts the widely held belief that genders are inherently different: the trial of the dragon. This dragon is described by Maxine as landscape, as minutia, and as body. The dragon is described as interconnection (29). The old people say, “These mountains are also like the tops of other dragons’ heads” (28). Remember, we are in the spirit world. We are in Maxine’s psychological landscape, playing out the myth of Fa Mu Lan. Her dragon is all around her, but visible particularly in minutia like the whorls of resin under bark (29). The old people make it clear that all the dragons are similar, but different. They are invisible yet omnipresent. The layperson calls this God. The educated person calls this a foolish feeling. The outcast calls this nothing, for they don’t need its love.

 

Queer people don’t get to pray. We get to look at everyone else’s religion and wonder what it’s like to believe that a heavenly father will come save you. We get told we can’t exist, so we make our own myths on tattered pages. We make so much that it bursts out, birth again. We get to look up at the stars and cry, knowing that it’ll all be never over soon. That’s what we get to do sometimes, and it’s beautiful.

But we don’t get to pray.

 

     Maxine’s conception of the soul, a dragon as she calls it, is an inner landscape that is unique to a person, mysterious to even that person, polymorphic in its enormity. Within that landscape sits a house, in which sits a complementing pair; binary siting in a box. We can live in the box, but the old people make it apparent that this is a childish way of being (28). This is the equivalent of choosing to be okay with a constructed binary in the soul, to give oneself wholesale to it. It is an expression of centrism and support for the status quo.

     Another important detail is that one must search for dragons. Ergo, we must search for our own soul. How can we claim to know ourselves if we have not traversed our inner landscape? Fa Mu Lan does this in order to prepare herself to break boundaries and binaries in the real world, shifting between archetypes and thus proving their falseness as single narratives. The dragon and the soul are both forces that dismantle binaries; they both work in the perilous realm of paradox. We can only point to the dragon and the soul as ideas without meaning or direction, for if we try to define them in anyway, we fail them as concepts. They are defined by their indefinability (Thompson 1).

     The soul and the dragon as landscape also break apart our notions of what is alive and sentient. Maybe a person takes more solace with a bird than an old man or woman. Maybe their inner landscape differs so fully that they are unrecognizable. This fits nicely with polymorphy and non-binary understandings of gender. Each person is unique and capable of infinite uniqueness within their lifetime. A person is necessarily deconstructed as soon as they enter the world, torn between biological, societal, familial, and individual expectations. This creates a polymorphy of expectations that multiplies continuously as new experiences are had by a person. A queer person is harmed by some of these expectations, and through that wound discovers their own individual dragon, their true soul, unmasked before them [8]. This truth comes in many forms (or none) and is not brilliantly lit. It has both dark and light, earth and sky. It is not always the drop of one in the other or the drop of the other in the one; it can be the mixing of oil and water or the mixing of water and food dye. Your own dragon defines the soul work that you must do. Your journey through the self can be heavy (dig the dirt and expose a dragon bone, you’ll see the marrow and turn away, reborn).

 

     Maxine has a difficult piece of soul work that her reenactment of the Fa Mu Lan myth represents. She must resolve paradoxical historical traumas that were perpetuated by the emotional silence of her foremothers. The very first line of the book enforces this trauma on the audience. “’You must not tell anyone…’” (1). We are firmly placed in Maxine’s shoes here, standing, unsure of what we should do with the following lines. This negates the natural “talk-story” quality of the subsequent writing, as the audience must never talk it again at the behest of the author’s mother.

     The dragon and soul return once more to describe this trauma. The dragon’s unseen pieces are the trauma that can manifest throughout our lives. The soul’s dark corners are knotted parts of ourselves (or our culture) that are projected onto others, damaging them in the process. At the end of the text, Maxine describes an occasion in school in which she bullied a younger girl who did not/could not talk. She describes yelling “say, ‘Honk!’” at the girl (178). This piece of trauma can be traced back to the first chapter, where women are compared to geese in their uselessness. Maxine plays out this historical trauma through inflicting trauma on another person who better represents her own fears. She is ultimately afraid to be a “goose”, to be kept as a farmyard animal. Her writing of this book is the most positive way that she could have transformed this fear. The Woman Warrior is a manifestation of her desire to speak up beyond the image of the goose, to roar as Fa Mu Lan could roar in battle or while giving birth. She wants desperately to be strong and to be heard.

 

     She bullies the non-speaking girl by asking her to speak and to curl her hands into fists, punching away Maxine’s attacks (179). In Maxine’s story, this is the final nail in the coffin. The deconstruction has reached such a height, describing a binary of women against those that call them geese. But here is a girl who acts as goose, as submissive. It challenges Maxine’s rebellious nature, so she acts out. Maxine desperately wants every woman to be a female avenger, and the saddest realization for her is that not everybody’s dragon is the same; some dragons are only like each other.

 

Some notes on words:

Non-Binary and Queer are here used interchangeably as both identity and theory. Both act as philosophies that can be used to interpret our world. Both act as identities that people feel describe their gender experience. I should also note that I am non-binary and research the ways in which queer people throughout history have practiced religion/spirit across a multiplicity of cultures.

Deconstruction is mentioned many times in this essay. I am using the construction of deconstruction enumerated by Robert Dale Parker in How to Interpret Literature.

 

Works Cited

     Kingston, Maxine. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Random House, 1976.

     Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. 4th ed., Oxford University Press, 2020.

     Thompson Mark, editor. Gay Soul: Finding the Heart of Gay Spirit and Nature with Sixteen Writers, Healers, Teachers, and Visionaries. Harper Collins, 1995.

 

Footnotes:

[1] The narrator and author.

[2] A first-person perspective myth is rare and a feat in and of itself.

[3] Or the sacred, for that matter.

[4] It is for this reason that I cannot fully dissect the myth, but only make guesses based on the rest of Kingston’s work and what I “know” about China.

[5] Unlike some comparative mythologists, this is not about proving archetypes as real, but rather as manifestations of how people want to understand the world.

[6] Man and Woman in this case.

[7] You have to have the bitter with the sweet. Or are they the same thing?

[8] Harmful expectations drive us to question others, deconstructing our own lives and giving queer and non-binary people special insight into their own drives. This insight is not unique to one group, as the concepts held in non-binary circles can be translated to other groups as beliefs, though the experience of these concepts will always yield more direct education than research or demonstration.

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