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Erased Identities

Uninhibited's picture

Women’s sexuality is a topic often silenced by society in order to perpetuate an image of the “purity” of a woman that fits traditional gender roles.  Women are expected to keep their sexualities private and, even in private, to withhold any outstanding passions or desires. When women break these gendered silences in regards to their sexuality, a tradition is ruptured and often in order to restore previous order, shame and/or violence are used as valid responses. I saw both of these instances in reading No Name Woman by Maxine Hong Kingston. This text, exemplified the complex ways in which women’s sexualities are often a source of shame in the private and public sphere. It also describes how the outcomes of rupturing these traditions can result in unsafe situations for the women who have broken the norm. Her story, can speak to the difficulty of “breaking free” within a society that does not yet accept women’s sexual freedom and that continues to perpetuate this idea by using the silencing of existence through storytelling as a warning for subsequent generations of women.

            In No Name Woman, Kingston tells the story of her aunt whose entire existence was denied, and therefore silenced, by her family because she broke traditional Chinese gender norms. When the village discovered that she was pregnant although her husband was out of the country, they stormed into her house violently. They broke things, took things, and enrolled in an act of shaming not only the “no-name woman” but also her family. It was this act of shaming that lead her family to permanently silence, perhaps as a way to erase the shame that she had brought on to the family as a result of her sexuality. There are many ways in which silence is manifested in this text; however, I’m most interested in how it is manifested by the fact that her aunt’s identity is denied by the family. This blatant silencing of her existence seems the most shocking to me. The fact that her family was unwilling to speak about her is an example of how permanent breaking the norm is in the public mind. The way in which Kingston describes her aunt’ makes it seem as though, it’s not only the fact that she became pregnant and brought shame to her family and village that lead to the erasing of her identity, but it is the fact that she broke village norms about what a woman should be and how the institution of marriage should be respected When Kingston’s mother says, “we say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born” they are claiming that her “sin” was so unforgivable and so outside of tradition, that it is better for them to deny her existence than admit that she made a mistake. Her punishment is not only having had her village and family turn against her, it is also being erased from her family’s history. Her punishment is being silenced for eternity, and as Kingston explains she “remains forever hungry.”

            As Kingston tries to fill in the gaps of her aunt’s story, she begins to imagine possible narratives for what lead her to become pregnant by a man other than her husband. It is no surprise then, that Kingston begins by thinking that perhaps her aunt was forced into having an affair by a man that was more powerful than her and that “masked himself when he joined the raid on her family.” This explanation, continues to place her aunt in a place of marginalized identity, in which a woman’s sexual desires cannot be possible unless it is solicited by a man. This thinking once again denies the possibility of the existence of women’s sexuality. Her next attempt to fill in her aunt’s gaps gives her aunt more agency and places her in a position in which she is the one desiring the sexual encounter. In doing this, Kingston visualizes her aunt paying close attention to her appearance in order to seduce her suitor. This is the explanation that I think explicitly contradicts traditional gender norms in regards to women’s sexuality. It is also the type of thinking that I think was going through the villager’s heads when they raided her home and shamed her for being pregnant by someone other than her husband. Both of these narratives, silence women’s sexuality either by denying its existence or by making it analogous to deviance.

            When the aunt made her sexuality visible, and therefore undeniable, it lead not only to a raid by the villagers, but to a decision by her family to erase her identity. It seems then, that keeping silent about the event that lead to her death was not enough to overcome the shame that her actions had caused. The solution became to erase her entire existence, as she exemplified codes and norms that were not meant to be broken. The ways in which her family silences her becomes an example of the types of punishment possible for the women that follow.  Kingston’s mother tells her this story not only to tell the story of her aunt, but also to warn her about the consequences of breaking gender norms within Chinese culture and her family. The silence of her aunt, then, is passed on through generations by telling the stories about her existence in secret and instilling in those that hear it obedience to these norms. Silence exists, not only in the denial of “no-name woman” but also on the expectation that this is the life that consequent generations of women must avoid. 



Uninhibited's picture

Silence as emptiness?

Anne, I think that Linda-Susan's visit to our class was an epiphany for me. As I heard her speak about her experiences with silences, i realized that I've always seen silence as a place of oppression. Since the beginning of our class, when I had a picture of girl with her mouth covered, to my other web events, specifically those relating to my family and to this last one on Kingston, I always focus on silence not silencing. To be honest, I didn't even remember the "complexity" of silence in Kingston's piece when writing this essay. When i heard Professor Beard speak, and when you read the quote aloud to the class, I recognized that I have not complicated my own notions of silence enough. Even in reading Rigoberta Menchu, the most memorable parts to me are the ways in which she was silenced. I wonder how I can use the end of the semester to reflect on silence as place of richness. I was absolutely in awe with Professor Beard today, and felt that by her telling us her stories and experiences with silence, put me in a place of self-reflection, in which I recognized that perhaps the reason for which I've shut out silence as a place of fullness, is because I haven’t given it a fair chance. I'm afraid it because it does indeed force me to deal with baggage that I've carried on my back since the summer before I began college. So my response to your question about why this essay seems one sided is that my own thinking was one sided. I didn't truly open myself up to see silence as anything other than oppressive, whether patriarchal oppression, colonialist oppression etc. Today, I could literally feel a lighbulb light up in my head. How can I see something as rich if I've only seen it as empty?

Anne Dalke's picture

Simplifying Silence?

What's nicest about your description of "no-name woman" is your review of the degree of autonomy, agency and initiation that each story--each interpretation of her story--grants the aunt. What's missing, of course, is the larger context: this story is the first in Kingston's collection, Woman Warrior, which ends w/ the "song of the barbarian reed pipe," in which a woman, silenced, and taken into a foreign land, learns there to play a new instrument, and returns home able to do so.

I chose Woman Warrior as our text (as I chose all our texts) because of the complex interplay it offers between being silenced and choosing silence, between the powers and dangers of coming to voice, between the power and danger of remaining silent.

You chose to highlight only one dimension--the erasure of the life of an ancestor, and the silencing, into the future, of the sexual lives and expression of her descendants. It is of course a horrific story. But it's only the 1/2 of it. So I'm curious why you decide to highlight only that dimension, to reduce the complexity of the "whole."