In an attempt to explain her mother’s story-telling habits and the implications this has on Chinese-Americans like herself, the narrator in The Woman Warrior states:
Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran… a story to grow up on. She tested our strength to establish realities… 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, (Kingston 5).
First generation Americans like the narrator are tasked with making their parents’ stories useful in their modern lives, often by distinguishing between truth and myth.
Throughout the novel, the narrator refers to these tales as “talk-story,” a version of story-telling. Having frequently heard her mother’s tales of ancestors and ancient Chinese myths, she begins to question the veracity of her mother’s words. At a pivotal point in the novel, the narrator claims, “I can’t tell what’s real and what you make up,” (202). However, after the telling of the disgraced aunt’s story at the beginning of the text, she takes her mother’s words and embellishes them with her own ideas, bringing her aunt’s story to life. The narrator claims:
If I want to learn what clothes my aunt wore, whether flashy or ordinary, I would have to begin, “Remember Father’s downed-in-the-well sister?” I cannot ask that. My mother has told me once and for all the useful parts. She will add nothing unless powered by Necessity,” (6).
In order to complete the aunt’s story, the narrator takes her mother’s bare and sterile words and invents the details, giving meaning to the demise of her ancestor. However, the narrator still blames her mother for feeding her false realities, stating “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,” (202). Because the narrator’s creative mind invents details in order to make her mother’s stories meaningful, she misleads herself, and it is she, not her mother, who confuses reality with fantasy.
At another point in the novel, the narrator has just finished telling the story of how her mother took her sister Moon Orchid to see Moon Orchid’s husband, who had abandoned the sister in China and has since started a new life in California. After this elaborate tale, the narrator admits:
In fact, it wasn’t me my brother told about going to Los Angeles; one of my sisters told me what he’d told her. His version of the story may be better than mine because of its bareness, not twisted into designs. The hearer can carry it tucked away without it taking up much room, (163).
This same bareness of story is what motivated the narrator to invent the circumstances around her disgraced aunt. Both stories, originally, could be “tucked away [without] taking up much room” because they were incomplete and did not carry the significance that the narrator so desperately wanted. These stories are “[stories] to grow up on,” as the recipient of the tale must mold it into something that will be useful to them (6). Without being “twisted into designs,” the stories are simply stories (163). As the narrator begins to add the details and create meaning around the bare words, she becomes unable to tell the difference between fact and fiction.
In the climactic event of the novel when the narrator confronts her mother, she cries, “I don’t want to listen to any more of your stories; they have no logic. They scramble me up,” (202). However, earlier in the novel when the narrator asks her mother about a rumor that was going around her school, her mother replies, “No. No… They’re just talking-story. You’re always believing talk-story,” (183). This inconsistency is lost on the narrator, as she continues to blame her mother for feeding her false realities. She refuses to see that her mother’s criticism, “you’re always believing talk-story,” is in fact true.
Just as Kingston embellishes the novel with significance, the narrator gives life to the bare, traditional stories of her mother. She creates meaning in the details and confuses reality with fantasy. However, in doing so, she indeed figures out how “the invisible world the emigrants built” around her fits into her new Chinese-American identity (5).