The Silent Treatment: Suppression of the Voice in The Woman Warrior and When Living Was A Labor Camp Gloria Anzaldua, in her novel Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, proclaims that “I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue – my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence” (81). Anzaldua is speaking out against those who encourage and demand that she (and other minorities) tread with caution when they speak. In fact, a common theme throughout many ethnic works is the “silence is golden” mantra.
Many people, especially immigrants, are taught (and subsequently teach their own children) that what happens within the family and community should stay within the confines of the family and community. This request for silence leaves some feeling a close familial and cultural bond with their family (because they hold family secrets); while many others rebel and feel as though there voices are being suppressed maliciously. We see these “requests” for silence in Diana Garcia’s When Living Was a Labor Camp and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior.
While these requests and/or orders do place limitations on a person and their interactions, I argue that many of particular requests for silence that we see in the works of Garcia and Kingston are noble requests. The characters that suppress the voices of others are doing in an act of preservation of their culture and protection of their family and community. In this essay, I will highlight the suppressed voices and examine the reason behind these requests with the intention of softening the perspective of those who believe that the suppression of voice is merely a way to control another person.
The narrator in Kingston’s “No Name Woman” is a girl who is told by her mother “you must not tell anyone […] what I am about to tell you” (3). These words are repeated so often and with such passion that the narrator believes the mere mention of this secret will cause harm to her family. The mother proceeds to tell the young girl about her aunt (whose name is never given) who committed suicide after she bore an illegitimate child. The child, after being let in on a family secret, seems to have some reservations with keeping the secret because she feels as though “they want me to participate in her punishment.
And I have” (16). The narrator feels as though she has had some hand in exacting punishment upon the aunt with whom she is convinced was “innocent” and this makes her feel uneasy. King-Kok Cheung, in her article “Don’t Tell: Imposed Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior,” states that “to expunge her name, to delete the memory of her life, is perhaps the cruelest repudiation her kin could devise. No less cruel is the silencing of the living” (164). I disagree with Cheung’s argument because she is overlooking the reason behind this request for silence for the “living” or the narrator.
The narrator’s family wanted to keep quiet about the aunt because they wanted to avoid being guilty by association. The family moved to America and as the narrator states “I have thought that my family, having settled among immigrants who had also been their neighbors in the ancestral land, needed to clean their name, and a wrong word would incite the kinspeople even here” (16). Some could argue that the parent’s request for silence, in “No Name Woman,” is in actuality a threat. However, I argue that the parents in this story are attempting to protect their children from the past which is a very noble cause.
At times, family members are judged on the actions of other family members, so the family, by being silent on this particular matter, is sending a signal to their community that they did not approve of the aunt’s actions and they are teaching their children appropriate behavior. We see that silence plays a large role in the short story “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe. ” However, the reason for the silence is a bit different than the previous story. In this story, we follow the author as she recounts her childhood spent in silence.
Linda Morante, in her article “From Silence to Song: The Triumph of Maxine Hong Kingston,” states that “the early silence is, in part, a legacy from a people who believe that ‘a ready tongue is an evil. ’ The Chinese keep secrets, they conceal their real names, they withhold speech” (78). The reason that Kingston is asked to keep quiet as a child is an act of preservation of the Chinese culture. The fact that Kingston is a Chinese girl in an American environment could create a feeling in her parents that they must be extra diligent in transferring their morals, beliefs, and rituals to Kingston.
One of these beliefs is the “seen not heard” mentality that is applied specifically to women and children. In fact, Cheung states that Kingston’s “parents’ culture disapproves of free speech” (168). Many will argue that this is oppressive and does not allow a person to grow; however, I argue that the reader (particularly the non-Asian reader) needs to approach the request for silence, of the woman and children, with an open mind and remember that American ways are different from Chinese ways.
Kingston’s Chinese parents do not see what they are doing as the suppression of the voice; rather, they are keeping with their ancestral tradition. The importance of silence among a people is not something that is limited merely to the Asian culture. We see the way in which silence is applied in Diana Garcia’s collection When Living Was A Labor Camp. Garcia was raised in a labor camp in California with other immigrant families. Like many other environments, the development of certain “rules” that each family lived by became a part of their life.
One of the apparent rules is one should be mindful of what is said outside the camp. This differs slightly from the Chinese culture because the Hispanics seemed to have adopted their “rules of silence” once they migrated to this country. They adapted with the environment, whereas, the Chinese had their ideas about silence already firmly in place. The Hispanics made a pact amongst themselves to maintain their silence in order to protect their family, community, and traditions. The narrator in “The Old Married Couple” writes that “he never told anyone he couldn’t swim” (38).
The person that she is speaking about is her late husband. She discovers that his silence was not limited to the outside world; rather, it appeared to encompass his whole world. Many could argue that the silence of the woman’s husband was representative of his lack of trust for all in his life. However, I view his silence as a noble silence because he was protecting the reputation and dignity of his people. He did not want his weaknesses (i. e. , his inability to swim) to be projected onto all Hispanics in his labor camp and in general.
Fatima Mujcinovic, in her article “Multiple Articulations of Exile in US Latina Literature: Confronting Exilic Absence and Trauma,” states that a man’s experience with immigration “becomes a site of disempowerment because it strips male immigrants of agency and phallic presence. It symbolizes emasculation, or, as Amy Kaminsky notes, feminization” (182). The late husband, in “The Old Married Couple,” is attempting to dispel this myth that immigration feminizes the men. His silence on his swimming incapability was meant to demonstrate that the Hispanic men can conquer anything that comes their way.
The narrator in “When You Didn’t Have to See to Believe” is a girl who has been raped by a local man. Typically, in sexual assaults the victim is told “you must not tell anyone” and in this case the girl obeys her attacker. The narrator states “no one knew except me. I kept the secret/ all those years, never telling anyone, not/ even my parents, not even when we’d/ pass his house on our regular Sunday drives” (5). The young girl obeys the request for silence because she wishes to protect her parents from the anger and heartbreak that she knows they will experience if the truth is revealed.
Anzaldua writes about a woman “who is raped by her boss in the field, against whom she has no recourse” (10). I imagine that this is the case in this poem as well. The narrator’s attacker is someone in power at the labor camp and the girl suffers in silence in order to maintain her dignity and shield her parents from any further pain. In conclusion, we see various instances in which people’s voices are suppressed in these novels and I have examined the reasons behind some of these suppressions of voice. Many argue that suppression of one’s voice is harmful and as Linda Morante states “silence obliterates identity” (78).
I believe that I have shown many examples of where silence was applied or imposed with a noble intention. I have realized that it is important to put aside your own personal beliefs and examine the reasons for the suppression of the voice free of your own biases. It is only in this way that a person can find an alternate and sometimes deeper meaning to a story and determine the reason for the actions of the characters we becomes so involved with. Works Cited Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderland/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987. Cheung, King-Kok. Don’t Tell: Imposed Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior. ” PMLA. 103. 2 (1988) 162-174. Garcia, Diana. When Living Was A Labor Camp. Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 2000. Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. New York: Vintage International, 1975. Morante, Linda. “From Silence to Song: The Triumph of Maxine Hong Kingston. ” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. 9. 2 (1987): 78-82. Mujcinovic, Fatima. “Multiple Articulations of Exile in US Latina Literature: Confronting Exilic Absence and Trauma. ” MELUS. 28. 4 (2003): 167-186.