The Silent Treatment: Suppression of the Voice in The Woman Warrior and When Living Was A Labor Camp
Gloria Anzaldúa, 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). Anzaldúa 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 García’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 García 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.”...
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