She was referring to Maxine Hong Kingston’s 1977 book “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.” Moser, an expert on Kingston’s work, recently edited a collection of essays that commemorated the 40th anniversary of its publication.
With co-editor Dr. Kathryn West, Moser curated a diverse set of interpretations of this famous book.
“The essays focus on different issues,” said Moser — in part because the book is relevant to so many fields of study. “It’s literary; it’s memoir,” she said. “And it’s meaningful for gender studies and ethnic studies.” Its publication also marked a milestone in Asian-American writing.
However, Moser said, it’s a mistake to assume “The Woman Warrior” is a definitive version of Asian-American experience. “It’s not a guidebook to Chinese American culture,” she said.
In her own essay, Moser noted that since “The Woman Warrior” was published, its author has resisted attempts to present her work as the exemplar of the Asian-American experience.
“’The Woman Warrior’ suggests that stories, fantasy and subjective experience are as much a part of reality as objective fact.” — Dr. Linda Trinh Moser
“Kingston continues … the process of questioning and revision,” Moser wrote. “In this way, she resists the assumption that an ethnic American writer should serve as a guide whose sole purpose is to provide … information for her readers.”
In some sense, then, Kingston’s book asserts a deeper purpose: a commitment to understanding the complexity of identity and desire to encourage a similar process in her readers.
And this quality makes Kingston’s narrative intensely individual. “This is one person’s experience,” Moser said.
This may be the reason “The Woman Warrior” was labeled a memoir of Kingston’s life growing up in California with parents who had immigrated from China. Since its publication, though, critics have questioned whether the story ventures too far beyond the material reality of Kingston’s own experiences to really be “authentic” or “real.” It draws on fantasy and myth, such as the story of Fa Mu Lan (the basis of Disney’s “Mulan”). The narrative also stretches time and space in ways that can’t be strictly factual.
This, according to Moser, is the point. “’The Woman Warrior,’” she wrote, “suggests that stories, fantasy and subjective experience are as much a part of reality as objective fact.”
The search for layers of meaning is central to Moser’s work as a literature scholar.
“I seek out books that cross cultures and tell stories about protagonists who are trying to maneuver different cultures,” she said. “I do that in my teaching, and I do that in my research as well.”
This approach means she often exposes her students to new perspectives. By studying literature, they find new areas of understanding — and sometimes commonality.
“I seek out books that cross cultures and tell stories about protagonists who are trying to maneuver different cultures.” — Dr. Linda Trinh Moser
For instance, she said “The Woman Warrior” brings up ideas that are relevant to people from a variety of cultural backgrounds. We all have to navigate the different cultures in which we live, the ways we define ourselves and the ways we are defined by our communities.
Kingston’s sense of self is complicated by a growing awareness of her “minority” status as she is growing up. Among Chinese immigrants, she is bombarded with messages about female inferiority; in the larger U.S. community, she faces racism as well as patriarchy.
“Kingston is forthright about social injustice, not only in Chinese-American culture, but in Anglo-American culture as well,” Moser said. “As a woman, she feels she’s been silenced; that’s where the ‘warrior’ in the title comes in.”
Moser continued, “But she’s saying, ‘I don’t want to just point the finger at the patriarchy in my parents’ culture. I want readers to recognize the patriarchy that occurs in their own culture.’”
And as Moser’s previous research reveals, this kind of cultural examination isn’t unique to Kingston’s writing.
In multiple publications, Moser has explored the career of Winnifred Eaton, described as “the first novelist of Asian ancestry to be published in the United States.”
Eaton’s success as a bestselling novelist during the early 20th century attracted Moser’s attention. As she dove into Eaton’s work, she found an intriguing level of complexity.
Eaton, who most often wrote under the pen name Onoto Watanna, was biracial. Her father was British, and she implied (through her choice of pen name and other strategically leaked details of her life) that her mother’s ancestry was Japanese. In actuality, her mother was from China.
According to Moser, Eaton’s decision to engage in this ethnic masquerade was influenced by the stereotypes of her time.
Moser wrote, “During the early part of Eaton’s career, North Americans drew a sharp distinction between Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Although anti-Chinese sentiment ran rampant at the turn of the century, the Japanese were admired … Eaton, aware of the difference, exploits notions of class perception” by claiming Japanese, rather than Chinese, heritage.
Some critics judge Eaton’s subterfuge harshly. Moser wrote, “Eaton’s manipulation of Japanese stereotypes makes her seem more interested in perpetuating false and exotic versions of Asian identity than in presenting actual experiences. Indeed, critics often interpret Eaton’s concealment of her Chinese ancestry as a lack of integrity.”
And, historically, this perspective cuts deep. According to Moser, “(In early scholarship), when mentioned at all, (Eaton’s pen name Onoto Watanna) stood for racial, ethnic or cultural betrayal.”
But Moser’s research brought her to a more nuanced understanding.
Working within the popular romance genre and navigating the social prejudices of her time, Eaton found ways to highlight strong female characters and cross-racial storylines.
“(Her) characters are always capable, clever, inventive and resourceful,” Moser noted.
Her stories resist “the image of Asian women as victims … Refusing to rely on male protection, these heroines are self-reliant,” Moser wrote. They “support themselves financially,” a challenge Eaton knew much about; as a working writer in Jazz Age America, she did it, too. In addition to writing short stories, travel essays and novels, Eaton wrote screenplays in Hollywood.
Moser recognizes how Eaton’s “Japanese” persona “allowed her to avoid the animosity Chinese immigrants experienced and to present a biracial Asian identity similar to her actual one, despite its inauthenticity.”
Even so, Eaton’s choice is a denial of her ethnic identity, which makes it hard for modern audiences to accept. To Eaton, the stereotyping of Japan as “better” than China must have seemed arbitrary. To fight against the prejudices of her time, she used the cultural ignorance as a weapon. If most Americans couldn’t tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese immigrants, why shouldn’t she pretend to be Japanese?
And in this way, Eaton was wrestling with the same questions Kingston posed decades later in “The Woman Warrior”: How do I define myself? How do others perceive me? How much do these versions of me overlap? How do I fit in to the world I live in?
In a country as multicultural and ever-changing as the United States, such questions are always fresh and relevant. Moser’s research illustrates how literature — whether scholarly favorites like “The Woman Warrior” or popular novels like the ones Eaton wrote — can be a platform to explore such questions.
When students, scholars or book clubs read and discuss books, they’re often contending with race, class and gender. Such discussions help illuminate the ways these issues affect and define our own identities.
Just as Moser’s research explores the richness and complexity of American literature, she applies a highly dimensional outlook toward the students she teaches and advises.
“She’s always been very empathetic about the ways life can get in the way of our goals,” said Moser’s colleague Dr. Keri Franklin.
In describing Moser’s dedication to students, Franklin recalled a specific event.
“She’s always been very empathetic about the ways life can get in the way of our goals.” — Dr. Keri Franklin
“She had these file folders,” Franklin said. “She called them her ‘cold case files.’ They were people who hadn’t graduated. She went through them all and found out what they still needed to earn their degrees. She contacted each of them, and many people ended up graduating because she did that.”
Moser’s effort was important for student success and retention, but, Franklin said, that wasn’t the point.
“She didn’t do it for the numbers. She did it because she wanted to see people finish what they’d started. I really love that about her.”
That is why agriculture professor Dr. Chin-Feng Hwang and his team of researchers at Missouri State University are exploring grape genetics. They use cutting-edge DNA marker technology to expedite traditional breeding of grapes, which may take more than 20 years to release a new type of grape, also known as a cultivar.
If you don’t have sustainability of your vineyard, you can’t make a profit. Growers are now recognizing the importance of growing hybrids here. — Dr. Chin-Feng Hwang
Their ultimate goal is to develop and release new hybrid grape cultivars in the region, which have desirable traits from both European grapes and Missouri’s official state grape, the Norton. Compared to European grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Norton is more disease-resistant and cold-hardy.
“Growers in Missouri want to have European grapes in this area, but the grapevines can’t last long due to the cold weather and fungal diseases. Even if pesticides are intensively applied, European grapes often die within five years because of complications of the cold weather,” said Hwang, who has received nearly $2 million in research grants. “If you don’t have sustainability of your vineyard, you can’t make a profit. Growers are now recognizing the importance of growing hybrids here.”
For the past six years, Hwang and his team have been working on creating mapping populations – a minimum of 200 seedlings from a controlled cross of two types of vines – to look for genotype (DNA information) that associates with desirable phenotypes (physical characteristics).
Team member Surya Sapkota, an MSU/University of Missouri collaborative doctoral student, said they produced the first genetic map from a Norton-Cabernet Sauvignon cross. They also created mapping populations for the Chambourcin-Cabernet Sauvignon cross and the Jaeger 70-Vignoles cross.
In the lab, MSU research specialist Li-Ling Chen trains graduate students to isolate DNA from each seedling by grinding up a small piece of leaf tissue to look for DNA markers. These markers are genes or DNA sequences with a known location on a chromosome allowing them to predict each seedling’s phenotype, such as berry quality or disease resistance.
This marker-assisted selection process not only reduces the long “wait and see” period in traditional plant breeding, but also results in a more accurate selection of what the progeny – or offspring – will be.
“The biggest feat of Dr. Hwang’s lab so far may be the mapping populations established because no improvement or selection of traits can begin until they are available,” said Jacob Schneider, an MSU plant science graduate student. “The molecular breeding process resulting in the mapping population saves considerable work, water, labor cost and time involved in field trials – big factors for sustainability.”
From a plant’s ability to root during dormancy to its disease resistance and more, Hwang leads his team in analyzing various traits in their breeding populations.
For example, Schneider’s research looks at dormant hardwood cuttings to see how well they root.
“Norton dormant cuttings don’t root well, but the Cabernet Sauvignon ones do, so I look for DNA markers that allow dormant rooting by screening offspring of these parent cultivars,” Schneider explained. “The ones that do root should have DNA for that rooting ability. When we combine the rooting and markers data, we can select for that trait in a population.”
Hwang’s efforts to study another trait known as downy mildew, a severe fungal disease, from the same Norton-Cabernet cross recently paid off.
His lab discovered the downy mildew resistance markers on chromosome 18 by constructing a high resolution genetic linkage map combining two types of DNA markers – simple sequence repeat (SSR) and single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP).
This map is the first-of-its-kind. It was made possible by a collaboration with Cornell University, which assisted Hwang with the SNP marker information his lab did not have.
“This finding is very important for growers because downy mildew is a big disease,” Hwang said. “We can now predict whether a progeny with Norton background will be resistant or susceptible to this disease, so growers will know the resistant one to grow and won’t have to spray as much chemicals.”
Each year brings Hwang closer to releasing a new Norton-based hybrid grape cultivar. He estimates it will happen in the near future.
“We do have a potential candidate from Norton cross with Vignoles,” said Hwang. “It looks pretty good, but needs to go through multiyear, multiple location evaluation first.”
For Missouri grape growers eager for a new hybrid, that day cannot come soon enough.
“They’re already asking, ‘how soon?’” said Hwang. “We’re working on it.”