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Of Bones and Suicide: Sky Lee's Disappearing Moon Cafe and Fae Myenne Ng's Bone
above bones of a multitude
of golden mountain men
searching for scraps
of haunting memories.
--Jim Wong-Chu, "old chinese cemetery (kamloops 1977/july)"
Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, arguably the foundational text of contemporary Asian North American women's writing, opens dramatically with a story " '[y]ou must not tell anyone' " (3). The taboo subject Maxine' s mother narrates is the story of Maxine' s paternal aunt' s humiliation of the family in China through her sexual transgression--her rape by or adultery with an undisclosed man not her husband--and [End Page 300] her resultant suicide by drowning in the family well. Whether her aunt's most grievous error was her forced or willing subversion of the patriarchal laws that attempt to govern a woman's body by giving her body to a man not her husband; or whether it was the No Name Woman's "spite suicide, drowning herself in the [family] drinking water" (19), is not made clear by Brave Orchid, Maxine's mother. What resonates clearly from her story, however, is that sex and suicide are, for traditional Cantonese, unspeakable taboos, ones to which Maxine's mother resorts as a dire warning to her daughter, who has just begun to menstruate. 1 Maxine tries to disrupt these taboos as she seeks in her Chinese American narrative "to name the unspeakable" (6), to give voice to that which the family has specifically silenced.
In marking the triangulation of sex, suicide, and silence in traditional Cantonese culture, and then in attempting to name the unspeakable, Kingston has paved the way for later Chinese North American women writers to explore further the sensitive subject of suicide. 2 With an uncanny degree of coordination, two recent Chinese North American novels, Canadian SKY Lee's Disappearing Moon Cafe (1990) and American Fae Myenne Ng's Bone (1993), have as a central concern the suicide of a Chinese Canadian/American woman (Suzanne Wong and Ona Leong, respectively); both also deal in a related way with bones, particularly the repatriation to ancestral villages in China of the bones of Chinese immigrants to North America. It is the semiotics of suicide and of bones, and the function of these tropes within the larger context of Chinese Canadian/American identity and history, that I want to examine here.
Before turning to these novels, however, I will track Kingston's representation of suicide further, for it becomes a trope that the younger writers adapt and revise. For one thing, while the suicide in The Woman Warrior takes place in China in the past of "tradition" (in 1924), Kingston from the outset links suicide to emigration from China to America--a connection the younger writers build on--although she does so in two distinct ways. In Brave Orchid's narrative, No Name Aunt's rape/adultery results in part from the emigration of her husband, who travels with the other men from the village to seek his fortune on the Gold Mountain, but such "[a]dultery is extravagance" (7) in a culture where necessity rules, and so the identifiable adulterer (or rape victim), the pregnant woman who has shamed the family, must be excised, annihilated [End Page 301] both materially and within the realm of the symbolic, of language: she must kill herself and the family must never speak her name again. She has become the No Name Woman, an apparently empty signifier loaded with implied meaning.
But this view of No Name Aunt as passive victim--the silenced and violated woman in a rigidly patriarchal and clan culture--does not suit American-born Maxine, who needs to see her aunt's "life branching into mine" in order to gain her "ancestral help" (10). Thus, Maxine "devote[s] pages of paper to" her aunt (19), imbuing the empty signifier with her own speculative meanings in...