Storytelling vs. Silence: Where is the True Harm Done?

The No Name Woman is forced to keep silent from the very second that her baby is conceived. Knowing her status in China in 1924, the No Name Woman does not tell anyone about what happened to her and who did it. Whether it was rape or consensual, she is forced to be silent by the man who slept with her. On page 6 we read that she is kept a man’s “secret evil”. The man who partnered with the No Name Woman in the adultery is also keeping silent. He does not announce he is the one to impregnate her, leaving it a mystery. The narrator questions if the secret man is so silent that he chooses to hide behind a mask during the house raid. He participates in the punishment towards the No Name Woman, all while silently sharing a secret with her. On the bottom of page 13 we read that after the raid, “…the family broke their silence and cursed her”. She runs away from the house, far enough to no longer hear their cursing voices until she is in silence once again, and gives birth in the pigsty. Later that night, she chooses an eternal silence by committing suicide. The last image we get of the No Name Woman is that she is a weeping ghost, waiting silently by the water to pull down a substitute.

“You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you”. From the very first line of the book the readers know that there is a secret that should be kept silent. The narrator is told a single story about her aunt and is directed to not share the story with anyone else. Not only is the narrator asked to keep quiet of the single story, but she also has to keep silent of any questions she has about the truth and falsehood of the story. We know that she’s told to not bring it up to her father, so no questions can be answered by him, but since the narrator doesn’t even know her aunts name, there is no opportunity for her to go outside of her home and ask questions about her aunt to others. Any questions she wants to ask about her aunt are immediately silenced and they’re forced to be kept to herself, since her aunt essentially has no name, and essentially never existed. While she is imagining what happened to her aunt, the narrator potentially could have touched on the truth of the aunt’s story, but she will never know. If that is the case, the truth and the No Name Woman’s story is silenced once again. The narrator says she has participated in the family’s punishment and the silence by not asking for details after hearing the story twenty years ago. The narrator believes she is being haunted by her aunt’s ghost because after fifty years of neglect, the silence is broken when she writes of her aunt.

Kingston’s writing shows that her aunt’s life story isn’t decided by something that she did or didn’t do, but rather it is decided by the way that her survivors have told her story. The power of the story of the No Name Woman is entirely in the hands of the storyteller. Perhaps this same story could be used to show the cruel and unethical treatment of women in China, but the way that the mother tells the story is a warning to her daughter, implying that the aunt was lustful and chose to commit adultery (whether this is the truth or not). Kingston hears that single story and finally questions the truth, offering the readers another interpretation of it. The story we read from Kingston blurs the lines between truth and falsehood, making it difficult to decipher accurate information about the No Name Woman.

What are the dangers of the single story the mother tells, or should it remain the way it is (as a warning)?

Kingston says that her aunt’s ghost haunts her and doesn’t always mean her well because in Kingston’s writing, she is “telling on her”. Do you think it would have been better off for her mother to have kept the silence, and for there to be no story at all?

9 thoughts on “Storytelling vs. Silence: Where is the True Harm Done?”

  1. Hey Jenn!! Great blog post!! I believe that the narrator’s mother did the right thing by telling her daughter the story of her aunt because she always only knew one side of the story and, like you mentioned in your blog post, it was important for her to know what really happened because the danger of a single story can affect how we perceive a story. The narrator’s mother was telling her stories of the past to warn her about what could happen in the future. As the narrator says, “Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on” (5). It was important to the mother to tell the narrator about this story and I believe she did the right thing.

    1. This was a great interpretation of the first chapter!! I believe that the narrator should have known about her aunt and to me, it seems crazy that she has no information of who this woman is. A part of me believes that this story of her aunt should remain secretive as it is so it scares the narrator as far as not making a mistake such as this one. But I also believe that because she heard this version of the story, it could possibly constrain her to limits that don’t allow her to truly live her life and be a unique individual. Regarding your second question, I do think that her mother did the right thing is telling her to story of her aunt. When the narrator is talking about how the aunt “would protect this child” (15), you could easily relate it to how the mother is protecting her daughter by telling her this story so she can grow and learn from the mistakes of others.

  2. Hey Jenn!
    I loved the way you mentioned the importance of storytelling and brought Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” to this topic, because that is completely true, we only get this version of the story, which is, besides, so incomplete.
    I totally understand your point, the fact that the story is told in a “warning way”, but, actually, what the mother is doing is enlivening Kingston’s desire to know more, to, since it is impossible for her to know, invent possible stories and fantasies about her aunt.
    The No Name Woman represents the transgression in social order, the rebellion, the fight (not only because of her story but also because of the fact that she killed her own baby, who was probably a girl, knowing she would not have a bright future).
    I think that Kingston can see herself in her aunt’s actions; she is also fighting her own fight, she is attempting to live in a different country which traditions and cultural values are not even similar to the ones in China. That is way she understands the way her aunt stepped out of the social rules and her need of expression that was against society’s obsession with control and order.
    Now, after reading this first chapter, and answering to your question, what comes to my mine, specifically when I read this in page 5: “my mother told stories … to grow up. She tested our strength to establish realities”, is whether the mother was telling the story in order to only warn her daughter or if there was another motive… maybe to encourage her to find more (but taking care) about her aunt or, maybe, somehow, to find “social justice”.

    1. Great point: “what the mother is doing is enlivening Kingston’s desire to know more, to, since it is impossible for her to know, invent possible stories and fantasies about her aunt.” There is so much about the power of stories in this chapter: to warn us, spark our curiosity, test our strength, torture or torment us, teach us how to be in the world.

  3. Hi Jenn, great blog post and interpretation! I think that it is not right for the single story because family is a very important aspect in everyone’s lives and should not be lied about. I think it would be more powerful, and stronger of a message if the mother told Kingston the true story because if she learns that it is about her own family, and connects to the story then she will be more prone not to make the same mistake that her own aunt had. Kingston knew nothing about the baby because her family acted like it was, “As if she had never been born” (pg. 5). Family is important, and should not be lied about or forgotten about because of shame.

  4. I love this line you wrote: “Kingston’s writing shows that her aunt’s life story isn’t decided by something that she did or didn’t do, but rather it is decided by the way that her survivors have told her story”, I think this whole biographical book- full of beautiful, visceral imagery- is going to be Kingston breaking the single story of not only her aunt, but herself and other women of her culture.

    To me, something about the tone I read the sentence in, I am not sure if the mother thinks the aunt was lustful and chose to commit adultery, or rather if the mother is fearful for her daughter and family. She “had to warn [her] about life..” (5). Kingston’s mother says, “what happened to her could happen to you”(5), as in, Kingston as a woman beginning menstruation is particularly vulnerable to men and their will over her body. Her mother, guided by Necessity came from a time where “women in the Old China did not choose” (6).

    But, her mother did choose to tell the story of that aunt who drowned in the well. And although Kingston feels her aunt is haunting her, I do not think so. I believe this telling of the story is doing her aunt’s memory some justice for the horrific way she was treated.

  5. Hi Jenn, I enjoyed your take in your blog post! I think that the single story was more based off of the Mother’s desire to warn her daughter instead of saying a horrible story about her aunt. As we learn later on the Mother tells Kingston a lot of stories. On page one, the Mother says to the daughter, “You must no tell anyone, what I am about to tell you.” I read this as a way of the Mother trying to connect with her daughter and tell her something that brought shame onto their family. She tell the daughter that she is not supposed to tell this story to bring them closer and to make her aware that this is not something that their family is proud of. After being told this, Kingston wants to know more about her “no name aunt”.

  6. Hi Jenn,
    I absolutely loved reading your connection between the danger of a single story and the only story the narrator knows about her unnamed aunt, which is essentially an emotional burden on the narrator, considering she claims that the ghost of her aunt haunts her. I really liked how you mentioned that “the power of the story of the No Name Woman is entirely in the hands of the storyteller” because this is completely true in my opinion. As I was reading that sentence, it made me think about when Adichie states in her TED talk that “power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person”. Since, the story rests in the hands of the storyteller, he or she is able to make that story the only thing associated with that person. In the case of the No Name Woman, her ancestors have told her story in only one limited version that creates a single, negative image of this woman. However, the narrator attempts to write the story of her nameless aunt in a way that shows a little more light on other individual aspects of the aunt. She tries to make points that prove that it is not simply the aunts fault that she became pregnant. The narrator admits at the end of the chapter that she has participated in her aunt’s punishment by “deliberately forgetting her” along with the narrator’s family forgetting her (pg. 16). She fell victim to the danger of a single story for most of her life but realized that the single story that her mom told her was not the only way to tell the story of her No Name aunt.

  7. Hi Jenn! I’m liking that you are asking us to consider the dangers of this single story. I really love this concept that we’re working through as a class. I think that what makes this single story both dangerous and wonderful is that there is so little to it. The lack of details leaves it sort of up to Kingston to decide what really happened. For example, no one will ever really know exactly how the No Name Woman became pregnant. If Kingston chooses to believe that her aunt was pressured into sex repeatedly by some man, Kingston is also choosing to believe that her aunt was a victim; helpless; forced to comply with “‘If you tell your family, I’ll beat you. I’ll kill you. Be here again next week'”(7). On the other hand, Kingston may choose to believe that her aunt was a woman of her own power, who actively chose to have relations with this man who is not her husband because it made her happy to do so. Kingston can draw so many different conclusions about her aunt, and fill in many of the blanks on her own. This is just one of the many dangers of this single story.

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