In the attempt to work out who one is, one must also work out who one has been. In order to answer the question, ‘who am I?’ one is necessarily involved in the question ‘how did I get to be who I am?’ Who I am, in addition, is not merely a question of my personal past, the particularity of my own auto/biography. It is also implicated in the past as both wider history and culture: a context that is more collective than purely personal. If the cultural stories can exclude some subjectivities on the basis of class, then the strangeness of the past, figured by L. P. Hartley as a foreign land, is perhaps even more acutely realized by those subjectivities who have literally left their past behind, in foreign countries, as migrants, refugees and exiles. A central question in any discussion of subjectivity that suggests it is culturally derived rather than naturally occurring is about the extent to which subjectivity is therefore culturally specific. In other words, is the self-figuration that one finds in autobiographical writings dependent on a particularly western model of self-identity? Is autobiography itself a thoroughly western idea? In this chapter, through reading two very different autobiographies from ethnically Chinese women writing in the west, but with their ethnic identities always firmly in mind — with the presence of their personal and cultural pasts making the narratives what they are — I want to examine these questions. The two texts at issue are Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, first published in 1992 and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior first published in 1977.
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