The Girl Who Wouldn't Talk
Maxine Hong Kingston
I looked right at her. “I know you talk,” I said. “I’ve heard you.” Her eyebrows flew up. Something in those black eyes was startled, and I pursued it. “I was walking past your house when you didn’t know I was there. I heard you yell in English and in Chinese. You weren’t just talking. You were shouting. I heard you shout. You were saying, ‘Where are you?’ Say that again. Go ahead, just the way you did at home.” I yanked harder on the hair, but steadily, not jerking. I did not want to pull it out. “Go ahead. Say, ‘Where are you?’ Say it loud enough for your sister to come. Call her. Make her come help you. Call her name. I’ll stop if she comes. So call. Go ahead.”
She shook her head, her mouth curved down, crying. I could see her tiny white teeth, baby teeth. I wanted to grow big strong yellow teeth. “You do have a tongue,” I said. “So use it.” I pulled the hair at her temples, pulled the tears out of her eyes. “Say, ‘Ow’” I said. “Just ‘Ow.’ Say, ‘Let go.’ Go ahead. Say it. I’ll honk you again if you don’t say, ‘Let me alone.’ Say, ‘Leave me alone,’ and I’ll let you go. I will. I’ll let go if you say it. You can stop this anytime you want to, you know. All you have to do is tell me to stop. Just say, ‘Stop.’ You’re just asking for it, aren’t you? You’re just asking for another honk. Well then, I’ll have to give you another honk. Say, ‘Stop.’” But she didn’t. I had to pull again and again.
Sounds did come out of her mouth, sobs, chokes, noises that were almost words. Snot ran out of her nose. She tried to wipe it on her hands, but there was too much of it. She used her sleeve. “You’re disgusting,” I told her. “Look at you, snot streaming down your nose, and you won’t say a word to stop it. You’re such a nothing.” I moved behind her and pulled the hair growing out of her weak neck. I let go. I stood silent for a long time. Then I screamed, “Talk!” I would scare the words out of her. If she had had little bound feet, the toes twisted under the balls, I would have jumped up and landed on them—crunch!—stomped on them with my iron shoes. She cried hard, sobbing aloud. “Cry, ‘Mama,’” I said. “Come on. Cry, ‘Mama.’ Say, ‘Stop it.’”
I put my finger on her pointed chin. “I don’t like you. I don’t like the weak little toots you make on your flute. Wheeze. Wheeze. I don’t like the way you don’t swing at the ball. I don’t like the way you’re the last one chosen. I don’t like the way you can’t make a fist for tetherball. Why don’t you make a fist? Come on. Get tough. Come on. Throw fists.” I pushed at her long hands; they swung limply at her sides. Her fingers were so long, I thought maybe they had an extra joint. They couldn’t possibly make fists like other people’s. “Make a fist,” I said. “Come on. Just fold those fingers up; fingers on the inside, thumbs on the outside. Say something. Honk me back. You’re so tall, and you let me pick on you.
“Would you like a hanky? I can’t get you one with embroidery on it or crocheting along the edges, but I’ll get you some toilet paper if you tell me to. Go ahead. Ask me. I’ll get it for you if you ask.” She did not stop crying. “Why don’t you scream, ‘Help’?” I suggested. “Say, ‘Help.’ Go ahead.” She cried on. “O.K. O.K. Don’t talk. Just scream, and I’ll let you go. Won’t that feel good? Go ahead. Like this.” I screamed not too loudly. My voice hit the tile and rang it as if I had thrown a rock at it. The stalls opened wider and the toilets wider and darker. Shadows leaned at angles I had not seen before. It was very late. Maybe a janitor had locked me in with this girl for the night. Her black eyes blinked and stared, blinked and stared. I felt dizzy from hunger. We had been in this lavatory together forever. My mother would call the police again if I didn’t bring my sister home soon. “I’ll let you go if you say just one word,” I said. “You can even say ‘a’ or ‘the,’ and I’ll let you go. Come on. Please.” She didn’t shake her head anymore, only cried steadily, so much water coming out of her. I could see the two duct holes where the tears welled out. Quarts of tears but no words. I grabbed her by the shoulder. I could feel bones. The light was coming in queerly through the frosted glass with the chicken wire embedded in it. Her crying was like an animal’s—a seal’s—and it echoed around the basement. “Do you want to stay here all night?” I asked. “Your mother is wondering what happened to her baby. You wouldn’t want to have her mad at you. You’d better say something.” I shook her shoulder. I pulled her hair again. I squeezed her face. “Come on! Talk! Talk! Talk!” She didn’t seem to feel it anymore when I pulled her hair. “There’s nobody here but you and me. This isn’t a classroom or a playground or a crowd. I’m just one person. You can talk in front of one person. Don’t make me pull harder and harder until you talk.” But her hair seemed to stretch; she did not say a word. “I’m going to pull harder. Don’t make me pull anymore, or your hair will come out and you’re going to be bald. Do you want to be bald? You don’t want to be bald, do you?”
Far away, coming from the edge of town, I heard whistles blow. The cannery was changing shifts, letting out the afternoon people, and still we were here at school. It was a sad sound—work done. The air was lonelier after the sound died.
“Why won’t you talk?” I started to cry. What if I couldn’t stop, and everyone would want to know what happened? “Now look what you’ve done,” I scolded. “You’re going to pay for this. I want to know why. And you’re going to tell me why. You don’t see I’m trying to help you out, do you? Do you want to be like this, dumb (do you know what dumb means?), your whole life? Don’t you ever want to be a cheerleader? Or a pompom girl? What are you going to do for a living? Yeah, you’re going to have to work because you can’t be a housewife. Somebody has to marry you before you can be a housewife. And you, you are a plant. Do you know that? That’s all you are if you don’t talk. If you don’t talk, you can’t have a personality. You’ll have no personality and no hair. You’ve got to let people know you have a personality and a brain. You think somebody is going to take care of you all your stupid life? You think you’ll always have your big sister? You think somebody’s going to marry you, is that it? Well, you’re not the type that gets dates, let alone gets married. Nobody’s going to notice you. And you have to talk for interviews, speak right up in front of the boss. Don’t you know that? You’re so dumb. Why do I waste my time on you?” Sniffling and snorting, I couldn’t stop crying and talking at the same time. I kept wiping my nose on my arm, my sweater lost somewhere (probably not worn because my mother said to wear a sweater). It seemed as if I had spent my life in that basement, doing the worst thing I had yet done to another person. “I’m doing this for your own good,” I said. “Don’t you dare tell anyone I’ve been bad to you. Talk. Please talk.”
I was getting dizzy from the air I was gulping. Her sobs and my sobs were bouncing wildly off the tile, sometimes together, sometimes alternating. “I don’t understand why you won’t say just one word,” I cried, clenching my teeth. My knees were shaking, and I hung on to her hair to stand up. Another time I’d stayed too late, I had had to walk around two Negro kids who were bonking each other’s head on the concrete. I went back later to see if the concrete had cracks in it. “Look. I’ll give you something if you talk. I’ll give you my pencil box. I’ll buy you some candy. O.K.? What do you want? Tell me. Just say it, and I’ll give it to you. Just say, ‘yes,’ or, ‘O.K.,’ or, ‘Baby Ruth.’” But she didn’t want anything.
I had stopped pinching her cheek because I did not like the feel of her skin. I would go crazy if it came away in my hands. “I skinned her,” I would have to confess.
Suddenly I heard footsteps hurrying through the basement, and her sister ran into the lavatory calling her name. “Oh, there you are,” I said. “We’ve been waiting for you. I was only trying to teach her to talk. She wouldn’t cooperate, though.” Her sister went into one of the stalls and got handfuls of toilet paper and wiped her off. Then we found my sister, and we walked home together. “Your family really ought to force her to speak,” I advised all the way home. “You mustn’t pamper her.”
The world is sometimes just, and I spent the next eighteen months sick in bed with a mysterious illness. There was no pain and no symptoms, though the middle line in my left palm broke in two. Instead of starting junior high school, I lived like the Victorian recluses1 I read about. I had a rented hospital bed in the living room, where I watched soap operas on TV, and my family cranked me up and down. I saw no one but my family, who took good care of me. I could have no visitors, no other relatives, no villagers. My bed was against the west window, and I watched the seasons change the peach tree. I had a bell to ring for help. I used a bedpan. It was the best year and a half of my life. Nothing happened.
But one day my mother, the doctor, said, “You’re ready to get up today. It’s time to get up and go to school.” I walked about outside to get my legs working, leaning on a staff I cut from the peach tree. The sky and trees, the sun were immense—no longer framed by a window, no longer grayed with a fly screen. I sat down on the sidewalk in amazement—the night, the stars. But at school I had to figure out again how to talk. I met again the poor girl I had tormented. She had not changed. She wore the same clothes, hair cut, and manner as when we were in elementary school, no make-up on the pink and white face, while the other Asian girls were starting to tape their eyelids. She continued to be able to read aloud. But there was hardly any reading aloud anymore, less and less as we got into high school.
I was wrong about nobody taking care of her. Her sister became a clerk-typist and stayed unmarried. They lived with their mother and father. She did not have to leave the house except to go to the movies. She was supported. She was protected by her family, as they would normally have done in China if they could have afforded it, not sent off to school with strangers, ghosts, boys.
The Girl Who Wouldn't Talk
1. What is your reaction to the silent girl? How do you feel about the narrator?
2. The narrator’s deep undercurrent of anger seems directed solely at the silent girl. What else do you think the narrator could be angry about? Is she affected by an internal conflict? Explain.
3. The silent girl is obviously able to speak. Review the notes you made while reading. Why do you think the girl does not speak? What external or internal conflicts might cause her to remain silent?
4. What inference do you draw from the fact that the narrator says that her time in bed “was the best year and a half of my life”? What discoveries about herself or about the silent girl might she have made during this time?
5. This episode comes from a chapter called “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” What could be the significance of that title? How is this story of the silent girl related to that title?
6. At times, Kingston’s images can evoke powerful responses from us and can reveal the narrator’s strong feelings as well. Find the images describing the silent girl’s skin, her fingers, the skin of her hands and arms, her ears, and her crying. What feelings about the girl do these images reveal? How do they make you respond to the girl and to her tormentor, the narrator?
7. Why do you think the narrator cares so intensely about making the silent girl talk? Do her feelings strike you as believable—have you experienced or observed feelings like these?
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