For many of the writers discussed in class, family stories are a guide to live by. The family stories told, give an outline of morals as well as a way to stay close to their true family. Both Cofer and Stone show how family stories give them a very strong form of acceptance. Acceptance is key for each of the writers because they both face the challenge of living as multicultural people in a world that tends to shame diversity. These stories are extremely important to Cofer and Stone; questioning them would violate all they believe in.
However, there is another side to this subject. Maxine Hong Kingston reveals to the reader a different side to family stories. A side that is not of love and acceptance, but more of hate, betrayal, and rejection. In some cultures family circles cannot always be of love and protection. In her case she reveals to the reader a family circle that would murder in order to keep the circle clean of sin, no matter what the cost.
Judith Ortiz Cofer the author of “Casa: A partial remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood” shows how family stories can control a person’s life. Cofer was never one to disagree with what she was told. She was raised a Navy brat who was both Puerto Rican and American. Cofer was never normal and always wondered what normal truly was. She went on to say, “Their weirdness was a measuring stick I used in my serious quest for a definition of normal”(Cofer 273). Cofer was on this quest because she was a “Cultural chameleon”(Cofer 273). While traveling from the United States to Puerto Rico she spoke English with a Spanish accent and Spanish with an English accent causing people to see her differently. This was hard on Cofer as a child, she searched for what she could call her roots. These stories did not only teach her how to live life as a good woman, but “more specifically a Puerto Rican women”(Cofer 271). This aspect of her life became an issue to her that was very important in her life. The women of her family told stories that she could live by and learn to love:
And they told cuentos, the morality and cautionary tales told by the women in our
family for generations: stories that became a part of my subconscious as I grew up in two worlds, the tropical island and the cold city, and that would later surface in my dreams and in my poetry. (Cofer 272)
Cofer needed these stories to keep herself believing that she will always be a part of her family circle. Mama was a special person in Cofer’s life as a child. Her grandmother “pinned”(Cofer 275) Cofer as a child so that she would be able to become a respectable Puerto Rican-American woman.
In the short story, “Stories Make a Family” by Elizabeth Stone, she reveals her thoughts on how her family stories kept her heritage in her soul. The stories that her family told her, “were the prologue to my life, and the stories I would live by”(Stone 266). The family circle is also important to stone, who grew up with many of her relatives:
The nuclear family- a couple and their children- belonged to the larger unit. If you’d asked me then how many people there were in my family, I would have said twenty-five: my grandmother, my parents, my aunts and uncles, my sister, and my cousins. That was what family meant. (Stone 267)
This shows how important family was to her. She struggled to keep this family circle by any means necessary. Stone was never one to question her family’s stories or values. This is because it is what made them “Bengiornos” along with Italian; this is a heritage that stone was proud to be apart of.
Stone learned quickly as a child, “The pain of being Italian-American”(268). Her family stories, “often tried tacitly to counteract what culture said about Italians” proving that without these stories stone would be lost. Once Stone’s father past away, her oldest brother took charge of the family. With this power he started to Anglicize their names along with everything else that made them who they are. Stone says, “What all these stories did was give us something strong and important to hold onto for as long as we needed it-a sense of belonging in the world”(Stone 270). Because Stone and her family were faced against a country that looked down upon Italian-Americans the stories which they had were used to help the children and family believe they were good people, as well as being a family with a history to be proud of.
Kingston, like Cofer and Stone is a child whose roots come from outside of the American norm. She was raised as a Chinese-American who disagreed with the ways of her family’s heritage. Kingston finds these stories do not accept, but reject people from the family circle. She wrote the short story “A No Name Woman”, in this she finds herself not wanting to believe and to accept the stories, but needing to question them. As a Chinese-American it is hard for her to understand the old ways and use them in modern times, “Those of us in the first American Generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants build around our childhoods fit in solid America” (Kingston 323). Kingston becomes aware of how in a time of need her heritage does not stick by and help, but instead discontinues relations with a family member in their, most critical time of need.
No one would give here a family hall name. She had taken the child with her into the wastes. At its birth the two of them had felt the same raw pain of separation, a wound that only the family pressing tight could close (Kingston 329).
She knows now that she does not believe and cannot take part in making her aunt suffer for taking her and her child’s’ own life. “But there is more to this silence: They want me to participate in her punishment. “And I have”, Kingston says (330). This quote shows how Kingston has lost respect for her family because they were making her take part in torturing of her aunt, without even realizing what she was doing. Now Kingston feels as though to keep her aunts story a secret, would be to help in the erasing of a woman after her own death.
Family stories are thought of, as being something that one can be proud of. Cofer and Stone show the reader how these stories can help guide the youth and teach them to be good-hearted individuals. Although Kingston is facing problems of not wanting to live by the lessons she learned in her family circle. She must question these stories and release the silence in order to better the feelings of herself, and her family circle. Family stories make up our family traits and circle, but in order to adapt to ones self beliefs, these stories, at times, must be questioned.
Cofer, Judith Ortiz. “Casa: A Partial Rememberance of a Puerto Rican Childhood.”
The Winchester Reader. Ed. Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan.
Boston: Bedford Books of St.Martin’s Press 1991. 271-275.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. “No Name Woman.” The Writer’s Presence: A pool of essays.
Ed. Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan. Boston: Bedford books, 1997. 321-330
Stone, Elizabeth. “Stones make a family.” The Winchester Reader. Ed. Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press 1991.
Should We Question Our Family Stories?
An analytical essay
By Spencer Dunning