A common theme throughout postmodern works is the writer's ability to present dichotomies. Authors Tim O'Brien and Maxine Hong Kingston present the collision of contrary entities in order to further understand reality. Throughout The Things They Carried, O'Brien polarizes the "absolute truth" with the "story-truth" whereas Kingston explores the conflict between an individual's need for expression and a society's need for control in her novel The Woman Warrior. O'Brien attempts to make sense of his experience in the Vietnam War by transforming the external happenings into stories that are filled with emotion. Kingston employs her imagination to re-create her aunt's life and in doing so, she gains the ability to explore her own heritage and desires. Both of the authors seek to find a truth that is unique to them by questioning whether or not they can escape their past memories, experiences, culture or fabrications of reality.
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In The Things They Carried O'Brien utilizes an approach of deconstructing war stories in an effort to convey what the Vietnam War was really like. Though there are many dichotomies presented throughout, the notion of seemingness and reality are prevalent in the sense that there is great complexity in determining fact from fiction. For instance, when discussing the aftermath of Curt Lemon's death, O'Brien argues that "when you go to tell about it there is always that surreal semmingness which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed (O'Brien 71). O'Brien asserts that the war inhibits a sense of lost absolute truth as feelings skew the soldier's once-perfect vision. Consistent in the manner in which he writes, without organization or sequential order, O'Brien explores a sense of disillusionment with the way that he and the rest of the young Vietnam soldiers once experienced life.
O'Brien himself contends that during the war "right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hateâ€¦and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity" (O'Brien 82). The Vietnam War marks a new reality that O'Brien is not accustomed to and his coping mechanism is his ability to undermine the absolute truth. Therefore, O'Brien writes with a purpose of trying to interpret and make sense out of his experiences, which in turn prompts the audience to do the same. In doing so, he argues that the absolute truth is irrelevant in the sense that fiction connected with authentic feelings prompts a reality in itself, though not always one of traditional form. For O'Brien, it is not sufficient enough to simply dictate the factual information behind his experiences, but rather feels the need to place meaning and a personal connection behind the occurrences, contriving the story-truth.
Exploring the idea that the truth is debatable or somehow conducive for interpretation, O'Brien depicts a situation on the battlefield and ushers forth the notion that "that's a true story that never happened" (O'Brien 73). This concept is often similar with society's perspective as the media has a tendency to distort information, calling for individuals to find their own truth within. Oftentimes human beings are anchored by their feelings and experiences which in turn lead to their definition of truth. This is consistent with O'Brien's tendency to utilize dark humor when describing death, an act which displays his way of coping with loss. Though this is something quite opposite from his propensity to connect with his experiences, O'Brien proposes that some occurrences of the Vietnam War are too horrific to psychologically connect with, hence his impetus for the story-truth. Stemming back to his perspective when he first joined the draft, he suggests that "[he] was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything," and in doing so, employs the audience to be empathetic (O'Brien 41). When contrasting this notion with the way in which he left the war, the instances of his "story-truths" only further prove the transformation that O'Brien underwent. It is in this sense that one can conclude that O'Brien left the war with a new interpretation of the meaning of life, seeing as the war had a larger impact on his life than he was able to individually contribute to the battlefields.
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Towards the end of his novel, O'Brien comments that the "thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head" (O'Brien 230). Suggesting that the imagination derives emotion, O'Brien proposes that his fellow soldiers were able to "dream along" with him, something that he wished to evoke from the audience. Moreover, when he returns to Vietnam with his daughter about twenty years after his stint to visit the place where his best friend Kiowa dies, his intentions are to obtain some emotional solace. This can be demonstrated by the fact that he says "in a way, maybe, I'd gone under with Kiowa, and now after two decades I'd finally worked my way out," alluding to the fact that the process of writing this book provides a sense of peace (O'Brien 186).
In "No Name Woman," Kingston portrays a clash between two cultures. The narrator, Kingston, describes a story about her aunt who becomes pregnant and is essentially outcast from her traditional Chinese community. Taking into consideration the fact that her mother tells her this secret cautionary story as an introduction into womanhood, Kingston utilizes this newfound information as a vessel for explaining her own culture. It is Kingston's liminal status as a Chinese American that causes her to explore the conflict between the boundaries that society places on an individual, and an individual's need for expression. Though she has a desire to hold on to her Chinese heritage, Kingston is confused in the sense that she can only first-hand experience her American culture. It is in this sense that Kingston can identify with her aunt as she too feels trapped in society and fantasizes about having to no longer assume a position inside of a predetermined niche.
While Kingston desires to assimilate into modern American society, her mother instructs her to hold fast to her Chinese heritage and continue the practices that were prescribed for her long ago. However, since she has an intangible relationship with her Chinese culture, demonstrated by her feelings that "those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhood fits into solid America," she is unsure how to proceed. Synonymous with her aunt's desire to define herself as an individual, Kingston discusses her own deeds of "[combing] individuality" into her hair, an act which blurs the line between her dual-cultural lifestyle. It is in this sense that the reader can clearly grasp Kingston's conflict of expressing herself versus falling into the stereotypical role of what it looks like to live either as an American or someone of Chinese decent.
Throughout "No Name Woman," Kingston presents Old World China as a community that has a unique, identifiable culture. Kingston asserts that it was common for women to feel repressed as a result of a patriarchal society where "womenâ€¦did not choose" but were rather dominated by male desires. Therefore, Kingston imagines a culture where there is no place for individuality as societal well-being takes precedence over any single human being's aspirations. Kingston utilizes the word "round" to describe this ancient society, an act which symbolizes a place where all actions that benefit the entire community should be undertaken. The image of circularity is a common theme throughout the chapter as Kingston presents the hypothetical argument that "the villagers were speeding up the circling of events because she was too shortsighted to see that her infidelity had already harmed the village that waves of consequences would return unpredictably." Similar to how a circle is continuous without any breaks or openings, Old World China stressed the significance of small niches where the entire community became one. It is in this sense that a utilitarianism principle was established, carrying out the notion that there was little place for individuality and that those who chose to follow their own aspirations would be outcast, a vivid explanation for the villager's raid on her aunt. Due to the fact that the present-day culture for Kingston is very diverse from ancient China, she experiences a larger amount of freedom than her aunt was exposed to and thus does not have to wrestle as gallantly to stay within the "circle."
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O'Brien mentions that he "blamed [Vietnam] for taking away the person [he] had once beenâ€¦and that "twenty years later [he] was left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief (O'Brien 180). This is an act which depicts the notion that the Vietnam War signaled an event which will forever impact O'Brien's view of reality. Demonstrated by the fact that he continues to derive experiences based on his emotions rather than the truth, he is never able to return back to the innocent, "smart" and "compassionate" man that he was before the war. On the other hand, Kingston writes with a purpose of accomplishing a sense of clarity about her individual culture and in doing so, blends her Old World China heritage with her American culture. Finding inspiration from within and from the example of her aunt, Kingston manages to "contaminate" her derived Chinese culture with American practices, an act similar to her aunt's "spite suicide." However, since she manages to attain a sense of cultural hybridity, acting on behalf of the society and herself, she neither becomes a delicate Chinese woman nor an individual, and thus defies the dichotomy. Though they differ in their techniques, the authors suggest that truth and culture are simply a thoughtful construction of an individual's past experiences and culture.