By Emma Fryer, Kayla Brizzell, Mikaila Scheppmann
When we think of ghosts, we think of spirits and scary stories. But there is more to this word than the supernatural. “Ghost” is a reference to what once was… yet still lingers, and can be physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. Ghosts are common within literature, and often appear in relation to the past. They are most often symbolized by writers as moments within one’s personal history that follow them through life, often creating a burden or weight that causes inner conflict. This is demonstrated within many pieces of literature, including The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston and Mean by Myriam Gurba. The authors depict ghosts in their writings to show how different events or stories affect their characters. Said characters are “haunted” by these events or stories, and they continue to think about them and base their future decisions upon them. These ghosts have the ability to shape the characters as people and affect the way they interpret the world around them. Characters such as Kingston and Gurba are perfect examples of this within their own memoirs.
The masculine word “ghost” was inherited from the Common West Germanic Languages such as Old English, Dutch, and German. Across all of these languages, the word “is found with substantially identical meaning” (Oxford English Dictionary). This meaning is: “an apparition of a dead person which is believed to appear or become manifest to the living…” (Lexico). By using this definition, we are drawing on the Latin word “spiritus,” meaning that a ghost is not a physical thing, but more of a feeling or presence of something ominous (Oxford English Dictionary). This idea can be identified within both A Woman Warrior and Mean frequently.
A prime literary example that depicts ghosts is The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. Throughout the memoir, the author stresses the importance of the past and the impact that it has on people’s lives and worldviews. This idea is expressed in multiple instances, specifically during descriptions of Kingston’s personal experiences growing up. One instance in particular is the “No Name Woman” story in which Brave Orchid, the author’s mother, reveals to Kingston the truth about their family history. Brave Orchid informs her daughter of the aunt she once had that killed herself, as well as her infant child. The tragic event was a result of the shame and isolation that came to her due to childbirth outside of marriage. The first line of the memoir reads, “‘You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you,”’implying right away that the story is a secret within the vault of their past. However, Kingston has a bit of a loud mouth.
This chilling tale is engraved in the author’s head, and proceeds to follow her for years to come. Its haunting nature eventually pushes Kingston to tell the world the secret through her memoir. The author reveals this in saying, “My aunt haunts me— her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her…” (16). “Ghost” is used here in a spiritual way. When Kingston says, “My aunt haunts me,” she is referring to both her passed relative’s soul and the burden of her story. She wishes to honor her aunt’s forgotten memory, and do justice to her unfortunate death. However, she also wishes to rid her mind of the tale that haunts her, much like an exorcism. Her aunt had infiltrated her head and heart in a way that made her eerie legacy impossible to ignore, almost as if she had possessed her niece The sharing of the story is Kingston’s way of performing her own exorcism, and freeing her aunt’s heavy soul.
In addition, Kingston depicts ghosts in reference to the unknown. Within the chapter “Shaman,” the author describes the elements of Western life that made her feel alienated as a Chinese American in the United States. She uses the term in reference to people and things that are foreign to her. Kingston writes, “But America has been full of machines and ghosts… Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars” (96-97). She then goes on to say that she looked at everyday civilians and workmen as not normal people, but “Garbage Ghosts,” “Meter Reader Ghosts,” “Newsboy Ghosts,” etc. Kingston’s depiction of ghosts in this way is an expression of her feelings within this period of her life: ordinary things are not so ordinary in a world in which you feel you don’t belong. She sees even simple things such as newsboys as completely estranged, and thus refers to them as ghosts. Kingston lacks a sense of connection or belonging to Western life, and therefore looks at America as a graveyard.This is because it is as if she is treading through another world entirely: the world of the supernatural.
Another text that depicts ghosts is Mean by Myriam Gurba. This memoir navigates Gurba’s discovery of her racial and sexual differences throughout life and retells her past trauma through humor. Gurba opens up with telling the story of the rape and murder of a woman named Sophia. Gurba states that, “Sophia is always with me. She haunts me.” (79) and, “She still doesn’t leave me alone. She’s still here.” (219). Here it is evident that although Sophia is not alive, she haunts Gurba with her story of sexual assault. Gurba is constantly assaulted with the memory of Sophia in everything that she does. Even through her writing, Sophia is interrupting Gurba’s thoughts like a haunting and resurfacing sexual trauma that she experienced.
According to Gurba, survivor’s guilt can also be a ghost. In her writing she expresses that, “Guilt is a ghost” (14). The reader discovers later in the reading that Gurba had partied with her friends on the same spot that Sophia, a young Mexican woman like her, was beaten, raped, and killed. When Gurba finds out about the murder, she remembers having thrown empty alcohol bottles on Sophia’s “grave,” or the place where she was assaulted and killed, and expresses that, “I was allowed to escape. I was allowed to walk away from that spot. Sophia was not” (79). She also repeats the same phrase that, “Guilt is a ghost” (79). This guilt arises from the fact that Gurba was also assaulted by Sophia’s murderer, and therefore she feels a connection to her. Sophia wasn’t as lucky, which causes the author to be heavily impacted by her story. The author makes it very clear that the term “ghost” can represent intense feelings that have the ability to “haunt” you. Gurba is left with this “survivor’s guilt ghost” that follows her throughout her life. Even while writing her memoir, these feelings of guilt and pain interrupts her thoughts and impact her mind in an intrusive way.
Gurba also depicts her sister Ofelia, who is struggling with anorexia, as a ghost. Ofelia is described as, “wispy and quiet as a ghost,” giving the reader a clear image of how the young girl’s body appears (76). Not only does it paint her physical appearance, but she also develops a deeper meaning— that Ofelia is being overtaken, or possessed, by her eating disorder. It alters her personality and reduces her to skin and bones much as a demon is thought to do in horror movies and stories. Ofelia’s eating disorder is also connected to Catholicism. Gurba states that, “I knew the stories of Ofelia’s spiritual antecedents…Their stories are fed to Catholic girls as exemplars of good girlhood. Good girlishness resists gluttony. Good girlishness resists pleasure. Good girls prove their virtue by getting rid of themselves” (77). This is a very powerful statement because Gurba is showcasing that Ofelia is attempting to become holy by starving herself. She is reaching for something “spiritual,” which connects to the theme of ghosts. Ofelia is attempting to embody one of these pious ghosts out of admiration and religious devotion, but her actions ironically lead to the withering of her body into a hollow outline.
Authors often include “ghosts” within their texts in order to demonstrate the impact something can have on a character’s development and everyday life. By reshaping the idea of what a ghost is, literature can offer readers a deeper understanding of what it means to be haunted, whether it be physically, mentally, or spiritually. While a ghost is typically thought of as something non-existing or supernatural, literature challenges this by representing the word in many different lights. Authors around the world have taught us that a ghost can also be anything from a traumatic event, to a story, to a feeling, whether it be personal or not, that burdens the living in one way or another. From understanding the word “ghost” in its multiple forms, we can better understand the pieces of writing we admire in a more complex way than ever before.
Gurba, Myriam. Mean. Coffee House Press, 2017.
Image courtesy of Stefano Pollio, retrieved from Unsplash.com
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. Vintage International, 1976.
Lexico Powered by Oxford. “Ghost: Definition of Ghost by Lexico.” Lexico Dictionaries English, Lexico Dictionaries, 2019, www.lexico.com/en/definition/ghost.
Oxford University Press. “Discover the Story of EnglishMore than 600,000 Words, over a Thousand Years.” Home : Oxford English Dictionary, 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/78064?rskey=z6LrwJ&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.