“The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains” by Kingston Essay

December 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Feb 5th, 2021


Playwrights and filmmakers employ several literary devices in their endeavor to put across their messages successfully to their intended audience. However, the choice of the devices significantly determines the quality of the message. In many occasions, novelists embark on the use of themes as the most efficient way of communicating to their audiences. Kingston, an epitome of such writers strategically allocates different roles to her different characters in her presenting of the theme of enforced silence as vivid as it stands in her narrative ‘The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains’.

The essay opens with Kingston speaking in her first person ‘I’ but ends with her third person as she gives a detailed account of her great grandfather’s bio. The change, as expressed in the essay, successfully drives home her experience as a Filipino-American, which the reader would otherwise have failed to understand if presented in her first person. Therefore, as the paper unfolds, the essay features several instances, which depict the theme of enforced silence where the narrator or the characters have to let go of their first person speeches, hence the imposed silence, which on the other hand has its corresponding consequences still addressed in the paper.

Enforced Silence

The way the story opens with Kingston reading the contents of a letter from her uncle contributes towards the development of the theme. The reader can interpret the issue of the letter from two angles both of which constitute the theme. Firstly, a character going through a period of enforced silence cannot air out his views and if he has to, he/she must do so as if addressing the views of another person. The author, through the way she presents the letter passes for such a character. She presents her views in the name of her uncle. In fact, he says, “you have disrupted the economy and technology of the commune” (Kingston 86).

The reader, through these words realizes clearly the reason why the narrator gives the story from the point of view of another person. She feels guilty of having interfered with the economy and technology and thus fearing the consequences associated with the issue. She says, “I won’t tell the name of our village. I don’t want anybody arresting my uncle” (Kingston 86). In other words, she cannot present the story as her own failure to which she will face the penalty of arrest subjected to those who interfere with technology and economy, hence the enforced silence.

Secondly, the narrator intentionally enforces silence to her uncle thereby choosing to talk on his behalf by reading what he says through the letter. The uncle has to communicate through letters and not verbally after having interfered with a Chinese bicycle. In fact, the narrator cannot even dare reveal her village; leave alone the uncle, since she fears that he might disappear if the Chinese men get hold of him. Kingston’s story of her great grandfather reveals the reason behind the silence of majority of Chinese concerning their history.

Another instance of enforced silence stands out from Kingston’s account of her great grand father’s experience as workers in the Hawaii sugar estates. The managers forced old men like her great grandfather to remain silent while working in the plantations. In fact, the bosses had a rule for the workers to “mind your own business and work like an ox” (Kingston 99). The simile of working like oxen clarifies that they could not talk just as oxen work silently.

The rule, as Kingston puts it, was not work friendly since the workers referred to it as ‘absurd’. The grandfather says, “I wasn’t born to be silent like a monk…if I knew I had to take a vow of silence…I would have shaved off my hair and become a monk” (Kingston 100). Further, in illustrating how the rule seemed harsh to the workers, the narrator reveals the many things that the workers wished to air out given the chance though they could not manage.

Kingston uses the words ‘he wanted to say’ repeatedly like the case of the grandfather who, despite the withstanding of the hours “…wanted to talk about how he sawed through the trunks and…had all kinds of things to say” (Kingston 100) though he could not because of the enforced silence.

Highlighting further the theme of enforced silence, the author brings to light the hide-seek game played to the workers in the sugar plantation. In fact, Bak Goong, one of the work forces observes a certain policy in the contract suggesting that they will not get their pay after working. The clause seems to present the workers as no more than slaves who will just work for no pay but food. However, the workers seem unaware of the clause.

Therefore, when the time to request their pay comes, Bak Goong receives the pay but realizes that his boss has deducted some amount unexpected by the workers. Upon complaining about the issue, the boss interrupts in a stern voice saying, “Shut up you…you shut up” (Kingston 102). The workers have nothing but to heed to the words of the Chinese accountant. In other words, they have to remain silent no matter what or when to get their full pay. The greedy accountant excuses himself by telling them that the pay will go up soon after the estate produces big returns. When and how this will happen, based on the workers’ evident efforts, remains unknown to them since the rules seem so harsh to them that none can afford to follow up the issue and hence the enforced silence.


Too much of everything is poisonous and the excess enforced silence is not an exception as the narrative unveils. The workers led by Bak Goong seem much oppressed wishing to free them from the bondage of too much silence, which according to them will make the work easier than before. In fact, the narrator points out, “It wasn’t right that Mr. Bak Goong had to save his talking…when stories would have made the work easier” (Kingston 114).

The words mark the dawn of freedom for the workers. They have realized their duty to claim the rights denied to them by their bosses despite the ‘moneyless’ job that leaves them ‘bodiless’ as Bak Goong’s wife puts it. Therefore, the enforced silence has fuelled the worker’s realization that they are actually living a life that seems strange and intolerable. Bak Goong’s wife confirms the workers’ need to restore their dignity. She tells his husband, “Go back where you belong. Go now” (Kingston 115).

The succeeding words feature no more than a bold step that the husband takes on behalf of the rest. He wakes up convinced that he has to cure himself by exercising his right of speaking any time and to any person of his choice. In fact, he presents the realization to the rest: uncles, brother among other workers, telling them that he has come up with the cure of their long sickness. “It is a congestion of not talking. What we have to do is talk and talk” (Kingston 115).

However, the reader may wish to know whether the talking is a consequence of enforced silence. The narrative narrows down to the workers’ reaction following the imposed silence. Bak Goong, who assumes the position of the ringleader, assembles the worker to deliver a story that he says cannot escape mentioning. In fact, Bak Goong says, “I’m coming home by and by…I want to be home” (Kingston 117).

The silence seems to have separated the workers from their beloved homes, where ‘home’ symbolizes liberation where one is free; not only to interact with others, but also to speak based on his/her desires. The story ends with the men in a shout party after Bak Goong’s awakening story where they shouted and buried the words in the soil to symbolize how they wished to see the oppression dead and buried just like seeds die in the soil thereby bringing forth new seedlings. Kingston puts it, “Soon the new green shoots would rise, and when in two years the cane grew gold tassels, what stories the wind would tell” (118).

As the adage goes, ‘Every experience is an opportunity to learn not just a lesson but a good lesson’. The Chinese men seem to have learned much from the oppression. Had it not been for it, they would not have realized the need to fight for their rights, which otherwise would imply a continued oppression and hence the theme of enforced silence.

Works Cited

Kingston, Maxine. The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains. New York: Vintage International, 1989.

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