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The Fifth Book of Peaceby Maxine Hong Kingston
Synopses & Reviews
The Fifth Book of Peace opens as Maxine Hong Kingston, driving home from her father’s funeral in the early 1990s, discovers that her neighborhood in the Oakland-Berkeley hills is engulfed in flames. Her home burns to the ground, and with it, all her earthly possessions, including her novel-in-progress. Kingston, who at the time was deeply disturbed by the Persian Gulf War, decides that she must understand her own loss of all she possessed as a kind of shadow-experience of war: a lesson about what it would be like to experience up close its utter devastation. Thus she embarks on a mission to re-create her novel from scratch, to rebuild her life, and to reach out to veterans of war and share with them her views as a lover of peace.
In the middle section of this remarkable book, Kingston reconstructs for us her lost novel, the lush and compelling story of the Chinese-American Wittman Ah Sing and his wife, Taña–California artists who flee to Hawaii to evade the draft during the Vietnam War. Wittman and Taña help to create an official Sanctuary for deserters and GIs who’ve returned devastated by their experiences in Vietnam–not unlike, as it turns out, the metaphorical sanctuary Maxine creates, back in her real world, by inviting war veterans to participate in writing workshops. As the vets share their stories, she teaches them both the value of writing–the accurate transcription of what is in the heart–and the value of community.
Paradoxically, the stories of war and its terrors become for her and the vets a literature of peace–words that enable them to achieve peace, at least within themselves. Moving among the vets with her Buddhist-inflected wisdom and at times humorous self-doubts, weaving their stories together with her own struggle to reorient herself after the fire, Maxine Hong Kingston is at times a kind of sprite, an almost weightless spirit, who guides others toward a better place, and at times a challenging teacher, who will not let us turn from the spectacle of a world so often at war.
A long time ago in China, there existed three Books of Peace that proved so threatening to the reigning powers that they had them burned. Many years later Maxine Hong Kingston wrote a Fourth Book of Peace, but it too was burned--in the catastrophic Berkeley-Oakland Hills fire of 1991, a fire that coincided with the death of her father. Now in this visionary and redemptive work, Kingston completes her interrupted labor, weaving fiction and memoir into a luminous meditation on war and peace, devastation and renewal.
About the Author
Maxine Hong Kingston is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who operated a gambling house in the 1940s, when Maxine was born, and then a laundry where Kingston and her brothers and sisters toiled long hours. Kingston graduated with a bachelors degree in 1962 from the University of California at Berkeley, and, in the same year, married actor Earll Kingston, whom she had met in an English course. The couple has one son, Joseph, who was born in 1963. They were active in antiwar activities in Berkeley, but in 1967 the Kingstons headed for Japan to escape the increasing violence and drugs of the antiwar movement. They settled instead in Hawai‘i, where Kingston took various teaching posts. They returned to California seventeen years later, and Kingston resumed teaching writing at the University of California, Berkeley.
While in Hawai‘i, Kingston wrote her first two books. The Woman Warrior, her first book, was published in 1976 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, making her a literary celebrity at age thirty-six. Her second book, China Men, earned the National Book Award. Still today, both books are widely taught in literature and other classes. Kingston has earned additional awards, including the PEN West Award for Fiction for Tripmaster Monkey, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and the National Humanities Medal, which was conferred by President Clinton, as well as the title “Living Treasure of Hawai‘i” bestowed by a Honolulu Buddhist church. Her most recent books include a collection of essays, Hawai‘i One Summer, and latest novel, The Fifth Book of Peace. Kingston is currently Senior Lecturer Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley.
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