Almost three decades ago, Maxine Hong Kingston published The Woman Warrior. Now a staple in college-level writing and literature classes, Kingston's debut was a groundbreaking work of syncretic prose, weaving together elements of fiction, biography, history, and myth. Four years later, China Men captured a National Book Award for its examination of the male immigration experience. Tripmaster Monkey, a more traditional work of fiction, further enhanced her reputation.
One afternoon two years later, Kingston returned from her father's funeral to find her neighborhood engulfed in flames. The Fifth Book of Peace begins there, on the day she lost her house and with it, her novel-in-progress to fire. She didn't want to rewrite those lost pages; homeless and bereft, suddenly she couldn't summon the imagination to write fiction. Instead, a new story emerged. The four sections of her latest genre-defying work Fire, Paper, Water, Earth follow the author through her long process of recovery, meditating on larger questions of loss and devastation, of war and peace. Publishers Weekly notes, The Fifth Book of Peace is "vintage Kingston: agent provocateur."
Indeed, Kingston's style remains distinctly her own. "I have various ways of melding the Chinese and Western experiences," she explains. "My hands are writing English, but my mouth is speaking Chinese. Somehow I am able to write a language that captures the Chinese rhythms and tones and images, getting that power into English. I am working in some kind of fusion language."
Dave: You lost your book in the fire that destroyed your home, but in the aftermath you didn't try to rewrite it. Did you know from the start that you'd have to rethink the whole thing and start over?
Maxine Hong Kingston: My way of writing is that I always have to be exploring. I'm always going into new territory. To just look back and try to remember what the old words were, it just would not be right.
I had a chance to remember the old book. I have a former student who became a hypnotherapist; he wanted to hypnotize me, and then I would recall the computer screen and just read off the words. I thought that was the scariest thing because I would be caught in an old version and I'd only be using recall memory not remembering events, but remembering something word for word. It just did not seem fresh and right and new. So what I did was I abandoned the burned book and began somewhere else. I wrote about something else, and I did that until I could write fiction again.
I'd lost fiction, which is the same as losing my imagination. I couldn't care for those characters. I just wanted to use writing for myself. I wanted to write the way I did when I was a child. After the fire, I just wanted to take care of myself. I wrote in a secret way, a personal way. It wasn't public writing.
I did that for a number of years, and then fiction did come back, but I wrote a different book than the one that was lost in the fire. I had the same characters, and I had the same situation and the same conflicts, but it was a different story. It was a different style, with an urgency and a faster pace and entirely different words.
Dave: Why did you revisit the characters from Tripmaster Monkey?
Kingston: I was thinking that I had only written adolescent characters. They had the ideas and attitudes and lives of young people. I needed them to grow up.
So much of American literature is about the adolescent boy. If I could make Whitman Ah Sing grow up, I would be growing up Huckleberry Finn, and I would be growing up Holden Caufield. I didn't want to leave Tripmaster Monkey until I could get Whitman to be a family man. I would show his life as a husband and as a responsible father.
See, he lights out for the territory, too. He goes west to Hawaii with a dream of being like Gauguin let's abandon the family and be the free artist but I wanted to give him a family and let him see whether it was possible to be free, to be a free American but also bring your family along.
Miel: Reading this book and going back to the others, I thought of my own in-laws. They met at San Diego State in the sixties, then they were in Berkeley when all the crazy stuff was going on. My in-laws moved, too; when it got crazy, when it became less about politics and more about drugs, they dropped out and moved to Oregon. And what you said about Whitman growing up and having a family?the funny thing is, my father-in-law couldn't grow up. And they ended up splitting up.
Kingston: I could have been your mother-in-law; that sounds like the same story. Our whole youthful culture, breaking up. It was the drugs; it was the violence of wartime. The peace movement was also becoming violent, so we were thinking that we had to leave Berkeley; we set out for Hawaii. And then you find out that it was a worldwide situation. There was no leaving that. Because you got to Honolulu and the same thing was happening. The peace movement was younger, and there were nonviolent demonstrations, but just a few months later the students burned down the ROTC building.
You know, there was this surge of hope: we are going to be free of the way the last generation was; we're going to figure out new ways to make a living; we're going to find new ways to lead a political life, a spiritual life; and somehow we are going to be psychedelic. First it was drugs, and then after a while Can we do this without drugs?
Kingston: Yeah, but you know what? In The Fifth Book of Peace, I have Whitman make a vow to his son. There they are, going through the Honolulu airport, and they see the bodies coming home from Vietnam. The son is upset, witnessing this terrible thing.
What do we say to our children when there is a war going on and we are dropping bombs and we are suffering sacrifices? You can see this kid going into a panic. I have Whitman promise Mario: When you grow up, there will be no war. When you grow up, you do not have to be a soldier. When you grow up, we are going to have a peaceful world for you.
Some critics of this book asked, "How can she say that? This is so unrealistic. How can she make this promise in the book?" But when I am with children in these terrible times, how can I not make such a promise?
Dave: Later in the book, you spend time talking and writing with veterans. How did their voices assimilate into the story you were telling? How did these disparate parts, the fiction and nonfiction, come together?
Kingston: When I gathered the veterans, I had an open mind and an open heart about them. I had no expectations. And I wanted to know, How did they come home? What became of them after they physically survived their wars? I wanted to learn from them. How they could live now? How can they re-enter civil civilian society?
I had lost my writing, and I wanted a community of writers around me. I asked that these people who would write with me be veterans or families of veterans because I wanted to ask the hardest questions: How do we come home from war? Can we end war? Can we end war that goes on in our very souls? And How do we make peace? These are the questions that I was asking as I was working on that lost book. What can one small individual do in this big world to have any effect?
We gathered as a community, we wrote together, we meditated together, and we ate together. We would be together for a whole day at a time; there were whole weekends that we would write together. I got my writing back, and the veterans were able to express themselves in story and in poetry. They were able to face the wars that they had been in and give them artistic expression; they were able to find their way home through art and through writing.
When we are among people who want to hear our stories, they draw the stories out of us. That was how I was able to write fiction again. And I wanted to hear people's stories, too.
Miel: So it was like a talk-story that everybody was involved with. It's kind of going back to your childhood, then. Woman Warrior was the talk-story that got the ball rolling for so many. This was your way to reconcile: to create a larger talk-story. And it helped other people.
Kingston: Yes, it is like setting up the conditions of my own childhood. In talk-story, everybody was participating, listening and speaking and then telling the past as well as what you did today. This set up conditions for being very creative. So yes, in a way, I set up my childhood, but I peopled it with all these veterans of war. And it worked. We became a community a community that shared stories and feelings with one another; when we could talk-story and hear-story, then we could change.
I think that people heal their war wounds when they are able to communicate in story. When we tell one another our stories, people can help us carry our burdens.
Miel: Which brings me to another question, then, about the stories that your mother wrote, the stories in her scroll. She didn't want to have those brought out.
Kingston: Well, the reason my mother was so secretive about that scroll was that it was not really her story. It was a cheat sheet: the story she had to memorize in order to get through Angel Island and immigration.
My mother is very good at telling her own true stories and she is also able to improvise and change and make up stories, where I don't know if they are true or not. But that particular story was important to her only because it was a way to get through immigration; it was not important in the sense that it was not a true story. And it was not really very exciting or interesting. It was just something that she had to memorize in order to get to this country.
Miel: But even with the talk-stories that you did write about, your mother worried that you were revealing secrets.
Kingston: The way that I wrote when my mother and father were both alive was very different than the way I write now. In Woman Warrior and China Men, I wrote their stories in such a way that I protected them from being deported. Both of them were illegal aliens, and I wrote about their coming from China to Cuba to America. I made up a new genre that is a mix of reality and imagination, and I did that because I was thinking that if immigration authorities read my books they could not find evidence to deport my parents. Now that they are dead, I am very clear about what is fiction and what is nonfiction, and I draw the boundaries very strictly. I am able to say that they were illegals and they were stowaways and he won her a visa at the gambling table. Everything they did was illegal! And they always told me, "Don't tell these things!" So I did tell, but I did it in a new and strange kind of way.
Now that they are gone, I mean to just go back and retell everything and sort it out and say, This is real. This is not real.
Miel: The Cultural Studies people are going to kill you if you do that!
Kingston: I know. Oh God, I know!
Miel: Because the blurred intersection of reality and imagination is so important to them.
Kingston: But what they had to do was study forms of literature and try to figure out what reality sounds like. And what does imagination sound like?
Dave: You mentioned Huck Finn and Holden Caufield earlier, but you also bring many traditional Chinese stories to your work. The books reflect a truly Chinese American experience in that sense, very much both cultures at the same time.
Kingston: I have various ways of melding the Chinese and Western experiences. One thing I do is that I will say aloud conversations in Chinese, and at the same time I am on the computer or the typewriter writing and translating with my hands. My hands are writing English, but my mouth is speaking Chinese. Somehow I am able to write a language that captures the Chinese rhythms and tones and images, getting that power into English. I am working in some kind of fusion language, an American language that has Chinese tonalities and accents.
Also, Chinese is a pictorial language, so I work on my images and metaphors and try to show what that is all about. I feel that I have had to translate a whole Eastern culture and bring it to the West, then bring the two cultures together seamlessly. That is how one makes the Asian American culture.
Miel: Do you find that Asian American writing has changed in the last ten years? Jessica Hagedorn, for example, writes half in English and half in Tagalog [Filipino]. There's not as much deliberate mixing.
Kingston: You know, I've noticed that Filipina writers, and the Spanish writers, they have been doing that, where they use the two languages and don't even translate from one to the other. They are truly bilingual! That's not what I am doing. I admire that kind of writing where there are the two languages on the page, but it's not something that I could do.
It could be for many reasons. One is that Chinese is so hard. It's so utterly foreign. You can't even read it phonetically; therefore you'd need a really peculiar reader, someone who knows both languages, and those people are so rare. The other thing is that I am an American and I mean to be writing the new American language, to be shaping and forming the American language.
It could also be that I have been in America all of my life; Chinese is a foreign culture to me, too. I am fascinated by it, it is my heritage, but I am always trying to figure it out and then bring it back with what relevance it has to our American life. And it has a lot of relevance.
Dave: Have you been back to China recently?
Kingston: No, but I am on my way. I will be in China in March for a literary festival, and then I've been invited to come back again any time of the year so maybe in the fall, another trip to China. I was there right after the Tiananmen Square massacre but I have not been there since. And I haven't been to Hong Kong since the handover. I'd like to see that.
The Chinese who have invited me, they want to build a whole conference around my work; they want to welcome me back as a Chinese writer. They have an idea now of World Chinese writers, people writing Chinese literature in many languages all over the world. It's so great that there is such a thing as World Chinese writers. I love being part of it.
Dave: Is China's evolving place in the world much on your mind? Do you have feelings about the cultural possibilities of a more open China?
Kingston: Well, I have another story in my mind. I've written none of this, but I was thinking of Whitman Ah Sing and Tara turning sixty. I would get them to be old. They would remember that there is a Hindu custom where when they turn sixty, they can decide not to be married anymore. They can be free or they can decide to have a new wedding. And I imagine them looking forward to turning sixty so that they can leave each other.
So then Whitman sets out to go to China, and I'm trying to decide which China he is going to see. China is so immense, but all of its layers and layers of history and modernity are there at the same time; in the twenty-first century, there is all of time. I want to think of him being on the Silk Road. As he travels through China, he can travel through time.
Miel: So Whitman and Tara are very close to your heart.
Kingston: You know, they are both probably me. Sometimes I am one; sometimes I am the other.
Miel: Have you thought about writing from Mario's perspective?
Kingston: Oh gosh, I hope I live long enough! I can't even imagine that.
Miel: I ask because I'm a new mother. My husband is white, and I am Filipina, so I always try to picture our son's future.
Kingston: Your child and my child and Mario, they are the children of the future. We are all going to be mixed-race. America is going to be a mixed-race country, but so are all the other countries. And the global population will be mixed-race people. And what's really wonderful? they are really so beautiful. Yes, they look more beautiful than us un-mixed people!
Dave: What do you like to read?
Kingston: Oh, I read a lot. What am I carrying with me right now? I'm carrying Susan Griffin's Eros of Everyday Life, and I have Gabriel Garcia Marquez's autobiography [Living to Tell the Tale]; I am really looking forward to reading that because I love stories about writers and how they got to be the way they are. And I read poetry. I've just read another Mary Oliver collection. Oh, and I just read Love by Toni Morrison. And I love Love!
Dave: And now your book tour is almost over. I know that you've been traveling for a long time.
Kingston: I am just ending a 30-city tour. I started in September, so I've been traveling for almost four months. I was all over the United States, then I was in London, and then I came back and went across the United States again. It's during the Iraq war that I am doing this traveling, so I kept very alert to what people are feeling about this war. Are they war-like? Are people feeling that we are conquering the world? Are they worried? Are they in despair for a peaceful world?
What struck me was that people all over this country and in England, they really want peace. And they are very upset no, it's not upset. What is it? It's like despair: What are we going to do? People are very confused. And when they are confused, they respond very much to "Let's support the troops," but then there are also lots of people saying, "Let's support them by bringing them home." But then that is very confusing too because if we bring them home, what are we going to do, leave anarchy over there? What are we going to do?
Maybe people are very depressed right now, but on the other hand there is also a lot of heart and a lot of hope. Many peace activists everywhere. I was being very careful in Texas and in Georgia because I thought there would be many people arguing against my Book of Peace, but I found many of them asking and wanting to know: What are we going to do?
And I also found peace organizations everywhere. In Atlanta I spoke at the First Existentialist Church. I was like, My goodness, who are these people? There were images of goddesses all around and people really trying to bring these peace ideas out into the world, trying to pacify us. And I found Code Pink women everywhere in my audiences. I would walk in thinking, Gosh, I'm really alone here, but I'd look up and there they were, the Code Pink women with their boas and their pink shirts!
Maxine Hong Kingston visited Powell's City of Books on December 3, 2003.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State