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.
"This is vintage Kingston: agent provocateur, she once again follows her mother's dictate to 'educate the world.'" Publishers Weekly
"Wise, warm, empathic, and spellbinding, Kingston grapples with the spiritual toll of war and the elusiveness of peace in this many-faceted and involving spiritual meditation on the healing power of story and the challenge of acting on one's beliefs." Donna Seaman, Booklist
From the acclaimed author of The Woman Warrior comes a brilliant hybrid of memoir and fiction, her first major work in more than a decade. Her real and imagined narrative enrich one another as Kingston weaves together fact, fiction and memory in an powerfully emotional book.
A Conversation with
Maxine Hong Kingston
The Fifth Book of Peace
Q: Your new book is called The Fifth Book of Peace. Tell us about that title, and about the books of peace that figure in Chinese mythology.
A: A long time ago in China, there were three Books of Peace, all lost, probably in library fires. At changes of regimes, the Chinese destroy the former culture. I searched all over the world for those three lost Books of Peace, and when I found no trace of them, I set to work writing one for our time. I'd been working for two years when the Oakland- Berkeley Hills fire destroyed my book, which I called The Fourth Book of Peace. To have that book of peace destroyed in a fire, like its ancestors, I thought I must have been on to something cosmic. I am so relieved that The Fifth Book of Peace is out of my hands and out of the house, untouched by fire. I do not want to have to write The Sixth Book of Peace . . .
Q: In the opening chapter you describe that devastating fire, as well as your father's funeral. You write, "I was proud that no other loss but the community made me cry." What do you mean by that statement?
A: The older I get, the fewer tears I have for personal unhappiness. I wonder why. I seem to cry over public events, such as wars. Maybe they are tears of helplessness. As I stood there at the fire—father gone, house gone, book gone—my values seemed to re-arrange themselves. I learned that I care most deeply for the human community. It takes years of making connections one-to-one to create and evolve a harmonious, peaceful community.
Q: How did you begin to recover and return to writing?
A: My garret writing room had burned. I took that as a sign that perhaps I ought not to go on in the tradition of the solitary writer. I decided to gather a community of writers around me. I sent out a call for war veterans to come write with me; we would tell one another our stories.
Q: How does this book compare to the book you had been writing before the fire?
A: The book before the fire was fiction, the story of Wittman Ah Sing finding a decent way to live during the war in Viet Nam. Evading the draft, he takes his wife and son to Hawai'i, which gets him closer to Viet Nam. When this writing was burned in the fire, I lost the desire to write fiction. I could not care for make-believe characters anymore. So I spent the next few years expressing my own feelings and thoughts, and writing about real people. Among my community of writer veterans, that Hawai'i story came back to me.
Q: Two of your brothers were in the Viet Nam war. How has that affected your role in the peace movement?
A: At our current peace demonstrations, I see parents and spouses of troops calling for peace. Relatives of victims of people killed on Sept. 11, 2001 carry the banner, "Our grief is not a cause for war." In San Francisco, I saw a soldier in an army jacket shout his thanks to the peace demonstrators, "Thank you for doing this. We don't want to be in Iraq either." I wholeheartedly support our troops—that they neither kill nor be killed, that they come safely home. That they not be sent off and put in harm’s way in the first place.
Q: Discussing the U.S. as a multicultural nation, you write, "Every time we go to war, we go into schizophrenic agony. Whoever the enemy is, they're related to us." Tell us how this principle complicates arguments for war or peace.
A: Everybody is both friend and enemy. Nobody is purely "evil." To bomb a place and a population is a simplistic solution to problems—just obliterate everything quickly and get on with it. To have peace, we need to work over long periods of time, see one another's points of view, endure complications, know cultures and histories.
Q: What did you discover about the process of building peace as you wrote this book? What surprised you?
A: I was surprised to discover how much one small person such as myself can do—and how happy I was. I am coming up with a new rule for living: Only do things that make you happy, and you will create the peaceful world.