I Love a Broad Margin to My Life
by Maxine Hong Kingston
Reviewed by Helen Zia
This book, her last, she hints, is a journey though the writings, the past and present lives, the very heart and soul of National Book Award-winner Maxine Hong Kingston, author of the acclaimed Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. She gives us this precious gift: a memoir as poem and poem as memoir, freestyle verse telling the freestyle lives of woman/writer/warrior Maxine Ting Ting Hong, married to Earll Kingston "for three lifetimes, counting this one," still trying to "[g]et love right. Get marriage right." Her grown son Joseph reads all her work and asks, "Don't write about me." She writes, "Okay I won't do it anymore" and later tells how when he was young she once gave him an entire bag of marshmallows so she could have 20 minutes to write.
A dragon (in the Chinese zodiac), and daughter of a dragon, Hong Kingston is a truth-teller, a peace-and-freedom fighter, a time-and-space traveler. She begins with her 65th birthday, five years ago, and records the verity of her life in its raw minutiae, real-woman thoughts that most of us won't admit: "Am I pretty at 65? / What does old look like? / Sometimes I am wrinkled, sometimes not. / So much depends on lighting."
We blush for her honesty. She rewards us by taking us through her past lives, her MaMa, her father, their caring, their yearning, their writings. We follow as she leaves her mother for school in Berkeley, for Hawaii, and into the Oakland Hills wildfire that took her house and the manuscript for her Fourth Book of Peace and that could have taken her.
We go to the White House, to jail for demonstrating against war and invasion. Handcuffed, she asks cellmate Alice Walker, likewise handcuffed, to undo her pants so that she can pee. We travel across modern-day China with Wittman Ah Sing from her novel Tripmaster Monkey. Why reprise this unpleasant character? "He's unafraid and unembarrassed to butt / and nose into other people's business ... / And he's able to enter the many places / in this world that man is allowed and a lady / is not."
There is no recitation of deeds, no chronology, nothing linear or predictable in this memoir-poem. It is complex and exciting, puzzling and enlightening, a revelation into life as a multidimensional journey, with ahha's on every page turn (and return). "Treat / my whole life as if it were a day," she says. And now she is saying good-bye. "As far back as I can remember, I / wanted to write. Before I had language, / before I had stories, I wanted to write. / That desire is going away. / I've said what I have to say. / I'll stop ... Enow."
We, who have been shaped by her words, want to shout, "No, not enow!" Yet after so many truths, so many battles, the dragon deserves her rest. Enow, with our thanks.
Helen Zia is a journalist, activist and former Ms. editor. She's the author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).