When Californian writer and peace activist Maxine Hong Kingston was awarded a humanities medal at the White House in 1997, she astonished the draft-dodging president with a message from Vietnam war veterans. “They said, ‘Tell Bill Clinton we’re proud of him; he was right and brave not to go to Vietnam’.” “But I thought they felt I’m a son of a bitch,” he replied.
Their forgiveness surprised Kingston too, aware of the bitterness of many veterans towards the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Yet these men had taken part in the 1990s in her war veterans’ writing workshops, inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk whom Martin Luther King Jr nominated for the Nobel peace prize. Though not all the veterans shared Kingston’s pacifism (she has spoken at peace gatherings with the Dalai Lama and fellow writer Alice Walker), some were beside her on International Women’s Day this year, when she was arrested outside the White House during demonstrations against the impending Iraq war. Their testimony forms part of her latest book, The Fifth Book of Peace, part memoir, part fiction, which links the trauma of Vietnam to the Gulf wars.
Kingston’s famous debut, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), used martial myth in feminist rebellion melded with fiction. Rooted in family memoir and her experience of growing up in California with a Chinese heritage, it crossed cultural boundaries and fused literary genres in startlingly original ways. For the British writer and critic Aamer Hussein, she is “one of the late 20th century’s preeminent chroniclers of the migrant experience”. The book marked a breakthrough to a wider audience for Asian-American writers. It has sold more than 1.3 million copies in paperback in the US and Britain, and been translated into numerous languages, including Chinese. Widely taught in US colleges, it now sells to a new generation beguiled by Hollywood homages to martial-arts heroines, from Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003).
Amy Tan, Californian author of the bestselling novel The Joy Luck Club (1989), insists Kingston is writing “not Asian-American but American literature”, whose landscape she opened up. For Tan, “Maxine infuses her work with a strong morality; it’s art that moves people to think in a different way.” Grace Paley, the New York author and peace activist, admires her friend as “one of the great truth tellers of our time; she doesn’t make compromises in her literary life. She’s quite unafraid.” Yet other writers, including the Chinese-American playwright Frank Chin, have bitterly disputed Kingston’s authenticity and what they see as her “faking” of Chinese culture, in what has become a long-running literary feud.
Kingston, aged 63, is a diminutive and serene figure who once mocked herself as having a “pressed duck” voice. She lives with her actor husband, Earll Kingston, in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, and teaches creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Their house was rebuilt after the Oakland hills firestorms of 1991, which killed 25 people, a month after Kingston’s father died and shortly after the first Gulf war. In The Fifth Book of Peace she recalls her sense, when the fire started, that her father’s spirit had been unappeased by the funeral rituals performed for him. Later, running through a “black-and-white Guernica of trees”, she experienced a revelation of the devastation in Iraq. “For refusing to be conscious of the suffering we caused … we are given this sight of our city in ashes.” She quotes an Oakland fire captain and Vietnam war veteran shocked by seeing his own neighbourhood in ruins. What an opportunity, he said, to show people that “when we, as a country, decide to go to war against somebody, this is what we are going to get”.
The fire consumed an almost finished novel-in-progress entitled The Fourth Book of Peace, after the three Chinese lost books of peace, held by legend to be the mislaid key to ending war. Kingston had dreamed of those books since childhood, and now called on war veterans to help her write a “book of peace for our time”. “I was traumatised and very hurt by the fire,” she says. “In the shock of the loss, I changed. It made me understand why, when the planes went into the World Trade Centre, our country also changed. There was great fear and panic, and a blind lashing out – a loss of rational ability.” She found herself unable to read or write. “I tried, but I wrote directly how I felt; there was no shape, just expressions of pain and loss. It was the way I wrote as a child: to huddle in a corner secretly, away from people, and make sounds, whimper, while writing.”
Maxine Hong was born in 1940 in Stockton, California, the first of three daughters and three sons born to Chinese migrants. Her father, Tom Hong, had been a poet and village teacher, and her mother, Ying Lan, was a midwife trained in western and Chinese medicine in Canton. As Kingston relates in China Men (1980), her follow-up to The Woman Warrior, her ancestors had for centuries crossed the Pacific to a land known as “Gold Mountain” even before the Californian gold rush of 1849. Alongside other Chinese, Mexicans and Europeans, they built railroads and worked mines. But her father was the first to settle. He made the legal crossing to Cuba in 1924, then stowed away for New York. Twice caught, jailed and deported to Cuba, he eluded the “immigration demons” on his third attempt. “It’s a story I can only tell after he died,” says Kingston. “I didn’t want my parents to be caught and deported.”
In New York her scholarly father worked in a laundry, loath to return to war-torn China after the Japanese invasion of 1931. After a 15-year separation, he won a visa for his wife in a gambling game and she caught the last boat out of Canton in 1939. He escaped the draft into the US army after Pearl Harbour only by being “too skinny”. Following the Maoist revolution of 1949, Kingston’s uncles were killed and her aunts fled abroad. “My father left his valuable things in China,” she says. “I’ve wondered whether he meant to return.”
The couple ran a gambling house in Stockton and later a laundry where Maxine helped out. Her first language was Say Yup, a Cantonese dialect, shared by many in Stockton’s Chinatown. “It was a very cohesive community, with a church, school and self-help association,” she says, “but it wasn’t a ghetto or physically in one place.” Speaking no English till the age of five – though her parents “could understand more than they let on” – she recalls her early years as silent and inhibited. “I knew I was different; my not talking had to do with wanting to communicate perfectly and not being able to at all.” She still feels afflicted by sudden shyness and speech loss. “Suddenly nothing comes out or I don’t have the right words.” She attended Chinese school every day after “American school”, where she was in a tiny minority and bullied by young Americans of Japanese ancestry, released from internment after the second world war. “They looked like me but spoke English well, and ganged up because they were together in the camps.”
While her father knew Confucius by heart, her mother inherited the ancient art of “talk-story” from her own father, a professional storyteller in the village square. She told bedtime serials of liberated women, because she was “liberated and successful” herself, but also of going to market to buy female slaves. “There was a sense that something was wrong with the status of girls in both Chinese and American culture in the 40s,” says Kingston, brought up on such sayings as “girls are maggots in the rice”.
She recalls air-raid drills during the Korean war of 1950-53, when American children wore dog-tags “so we’d be identified if we were killed”. She won 11 scholarships to read engineering at Berkeley in 1958 (“when Sputnik went up we were all pushed to study science”), but switched to English. Berkeley, she says, was socially segregated, with everybody in separate fraternities, but she met Earll Kingston, a “fourth-generation Oakland person”, who “brought a larger world; he’d been in the navy and to Europe, Japan, Vietnam and back. He’d read everything.” They were married soon after she graduated in 1962, and their son Joseph was born in 1964. As a student teacher at Berkeley during McCarthyite scare-mongering about “red China”, giving lessons from a politics text book, she was denounced by a parent for preaching communism. She felt she was denied a teaching job in Oakland as a result, but taught in nearby Hayward.
As a graduate student at Berkeley she was active in the Free Speech Movement of 1964, when moves to limit students’ political activities sparked mass protests, and in the anti-war movement when the US began bombing North Vietnam in 1965. Two of her brothers and a sister’s husband were drafted. Another brother left for Canada. “We had such hysterical worry, the only thing I knew was right was to join peace demonstrations.” As US generals threatened to bomb China into the Stone Age for arming the Vietcong, Asian-Americans faced dilemmas similar to that posed by the jailed conscientious objector Muhammad Ali (“No Vietcong ever called me ‘nigger'”). In a chapter of China Men, one of the brothers, unable to take refuge in bravado about “gooks”, has nightmares about slicing up his own family.
It was also the era of psychedelic drugs, and the tail end of the Beat literary scene centred on San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore, with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. “Young writers were always gathering,” she recalls, “but there were no women; you couldn’t participate as a woman.” She came to Buddhism partly through the Beat poets, who, she says, went to Asia and brought Buddhism to the west. She says, “I gradually became a Buddhist – maybe I was born that way. When I was a child the Chinese went to Methodist church, but my mother told us we weren’t to be baptised; we’re Confucian. She had mysterious ceremonies which, years later, I learned were an integration of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism.”
She left California before then governor Ronald Reagan sent the National Guard into the People’s Park in 1969 to quell protesters. “Doves and hawks were using the same tactics,” she writes. “The peace movement was going into chaos; mass demonstrations were becoming violent,” she says. “There were constant riots and everybody was on drugs; I knew people who’d been hurt by bad trips. We had a child. We decided it was time to leave.” In 1967, they moved to Hawaii, where they stayed for 17 years. Yet America’s 50th state was a heavily militarised staging post to Vietnam. The couple took part in Hawaii’s first anti-war march of “about a dozen people”, and founded a sanctuary for conscientious objectors and soldiers going Awol. As a teacher, then visiting professor of English at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, she wrote her first two books.
In The Woman Warrior, she wrestles with being a Chinese-American half-ghost among ghosts, as white people were known in her community, while struggling to sift truth from invention in her mother’s talk-stories. Influenced by Hawthorne’s portrayal in The Scarlet Letter of “women who stood out in a puritanical society”, the book broke silences and secrets about the No Name Woman – an aunt hounded to death for an illegitimate birth – or women who go mad through cultural dislocation. Adopting the legend of Fa Mu Lan as a female avenger, she emerges from muteness into a voice.
The Woman Warrior won the National Book Critics’ Circle award. The New York Times Book Review lauded it as “about being Chinese in the way [Joyce’s] Portrait of the Artist was about being Irish … a heart in exile from roots that bind and terrorise it”. For Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, a writer and professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, though there had been Chinese-American authors, including Jade Snow Wong and Sui Sin Far, this book was different in that “it was not aimed at an ethnic enclave of under 3% of the population; it was shocking to see something so confident and stylistically original come out of a community of nerds”. Eva Hoffman, author of Lost in Translation (1989), says it broke ground in that “US immigrant literature had been about an external journey towards success, or the vicissitudes of getting on in America; the psychological, emotional aspects hadn’t been explored. In voicelessness – losing one’s voice as one comes into a new language – Maxine was discovering a subject, giving it legitimacy.”
Kingston was ambivalent about The Woman Warrior and China Men being published as non-fiction. “It was the beginning of the Asian pride movement and defining what’s Asian-American or Chinese-American; we didn’t want our literature categorised as anthropology or sociology,” she says. Early readers may have mistaken her metaphors for fact – as when her mother cuts her tongue to silence her or free her voice. “But it may be a new kind of autobiography, where I tell dreams and fantasies of real people,” she says. “Inventing a new language that could use the rhythms and tones of Chinese in English”, she was aware of “treating seriously myths of the old world I’d never seen”.
“Old China hands said she wasn’t historically accurate,” says Lim. “But she never retold myths; she reimagined them for her own purpose.” Kingston insists she is an improviser not an archivist. “Those who accuse me of tampering with myth don’t understand that a myth dies when it cannot help people in modern times. When the migrants left the old world and retold myths in a new place, they changed them. If stories don’t change for new listeners in a new age, they die.” Kingston visited China for the first time in the late 1970s. “It was much the way I’d imagined it.”
One persistent critic, the US playwright and writer Frank Chin, has excoriated her, as well as Tan and David Henry Hwang, who wrote M Butterfly, for “faking” Chinese lore, depicting a cruel China informed by Christian stereotypes, and misrepresenting Chinese-Americans as having lost touch with ancestral culture. Tan dismisses such critics as “literary fascists”. But Lim sees grounds for the anxiety that Kingston’s “representations of patriarchal, abusive Chinese history were playing to a desire to look at Asians as an inferior spectacle”. In a 1982 essay, “Cultural Misreadings by American Reviewers”, Kingston complained about being measured “against the stereotype of the exotic, inscrutable, mysterious Oriental”. She says, “I resented critics who reviewed my work as Chinese literature when I felt I was writing American stories about America. I had the sense of small minds – in China and America – defending their smaller reality.”
China Men, which won a National Book award and was runner-up for the Pulitzer, wrote her ancestors back into America’s origins. Despite her father’s reticence (“No stories. No past. No China”), she told four alternative tales of his passage to America. “Most of my parents’ generation came illegally but they invented fake stories for the immigration authorities.” After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed the public records, “an authentic citizen, then, had no more papers than an alien. Every China man was reborn out of that fire a citizen.”
Yet China Men questions the meaning of “illegal alien” when US immigration laws were framed by racial exclusion: Europeans were settlers; Asians merely “sojourners”. A central chapter, “The Laws”, lists a century of anti-Chinese Exclusion Acts and quotas dating from the 1860s. Under the Nationality Act of 1870, only “free whites” and “African aliens” could be naturalised. During the “driving out” of the “yellow peril”, 40,000 miners of Chinese ancestry were forcibly expelled from California in 1868. From 1924 until 1948, any American marrying a Chinese lost their citizenship. It is not even myth or ancient history, says Kingston, “but what happened in the 19th and 20th centuries, which nobody knows about. I put the information in the middle of the book, so people have to go through it.”
Lim thought the chapter an artistic failure, yet now sees it as boldly ahead of its time. “You can’t understand these stories without knowing the laws,” she says. “Violence was seen as legitimate against savage opium smokers who ate rats and had never been christened.” For Kingston, the book was a way of claiming America. “People who claim to be real Americans say they came on the Mayflower, or were indigenous Indians,” she says. “My people came on ships but there was no legal way for them to belong. The only way I can claim America is as an artist.” The writer Edmund White praised China Men as finding “the delicate, necessary link between two cultures, two centuries and two sexes”. Yet, Lim says, “some Chinese-Americans dislike it as speaking for working-class, peasant immigrants who worked in laundries and as waiters, not the elite that left China after the Maoist revolution”.
Hoffman sees her as a “bridging figure between two disparate worlds and sensibilities: she’s steeped in the America of her generation but carries another consciousness within her”. With an insider’s understanding of both the pioneer generation of migrants and the country they entered, Kingston opened doors for others. “Every woman who writes makes it easier for others to follow,” says Paley. “Maxine freed up second-generation immigrant writers in the US to speak imaginatively and freely about their communities without worrying about whether they’re insulting them – just being truthful. They owe her more than they know.”
In the mid-1990s an adaptation of The Woman Warrior and China Men was staged in Berkeley, Boston and Los Angeles. “It was a grand, $1m play with 28 actors, an orchestra and costumes from the Beijing opera,” she recalls. “I was a character on a hanging bed who’s beginning to dream, while beneath her are kung fu battles and opera.” Yet she preferred a production two years ago in a small Chinese-American theatre in the Californian foothills, beside “cemeteries full of old Chinese goldminers and railroad workers. There was almost no budget, but the spirit of those people came through the actors.”
Kingston was named a Living Treasure of Hawaii by a Honolulu Buddhist sect in 1980. But she moved back to California in 1984, to be nearer her ageing parents, and in 1990 became distinguished professor of English at Berkeley. Her son Joseph, a musician, stayed in Hawaii. Her siblings’ professions range from architect and lawyer to a social worker; some still live “within two blocks of where our father had the laundry … California seems real to me; I feel deep roots and understand everything that happens there,” she says.
Her picaresque novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989) is set in a drugged-out San Francisco of the 1960s. Wittman Ah Sing is a fifth-generation Chinese-American, a hipster poet and Berkeley graduate threatened by the draft. Searching for identity and community, his ambition is to stage a play that will unite China and America, gathering Asian-Americans together from their isolated groups. Dense with allusions, from Walt Whitman and Rilke to Joyce’s Ulysses, the novel is described by Lim as “almost too clever for its own good”.
Kingston’s mother died six years ago. “My mother was an immense person; she could talk for ever and see all the way to China. It was a wonderful inheritance for a writer.” Yet she feels she has been “overwhelmed by her all my life. Maybe that’s why I left for Berkeley, then Hawaii. She was overbearing and could outshout me; I couldn’t hear myself think.” In To Be The Poet (2002), Harvard lectures on the history of American civilisation, Kingston wrote of her desire to “rest from the social responsibility of prose” and be a “joyful poet”; a skylark not a workhorse. “In Chinese poetry the writer is always trying to come to a place of ease and rest and calm,” she says. She plans to retire from Berkeley next year, but has meanwhile acted as a tattooed bartender in the short film, Truck Girl. “Throughout my life I’ve been working with the lives I haven’t led and the books I haven’t yet written.”
After her manuscript was burned, she wanted to gather writers around her, “people who’d been hurt in wars. I was testing my faith that the art of writing could lead us out of our pain and losses and we’d come home from the wars to a hard-won peace.” Paley says, “Losing a book in a fire is an insane-making experience, and Maxine felt it made her understand war better. She went through a lot with her first book in her own community but she has stubborn qualities and the power to come through. You find that in people who don’t turn to violence or anger when something sad happens; it’s an integrity of spirit.”
Since her writers’ retreats began 10 years ago in California and New York state, 200 veterans have taken part with their relatives, including second world war GIs, “Israelis, a woman guerrilla from central America and a couple of survivors of street gangs”. Many were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and felt they wrote their way out of it. As John Svensson, a graduate of West Point military academy who attended the workshops, points out: “When the Vietnam veterans came home, they went into the closet.” Kingston says, “We’re still fighting the Vietnam war; we haven’t come home even from the north-south civil war.” Published fruits of the workshops include John Mulligan’s Shopping Cart Soldiers (1997) and Pauline Laurent’s Grief Denied: A Vietnam Widow’s Story (1999).
For Svennson, the retreats were a “transformative and terribly powerful experience; not therapy but therapeutic”. Kingston, he says, is a “master teacher: for her, peace is a series of small gestures we all can take. She’s very idealistic: she believes that by writing and talking about war we can prevent future ones. But we need that; you begin to view war in a different way.” He teaches classes about the Vietnam conflict at DeAnza county college in California, where there are 2,500 Vietnamese students “whose fathers won’t talk. I’m teaching children of soldiers I fought with. I encourage them to go home and talk to their parents.”
Tan sees Kingston as having confronted silence or denial throughout her work. “There was silence within her own family that’s resonated for the rest of her life, but she started to speak the unspeakable and so undo its power. This book is about blindness towards the victims of war, and what we haven’t done to address this huge moral injustice.”
For Kingston, those victims are combatants as much as civilians. She is indignant that the US is debating “whether Filipinos who served in the second world war should be denied veterans’ benefits” and about “green-card soldiers” lured to fight in the Iraq war by George W Bush’s promise of fast-track citizenship. “It’s still going on,” she fumes. “How dare we do these things?” A feminist and pacifist, she believes women who joined the military, and women senators who defend their right to join, have the wrong idea. “We should work for men to have equal rights not to join the military or go to war.”
Yet she is not tempted to flee the US because she disagrees with its government. “I have no intention of leaving my country,” she says. “I and my ancestors worked so hard to make America our home, and to win recognition of that. When my country is going to war, that’s the very time when I should stay and talk sense.”
Life at a glance
Born: October 27, 1940, Stockton, California.
Education: Edison High School, Stockton; University of California, Berkeley.
Married: 1962 Earll Kingston (one son: Joseph Lawrence Chung Mei).
Career: 1965-67 teacher, English and maths, Sunset High School, Hayward, Calif; ’67-70 schools in Hawaii; ’70-77 Mid-Pacific Institute, Honolulu; ’77-81 visiting prof of English, University of Hawaii; ’86-87 professor in humanities, Eastern Michigan University; ’90- professor of English, senior lecturer in creative writing, Berkeley; ’93- writers’ workshops.
Books: 1976 The Woman Warrior; ’80 China Men; ’87 Hawai’i One Summer; ’89 Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book; 2000 (co-ed) The Literature of California; ’02 To Be the Poet; ’03 The Fifth Book of Peace.
· The Fifth Book of Peace is published by Secker & Warburg at £18.99. To order a copy for £16.99 plus p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 066 7979.
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