AT 76 YEARS OLD, Maxine Hong Kingston is already writing her posthumous work. She tells me this easily and early in our conversation, as we speak by phone. “I’m liberating myself to write anything I want,” she says from her home in Oakland, California, overlooking the land once engulfed by flames during the Oakland firestorm of 1991. It’s “a rebirth,” she says of her view.
This year, Kingston’s memoir, The Woman Warrior, turned 40 — an anniversary that slipped by silently. In 1976, when it emerged, the literary landscape was caked and compressed with white (mostly male) writers, inhospitable to outsiders. Yet Kingston’s writing slaked and spoke to many, tilling the industry — alongside authors like Toni Morrison and Leslie Marmon Silko — for women and minority writers to come.
In the years since, Kingston has written six books, taught at Berkeley (though she’s now emerita), and has continued to work closely with a veterans’ writing group. On the phone, she is gracious, effusive, and animated. But when she’s finished speaking, she becomes so silent that I get scared. Her latest book, she’s stipulated, will not be published until 100 years after her death — a fact that frees her. “I [felt] almost a duty to be uplifting,” she says of her published writing. “I can put my negative emotions in,” she says now, relinquishing that responsibility. “I can write my shadow.”
ALEXIS CHEUNG: How does it feel to consider The Woman Warrior’s longevity 40 years after its publication?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: I don’t tend to think about the anniversaries of my separate books — I think each of them continues the next one. One way that I have thought about the 40th [anniversary] is that through the years, my work and I have been famous not just for 15 minutes, but years and years and years, and all of a sudden 40 years. It’s just amazing to me that she is alive, that students are reading her in high school, that it’s selling just as well as it did when it was first published. It’s really amazing to me that book has such life.
You’ve said that you never intended for The Woman Warrior to be published. Is that really true?
I sort of have the reputation at the publishing company that I never want to hand over anything. I just want people to wait and wait until I get it just right — and it’s never just right. It’s not that I didn’t want it to be published; my publisher just has to come over and wrest it from my hands. I think that’s how it comes about. I did think about what if I never got published. When I was writing The Woman Warrior, I felt that I was writing something completely different; that nothing like it had ever been written. So I thought if I couldn’t get it published, I would just keep copies and it would really be okay if it was published after I die or if somebody discovered it 100 years from now, 1,000 years from now. I’m always thinking about people reading it someday — and that will be alright.
That’s so different from most writers, who want things read immediately and the thrill of being published.
There’s a myth among Chinese poets that your reader will come a thousand years from now, and they get really happy. If one reader comes in a thousand years, then it’s alright!
What was the state of the memoir when you were writing The Woman Warrior?
My publisher decided to call it a memoir. At the time, that was not a very common word. There weren’t people writing memoirs; there were people writing autobiographies. Autobiography being, you had to be an important person, an important enough person to write about. I’m not an important person; I’m just anybody. And anybody’s life, a nobody’s life, could be a wonderful piece of art. I also feel that I changed the writing of biography because China Men (1980) and The Women Warrior are stories about my mother and father and again, I felt that to write truly about somebody you have to know what they were dreaming about, and a dream is fiction. Also, all of the things they did when I wasn’t there and couldn’t witness, I had to make up — and that’s fiction. I wrote a new way of biography using the techniques of fiction and nonfiction. After The Woman Warrior was published, there was a whole new genre which they’re calling “creative nonfiction” now.
In Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston, you said, “What I look forward to is the time when many of us are published and then we will be able to see the range of personalities and the range of viewpoints, of visions, of what it is to be a Chinese American.”
That has happened, hasn’t it? Because we have such a range of Asian Americans that are publishing all kinds of things from graphic novels and fiction to nonfiction and science fiction and poetry, and everybody has different viewpoints. And also the theater. You can see how everybody is so different, and that you can’t make a generalization about what Asian-American literature is about.
Can you share some examples of who you’re talking about or who you like reading?
Oh, I just read a book; it’s just coming out so I have the galleys, and the author’s name is Thi Bui. It is a graphic novel [The Best We Could Do] and has all of these amazing drawings of boat people in Vietnam. And of course Viet [Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer] — it’s the same story of Vietnamese diaspora. But here is one by Viet, who is scholarly, especially his nonfiction, and here is this other book, and it’s done in cartoons. The method is so different and the story is different too, in that it emphasizes the consequences of war on children. Those are just two examples of the range of work that’s going on.
In your ALOUD conversation with Viet at the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, you talked about the burden of representation — how people of your ethnicity expect you to do “good PR.” You said you try to be uplifting in your writing, what happens when your community reacts and says, “It’s not uplifting enough”?
I don’t feel that I’m writing this posthumous work in reaction to that, because when I write tragedy about our people, I feel that honors them too. The idea that we can only say nice things about our ethnic group, I think that’s superficial writing, and so I feel that I already honor them by writing tragedy — and tragedy has its own way of uplifting people.
Do you mean uplifting as in raising their spirits? Giving them hope?
Yes, and also to face terrible things that we have gone through and that we have done. I think that by “uplifting,” I mean that art is a miraculous creation: that we can take terrible consequences in life and understand it and make art of it. That’s a necessary thing for a writer to do.
What’s the evolution of a writer? I’m asking because you’ve said that as a child you had the feelings and the images but not the craft and the language; then you moved from the first-person in The Woman Warrior to the third-person in Tripmaster Monkey. How might you describe that evolution?
For me, I feel that I’ve always been writing, or not even writing. I began with just oral poetry and stories because you know a little kid can’t read and write yet, but I emulated my parents by telling stories and making up poems, and then after that, when I learned to write, writing poems, writing stories. I would be writing continuously and sometimes things would fall into place and that’s what happened with The Woman Warrior. Actually Woman Warrior and China Men, I was writing them at the same time. They fell into place as two books: I sifted them out and put the women’s stories on one side and the men’s stories on the other side, and I actually thought of them as writing from real life. When I got to Tripmaster Monkey (1989), I just wanted to make things up and not be constrained by the truth; I let that fiction self out.
When the house burned down and we had the big fire here in Oakland, I was writing fiction again but my writing burned. So when I started writing again, I wanted to express myself, my own self. I didn’t want to do public writing. I just wanted to crawl into a corner and cry. It didn’t have to make sense. So I put into writing my private feelings and thoughts so then I went back to more diary-like writing, which is what children do. That was The Fifth Book of Peace (2003), which I think is a combination of fiction and nonfiction, all mixed together, and that’s all in prose. In I Love a Broad Margin to My Life (2011), I go back to what I started with, which is poetry. I feel that I was born a poet. I turned to prose because there was so much reasoning and history I wanted to do, which is done with prose. My latest book I just returned to poetry, which is my original self. In poetry, I am able to fly and skip things. When I write something historical, I have to fill in what happened in time and I have to put in all these facts. But in poetry I can just elide over all of that; now I can just write poetry without so many references and footnotes.
You’ve talked about finding a voice in The Woman Warrior. How do you think writers come to find their own?
Remember when the narrator is bullying the other girl? She says to her, “Just say ‘ow.’ Just say anything, just make a sound.” I guess that’s the first step: make a sound. I think for everybody that just being able to speak up is a bravery, which they have to learn. But for a writer, it’s to be able to find a style and a rhythm and a structure to be able to tell a story. I think that is another way of finding voice, and it’s not that easy. When I teach writing, I have people write a lot. I tell them: they can get an A if they write 50 pages and I’m not going to grade on quality because if you just write a lot then something will happen, the voice will start to flow, it will fall into place, it will find its own rhythm. It’s like what the surrealists were teaching, automatic writing — just have your hand move and keep it going, and the voice will come out.
You’ve done tons and tons of interviews. What’s a question you wish someone would ask you? Or one that you’re tired of answering?
This happened at the beginning when The Woman Warrior was published, but all the reviews were like “What is this? Is this fiction or nonfiction?” But I like that question. I really enjoy answering it because the latest edition of The Woman Warrior, on the front cover it says, “Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction,” and then you turn the book over and on the back it says “Fiction.” It shows that there isn’t a wall between fiction and nonfiction — that the borders and the margins are very wide — and that we could live in that wide border, that wide margin. I’m for making the borders very wide in art. I hope it could happen politically, thinking about immigration and building the wall, too.
Do you think writing is peaceful aggression? Or the only aggression that can be nonviolent?
That’s really a good way to put it. Writing is an act of nonviolence, but it’s very active, very aggressive, but you’re not setting off bombs or guns. Just using the pen. It’s like shouting and getting your voice heard and the range is worldwide. You might not be able to stop a war right now, but the words can go out and influence the atmosphere and the world, way into the future.
When I first read The Woman Warrior, I was shocked by the silence. Now I’m amazed by the violence — against women especially. I thought that you weren’t just articulating what it’s like to be a Chinese woman, but to be a woman at all, anywhere in the world. Is there a connection, do you think, between silence and violence?
I was just reading When Women Were Birds, a book by Terry Tempest Williams. She talks about how she went for a walk in the woods with a man, and this man tried to kill her. She gets away from him, but when she gets back to the other people, she doesn’t tell them and she didn’t phone the police. She writes about it years later, and she writes my silence could have killed another woman. Because since she was silent — if she had called the police, they might have caught him. And so she made that conclusion that my silence could kill someone else. That makes sense doesn’t it?
Completely. I was working on an essay about Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Cassandra Among the Creeps,” in which Cassandra is the woman who tells the truth but is deemed a liar. Meanwhile, culturally we proliferate the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” — the boy who tells the same lie so many times.
Speaking of Cassandra, there’s a black woman veteran who [I work with], and I call her the “Cassandra of the Tet Offensive.” She was working intelligence in Vietnam, and she found information that said that the Tet Offensive was coming — and she told everybody. So here’s a person who had a voice and she spoke up, but nobody could hear her. That’s part of it, too: we mustn’t blame ourselves that we’re being silent. We can also say, “Look, these people are not listening to me.” That gives us the reason to work, again and again, to work at getting our voices out there and louder.
Do you think that’s the solution: A proliferation of voices? Or is that something that needs to change on the side of the receiver? The person either reading or listening to the speaker?
I think that individual voices are not as strong as a community of voices. If we can make a community of voices, then we can speak more truth. Also in a community, we learn to listen. One of the main things we learn in the veterans group that I’ve been working with is to listen to one another. We have people who have been enemies in war; we have people who have been peace activists as well as soldiers — there are many points of view that come out. They learn to listen without arguing back. We evoke the Buddha of compassionate listening. Buddhists teach that just by listening, we already do good in the world. We can change and alleviate pain, just by listening. Instead of having a counter-war, we can do something as peaceful as listening. I find that very hopeful.
In another interview you said, “the artist’s memory winnows out, it edits for what is important and significant. Memory, my own memory, shows me what is unforgettable and helps me get to an essence that will not die and that haunts me until I can put it into a form which is the writing.” What is important and significant to you now?
The same things that have always been important to me. Still world peace, still the making of the beautiful community, the well-being of my family and the world family. It’s the same thing. I don’t think it’s ever changed.