Maxine Hong Kingston

Author and 2013 National Medal of Arts recipient
Maxine Hong Kingston

Photo by Michael Lionstar

Transcript of conversation with Maxine Hong Kingston

Julia Alvarez: When I started writing Latino literature hadn't been invented. You know, ethnic literature hadn't been invented. African American literature was just starting to be- certain books were put into the curriculum. And I think Maxine Hong The Woman Warrior really was a moment in which  the mainstream culture said oh my goodness, this is beautiful. This is lyrical. This is American literature. You know, this is part of who we are, these stories of people that have come from somewhere else, and along with everything else that they've brought they brought their stories. They brought something that is enriching to the culture. But I think part of me was afraid of telling the stories, telling the stories. Maxine Hong Kingston starts out The Woman Warrior with a line that I think could start  off any Latina's novel from that generation. "My mother told me never, ever to repeat this story." And then she tells the story. I love that. That book opened me up.

Jo Reed: That was author Julia Alvarez talking about the influence on American literature of writer Maxine Hong Kingston.

Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.

Maxine Hong Kingston is a pioneering author who in many ways cleared the path for both ethnic and womens' literature. In language that is lyrical and poetic, she looks at the complications of leaving one country for another often weaving strands of Chinese folk stories and myths throughout her work, like the tale of the great woman warrior, Fa Mu Lan. Kingston has written three novels and several works of nonfiction centered on the experiences of Chinese immigrants living in the United States. Her first book was the path-breaking The Woman Warrior which won National Book Critics Circle Award. Although in The Woman Warrior looked the particular experience of the female immigrant, exploring immigrant women's unique and uncertain location at the intersection of gender and ethnicity; and really opening the door to womens' literature, Kingston refused to limit herself to a single perspective and  successfully crossed gender boundaries with her second and third novels -- China Men and Tripmaster Monkey--which are both told from male points of view. In fact, another of the many literary awards received by Maxine Hong Kingston includes the 1981 National Book Award  for China Men.

Since 1991, Maxine Hong Kingston has been leading meditation-and-writing workshops for military veterans and their families. Their writing has been collected in an anthology edited by Kingston called Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. Maxine Hong Kingston's most recent publication I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, is book of poetry, or more accurately a memoir written as poetry in free-verse that follows the author from the United States to China and back.

In 2011, the F. Scott FitzGerald Literary Conference, which is hosted by Maryland's Montgomery college, presented Maxine Hong Kingston with its annual literary award. I spoke with her right after she received her award in  the television studios of Montgomery College. I had learned that Maxine had started out as poet; and so that's where I began our conversation by asking her to tell me about her experiences with poetry.

 Maxine Hong Kingston: I began the moment I could talk. My mother said that I could talk when I was born and that I spoke in poetry and also that I talk story. And it was it was in Chinese and so that was the beginning of my life as an artist. It was composing Chinese poetry.

Jo Reed: Chinese was your first language.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes.

Jo Reed: When did you learn English?  When you went to school?

Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes. I encountered English when I went to kindergarten and I don't think that I could really speak it until I was seven, eight.

Jo Reed: Now when you learned English is that when you moved from poetry to prose?

Maxine Hong Kingston: No because I remember writing poetry in English also so I think that it sort of all blended together so no I was writing poetry in English also.

Jo Reed: Let's talk about your first book, The Woman Warrior, which is prose but it's written so lyrically it clearly is written by a poet as well. Can you tell me what went into creating that book?  Why did you write it?

Maxine Hong Kingston: Well, I remember starting The Woman Warrior when I went to Lana'i, which is a little island, a pineapple island, in Hawaii and just sitting in this hotel room of a small hotel with ten rooms and facing the wall and not the sea or the beautiful scenery but just facing the wall and jotting down words and sounds which indicated important scenes and just beginning there and also beginning with the line "Don't tell anyone what I am about to tell you" and this is from my mother, what she's doing is putting a taboo on the important stories. And so I- I just stated her giving of the taboo and then making up my mind that I was going to break them and tell the stories and write them, and a way to free myself to write anything is to decide that it's all right if it never gets published and that I never show anyone but I needed to write it down.

Jo Reed: That book is so extraordinary and I wonder if you realize the gift that you gave all of us with that book. It is such a profound book, a profoundly important book because in breaking your taboos you somehow showed all of us how we could break them.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes. Yes. I do realize that I gave this voice, this way of seeing the world and giving voice to not just myself but to everyone. Toward the end of the book I am actually bullying a silent girl and it's like I am saying, "Speak up. Tell your story" and I'm not just saying it to her. I mean as a little girl bullying another little girl I am just talking to her but when I write the book I am saying to the world "You, You have stories and you may think that they're particular to you and you may think that they are small and unimportant but tell your stories. I'm gonna tell my story so you tell yours too."

Jo Reed: But what I think is so extraordinary about that book and to me it really is one of the hallmarks of great literature is that in the very particularity of your story you're telling a universal story.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Yeah, and I'm sure this is the way, art always works like that. I think of it as Shakespeare who says to us, you know, the microcosm is in the macrocosm and when you tell the story, when you write the poem you will live forever and whoever reads it also will make you live forever.

Jo Reed: Exactly. What fascinates me is when I read that book I felt so strongly that I was reading about a dear friend of mine and her mother. They're Russian Jews who immigrated to England but that battle and the stories her mother would tell her and the fight she was in with her mother where, for her immortal soul but at the same time the great love and devotion that was there. And when I gave her the book I said, "This is the story of you and your mother" and she absolutely agreed.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Good. I have heard from immigrants from all over the world and they will say, "This is my story" or I will hear from just from people who have, you know, people who've ever been to school, people who've ever been bullied or bullied someone else or people who've been in wars. And they will say, "Yeah, this is my story."

Jo Reed: Part of what you do there is the issues of race and gender. It is absolutely in the foreground and clearly a very deliberate act on your act.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Uh huh.

Jo Reed: And also quite trailblazing and now it's what people do, when you did it, quite new.

Maxine Hong Kingston: When I wrote The Woman Warrior and when I began writing in this way I was very aware that I need to make my way into American literature; I need to make my way into the literature that's written in English. And there are not characters like my characters. The American literature is not made of Asian people. There are even a few blacks that are making their way into American literature so how are we going to do this, so to write these stories and to write people who are white people I knew that I was doing a pioneering act, also to bring in myths that are not the Greek and Roman myths. So the way was just to write the best you can and see what they could make of this. I have thought that maybe I will not be able to send it to a publisher in New York that would understand so I was thinking if I cannot find an American publisher then I will try Britain and I will try Hong Kong and we'll see what happens. But I did find an American agent and American publisher.

Jo Reed: The other thing you did in that book is you found a way to translate an oral tradition into a written one and you really did that by insisting on ambiguity.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Jo Reed: Please talk about that.

Maxine Hong Kingston: The oral tradition or talk-story is so amorphous and and contains great ambiguity. Every time you tell a story orally it's different and the oral stories are different according to who you tell the story to because you find a person who needs a certain story and then you tell it to fit that person. And so every time you tell the story it's a new story so what happens when you write it into text and what we think about writing is that there is a definitive text and then it's set as if carved in stone and it can never be different. So can I write in such a way that every time you read it it's telling you a different story and this story is for this particular reader but it's also for another reader. I would love it if this were a story for little girls but also how about men? Yeah, this is a story for men too and it could be for sexists. It could be for the slave masters but it could also be for slaves to read. It's for everyone. So it was a matter of finding the language that could do it. Also my stories are coming from another language so the stories that my mother told they're in Chinese and so how can I translate it and not just translate word for word but to translate a whole culture and a way of storytelling into English and into the written word.

Jo Reed: Part of what you also do is use magical realism to do that, which strikes me thinking about how much magical realism is used in Latin American culture where again there's this layering of cultures and exactly in your case too it's layering of cultures; cultures are overlapping and colliding. It seems like magical realism is a very good way of being able to get into that texture.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Yeah, because there in magical realism you're able to write about daily mundane life but also the mythic life that's around us and also there's another layer of superstition and another layer that's science and then the many layers of the different cultures that we all come from. When I went to China soon after the cultural revolution and I met many Chinese writers and artists and they were trying to figure out what do we write after cultural revolution because in the cultural revolution they destroyed modernism and modernity and they also destroyed the feudal. So now what do they have left, where are they going, and I was very gratified to see them look to me as someone who was able to escape those conditions. They saw me as that I was free in America, I could do whatever I wanted and I could do all kinds of experiments with the literature and so I was writing in this way that they are- that we're now calling magical realism. And they were looking to the Latin Americans and to me and to my writing as a way that Chinese writers can go.

Jo Reed: It's interesting that The Woman Warrior is seen as --- a) it's literature and it happens to be feminist as well that your next two books the point of view changes and you're writing from the point of view of a man. How was that for you?  Was it fun?  Did it take a while to get comfortable doing that both with China Men and Tripmaster Monkey?

Maxine Hong Kingston: The way I was thinking was that a really evolved woman, a really evolved feminist would then be able to understand men and it's an evolved writer, a very good writer can do more than one's own point of view. And you get into the point of view of the other and a very foreign other is a man. And I was thinking I had read about Tolstoy and about all of these great novelists and what an amazing thing Tolstoy was able to do. He could write Anna Karenina and so I thought wow, that's what I need to do. I need to write a man's book and China Men from many men's point of view. Then when I got to Tripmaster Monkey I loved the way men spoke during the '60s. I heard slang and the hip language as coming from men. Women were not speaking like that and so I wanted to use that language, the slang language of the '60s, and there were so many new there was new language was that was coming out. The language of the experiments being done with drugs and psychedelics and the new language of the politics when we were having the be-ins and the lie-ins and the peace demonstrations. And so I wanted a book in which I was free to use that language and not just slang but Woman Warrior and China Men I was always bringing in the language of China and that I was translating people who spoke Chinese and figuring out a way how to translate their speech into English. In Tripmaster Monkey I was free to forget about Chinese. I just wanted to write the American language, the new American language. And that's my language because I grew up in the '60s and had the fun of that. And so Tripmaster Monkey was my American book and no more of this Chinese.

Jo Reed: Yes, and Whitman, a fifth-generation Chinese-American who you've called your avatar. I Love a Broad Margin in My Life.

Maxine Hong Kingston: I Love a Broad Margin to My Life.

Jo Reed: To my Life. I'm sorry. "I Love a Broad Margin to My Life." That is a line from Thoreau and that's your latest book that you wrote as a poem.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Uh huh.

Jo Reed: Why the decision to move from prose back to poetry?

Maxine Hong Kingston: In my older age I'm going back to what I was doing as a child and my other thinking was that Tripmaster Monkey took me ten years and The Fifth Book of Peace was twelve years and I thought well, I am becoming older and I can't afford to spend ten, twelve years per book but poetry is short and poetry is easy because poetry is a gift from the muse. I just wait for the gift. And poetry I don't have to write the great, big scenes and I don't have to write characters where I describe everything. In poetry I can just find the essence of each person and I can write the essence of the atmosphere of every scene. And so this is why I want the brevity and the condensation of poetry and I did it and it only took four years.

Jo Reed: Maxine Hong Kingston, thank you so much.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Thank you.

Jo Reed: -- such a pleasure. Thank you.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Thank you, Jo.

Jo Reed: That was the trailblazing author Maxine Hong Kingston; 

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

The music is "Moon Reflected at the Pool at Erquan," performed by and used courtesy of Music from China. Thanks to the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference , Conference Director Erika Koss, Montgomery College Television and special thanks to MCTV's Michael Brown.

The Arts Work podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. and now you can subscribe to art works at itunes u, just click on the itunes link on our podcast page.

Next week, singer/songwriter Natalie  Merchant. To find out how art works in communities across the country keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEArts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Maxine Hong Kingston discusses her path-breaking books. [22:55]