MAXINE HONG KINGSTON'S NEW book was supposed to be called The Fourth Book of Peace, a tale of an artistic California couple fleeing to Hawaii during the Vietnam War. Kingston's title referred to three legendary Chinese books, ancient volumes that supposedly held the keys for ending war. They were lost--burned, perhaps--more than a thousand years ago.
But The Fourth Book of Peace was never published. The manuscript burned along with Kingston's Bay Area home and more than three thousand other houses in the fall of 1991, when the worst wildfire in California history blazed through the Oakland hills. Twenty-five people died, and damage was estimated at two billion dollars.
"When I found out my book was lost," says Kingston, sixty-two, "I felt panic. All that work for nothing." A longtime peace activist (she was arrested in March along with author Alice Walker, protesting the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq) and an accomplished novelist (she won the 1976 National Book Critics Circle Award for The Woman Warrior and the 1980 National Book Award for China Men), she began to think fiction had lost some of its resonance. "I became very selfish," Kingston says. "I didn't want to write about other people, it was the same mind-set l had as a child when I first began to write and I wanted only to write about me."
After two …