A Conversation with Charles Johnson and Maxine Hong Kingston

Article excerpt

Charles Johnson and Maxine Hong Kingston each gave a riveting address to a large hall of scholars at the 2004 American Literature Association conference in San Francisco (May 26-30, 2004). They were equally generous with their time: they provided access to younger scholars, demonstrated noble patience while signing books for long lines of admirers, and made themselves available during several delightful dinners and even long walks through town. Scholars of American literature were treated to two equally impressive yet stylistically distinctive presentations: Johnson speaking urgently about the relationship between craft and representation, and Kingston braiding her notions about peace and beauty together through an improvisational ceremony.

On the morning of May 29, 2004, Linda Selzer, Will Nash, Gary Storhoff Marc Conner, and myself--all members of the Charles Johnson Society--met with Johnson and Kingston over numerous cups of coffee to discuss a wide range of matters. While these two authors (who had never met previously) have rarely if ever been discussed together in scholarly contexts, they apparently share a surprising number of interests. Both authors spoke fluently about Buddhist philosophy and its relationship to artistic expression. Johnson has discussed his interest in Buddhism, which extends from a personal commitment to an evolving artistic aesthetic, in numerous essays and interviews, whereas Kingston has, to date, said very little about this subject. Each writer expressed vexation at the way reviewers and critics so often fail to get beyond race when apprehending the various phenomena which constitute a work of art. Finally, Johnson and Kingston each demonstrated a concern for the state of American culture that was at once light-of-touch and to-the-bone earnest. We also discussed in some detail the responsibilities of art, both to political and ethical problems in the worm and to the matter of aesthetic bliss.

Linda Selzer: I'd like to start with a question for Charles Johnson. What is your attitude about cross-representation, about a writer of one race and gender representing another race or gender. How do you approach, say, the intimate construction of a female character such as Faith in Faith and the Good Thing, especially such intimate, gender-specific experiences as sex?

Charles Johnson: I tend to be very cautious with sexual descriptions because, as we know, sex is a powerful subject. It's like playing with fire, a bomb that can blow up on you if you're not careful. But I want to know what Maxine says.

Maxine Hong Kingston: When I wrote Wittman Ah Sing, I was seeing that as a big artistic challenge for myself. I saw my career like forty years before as being selfish--not ethnocentric but egocentric, just writing from a woman's point of view. And if I could--if I could write a male character, then it would be a great artistic breakthrough. And I believe I was seeing myself as such a limited person and as a limited writer if I could only stay within the bounds of the feminine and because there's the other half of existence and I'm not even trying to create male fiction characters.

Actually, this struggle started when I was writing China Men and one of the ways that I approached this was to give myself permission; I had to have the faith that any one of us is free to be looked at from the point of view of any other human being on this earth. And I struggled against the critical discourse in which, you know, that you have no right to presume that you can inhabit another person's body and mind. So I thought, well, I'm not going to listen to that. It's restricting my freedom. It's almost like an out-of-body experience--what we can do is fly out of our own body and inhabit the body of somebody of our own race and class and gender. That's already very magical. We can choose any person that we can write from their insight.

And so if I could do that with a Chinese American woman, why can't I do that with anybody? …