Authentic Watermelon: Maxine Hong Kingston's American Novel

Article excerpt

I did not read any reviews of Roots that judged whether or not Alex Haley's characters ate watermelon or had rhythm. (Kingston, "Cultural" 57)

"That's like saying that LeRoi Jones is as good as a watermelon. `Yum yum, authentic watermelon.'" (Kingston, Tripmaster 307)

Maybe my writing can provide work for English majors. (Kingston, "Cultural" 64)

In 1982, after publishing two books which were part history, part autobiography and part fiction, Maxine Hong Kingston wrote, "I am an American writer, who, like other American writers, wants to write the great American novel" ("Cultural" 57-58). Kingston published her intention to write "the great American novel" in an essay about the racism implicit in reviews of The Woman Warrior (1976) which called her Chinese, described her work as mysterious, exotic, and inscrutable, and quoted Kipling on East and West. Most of The Woman Warrior and much of China Men (1980) are narrated by a first person narrator. These books are divided into thematically related narratives; they make radical leaps in time and space, spanning over 100 years of Chinese-American history; they take place in China, Hawaii, and across America. Except for a weekend in Oakland and a one-day car trip to Sacramento and Reno, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989), Kingston's first novel, takes place entirely in San Francisco over the course of a few weeks in the fall of 1963. The novel's protagonist, Wittman Ah Sing--a fifth-generation Chinese-American and an aspiring beat poet and playwright--never leaves the novel's center stage.

At the center of this essay are questions about the novelistic strategies Kingston employs in Tripmaster Monkey. Why does a self-described feminist, whose first book is virtually required reading in women's studies courses, shift from memoirs to a novel dominated by a single male protagonist? Why is Kingston so careful to acknowledge debts to colleagues, friends, and writers living and dead, notably Walt Whitman and James Joyce? How does this novel respond to criticism of her earlier work, and critical debates within Asian American literary studies, particularly the assertion by Frank Chin that Kingston works in the genre of "fake" Chinese-American autobiography? I argue that Kingston is less interested in writing a novel which is authentically Chinese-American, according to Chin's terms, than in writing a novel which is, on her own terms, authentically American. If we take Tripmaster Monkey as a new paradigm for the American novel, we see that neither an American novel nor a Chinese-American novel is an artefact of artistic purity in service of racial or national purity. Rather, it is a dialogue of cultural artefacts and rhetorical practices appropriated from a range of sources, American and otherwise.

The critical/artistic practices of both Kingston and Chin are rooted in resistance to the masculine-centered narrative of American literary history which, as Nina Baym has argued, has no place for literature by or about women or ethnic minorities (3-18). Chin is not the only advocate of ethnic literature who has responded to this exclusion by formulating exclusive and essentialist narratives of authenticity which rigidly define the parameters of, in this instance, literature by and about Asian Americans. Kingston's novel posits a less stable version of authenticity, In Tripmaster Monkey, she disavows an essentialist definition of Asian American identity and refuses to read America as the product of a monolithic, unified culture. Instead, she theorizes, through her novel, an America that is always already heterogeneous and an American literature characterized by appropriation, parody, and play.(1)

To explicate this theory of American literature, including ethnic American literature, as literature of appropriation, I begin by interrogating the overdetermined relationship between narratives of "nation" and narratives of "tradition." Then I explore the allusive, intertextual, dialogic structure of Tripmaster Monkey. …