Interview between Maxine Hong Kingston and Sneja Gunew

Article excerpt

In an article responding to the reception of her first book, The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston offered the following plea:

I am an American writer, who, like other American writers, wants to write the great American novel. The Woman Warrior is an American book. Yet many reviewers do not see the American-ness of it, nor the fact of my own American-ness.(1)

Maxine Hong Kingston is a Chinese-American writer who uses mythic figures and stories as part of an attempt to change the ways in which so-called minority or ethnic writings are traditionally received in the U.S. and elsewhere. The eldest of six children, the author was born in San Francisco of a Chinese immigrant family. Her parents ran a laundry and tried to maintain traditional Chinese ways. Maxine Hong Kingston was educated at the University of California, Berkeley, a centre for American radicalism in the sixties, and became a peace activist during the turbulent years of the Vietnam war. She has been a teacher but now concentrates on her writing, though the recent massacre in Tien-an-men Square has led to her involvement in the Foundation for Chinese Democracy, designed to support Chinese students throughout the world.

To promote the publication of her third book, Tripmaster Monkey, Maxine Hong Kingston was a guest at both the Sydney Carnivale Writers' Festival and Melbourne Spoleto Writers' Week in 1989. Sneja Gunew interviewed her in relation to her sense of herself as an American multicultural writer and with particular focus on her first novel, The Woman Warrior.

SG: Maxine, in relation to your first novel, The Woman Warrior, just how American is it? When I first set this as a text in about 1980 I made the fundamental mistake of putting it almost exclusively in the context of Chinese culture and that is how students were asked to respond to it. It was offered as a book that looked back to Chinese culture and it was seen very much as the narrator in exile. Now of course I'm much more aware of the fact that, quite rightly, you talk about it as being a Chinese-American book and indeed that it's a very American book.

MHK: I do feel that I work in an American tradition. There's an American mainstream literary creation from the beginning which tried to distinguish an American language and literature and culture from the British one and, in doing that, American writers have experimented with writing dialect. Mark Twain tried to set down in writing the 38 Mississippi River dialects, and we had Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, who are I guess my literary great grandfathers. Their stated aim was to find the common American speech and put it into poetry, to try to find the syntax of American speech and to find the American voice -- a new language. So I think that as I write about Chinese-American people and our lives and how we speak, I had to invent another American language in another one of its stages, in that sense of creating a new English language. I see myself as working very much in a mainstream tradition.

SG: That explains the American part of it, and that's understandable as a balance to the manner in which readers first saw it as a Chinese book, as exotic in all sorts of stereotypic and wrong headed ways, but what now do you see as the Chinese part of it, the Chinese-American aspect?

MHK: Well I think it's very curious that I seem to have placed myself in two canons of literature and I do feel that I am in the canon of American literature. Very officially, I mean I'm on some of the lists of the University great books and at the same time, without my having consciously aimed for it, I've learned that the Chinese in China see me working in Chinese traditions even though I write in English and the book has been translated into Chinese. They perceive my writing as continuing the myths, that I show what has become of mythic spirits and heroes as they come into modern times. Also they have detected stylistic influences. …