The Wonderful Worlds of Maxine Hong Kingston

By Surekha, Vijh | The World and I, September 2008 | Go to article overview

The Wonderful Worlds of Maxine Hong Kingston


Surekha, Vijh, The World and I


"Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America," Maxine Hong Kingston reflects on growing up as a first generation immigrant Chinese American.

Kingston was brought up in two worlds. Like many other immigrants. There was "solid America," the place her parents emigrated to, and the China of her mother's "talk-stories."

"Night after night my mother would talk-story until we fell asleep," Kingston recalls. "I couldn't tell where the stories left and the dreams began, her voice the voice of the heroines in my sleep."

Author of the award-winning "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts," which blends autobiography and fiction, was published in 1976 and won her the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. The female narrator of the story is often caught between the China of her mother's "talk-stories" and the America in which she lives.

Kingston as a Chinese American woman, tells her story of the Chinese myths, family stories and events of her California childhood that have shaped her identity, directly in English than in translation: "My subconscious is Chinese ... At night in my dreams I speak to Earl (husband) in Chinese" (Kingston, quoted in Brownmiller 214).

Her America is a seascape of perplexing white "ghosts"--the policeman ghost, the social worker ghost--with equally stiff, but very different conventions. She memorizes the vital lessons of her mother's gripping "talk-story" tales of a China where girls are insignificant, tradition is glorified and only a determined, clever woman can rub her way upward.

Maxine Hong Kingston was born as Maxine Ting Ting Hong in 1940 to a laundry house owner in Stockton, California. Her mother Ying Lan (Chew) Hong ("Brave Orchid") trained as a midwife at the To Keung School of Midwifery in Canton. Her father, Tom Hong, was raised as a scholar and taught in his village of Sun Woi, near Canton. He left China for America in 1924 and took a job in a laundry house and later operated a gambling house in the 1940s. Kingston was the third of eight children and the first among them born in the United States. When growing up, all her siblings toiled long hours in the laundry.

Kingston graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1962 from the University of California at Berkeley, and, in the same year, married actor Earl Kingston, whom she had met in an English course. The couple has one son, Joseph Lawrence Chung Mei, born in 1964. The next year, in 1965, Maxine Hong won a teaching credential and decided to skip a graduate program.

"Majoring in English interfered with my writing. It was all I could do to write those formal papers on literary criticism. I felt that if I stayed to get a master's degree it would destroy the writing. Formal literary criticism made me look at my own writing too critically. I would tear the page apart before I created it" (Kingston, quoted in Brownmiller 211).

The Kingstons were active in antiwar activities in Berkeley, but in 1967 they set out for Japan to evade the increasing violence and drug abuse of the antiwar movement. They settled instead in Hawaii, where Kingston took multiple teaching jobs. While in Hawaii, Kingston wrote her first two books.

Her first book, "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts," was published in 1976 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, making her a literary icon at age thirty-six. She began teaching English at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

"The Woman Warrior" is a pungent, bitter, but delightfully written memoir of growing up Chinese American in Stockton, California. Like the woman warrior of the title, Kingston bears the crimes against her family engraved into her back by her parents in testimony to and rebelliousness of the pain.

She started writing "The Woman Warrior" in her mind when she was ten years old. …

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