Maxine Hong Kingston

By Lewis, Andrea | The Progressive, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Maxine Hong Kingston

Lewis, Andrea, The Progressive

"The Woman Warrior!" That's what I think whenever I speak I with Maxine Hong Kingston. It's not just that I'm reminded of the title of her best-known book. It's that this tiny woman with large mind and spirit is the perfect embodiment of that phrase.

In conversation, Kingston will be chatting about being arrested at a peace protest in one breath and then she'll explain her process as a writer in the next. Her thoughtful use of language, her ability to expand the boundaries of literary style, and her resilience through storms of fire and criticism are an inspiration.

Kingston's first two books, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts and China Men, were written at virtually the same time, but it was The Woman Warrior that took everyone--including her publisher--by surprise. The glowing reviews and awards flooded in (including the National Book Critics Circle Award), the first printing sold out in a matter of weeks, and Kingston's career took off. Her unique style--a mix of fiction, nonfiction, myth, and other literary genres--left countless readers dazzled and some critics confused. But Kingston always managed to keep her creative engine primed--until "the fire."

At the time of the devastating Oakland-Berkeley fire of 1991, Kingston was polishing another novel, which she had titled The Fourth Book of Peace. The fire not only obliterated all copies of her manuscript and her computers, but she also lost her home, her community, and her desire to write fiction. "I seemed to have lost my imagination," she told Poets & Writers.

The process of healing from the trauma of the fire took more than ten years, but with the help of a community of war veteran writers, Kingston was able to complete what she has called "my last big book," entitled The Fifth Book of Peace. Over the course of two interviews last fall, Kingston discussed the book, her writing process, her critics, and her efforts to cultivate peace in times of war.

Q: You and Alice Walker shared a jail cell last year. What happened?

Maxine Hong Kingston: On International Women's Day, we were standing in front of the White House as part of an anti-war protest organized by Code Pink. We sang our songs, and we wore pink, and then the police said get off the street, and we decided not to. And though we were jailed and taken away, it was the most incredible experience. Alice and I shared a jail cell, and it was so great to be in the spirit of that woman. Terry Tempest Williams was there, too. We had this spirit of peace and love, which communicated to everyone, even the police. There was a black policeman who escorted Alice to her cell and he just kept saying to her, "My wife is going to kill me."

Q: How long has war been a central concern of yours?

Hong Kingston: From my first star that appeared in the sky, I remember looking up and using my wishes to wish against war. I was born into World War II, and I was aware from first consciousness about the bombing in Japan and the death camps in Europe. I used every single birthday candle to wish for peace. And somewhere in there I realized that wishes are made with words and so I kept writing. I think I started The Fifth Book of Peace as a child and constantly worked on how are we going to bring peace to this world. One of my realizations is that war seems to be like the weather. It's like, "Here comes a firestorm." We also hurt one another and shoot and kill one another because there seems to be some storm that happens in human consciousness.

Q: Have you gotten to the point where you feel like we can't change the weather, we can't avoid war?

Hong Kingston: Well, we may be able to change human consciousness. We may be able to pacify ourselves and our souls, and maybe we can also communicate with one another. If we keep talking to one another, writing to each other, and listening to one another, we can stop these wars one person to one person and then maybe one community to the next community. …

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