Reading Back, Looking Forward: A Retrospective Interview with Maxine Hong Kingston
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, MELUS
Maxine Hong Kingston's first book The Woman Warrior appeared in 1976, more than three decades ago. Since then, she has published a second memoir, China Men (1980); a collection of essays on Hawai'i, Hawai'i One Summer (1987); a novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989); a book of and about poetry, To Be the Poet (2002); and a mixed-genre volume, The Fifth Book of Peace (2003). She has also recently edited a volume of writings by war veterans, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace (2006).
Kingston's oeuvre covers a range of genres coming out of a powerful literary imagination. At the same time, the psychic and spiritual sources of her writing are evident in her responses to the questions raised in this interview which followed her February 22, 2006 reading at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The interview is framed to cover the thirty years of Kingston's production, rather like the way exhibitions of paintings by visual artists are structured frequently in a retrospective chronology to follow the growth and development of the artist's mind and art. In organizing a retrospective exhibition, the curator is offering the spectator not merely one or some of the artist's paintings in isolation but a valuable sweeping vision of the major works, so as to clarify, even to insert, an understanding of the genius not otherwise apprehensible. The bringing together of an individual artist's separate works and achievements paradoxically also permits the reader a view of the author as a writer treading the years between the texts. A retrospective frame may illuminate the historicity that solidifies an artist's seemingly arbitrary series of works. In setting the individual works in relationship to each other and to those works appearing earlier and later, I hope to suggest the larger patterns, motifs, and linguistic and stylistic characteristics that bind the individual works to an authorial totality (no matter how discontinuous, fluid, and tentative that single authorial identity may be). This retrospective interview may, then, lead to interpretations enriched by layers of primary and secondary readings, each and all held in the suspension of decades of production and reception.
Shirley Lim: When The Woman Warrior appeared in 1976, you were about thirty-five or thirty-six years old. It brought you tremendous recognition, not only from Asian American readers but also from a mainstream US literary and cultural intelligentsia. How did such immediate and widespread success affect you and your writing, if at all?
Maxine Hong Kingston: Well, publishing big when you are thirty-five years old doesn't really change your life that much. If I had been younger if I were in my twenties--I might have gotten really excited and wild and let it all go to my head. At thirty-five, I'm settled. I'm living the life that I want, and so emotionally, psychologically, it did not change me at all. But for the practicalities of the writer's life, it made a difference in that I did not have to do any other work for money.
What happened was that I was teaching at a boarding school in Honolulu and it meant I was on duty twenty-four hours a day. You're always on call at a boarding school. I had been teaching there exactly six years during which time I wrote The Woman Warrior. When it was published and I got an advance, it just so happened that I was there for six years so I got a sabbatical. I had made up my mind that during the sabbatical I would write the next book. The conditions of the sabbatical are you have to come back to teach for an additional two years. I got my advance for The Woman Warrior and paid off my sabbatical, so I did not have to come back, and I quit teaching. At that time I got a $5000 advance, enough to pay for one year's salary of my teaching. I thought of it as buying my freedom and then I could write without doing any other [work], no more moonlighting, I could concentrate on writing. …