Thursday, May 1, 2008

Maxine Hong Kingston, An American Writer

I had the pleasure of listening Maxine Hong Kingston at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where David Ulin of the LA Times Book Section did a masterful job of moderating a discussion. Maxine Hong Kingston is the author of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Kingston is an American writer whose work puts her in the ranks of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner.

Her first book, written in 1976, was Woman Warrior: Memoirs Of A Girlhood Among Ghosts. The writer uses the myths told in southern China, brought to the new world by immigrants, reshaped to compliment their new life in America, to tell the story of growing up in a Cantonese-speaking neighborhood in Stockton, California. They are American myths, and Kingston is gratified when her work is seen as "American literature, and not those Chinese books." Through the process of talking story, the myths brought over on boats and planes and settled into the living rooms and kitchens and talked about to the generations that are born here. The book is written in a poetic voice greatly influenced by the cadences and rhythms of her childhood, and very much influenced by the process of "talking story," and remembering dreams.
Maxine Hong Kingston, photo from Koa Books

Dreams are a recurring theme in her work. She believes dreams are important, and can signify something that needs tending to, or our deepest desires. When she was a child, it wasn't uncommon for the family to come down in the morning and ask one another, "What did you dream about?" Talking about dreams was a practice handed down from one generation to the next. This was driven home when Hong Kingston went to China to find her mother's long lost sister. She found her. The first thing the aunt asked Kingston was, "How is your mother, and what is she dreaming about?" Luckily, Kingston had recently spoken to her mother, and had an answer for the aunt.

Like many writers, Hong becomes deeply involved with the characters she creates. When she got to the end of Woman Warrior, she knew all the adventures and experiences still continued. In a way, the characters she creates live life off the page, until she lassos them back to appear in the next book, older, or a bit changed. The imagination enables her to create a reality that includes the lifespan of a character that exceeds any one book.

Of her switch from novels to non-fiction, Hong Kingston cited the Berkeley Fire (where she lost not only her home, but her entire community) as one thing that helped her make the shift. After the devastating experience, she found she no longer wanted to write by herself, that in fact, she wanted the company of others. So she gathered friends and former neighbors as they wrote down their experiences. From this, she went on to work with veterans, helping them tell their stories of war. "I let them write their way home from war," she said. "They find they can make beauty and art from war." And this is the great thing about Hong. One senses her restlessness, her decision not to take anything for granted, but to keep pressing not only herself, but us, to look for answers.