Maxine Hong Kingston (born 1940) is one of the first Asian American writers in the United States to achieve great acclaim for both her nonfiction and fiction. With her vivid portrayals of the magic of her Chinese ancestry and the struggle of Chinese immigrants to the United States, she makes the Asian American experience come alive for her readers.
On September 29, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded Maxine Hong Kingston a National Humanities Medal for her work as a writer and a supporter of both the California and Hawaii Councils for the Humanities. In his remarks that day, Clinton praised Kingston's talent for revealing "a world we've never seen but instantly recognize as authentic." Through her work, he said, she had "brought the Asian-American experience to life for millions of readers and inspired a new generation of writers to make their own unique voices and experiences heard."
Both of Kingston's parents, Tom and Ying Lan (Chew) Hong, immigrated to the United States from China, but not together. Tom Hong, a scholar and a poet, arrived in 1924 and went to New York City, while Ying Lan Hong, who received training during his absence as a doctor and midwife, joined him there about 15 years later. (Two children they had had before he left died before Tom Hong could arrange for his family's passage to America.) The couple eventually settled in California, where Tom Hong worked in a laundry and managed a gambling house. Like her husband, Ying Lan worked in a laundry; she also toiled as a field hand. Kingston was the oldest of their six American-born children.
Fascinated by Mother's Stories of China
As a youngster, Kingston was profoundly influenced by her parents' struggle to deal with the difficulties of assimilation and their need to remind their children and themselves of their rich cultural heritage. She recalls listening intently to her mother's "talk-stories" about her ancestors and also delighted in hearing her recount mystical Chinese folk tales. In particular, Kingston was drawn to the narratives about women who had been considered especially privileged or damned. These women haunted her as she later sought to give voice not only to their experiences but also her own.
Kingston has said that she thinks she was a storyteller from the moment she was born because she very much wanted to write down everything her mother told her. While she was intrigued by the myth and magic of China, she was deeply disturbed by the family secrets revealed in her mother's stories. Learning about the adversity that so many of her relatives had known in their lives also troubled her. Writing thus became her way of understanding their pain and working toward some sort of resolution.
Kingston attended the University of California at Berkeley on a scholarship and served as the night editor for the Daily Californian. She graduated in 1962, the same year she married her husband, Earll Kingston, an actor. After the birth of their son, Joseph, in 1964, the couple taught at Sunset High School in Hayward, California, during the 1966-67 school year. In 1967, they moved to Hawaii. There Maxine Hong Kingston taught at a private school, Mid-Pacific Institute, and later at the University of Hawaii.
Bridged the Gap Between Two Worlds
Growing up as she did feeling the pull of two very different cultures, Kingston has sought a reconciliation of sorts through her writing. Her goal has always been to incorporate the mystery of China in her work without fostering the stereotypical exotic image that appeals to so many white Americans. She believes that such an image "cheapens real mystery, " as she remarked to journalist Bill Moyers in an interview published in Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas II.
Her first book, a combination novel and memoir entitled The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), explores the lives of women who have had the strongest impact on Kingston throughout her life-women whose voices have never been heard. One of the most poignant stories deals with her aunt, who gave birth to an illegitimate child. Because having a child outside of wedlock was absolutely taboo and thus a threat to the community's stability, her whole village rose up against her, forcing her to kill not only herself but also her child. From then on, even mentioning her name was forbidden; for all intents and purposes, it was if she had never existed. By writing about her aunt, however, Kingston felt that she was able to rescue the unfortunate woman from oblivion and give her back her life. Time magazine named The Woman Warrior one of the top ten nonfiction works of literature of the 1970s.
Kingston was also interested in giving voice to the male side of her family. In 1980, she published China Men, another blend of fact and fantasy that won the 1981 American Book Award for nonfiction and was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. Based on the experiences of her father and several generations of other male relatives, the book explores the lives of Chinese men who left their homeland to settle in the United States. It contains stories of loneliness and discrimination as well as determination and strength, enhanced and embellished by Kingston's own formidable imagination. The project also inspired a unique dialogue between father and daughter. In the Chinese translation of the book, Kingston invited her father to note his own comments in the margins of each page, a tradition in ancient Chinese literature. She is especially proud of this edition, because it allowed her father to be recognized and honored once again for his writing.
Kingston's third book, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, earned the 1989 PEN West Award in fiction. In this book, Kingston examines the life of a young, fifth-generation Chinese American named Wittman Ah Sing (a tribute to poet Walt Whitman). Somewhat of a hippie who believes in doing what you please no matter what the consequences, Wittman majors in English in college during the 1960s and then sets out to find his place in the world. He ends up in Berkeley, California, where he struggles to make a go of it as a playwright.
Many readers and critics have found Wittman to be an especially annoying character. While Kingston admits that Wittman means to be offensive at times, she has been dismayed by the negative reaction to him. As she told Moyers, "What's sad is that when many people tell me that they don't like Wittman and his personality, what they're also telling me is that they don't like the personalities of a lot of actual Asian American men out there." Kingston wants Wittman to offend people; she believes that it is his way of making himself his own man. "He does know how to be charming, " she explained to Moyers. "Minority people in America all know how to be charming, because there are very charming stereotypes out there."
Kingston has also published numerous poems, short stories, and articles in her career. Hawaii One Summer, a book of 12 prose essays, was published in a limited edition in 1987. In 1991, she co-authored Learning True Love: How I Learned and Practiced Social Change in Vietnam, essentially a compilation of talks given by a Vietnamese Buddhist nun who has spent her life in service to the poor of her country. That same year, fire raged through Kingston's home in Oakland, California, and destroyed the manuscript of The Fourth Book of Peace, a project she had been working on that was inspired by the Chinese legend of the three lost books of peace. She has since completed The Fifth Book of Peace, which attempts to imagine in realistic rather than utopian terms what a world of peace might be like.
Classroom Techniques Combined East and West
After teaching at the University of Hawaii and Eastern Michigan University, Kingston joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley in 1990. Many of the same qualities of Eastern and Western culture and folklore that appear in her writing also surface in her classroom. For example, while discussing traditional Western literature, Kingston has been known to introduce concepts of Zen meditation.
Kingston is hopeful that the day will soon come when she is no longer considered "exotic." She would like to be viewed as someone who writes and teaches about Americans and what it means to be human. As she told Moyers, "I think I teach people how to find meaning." She encourages her readers as well as her students not to hesitate to reexamine the past and find new meaning in events that took place long ago.
For Kingston herself, meaning changes as she grows older. Looking back over her earlier works, she realizes there are additional details that she wishes she had incorporated into her stories. In the case of The Woman Warrior, for instance, she pointed out to Moyers that "the earlier meaning was we feminists have masculine powers, too. We can go into battle and lead armies." But the passing years have altered her perspective a bit. "This new meaning I'm finding from that myth is that war does not have to brutalize us, " she said. "In that sense I want to rewrite it, to bring in these new meanings that I've discovered in my life."
Further Reading on Maxine Hong Kingston
Contemporary Authors, New Revisions, Volume 13, Gale, 1984.
Moyers, Bill, Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas II-Public Opinions from Private Citizens, edited by Andie Tucher, Doubleday, 1990.
Clipper, Marguerite, "UC Berkeley's Woman Warrior, " Daily Californian, http://www.dailycal.org/archive (October 30, 1997).
Scalise, Kathleen, "President Clinton pays tribute to UC Berkeley's Maxine Hong Kingston, author of 'Woman Warrior, "' University of California News Release, http://www.urel.berkeley.edu (September 29, 1997).
Soderstrom, Christina K., "Voices from the Gaps: Maxine Hong Kingston, " University of Minnesota, Department of English and Program in American Studies, http://english.cla.umn.edu (February 19, 1998).
White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Remarks by the President at Arts and Humanities Ceremony, " http://ofcn.org/cyber.serv/teledem/pb/1997/Sep/pr19970929f (September 29, 1997).