Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Maxine Hong Kingston (1940-)

Sierra Club


To me success means effectiveness in the world, that I am able to carry my ideas and values into the world - that I am able to change it in positive ways.


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One of the most outspoken contemporary feminist writers, Maxine Hong Kingston states in her autobiographical book The Woman Warrior (1976), "The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. . . What we have in common are the words at our backs. The idioms for revenge are 'report a crime' and 'report to five families.' The reporting is the vengeance - not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words." With prose that both unsettles Chinese American sexism and American racism, Kingston is a "word warrior" who battles social and racial injustice. It is perhaps surprising that Kingston could not speak English until she started school. Once she had learned it, however, she started to talk stories. Decades later, this once silent and silenced woman is becoming a notable American writer.

Maxine Hong Kingston was born to Chinese immigrant parents, Tom Hong and Chew Ying Lan, in Stockton, California, on 27 October 1940. Her American name, Maxine, was after a blonde who was always lucky in gambling. Ting Ting, her Chinese name, comes from a Chinese poem about self-reliance. The eldest of the six Hong children, Kingston had two older siblings who died in China years before her mother came to the United States. Kingston recalls the early part of her school education as her "silent years" in which she had a terrible time talking. Later Maxine, who flunked kindergarten, became a straight-A student and won a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley. In 1962 she got her bachelor's degree in English and married Earll Kingston, a Berkeley graduate and an actor. She returned to the university in 1964, earned a teaching certificate in 1965, and taught English and mathematics from 1965 to 1967 in Hayward, California. During their time at Berkeley, the Kingstons were involved in the antiwar movement on campus. In 1967 they decided to leave the country because the movement was getting more and more violent, and their friends were too involved in drugs. On their way to Japan the Kingstons stopped in Hawaii and stayed there for seventeen years.

At first Kingston taught language arts and English as a second language in a private school. In 1977 she became a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii at Honolulu. A few days after she finished the final revisions of China Men (1980), a Honolulu Buddhist sect claimed Kingston as a "Living Treasure of Hawaii." Kingston herself, however, was still looking homeward, having always felt like a stranger in the islands. She and her husband moved back to California, while their son, Joseph, stayed in Hawaii and became a musician. In 1992 Kingston became a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Kingston's writing relies heavily on memory and imagination. "We approach the truth with metaphors," declared Kingston in a 1983 essay, "An Imagined Life." She also told Paula Rabinowitz in a1987 interview, "The artist's memory winnows out; it edits for what is important and significant. Memory, my own memory, shows me what is unforgettable, and helps me get to an essence that will not die, and that haunts me until I can out it into a form, which is writing." Kingston denies, however, that the use of memory in her writing is simply a form of exorcism, but she insists that it is a way to give substance to the "ghosts," or "visions," in her life. Her writing also denies classification: she is recording the biography of a people's imagination. Her first two books are Kingston's biographies of ancestors whom she has never met and records of things about which she has only heard. Imagination becomes her way to approach these characters and incidents. For instance, she imagines five ways for her father's arrival in America in China Men. She is proud of this imaginative feat because by inserting multiple stories into her "biographical" works she is able to transcend generic boundaries and protect the illegal aliens she is writing about at the same time. "To have a right imagination is very powerful," Kingston told Rabinowitz, "because it's a bridge between reality."

The major sources of Kingston's memory and imagination are her mother's stories and her father's silence. Kingston's father, Tom Hong, was a scholar trained in traditional Chinese classics and a teacher in New Society Village before his immigration. In the United States he washed windows until he had saved enough money to start a laundry in New York with three of his friends. Later, Hong was cheated out of his share of the partnership. He moved with his pregnant wife to Stockton and started managing an illegal gambling house for a wealthy Chinese American. A major part of his work, besides taking care of the club, was to be arrested; he was silent about his true name and invented a new name for each arrest. World War II put him out of this cycle of managing and getting arrested because the gambling house was shut down. After a period of unemployment he started his own laundry and a new life for himself and his family in America.

Brave Orchid (or Ying Lan, in Chinese), Kingston's vocal and practical mother, was a doctor who practiced Western medicine and midwifery in China. She did not join her husband in New York until 1940, fifteen years after they had parted. In America, Brave Orchid exchanged her professional status for that of a laundrywoman, cleaning maid, tomato picker, and cannery worker. Undaunted by the difficulties in her life, this "champion talker" educated her children with "talk stories," which included myth, legend, family history, and ghost tales. "Night after night my mother would talk-story until we fell asleep. I could not tell where the stories left off and the dreams began," Kingston recalls in The Women Warrior. Through her talk stories, Brave Orchid extended Chinese tradition into the lives of her American children and enriched their imagination. Yet Kingston is also aware of the fact that the mother's talking stories were double-edged: "She said I would grow up a wife and slave, but she taught me the song of the woman warrior, Fa Mu Lan," Kingston recollects in The Woman Warrior. While Brave Orchid's storytelling was educational, it also reiterated patriarchal and misogynistic messages of traditional Chinese culture. Moreover, as in traditional Chinese education, Brave Orchid did not explain her stories. Kingston needed to interpret her mother's stories and became a storyteller herself.

Her community also played a decisive role in Kingston's writing. Comparing herself to Toni Morrison and Leslie Silko, Kingston argues that what makes their writings vivid and alive is their connection with community and tribe. Yet Kingston refuses to be "representative" of Chinese Americans. "A Stockton Chinese is not the same as a San Francisco Chinese," Kingston stated in an interview with Arturo Islas. Unlike "the Big City" (San Francisco) and "the Second City" (Sacramento), Stockton, a city in the Central Valley of California, has a relatively small Chinese population. At most the Stockton Chinese American community is a minor subculture of Chinese America. Yet Stockton became a "literary microcosm" for Kingston, whose knowledge of China derives from its people. And the language spoken in this community, a Cantonese dialect called Say Yup, supplies Kingston with distinctive sounds and rhythms. What Kingston has done in her writing is to translate the oral tradition of her community into a written one. [Adapted from Pin-chia Feng, National Chiao-Tung University, Taiwan]

Books from Alibris: Maxine Hong Kingston

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