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Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston

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

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, (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, (September 29, 1997).

Soderstrom, Christina K., "Voices from the Gaps: Maxine Hong Kingston, " University of Minnesota, Department of English and Program in American Studies, (February 19, 1998).

White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Remarks by the President at Arts and Humanities Ceremony, " (September 29, 1997).

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"Maxine Hong Kingston." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 22 Nov. 2017 <>.

"Maxine Hong Kingston." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (November 22, 2017).

"Maxine Hong Kingston." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved November 22, 2017 from

Kingston, Maxine Hong

KINGSTON, Maxine Hong

Nationality: American. Born: Maxine Ting Ting Hong, Stockton, California, 27 October 1940. Education: University of California, Berkeley, A.B. 1962, teaching certificate, 1965. Family: Married Earll Kingston in 1962; one son. Career: Teacher of English and mathmatics, Sunset High School, Hayward, California, 1965-67; teacher of English, Kahuku High School, Hawaii, 1967; teacher, Kahaluu Drop-In School, 1968; teacher of English as a second language, Honolulu Business College, Hawaii, 1969; teacher of language arts, Kailua High School, Hawaii, 1969, and Mid-Pacific Institute, Honolulu, 1970-77. Since 1977 visiting associate professor of English, Univeristy of Hawaii, Honolulu. Awards: National Book Critics Circle award, 1976, for nonfiction; Mademoiselle award, 1977; Anisfiel-Wolf Race Relations award, 1978; National Education Association writing fellowship, 1980; American Book award, 1981, for nonfiction; Arts Commission award, 1981; Hawaii Award for Literature, 1982; California Governor's Award, 1989; Major Book Collection Award, Brandeis University, 1990; Award for Literature, American Academy & Institute for Arts & Letters, 1990; Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writing Award, 1992; Special Achievement, Oakland Business Arts award, 1994; Cyril Magnin Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, 1996; Distinguished Artists Award, the Music Center of L.A. County, 1996; National Humanities Medal, NEH, 1997; Fred Cody Lifetime Achievement Award, 1998; John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, 1998; Ka Palapola Po'okela Award, 1999; Profiles of Courage Honor, Swords to Plowshares, 1999. Honorary doctorate, Eastern Michigan University, 1988; Colby College, 1990; Brandeis University, 1991; University of Massachusetts, 1991. Named Living Treasure Hawaii, 1980; Woman of the Year, Asian Pacific Women's Network, 1981. Address: University of California, Department of English, 322 Wheeler Hall, Berkeley, California 94720-1030, U.S.A.



Tripmaster Monkey, His Fake Book. New York, Knopf, and London, Pan, 1989.

Hawaii One Summer. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1998.


The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. NewYork, Knopf, 1976; London, Allen Lane, 1977.

China Men. New York, Knopf, 1980; London, Pan, 1981.

The Making of More Americans. Honolulu, Hawaii, InterArts, 1980.

Through the Black Curtain. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1987.

Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston, edited by Paul Skenazy and Tera Martin. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1998.


Critical Studies:

Approaches to Teaching Kingston's 'The Woman Warrior' edited by Shirley Geok-Lim, New York, Modern Language Association of America, 1991; Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa by King-Kok Chueng, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1993; Stories of Resilience in Childhood: The Narratives of Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodrigues, John Edgar Wideman, and Tobias Wolff by Daniel D. Challener, New York, Garland, 1997; The Female Bildungsroman by Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston: A Postmodern Reading by Pin-chia Feng, New York, P. Lang, 1998; Critical Essays on Maxine Hong Kingston edited by Laura E. Skandera-Trombley, New York, G.K. Hall, 1998; In Her Mother's House: the Politics of Asian American Mother-Daughter Writing by Wendy Ho, Walnut Creek, AltaMira Press, 1999; Maxine Hong Kingston by Diane Simmons, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1999; Asian-American Authors by Kathy Ishizuka, Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, Enslow Publishers, 2000; Maxine Hong Kingston: A Critical Companion by E.D. Huntley, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 2000.

* * *

Myth, legend, history, and biography are so seamlessly blended in Maxine Hong Kingston's books that it is often difficult to know how to categorize them. Are The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts and China Men works of non-fiction? Officially, they are cataloged as such, but in the deepest sense of reader's experience they seem more akin to fairy tales, folkloric stories, even epic poems. Based on the history and myth passed on to Kingston by members of her immediate family, as well by "story-talkers" in the Stockton, California, community where she grew up, the result is a species of magical realism, one that continually hovers between fact and the imagination, between what was and what might have been.

Kingston regards The Woman Warrior and China Men as a single large book, despite the fact that they were published separately. Moreover, she often confuses, willfully or no, family members who actually lived with those she invents. This penchant for blurring the distinctions between the actual and the invented has occasioned some criticism, especially among those who feel that Kingston plays fast and loose with history, but most reviewer-critics showered her with praise.

No doubt categories matter when one is handing out literary prizes (both The Woman Warrior and China Men received awards for general excellence in non-fiction), and the confusion of actuality and invention may be worth quarreling about, but what matters finally are the stories themselvesand they are quite good. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to think of books that detail the joys and pains of growing up within a strictly defined ethnic community that could match Kingston's sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph, page for page. She is, quite simply, a marvelous writer.

Moreover, Kingston so experiments with form that the result is a species of algebra: stories that interlock or comment on each other; life lessons that creep inextricably out of mythic depths; and perhaps most of all, an eerie sense of that the burdens of the past rest securely on the shoulders of those in the present. Kingston herself straddles two vibrant worlds, each as menacing as it is mysterious.

The Woman Warrior is dominated by Kingston's mother (Brave Orchid, in the book) and the other women of Chinaghosts of the heart, allwho formed her sensibility and willed her strength. By contrast, China Men focuses on the man who labored for fifteen years in a laundry to pay for Brave Orchid's passage. The books beg to be read as a inseparable pair, as yin and yang are seen as opposite sides of a unified principle.

In Kingston's culture, it is the women who use story as a means to understanding and survival. By contrast, Chinese men tend toward silence, which forces Kingston to invent multiple versions of what may have happened in her father's past. No doubt some must have wondered if Kingston could write as penetratingly about men as she clearly did about women, especially given the restricted circumstances under which Chinese women traditionally functioned. The worries, however, were unfounded, for the effect of China Men is as riveting as it is daring.

As for Wittman Ah Sing, the male protagonist of Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, one can hardly get him to shut up. A typical rant has him complaining frenetically about "F.O.B." or "fresh off the boat" immigrants from Asia, and at various places in the book, he jumps around and chatters and generally moves so fast it is hard to follow him. Namedperhapsafter Walt Whitman, Wittman represents an ancient archetype not only of Chinese but of world literature, best known to Western readers through personae such as Loki, the Norse god of mischief. In Kingston's skillful hands, myth is not only a source of refuge and inspiration, but also of power. Thus she works not as a professional Sinologistone factor that contributes to the antipathy toward her on the part of ethnic stalwarts such as Frank Chin, who insists on calling himself a "Chinaman" rather than Chinesebut as a creative writer operating in a world tradition. The result is the construction of a deeper truth than facts normally allow. Kingston's extraordinary books remind us that what James Joyce, an Irishman on the other side of the world, set out to accomplish when his protagonist set off to forge on the smithy of his soul "the uncreated conscience of my race" can also happen when a young Chinese-American writer sets out to discover who she is amid the rich tapestry of memory and the imagination.

Sanford Pinsker

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