Kingston, Maxine Hong

views updated May 21 2018

Maxine Hong Kingston


Born October 27, 1940, in Stockton, CA; daughter of Tom (a scholar, a manager of a gambling house, and a laundry worker) and Ying Lan (a practitioner of medicine and midwifery, a field hand, and a laundry worker; maiden name, Chew) Hong; married Earll Kingston (an actor), November 23, 1962; children: Joseph Lawrence Chung Mei. Education: University of California, Berkeley, A.B., 1962, teaching certificate, 1965.


OfficeUniversity of California, Department of English, 322 Wheeler Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720.


Writer. Sunset High School, Hayward, CA, teacher of English and mathematics, 1965-67; Kahuku High School, Kahuku, HI, teacher of English, 1967; Kahaluu Drop-in School, Kahaluu, HI, teacher, 1968; Honolulu Business College, Honolulu, HI, teacher of English as a second language, 1969; Kailua High School, Kailua, HI, teacher of language arts, 1969; Mid-Pacific Institute, Honolulu, teacher of language arts, 1970-77; University of Hawaii, Honolulu, visiting associate professor of English, beginning 1977; Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Thelma Mc-Candless Professor, 1986; University of California, Berkeley, Chancellor's Distinguished Professor, 1990—.

Awards, Honors

General nonfiction award, National Book Critics Circle, 1976, for The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts; Mademoiselle Magazine Award, 1977; Anisfield-Wolf Race Relations Award, 1978; The Woman Warrior was named one of the top ten nonfiction works of the decade by Time magazine, 1979; National Education Association writing fellow, 1980; named Living Treasure of Hawaii, 1980; China Men was named to the American Library Association Notable Books List, 1980; National Endowment for the Arts Writers Award, 1980 and 1982; American Book Award for general nonfiction, 1981, for China Men; Stockton (CA) Arts Commission Award, 1981; Guggenheim fellow, 1981; Hawaii Award for Literature, 1982; Hawaii Writers Award, 1983; PEN West Award in Fiction for Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, 1989; California Governor's Art Award, 1989; Major Book Collection Award, Brandeis University National Women's Committee, 1990;American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1990; inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1992; National Humanities Medal, 1997; China Men was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Honorary degrees from Eastern Michigan University, 1988, Colby College, 1990, Brandeis University, 1991, University of Massachusetts, 1991, and Starr King School for the Ministry, 1992.


The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.

China Men (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.

Hawai'i One Summer (essays), Meadow Press (San Francisco, CA), 1987.

Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (novel; also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.

Through the Black Curtain (contains excerpts from The Woman Warrior, China Men, and Tripmaster Monkey), Friends of the Bancroft Library, University of California (Berkeley, CA), 1988.

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

(Editor, with Jack Hicks, James D. Houston, and Al Young) The Literature of California: Writings from the Golden State, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2000.

To Be the Poet, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2002.

The Fifth Book of Peace, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor to books, including Your Reading, edited by Jerry Walker, National Council of Teachers of English, 1975. Contributor of stories and articles to periodicals, including New York Times Magazine, Ms., New Yorker, New West, New Dawn, American Heritage, and Washington Post.


The Woman Warrior was adapted into a play by Sharon Ott and produced at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, California, 1994.


Called "the most influential Asian American author of the twentieth century," by Keith Lawrence and John Dye, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Maxine Hong Kingston has made the Chinese experience available to a large and diverse reading public. Her popular nonfiction and fiction titles blend "myth, legend, history, and autobiography into a genre of her own invention," wrote Susan Currier in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980. Kingston's books The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts and China Men are classified as nonfiction, but, according to Anne Tyler in the New Republic, "in a deeper sense, they are fiction at its best—novels, fairytales, epic poems." Both books are based on the history and myth imparted to Kingston by members of her family and other Chinese-American "story-talkers" who lived in her childhood community in Stockton, California. "The result," noted Contemporary Novelists contributor Sanford Pinsker, "is a species of magical realism, one that continually hovers between fact and the imagination, between what was and what might have been."

Kingston is also the author of the novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, a mixture of magical realism and social realism featuring the Asian American protagonist Wittman Ah Sing, a recent graduate who is attempting to write an epic based on an old Chinese novel. With To Be the Poet, Kingston documents her attempts at adopting poetry as a new medium, and in her 2003 melange of nonfiction and fiction, The Fifth Book of Peace, she continues Wittman's adventures and also chronicles the tortured path that book took to publication, having been destroyed in a 1991 fire and then rewritten anew.

Renee H. Shea, writing in Poets & Writers, noted that the National Book Award-winning Kingston is credited by many "with opening the door for a whole generation of Asian-America writers." An "agent provocateur," as a contributor for Publishers Weekly dubbed her, Kingston is still best known for her first two works. Another reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that The Woman Warrior has become "a collegiate fixture and a centerpiece for the Asian-American canon." Pinsker, writing about both The Woman Warrior and China Men, observed that the author often blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. He added, "the confusion of actuality and invention may be worth quarreling about, but what matters finally are the stories themselves—and 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." The Woman Warrior and China Men, he said, "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."

Living in Two Worlds

Maxine Hong Kingston was born in Stockton, California, on October 27, 1940, the first of six Americanborn children of Tom Hong and Chew Ling Yan, Chinese immigrants. Kingston's mother, referred to as Brave Orchid in the book, married her father in China, before he immigrated to New York City in 1924. For fifteen years the father, a scholar in China, worked in a laundry and sent part of the money he earned back to China, enabling Brave Orchid to study for certifications in medicine and midwifery, which eventually provided her with a good income and respect in what Ms. critic Sara Blackburn called "a starving society where girl children were a despised and useless commodity." She came to the United States in 1939 when her husband sent for her, having to give up her medical practice to work for the benefit of her family as a laundress and field hand. Her first two children had died in China while she was alone, but within her first year in the United States, at the age of forty-five, she gave birth to Maxine in Stockton, where the family later settled. Maxine was named after a lucky blonde American gamester in a gambling parlor her father managed at the time, having been swindled out of his share of his New York laundry.

Kingston's first language was Say Yup, a dialect of Cantonese; she also grew up around other recent and not-so-recent immigrants from her parents' village in China. Her mother, determined that her children would retain their Chinese heritage despite their education in English at school, steeped them in tales, introducing her to the ghosts of ancestors in this way. But ghosts did not only exist in her mother's tales: Americans, or "foreigners," were also considered "ghosts" by her mother. Flunking kindergarten because she was unwilling to speak, Kingston soon gained confidence, learning to negotiate a life in two worlds. By the time she was nine, she was writing poems in English, and had become an excellent student. Graduating from high school, she received eleven scholarships that allowed her to attend the University of California at Berkeley. Initially she studied engineering, but quickly switched to English literature, graduating in 1962. That same year she married a fellow Berkeley graduate, Earll Kingston, a budding actor. In 1964, Kingston gave birth to her one child, a son, Joseph; the following year she earned a teaching certificate and began teaching English and mathematics at a high school in Hayward, California.

The Kingstons, depressed by the political and social situation of the late 1960s, decided to move to Japan; a stopover in Hawaii lasted for seventeen years. Setting up their home on Oahu, the Kingstons both taught school. By the early 1970s Kingston had begun writing the stories and vignettes that would later be gathered in The Woman Warrior. Initially these stories were published in magazines and newspapers from Viva to the New York Times. As far as she was concerned, she did not want to label these tales either autobiography or pure fiction; she would generally refer to them as real stories. In 1976, Knopf brought out the first of what were projected at two volumes of such memoirs.

The Woman Warrior

Currier described The Woman Warrior as "a personal work, an effort to reconcile American and Chinese female identities." Washington Post Book World reviewer William McPherson commented that it is "a strange, sometimes savagely terrifying and, in the literal sense, wonderful story of growing up caught between two highly sophisticated and utterly alien cultures, both vivid, often menacing and equally mysterious." Primarily a memoir of Kingston's childhood, The Woman Warrior also concerns itself with the lives of other women in her family, as embellished or imagined by the author. According to Washington Post critic Henry Allen, "in a wild mix of myth, memory, history and a lucidity which verges on the eerie," Kingston describes "their experiences as women, as Chinese coming to America and as Americans." Its companion volume, China Men, "attempts a broader synthesis," indicated Currier, "dealing with male Chinese 'sojourners' in North America and Hawaii, but it is inextricably tied to the autobiographical interests of The Woman Warrior. Kingston's mother dominates The Woman Warrior, her father, China Men, "wrote Currier. "In both books," she further commented, "additional characters flesh out the social, political, and cultural history Kingston introduces." China Men also includes the fictionalized histories of several members of Kingston's family and the community in which she grew up.

Harper's critic Frances Taliaferro remarked that the books' "titles plainly speak their ostensible subjects, female and male; just as plainly the books must be read together. Though I have no inherited command of the terms yin and yang, it seems to me that like those opposing principles the two books form one whole, for the shaping imagination is indivisible." Kingston told New York Times Book Review critic Timothy Pfaff that she considers the two works "one big book. I was writing them more or less simultaneously. The final chapter in China Men began as a short story that I was working on before I even started The Woman Warrior. "

Many of the stories included in The Woman Warrior are reconstructed from those Kingston's mother related to her as "lessons 'to grow up on,'" wrote Currier. According to New York Times Book Review critic Jane Kramer, the young Maxine, "in a country full of ghosts, is already a half-ghost to her mother." Kingston's memoir, described by Time critic Paul Gray as "drenched in alienation," is also characterized by ambiguity, since, as he pointed out, it "haunts a region somewhere between autobiography and fiction." It is difficult to distinguish whether the narrator of the book's stories "is literally Maxine Hong Kingston," Gray commented. "Art has intervened here. The stories may or may not be transcripts of actual experience." Kingston takes some of her adapted stories from Chinese folklore, as in the Fan Mu Lan myth of the "White Tigers" section. More personal tales are recounted in sections such as "No-Name Woman," about one of Kingston's great aunts in China whose sense of independence was the undoing of her. Portents of the Vietnam War are exposed in "At the Western Palace," and in "Shaman" Brave Orchid is beset by terrifying ghosts while in medical school, and these are contrasted with a sort of Bigfoot character captured in America and brought back to China in a cage. The collection also includes "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," a "Chinese historical tale recast as a kind of American Indian captivity narrative," according to Lawrence and Dye.

China Men

Kingston turns to the men of her family in China Men, a book which also "span[s] two continents and several generations," according to Currier. New York Times reviewer John Leonard commented that it is "framed, on the one hand, by a wedding and a funeral, and, on the other, by the birth of boys.… In between is sheer magic: poetry, parable, nightmare, the terror and exhilaration of physical labor, the songs of survival, the voices of the dead, the feel of wood and blood, the smell of flowers and wounds. History meets sensuality." In China Men, wrote Allen, Kingston "describes the men slaving for a dollar a week building sugar plantations; smuggling themselves into America in packing crates; building the railroads; adopting new names, such as Edison, Roosevelt and Worldster." Although women are not prominent as characters in China Men, Kingston told Pfaff, "There still are women who take the role of storyteller. The women are not centerstage, but without the female storyteller, I couldn't have gotten into some of the stories."

In order to "understand the men with whom she is connected," Kingston adopts many of the same techniques she used in The Woman Warrior, indicated New York Times Book Review critic Mary Gordon, "the blend of myth, legend and history, the fevered voice, relentless as a truth-seeking child's." She begins with the story of her father, who has trained as a scholar in China, and, according to Gray, "is subject to black moods and bitterness over his low estate" during much of Maxine's childhood. Perhaps in reflection of his heritage, "his angriest curses vilify women's bodies," wrote Gray. "The girl both understands and is bewildered." But, since her father was not a "story-talker" like Brave Orchid, and was silent about his past, Kingston must "piece together the few facts she has and invent the rest," Gordon noted. Newsweek critic Jean Strouse commented that "in a dreamlike mix of memory and desire, she tries out versions of her father's life, weaving them through her narrative." Not only does the author recreate his life in China and provide five different versions of how he entered the United States; she also widely separates the story of "the father from China" from that of the man she knew and refers to as "the American father."

In Kingston's tale, "the father from China" found his skills in calligraphy and poetry useless in the United States. After immigrating, he became part-owner of a laundry in New York City, observed Frederick Wakeman Jr. in the New York Review of Books, "along with three other China Men who spend their salaries on $200 suits, dime-a-dance girls, motorcycles, and flying lessons." Kingston follows this account of idyllic bachelor existence with an ancient Chinese ghost story about a beautiful spirit woman who, wrote Wakeman, "beguiles a handsome traveler until he loses nearly all memory of his family back home." Eventually, the man is "released from her spell" and returns to his wife. "In the same way," pointed out Wakeman, "the father from China turns away from the lure of his three high-living friends, and puts the temptations of bachelorhood behind him after his wife joins him in New York." But, according to Kingston, soon after Brave Orchid arrived in the United States and weaned her husband away from his companions—she cooked the men elaborate meals and insisted they keep the Chinese holidays—the partners cheated the father from China out of his share of the business. The couple then left for California where "the American father" had to struggle to support his family.

The book, commented Strouse, "is about a great deal more than sexual warfare, however. It tells of emigration, persecution, work, endurance, ritual, change, loss and the eternal invention of the new." In a later section of the book, Kingston presents the story of the father she knew in Stockton, and she ends China Men with characters of her own generation, relating the tale of a brother's tour of duty in Vietnam and his attempts to locate relatives in Hong Kong. Rounding out the book are the highly representative, embellished histories of earlier China Men who preceded her father to America. She tells of a great-grandfather who traveled to Hawaii to clear the land and work on a sugar plantation. The overseers forbade talking, she relates, and Gordon maintained that "nowhere is Mrs. Kingston's technique—the close focus, the fascination with the details of survival strategies, the repetitive fixated tone—more successful than in her description of the plantation workers' talking into the earth in defiance of the silence imposed upon them by white bosses. The men dig holes and shout their longings, their frustrations, down the hole to China, frightening their overseers, who leave them alone." "The poignancy of that moment is the fruit of stunning historical reconstruction coupled with the imagination of a novelist," Gray indicated.

Throughout the rest of the work, Kingston often blends history with pure fantasy. "What makes the book more than nonfiction," wrote Anne Tyler in the New Republic, "are its subtle shifts between the concrete and the mythical." Washington Post Book World critic Edmund White commented that "by delving into her own girlhood memories, by listening to the tall tales her Chinese immigrant parents told her … by researching the past in books and by daydreaming her way into other lives, the author has stitched together a unique document so brightly colored that it seems to be embroidery sewn in brilliant silk threads, a picture of fabulous dragons sinuously coiling around real people, a mandarin square of triumph and privation, of memorable fact and still more vivid fancy." Kingston, he indicated, has "freely woven fairy tales into her recital of facts and rendered her account magical." As Tyler observed, "Edges blur; the dividing line passes unnoticed. We accept one fact and then the next, and then suddenly we find ourselves believing in the fantastic. Is it true that when one of the brothers was born, a white Christmas card flew into the room like a dove?"

In her imaginative fervor, Kingston often alters and even popularizes classical Chinese myths. Although, in general, Wakeman found China Men praiseworthy, he wrote that "as Kingston herself has admitted, many of the myths she describes are largely her own reconstructions. Often, they are only remotely connected with the original Chinese legends they invoke; and sometimes they are only spurious folklore, a kind of self-indulgent fantasy that blends extravagant personal imagery with appropriately voelkisch themes." He added that "precisely because the myths are usually so consciously contrived, her pieces of distant China lore often seem jejune and even inauthentic—especially to readers who know a little bit about the original high culture which Kingston claims as her birthright."

However, Kingston has observed that, as a sinologist, Wakeman "is a scholar on what he calls the 'high tradition,' and so he sees me as one who doesn't get it right, and who takes liberties with it. In actuality, I am writing in the peasant talk-story Cantonese tradition ('low,' if you will), which is the heritage of Chinese Americans. Chinese Americans have changed the stories, but Mr. Wakeman compares our new stories to the ancient, scholarly ones from the old country, and finds them somehow inauthentic." Furthermore, claimed Gordon, "the straight myth and the straight history are far less compelling than the mixture [Kingston] creates." As Kingston told Pfaff, "I have come to feel that the myths that have been handed down from the past are not something that we should be working toward, so I try to deal with them quickly—get them over with—and then return to a realistic kind of present. This time I'm leaving it to my readers to figure out how the myths and the modern stories connect. Like me, and I'm assuming like other people, the characters in the book have to figure out how what they've been told connects—or doesn't connect—with what they experience." "This sort of resurrection," concluded Wakeman, "is an important way for Kingston to establish a link between her present Americanness and the China of her ancestor's past. The myths—which by their very nature mediate the irreconcilable—initially make it possible for her to rediscover an otherwise lost China, and then summoning it, lay that spirit to rest."

Turns to Fiction

Kingston's first outright novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, presents Chinese history and myth with a wild humor through the character of Wittman Ah Sing, a young Chinese-American in 1960s San Francisco whose philosophy of life calls for doing as one pleases whatever the consequences. His life is not without frustration, though, as white Americans fail to accept him fully—even though he is a fifth-generation American, "as American as Jack Kerouac or James Baldwin or Allen Ginsberg, as American as Walt Whitman, 'the poet that his father tried to name him after,'" noted LeAnne Schreiber in the New York Times Book Review. But he also is an incarnation of the mythical Monkey King. "Like Monkey, the trickster saint of Chinese legend who helped bring Buddha's teachings to China, Wittman will bring China to America," Schreiber explained, and he means to do so by staging a massive theatrical production. Herbert Gold, in his review for Chicago's Tribune Books, believed that the novel "blends the kind of magic realism familiar to readers of Latin American fiction with the hard-edged black humor of flower-epoch comic writers and performers—a little bit of Lenny Bruce and a whole lot of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Kingston's energy, talent and unique perspective make an odd dish work, like some sort of hefty Chinese nouvelle maxi-cuisine stew." Schreiber thought, "Wittman is at times compelling, touching, wildly imaginative, and yet he made me long for another voice.… Except in occasional descriptive passages, I cannot hear the precise, sinewy, and, yes, let's admit it, beautiful voice of the author above the racket of her creation." Writing in the New Republic, Anne Tyler allowed that Wittman occasionally "wear[s] us out with his exuberance," but she said he and his story hold the reader's interest thanks to "the tiny, meticulously catalogued details that fill his quieter moments." She summed up Tripmaster Monkey as "a great, huge sprawling beast of a novel, over 400 pages densely packed with [Wittman's] rantings and ravings and pranks and high jinks.… That Wittman is Chinese gives his story depth and particularity. That he's American lends his narrative style a certain slangy insouciance. That he's Chinese-American, with the self-perceived outsider's edgy angle of vision, makes for a novel of satisfying complexity and bite and verve."

Poetry and Twice-Written Prose

The Kingston family returned to the mainland in 1984, and was living in Berkeley when the 1991 fire in the Berkeley hills destroyed their home along with scores of others. Lost among all the rest of her possessions were the manuscript and all the back-up disks to the novel she was just then finishing, the continuation of the saga of Wittman Ah Sing during the Vietnam War. So devastated was Kingston that for many months she could not even read, let alone write. She slowly began to find her way back to writing, however, running a series of writing workshops with veterans of various wars. Working with several other California writers, she also helped to edit the 2000 volume, The Literature of California: Writings from the Golden State.

Increasingly, Kingston began to turn toward poetry as a new expressive tool. The record of her attempts, as well as some of her work in progress, was gathered in the 2002 To Be the Poet, material first presented as the William E. Massey Lectures at Harvard. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found the book to read like "short diaries," further commenting that Kingston's "devotees will appreciate [the book], even as they await her return to other forms." Ron Ratliff, writing in Library Journal, had a more positive view of the work, calling the effort a "multilayered book that is irreverent, serious, and playful but always instructive." Similarly, A. Van Jordan, reviewing the same title in the Washington Post, felt that To Be the Poet "has the potential to become a classic." For Jordan, Kingston's book "is not simply about being a writer; it's also a memoir with suggestions for coping with life."

With her 2003 The Fifth Book of Peace, Kingston finally completed what had been essentially a work in progress for over a decade. This hybrid novel/memoir was an outgrowth of her destroyed manuscript, "The Fourth Book of Peace," lost in the Berkeley fire of 1991. "Kingston has pulled fragments of that story (which dealt with the Vietnam War) into a saga of death and loss and reinvention, merging fact and fiction, truth and imagination, until the lines between them are irrevocably blurred," according to David L. Ulin, writing in the Los Angeles Times. The title comes from the mythical three "Books of Peace" of Chinese legend, and Kingston's book is divided into four sections: "Fire," "Paper," "Water," and "Earth." The third section is a recreation of her destroyed novel, while the other three are nonfiction descriptions of the events including the day of the fire and of her work with Vietnam vets and the writing group they formed as a result of her own quest after the emotional devastation of the fire. The book begins with the very day of the fire; this was also the day her family was performing the fire rites for her father, who had recently died. "Paper" is a chronicle of Kingston's own attempts to track down the original "Books of Peace," while "Earth" is a documentation of her writing workshops for war veterans. In "Water," Kingston returns to the world of Wittman Ah Sing and his wife Tana. In this reconstruction of the original manuscript, the two leave Berkeley for Hawaii to get away from the violence in America intendant on the anti-war movement and also to leave the drug culture behind. In Hawaii, the couple becomes involved in establishing a safe house for military resistors to the Vietnam War, much as Kingston and her husband did. "Earll and I did those things, including hiding the AWOL soldiers," Kingston told Shea. "But we were much more clumsy and unclear about what we were doing. It's taken me all these years to look back and organize it, because while it was happening, we hardly had time to breathe or think."

If you enjoy the works of Maxine Hong Kingston, you might want to check out the following books:

Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, 1989.

Gish Jen, Typical American, 1992.

Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine, 1999.

As with most of her work, Kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace had its critical champions and detractors. Booklist's Donna Seaman felt the four sections of the book present "a radiant quartet … rich in myth, metaphysics, social critique, and story." Seaman also found the book to be a "many-faceted and involving spiritual meditation." A critic for Kirkus Reviews was less impressed, however, praising the "eloquent" first section, but also finding that the "rest rambles somewhat." The same reviewer concluded that The Fifth Book of Peace "is well-meaning but lacks the splendid insights of Kingston's best writing." Similarly, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, writing in Entertainment Weekly, thought that the "gamble of mixed modes of storytelling doesn't pay off." Polly Shulman, writing in the New York Times Book Review, also had concerns about the book, finding that Kingston "lets ideals and abstractions blur the stories, so that for the most part the characters seem like wishes rather than real people, and the stories groan under the burden of their morals." On the other hand, a contributor for Publishers Weekly had praise for this "complex steam-of-consciousness memoir," calling the last section in particular, "poignant almost beyond bearability." And Kathryn R. Bartlet, writing in Library Journal, called the book a "lyrical memoir of momentous events in [the author's] life." Bartlet found the story of Wittman at once "disturbing and convincing," and concluded that with "this memoir, Kingston continues her life's admirable task, given to her by her mother, of educating the world."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 12, 1980, Volume 19, 1981, Volume 58, 1990.

Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 173: American Novelists since World War II, Fifth Series, 1996, pp. 84-97, Volume 212: Twentieth-Century American Western Writers, 1999, pp. 153-163.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.

Feng, Pin-chia, The Female Bildungsroman by Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston: A Postmodern Reading, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1998.

Gao, Yan, A Metaphorical Strategy: A Study of Maxine Hong Kingston's Creative Use of Chinese Sources, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1996.

Ho, Wendy, In Her Mother's House: The Politics of Asian-American Mother-Daughter Writing, AltaMira Press (Walnut Creek, CA), 1999.

Ludwig, Sami, Concrete Language: Intercultural Communication in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1996.

Rainwater, Catherine, and William J. Scheick, Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1985.

Simmons, Diane, Maxine Hong Kingston, Twayne (New York, NY), 1999.

Skandera-Tromblay, Laura, editor, Critical Essays on Maxine Hong Kingston, G. K. Hall (New York, NY), 1998.

Skenazy, Paul, and Tera Martin, editors, Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1998.

Smith, Jeanne Rosier, Writing Tricksters, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1997.

Smith, Sidonie, A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1987.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: A Casebook, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999.


America, February 26, 1976.

Belles Lettres, summer, 1989.

Booklist, April 1, 2002, Mary Ellen Quinn, review of China Men, p. 130; July, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of The Fifth Book of Peace, p. 1844.

California History, summer-fall, 2001, Gerald W. Haslam, review of The Literature of California, pp. 142-143.

Christian Science Monitor, August 11, 1980.

Entertainment Weekly, September 12, 2003, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, review of The Fifth Book of Peace, p. 159.

Guardian (London), December 13, 2003, Maya Jaggi, "The Warrior Skylark."

Harper's, October, 1976; August, 1980.

Horizon, July, 1980.

Hudson Review, spring, 1990.

International Fiction Review, January, 1978.

Journal of Adolescence & Adult Literacy, March, 2003, Angela Pitt, "'Words So Strong': Maxine Hong Kingston's 'No Name Woman' Introduces Students to the Power of Words," pp. 482-490.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2003, review of The Fifth Book of Peace, pp. 895-896.

Library Journal, October 1, 2002, Ron Ratliff, review of To Be the Poet, p. 94; July, 2003, Kathryn R. Bartlet, review of The Fifth Book of Peace, pp. 81-82.

Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2003, David L. Ulin, review of The Fifth Book of Peace, p. E1.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 22, 1980; April 23, 1989; July 2, 1989, pp. 1, 13; June 10, 1990.

Mademoiselle, March, 1977.

Michigan Quarterly Review, winter, 1987, pp. 177-187.

Ms., January, 1977; August, 1980.

Nation, June 5, 1989, pp. 768-772.

New Republic, June 21, 1980; April 17, 1989, Anne Tyler, review of Tripmaster Monkey, pp. 44-46.

Newsweek, October 11, 1976; June 16, 1980.

New Yorker, November 15, 1976.

New York Review of Books, February 3, 1977; August 14, 1980.

New York Times, September 17, 1976; June 3, 1980; April 14, 1989.

New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1976; June 15, 1980; April 23, 1989, LeAnne Schreiber, review of Tripmaster Monkey, p. 9; September 28, 2003, Polly Shulman, review of The Fifth Book of Peace.

Poets & Writers, September-October, 2003, Renee H. Shea, "The Story Revisited: A Profile of Maxine Hong Kingston," pp. 31-35.

Publishers Weekly, August 19, 2002, review of To Be the Poet, p. 82; June 23, 2003, review of The Fifth Book of Peace, p. 53.

San Francisco Review of Books, September 2, 1980.

Saturday Review, July, 1980.

Southwest Review, spring, 1978.

Time, December 6, 1976; June 30, 1980; May 1, 1989, p. 70.

Times Literary Supplement, January 27, 1978; April 16, 1989; September 15, 1989.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 16, 1989, Herbert Gold, review of Tripmaster Monkey, pp. 1, 10.

Washington Post, June 26, 1980; January 5, 2003, A. Van Jordan, review of To Be the Poet, p. T10.

Washington Post Book World, October 10, 1976; June 22, 1980; April 16, 1989.


Voices from the Gaps, (September 18, 2003), "Maxine Hong Kingston."*

Kingston, Maxine Hong

views updated May 29 2018

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

Kingston, Maxine Hong

views updated May 18 2018

KINGSTON, Maxine Hong

Born 27 October 1940, Stockton, California

Daughter of Tom and Ying Lan Chew Hong; married Earll Kingston, 1962

Maxine Hong Kingston's parents immigrated from China in the 1930s, eventually setting up a laundry in Stockton, where Kingston worked as a child. She received a degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley and studied toward an advanced degree in education. In 1967 she moved to Honolulu and from then until 1977 taught English at the Mid-Pacific Institute, a private coeducational high school. In 1977 Kingston was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, where she taught creative writing. She has contributed many articles and reviews to popular and literary magazines.

Winner of the 1976 National Book Critics' Circle Award for nonfiction, her first book, The Woman Warrior, has been variously viewed as a novel, a memoir, and an autobiography. In it Kingston recreates in five sketches the imagined life of a Chinese aunt who committed suicide after bearing a child out of wedlock; the training and exploits of a legendary Chinese woman warrior; the disjunctively similar training and exploits of Kingston's own mother, first as a doctor in China and then as the mother of six children born after she arrived in America at the age of forty-five to run a Chinese laundry; the failure of another of Kingston's aunts to adapt to modern life after the husband she came from China to reclaim after 30 years rejected her in favor of his modern American wife; and, finally, the author's own struggles with all the ghosts of her past as she balances the Chinese heritage, largely unarticulated, and the American life which impinges so painfully and immediately upon her childhood.

Throughout the book move ghosts. There are the shrouded villagers who terrorize the "no-name" aunt; the old-young couple who trains the woman warrior in their fantasy mountain fastness. We confront our everyday selves in the multitude of ghosts who populate the world of the young Kingston: garbage ghosts, meter-reader ghosts, newsboy ghosts, half-ghosts of Chinese immigrant children raised in America, and finally the unnamed but insistent ghost of Kingston's own Americanized self as she torments a remnant of her past who, like her, refuses to speak in public. It is these ghosts that unite the five sketches—ghosts of the past, of otherness, of a larger, corporeal world which only gradually merges with emotional reality.

It is only by attempting to retrace the legends told by her family and to remake them into her own life that Kingston comes to uneasy terms with them. And yet she is beset by difficulties: her mother will not tell what is truth and what desire, and the child cannot often distinguish. "I don't see how [the Chinese] kept up a continuous culture for five thousand years," she remarks. "Maybe they didn't; maybe everyone makes it up as they go along." But her attempt to shape the world through her own legends proves insufficient too, and she flees from the spectre of forcing another shy Chinese girl into the legend Kingston would, but cannot quite, create. With maturity comes the inevitable questioning: Perhaps the ghosts have nothing to do with the struggle; perhaps "what I once had was not Chinese-sight at all but child-sight that would have disappeared eventually without such struggle." Oneself becomes the ultimate elusive ghost.

Kingston crosses the ultimate cultural barrier into the mind, where cultural patterns are but archetypes. The unheroic, vulnerable American-born child both embodies and is descended from the woman warrior, invulnerable symbol of heroism from whom all of us are descended and whose blood, both heroic and ghostly, runs in all veins. The Woman Warrior is short and elliptical. It sounds like a Chinese translation, with simple sentences and flat direct statements. As in poetry, much is left to the reader. The book achieves through style and tone a force of pure incontrovertibility which in large part creates its aura of universality.

Since the publication of The Woman Warrior (1976), Kingston has become one of the most critically praised and best known contemporary writers in the U.S. and by far the most studied Asian-American writer. Devoting herself wholly to her writing since the late 1970s, she won the 1981 nonfiction American Book Award for her narrative China Men and the American Academy and Institute of Art and Letters Award for literature in 1990.

A series of biographical/autobiographical narrations, China Men recounts the encounters of several generations of Kingston's male ancestors with the U.S. and graphically examines the difficult questions of race, ethnicity, and nationality in America. These men often work in menial or marginal jobs—as a farmworker clearing land in Hawaii, as a laborer building the transcontinental railroad, as the owner of a small laundry. Yet these jobs are often at the foundation of the communities in which these men and their families live. The men whose stories are told remain outside "mainstream" U.S. society in many respects, victims of virulent racist discrimination, culturally enforced silence, and violence. Their identification as "Chinese" is also called into question, however: one uncle, deranged by dreams of the U.S. and the Communist Revolution in China, goes there, to a "home" he may never have previously seen, and disappears; the narrator's father is cheated by his Chinese partners in a laundry. As in Kingston's earlier work, dreams of China and American dreams collide with American racial constructions and the actual conditions of immigrant life in the U.S., producing an unstable story of hope, disappointment, and disquiet in which neither side of the hyphen in "Chinese-American" can be either erased or made to remain fixed.

Kingston's first novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989), also deals with the unstable and inescapable categories of race and nationality in the United States. The protagonist of the novel, Wittman Ah Sing, is a fifth-generation Chinese-American living in San Francisco's Chinatown during the 1960s. He can speak, though not read much Chinese, as well as recognize and speak a number of Chinese-American vernaculars produced by various Chinese encounters with American English in U.S. "Chinatowns." He is also familiar with Chinese folklore and traditional culture. At the same time Wittman (named for Walt Whitman) is a poet, storyteller, and graduate in English at the University of California at Berkeley, familiar with both the "high" literary culture of Rilke and Joyce and the counterculture that seems on the cusp of the transformation from the period of the Beats, especially Jack Kerouac, to the hippies. He is also saturated and obsessed with American popular culture, particularly the images of Asians and Asian-Americans promoted in such movies as Flower Drum Song and The World of Suzie Wong. The son of Chinese-American vaudevilleans who traveled the country performing largely African American music, Wittman is at home, if not exactly comfortable, with theatrics, illusion, and ethnic types and stereotypes that can sometimes seem completely different and at other times strangely conflated. He frequently invokes and identifies with the trickster King of the Monkeys of Chinese folklore, which becomes an "American Monkey" by the end of the book.

Kingston has been criticized by some for promoting a fake exotic Asian-American image or for catering to "mainstream" tastes at the expense of ethnic authenticity. It is precisely the notion of "authenticity" that Kingston questions while she affirms the existence and significance of tradition and history. She is one of the premiere interpreters of the fluctuating and persistent nature of those racial and ethnic categories in the U.S. that are impossible both to escape and to fix with any certainty.

Kingston was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 1997. Since the publication of Tripmaster Monkey, she has been at work on a number of projects. She has also remained active in the literary community, participating on various panels throughout the country. Kingston's method of writing has changed in recent years. Following the fire that destroyed her home (and her manuscript in progress), Kingston decided she no longer wanted to work alone. Thus her stage adaptation of The Woman Warrior and China Men (combined into one work) was the result of a decade-long collaboration with a number of producers, screenwriters, playwrights, actors, editors, and musicians. The play opened at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in 1994.

Kingston has also been working on a new full-length piece, The Fifth Book of Peace. Like much of her work, it will be difficult to categorize as fiction or nonfiction, combining stories of her own experiences with those of invented characters. The Fifth Book of Peace is being created in her new collaborative mode; Kingston has been working extensively with a group of war veterans discussing and writing about their ideas of war and peace.

Other Works:

Hawaii One Summer (1987, originally published 1978). Through the Black Curtain (1987). "Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers," in Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue (edited by Guy Amirthanayagam, 1982).


Brown Ruoff, A. L. and J. Ward, eds., Redefining American Literary History (1990). Duke, M. S., ed., Modern Chinese Women Writers: Critical Appraisals (1989). Eakin, P. J., Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in Self-Invention (1985). Kessler-Harris, A. and W. McBrian, eds., Faith of a(Woman) Writer (1988). Yang, M. C. "From Ethnicity to a Wider World: The Education of Kate Simon and Maxine Hong Kingston" (thesis, 1992).

Reference works:

CANR (1987). FC (1990). Modern American Women Writers (1991).

Other references:

American Literary History (1990). Asian Week (17 June 1994, 31 Mar. 1995). Biography (Winter 1983, Spring 1986, Spring 1989). Humanities (1 Nov. 1997). MELUS (Winter 1982, Winter 1983, Fall 1985, Spring 1987, Spring 1988). Ms. (June 1989). Michigan Quarterly Review (1987). NYRB (3 Feb. 1977). NYTBR (7 Nov. 1976, 23 April 1989). PMLA (1988). Seven Days (28 Feb. 1977). VVLS (May 1989).




Maxine Hong Kingston

views updated May 14 2018

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).

Kingston, Maxine Hong

views updated May 21 2018

KINGSTON, Maxine Hong

KINGSTON, Maxine Hong. American, b. 1940. Genres: Novels, Poetry, Autobiography/Memoirs, Essays. Career: Teacher, Sunset High School, Hayward, CA, 1965-67, Kahuku High School, Hawaii, 1967-68, Drop-In School, Kahaluu, Hawaii, 1968-69, Kailua High School, Honolulu, 1969, Honolulu Business College, 1969-70, Mid-Pacific Institute, Honolulu, 1970-76, University of Hawaii, 1976-77, and Eastern Michigan University, 1986; University of California, Berkeley, senior lecturer, 1990-2003. Publications: The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, 1976; China Men, 1980; Hawai'i One Summer, 1987; Through the Black Curtain, 1988; Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, 1989; Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston, 1998; (ed.) The Literature of California, 2001; To Be the Poet, 2002; The Fifth Book of Peace, 2003. Address: c/o Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 201 E 50th St, New York, NY 10022, U.S.A.

Kingston, Maxine Hong

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