Kingston, Maxine Hong: Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Kingston, Maxine Hong with Shelley Fisher Fishkin. "Interview with Maxine Hong Kingston." In Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston, edited by Paul Skenazy and Tera Martin, pp. 159-67. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

In the following interview, taped in 1990 and originally published in American Literary History in 1991, Kingston discusses gender stereotypes, the role of feminist writers, and the major influences on her writing.

[Fishkin]: In a recent article you wrote in the magazine Mother Jones called "The Novel's Next Step," you explore what the novel of the future might look like—perhaps a sequel toTripmaster Monkey . Among other things, you note that your hero's wife, Taña, will have to "use the freedom the feminists have won. These struggles have got to result in happy endings for all, and the readers must learn not to worship tragedy as the highest art any more." Are you suggesting that feminist writers need to write out of power and pride rather than anger and rage in the future? How can they build on "the freedom that's been won"?

[Kingston]: I think that feminist writers have been writing with power and pride, but I am suggesting that we have to invent new images and ways of power. So far the world thinks of power as violence, that power comes from a gun. We must create a new kind of drama in which there is drama, but it's nonviolent. And this has barely been thought of. I'm saying that women especially have a duty to work in this direction. I felt really appalled when Miss U.S.A. said women ought to have every right to go into combat. I see that as women trying for power by being as good as men are in violent ways.

InThe Woman Warrior you counter the stereotype of the silent and confident Woman Warrior, and inTripmaster Monkey you counter the stereotype of the Chinese man who came to make money—a story you explore inChina Men —with the image of a Chinese man who came to play. In fact, one of your characters says, "What if we came for the fun of it?" Do you think that these wonderful new images of confident women and playful men can help shape a new reality?

Yes. I hope when artists write new characters, we invent new archetypes and they are visions of ways that we can be.

So the stories we tell about who we are can shape who we become?

Yes. What we need to do is to be able to imagine the possibility of a playful, peaceful, nurturing, mothering man, and we need to imagine the possibilities of a powerful, nonviolent woman and the possibilities of harmonious communities—and if we can just imagine them, that would be the first step toward building them and becoming them.

You've occasionally alluded to the power of the imagination to create reality, to embody truth, to make something exist that may not have existed before—not just in a psychological sense, but in an almost tangible, real sense. You describe, for example, the whistling arrow that you saw in a museum that was exactly like one you had imaginedin your book, and you wrote, "I felt I had created it. I wrote it, and therefore it appeared." Do you think that your imaginative vision can generate reality and can generate truth?

Yes. It was wonderful that I saw this whistling arrow in the museum, but the point of my story was that this heroine took the arrows and turned them into flutes, and then she composed songs for these flutes. My idea was that we can turn weapons into musical instruments. It's sort of like plowshares from swords, and, again, I'm saying that the first step is to have that kind of consciousness that can create the world and save it. We have to change human consciousness and that's a step towards changing the material world.

I was thrilled to find out that the main character in your novel was named Wittman Ah Sing, because ever since I readThe Woman Warrior I was convinced that Whitman had to be close by lurking somewhere in the shadows—Walt Whitman

Oh really? Walt Whitman? After reading Woman Warrior ? Oh, that's wonderful! Am I glad! I'm touched!

It showed. Everywhere. I wondered if he's been an empowering influence for you?

Oh, yes, yes, yes. I like the freedom that Walt Whitman was using to play with and shape the American language. Especially in writing Tripmaster Monkey —I just lifted lines from Leaves of Grass. You would think they were modern Sixties' slang—"Trippers and Askers" and "Linguists and Contenders Surround Me"—all of that—"Song of the Open Road," "Song of Occupations"—I just took those for title headings for my book. I like the rhythm of his language and the freedom and the wildness of it. It's so American. And also his vision of a new kind of human being that was going to be formed in this country—although he never specifically said Chinese—ethnic Chinese also—I'd like to think he meant all kinds of people. And also I love that throughout Leaves of Grass he always says "men and women," "male and female." He's so different from other writers of his time, and even of this time. Even a hundred years ago he always included women and he always used [those phrases], "men and women," "male and female."

What other writers have helped inspire and empower you to come up with your voice as an American writer and as a feminist writer?

I found that whenever I come to a low point in my life or in my work, when I read Virginia Woolf's Orlando, that always seems to get my life force moving again. I just love the way she can make one character live for four hundred years, and that Orlando can be a man, Orlando can be a woman. Virginia Woolf broke through constraints of time, of gender, of culture. I think an American writer who does that same thing is William Carlos Williams. I love In the American Grain because it does that same thing. Abraham Lincoln is a "mother" of our country. He talks about this wonderful woman walking through the battle-fields with her beard and shawl. I find that so freeing, that we don't have to be constrained to being just one ethnic group or one gender—both those writers make me feel that I can now write as a man, I can write as a black person, as a white person; I don't have to be restricted by time and physicality.

At one point the narrator ofThe Woman Warrior who is totally exasperated with her mother's stories, complains, "You won't tell me a story and then say 'this is a true story,' or 'this is just a story.' I can't tell the difference. I can't tell what's real and what you make up." How do you respond to questions like that about your work?

You mean when the audiences ask me, "Is it real?"—when students ask that? I think people ask me those things because I put the question in their minds. The people give me back the question I give them. I know why they do it. I meant to give people those questions so that they can wrestle with them in their own lives. You know, I can answer those questions, but then that means I just answer it for me. And what I want is to give people questions (which I think are very creative things)—and then when people wrestle with them and struggle with them in their own minds and in their own lives, all kinds of exciting things happen to them. I don't want people to throw the responsibility back to me.

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