American Writer’s Museum | Maxine Hong Kingston & Viet Thanh Nguyen

Maxine Hong Kingston and Viet Thanh Nguyen discuss the new collection of Kingston’s work from the Library of America, edited by Nguyen. This program was part of the inaugural American Writers Festival

read below for transcript

Carey Cranston:
Hello, and welcome everyone to this online program of the American Writers Festival, the inaugural literary event, celebrating the American writers’ museum’s fifth anniversary. Over the course of the day, today, we are welcoming more than 75 authors on five stages at the Chicago Cultural Center, the museum here, and even online with all of you virtually. I’m Carey Cranston. I’m the president of the American Writers Museum. Just a few short things before we begin. If you like the kinds of programs you’re seeing from the AWM, you can join the museum as a member and get advanced notice and special access to upcoming exhibits and events. We hope to see you all in Chicago at our museum in the coming months and at our virtual hybrid and in-person programs often. Our book selling partner when we’re open and here online is Seminary Co-op Bookstore. You can order today’s book from the link displayed on your screen.

Carey Cranston:
We’d like to begin this event by acknowledging our presence here on the traditional, ancestral, and unseated land of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations. Many other tribes, such as the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, and Fox also called this area home. I ask you to join me in acknowledging these communities, their elders, both past and present, as well as future generations. We are grateful to all of you watching today for supporting the past, present, and future of American writing.

Carey Cranston:
The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston’s debut memoir of her immigrant American childhood, begins with a mother telling her daughter a secret. Many family stories is intended to teach a lesson. Kingston’s work taught the nation what it meant to her to be Asian American at a time when there were fewer signposts for authors like her to follow.

Carey Cranston:
A fierce feminist story that changed American culture, The Woman Warrior, is now part of the new Library of America anthology of Kingston’s work along with her National Book Award winning, China Men, her novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, and a series of essays about everything from Kingston’s life in Hawaii to the influence of the Beat poets. We are incredibly honored to have Maxine Hong Kingston with us to discuss this new volume of her groundbreaking work along with the books’ editor, Viet Thanh Nguyen. He’s the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer. His other works include The Refugees, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is also Dr. Kingston’s former student. I want to welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Such a delight to be here at the American Writers Museum and with you, Maxine, as well. It’s great to see you.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Good to see you too, Viet. I look forward to this event because I interviewed you when The Sympathizer came out. And now, it’s your turn to ask me the difficult questions.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, I don’t think they’ll be too difficult. First, congratulations on the Library of America edition of your work. It’s really beautiful. I wish I had brought it with me, so I could show it, but I’m so thrilled to have this opportunity to be the editor of this amazing volume. I believe you’re going to be reading from that for us today.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Yes. Actually, what I want to do is to read the first poem that I ever wrote, and I don’t think it’s in that new volume. I just want to read it because it’s when poetry and words and story first came to me. [foreign language 00:04:05]. I wanted to read that in my first language, my original language, when this is my primal language. I want you all to hear it because then you can see the long journey that I took to be able to write American English. I think speakers of [foreign language 00:04:52], you could understand it. I spoke this dialect of a very small minority. I even played with language when I wrote it, because when I wrote this down, I changed some of the words into a more familiar dialects, so more people could get it.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Here’s the translation. Hey, third grandfather. Hey, fourth grandfather. Where are you going? Horseshoes clippity-clopping four feet. Then four feet, where are you going? This came to me because my mother would hold me out the window. She would squeeze me. She’s squeezing a song or a poem out of me. She says, “Make your grandfather’s laugh.” Here come my grandfathers. They had two black horses, and they drove a stagecoach full of vegetables. Then I would sing this poem to them, and they did laugh. It was also interesting to me, you would think that onomatopoeia would be the same anywhere, but translating it the Chinese, the horses are going cup, cup, cup cup, and the American horses are going clippity-clop. I’m just saying this, because these are some of the things I’ve had to work with as I went into English.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Then I would also like to read to you one more thing. In a way, this is a correction because years after… Every book that I write, I’m never satisfied. It’s not good. I make mistakes. And so years later, I thought I did not give the right version of The Woman Warrior. I fooled around with the stories. Let me translate The Woman Warrior chant, as close as I can to the original, the way I heard it when I was a baby, the way I heard it when I wrote my own poem and mistakes. Fa Mu Lan was a weaver. Penelope was a weaver. She’s so the easiest and Penelope in one, and I left that out.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
The poem begins with a sound of weaving chick, chick, chick, chick, chick, chick, and chick means to weave. It also means to heal. It means to knit. Chick, chick, chick, chick, chick, chick. Fa Mu Lan is weaving the shuttle through the loom when news of the draft comes. Each family must provide one man to be a soldier in the army, sparing her dear father, the wretched life of a soldier. She disguises herself as a man and goes in his stead to war with heavy armor and her hand fitting sword. She fights wars. Her horseshoes pound the earth. She cannot hear the voices of home. She is away long years and many battles so long a time that her father and mother grow old and die at the head of her army, giving, chase and being chased. She suffers wounds, blood drips red from the openings of her armor, her army chasing and being chased, passes her home village six times back and forth past her home, but she cannot stop to place offerings on the graves in terrible battle General Mu Lan defeats an enemy and the king proffers rewards.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
She has to go home. The war be done. She takes her army to her home village and orders them to wait for her in the square indoors. She takes off man’s armor. She bathes dresses herself in pretty silks and reddens her cheeks and lips. She upsweep her long black hair and adorns it with flowers presenting herself to the army. She says, “I was the general who led you. Now go home.” By her voice, the men recognize their general, a beautiful woman. You were our general, a woman. Our general was a woman, a beautiful woman. A woman led us through the war. A woman has led us home. Fa Mu Lan expands the army, return, home farewell, beholding and becoming yin, the feminine come home from war. Chick, chick, chick, chick, chick, chick, a mistake that I made in The Woman Warrior.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
If this is a big one, I wrote this story as heroic. When you hear this original version, this is not a war chant. This is a coming home from war chant. The life of a soldier is wretched. The best thing that can happen to anybody is to come home from war. Thank you for letting me correct my mistakes.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
That’s great. That’s great. I was your student back in 1990. I believe that was when I took my class with you. Now, we are here 32 years later, and I’ve gotten older. It’s inevitable that I start thinking about time and the changes that I’ve gone on over our lives. It just occurred to me that now I am probably older than you were when I took a class with you, which puts everything into a different perspective for me as I think about my own students. I think a lot of the conversation today will be partly retrospective about your career and about your origins and your works, and partly because you started off with this very early poem that you read for us. How old were you when you wrote that?

Maxine Hong Kingston:
I was young enough so that I didn’t know about ages, but I think I was about three. I did not write it. I didn’t know how to write. Stories and poetry were always oral, and that carries on the tradition that my mother brought. It’s oral. Talk story. Also, my father, he memorized Tang Dynasty poetry, and it was always oral. I hadn’t learned to read or write yet. I think I was about three.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Speaking of you being my student, I just want to let you know that I don’t think I taught you anything. I don’t think I was a good teacher. I did not even have faith that writing could be taught. When I read your work and of the other students, too, it was already coming. It was already in you. I, myself, never took writing courses. Somehow, they would come, and you have to invent the way that the words come. There’s so much that seems to be inborn. I don’t know that we teachers taught you very much. Maybe, the main thing would be, “Just keep going. Do some more. Do some more,” or maybe we can give you some feedback, but I’m not even sure that the feedback helps because you’re going to write that thing that’s already in you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I just blurred a novel called Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Chen, who was a student in the same class with you. You just talked about persistence, for example. Lisa started off as a poet. She has a book of poetry, Mouth, in them. She has this novel, which is really amazing, which is about art and persistence. The project that is our lives, but also our art that takes place over decades. It’s really appropriate an appropriate novel to think about your own career. What you’re saying is I think absolutely true. I think I’m a teacher. I have students, and I just try to encourage them and get out of their way. Who knows what they’re going to be 20 or 30 years from now? But in fact, I’m writing a memoir at the moment and you’re a character in it.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Oh, wow.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I talk about the seminar that we had together. Of course, I was a disaster, but I saved the letter that you wrote me. I quote from your letter in this memoir, and here, we’re talking about writing and how to encourage people and all that. The questions that you posed to me, the critique that you leveled at me in that letter was absolutely appropriate. You were saying, “Hey, you’re falling asleep every day in class. What’s wrong?” You’re not asking questions of your fellow students. You’re not giving of yourself. That was the content of the letter. It’s a very interesting letter for me to reread because I think you were absolutely right.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
My feeling is I did absorb some of that. I mean, it took me like decades to really understand what you were saying, but nevertheless, I kept that letter with me in my archives. It stayed with me enough so that when I was writing this memoir, I read it again, and I thought, “This is absolutely perfect.” I really do believe that when we’re teachers, we don’t know exactly what we’re doing to our students. And we won’t know, maybe in some cases for decades.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I’ll give you another example, Tripmaster Monkey. I read this book when it came out. This is a first edition hard cover, which I must have bought when I was 20, which is a lot of money for me at that time. I read it, and this was around somewhere a little bit before I took your class.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And then decades later, I would write The Sympathizer. And then, I went back and I reread Tripmaster Monkey recently just a few weeks ago and thought, “Oh, my gosh, I’m actually quoting from Tripmaster Monkey and The Sympathizer without knowing it or referencing it,” because there are passages in Tripmaster Monkey that are about Hollywood’s racism against Asian Americans, for example, which is a major theme of The Sympathizer. Then there’s a passage from Tripmaster Monkey, where Wittman Ah Sing has to do the Frank Chin exercise. I believe of taking a piece of paper, dividing it into and writing his Eastern and Western attributes on there, and that works in The Sympathizer as well. I was not thinking of Tripmaster Monkey when I wrote The Sympathizer, but I had read it and it stayed with me, I’m sure. Some part of me was just pouring it back out onto the page. This is simply a way of saying that you don’t know what your influence is.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Maybe, it did not come from Tripmaster Monkey. We are both Asians. We have this huge background in history, in our ancestry, and maybe that’s in our universal consciousness. Oh, speaking of Tripmaster Monkey, I want to talk about the editing process of this. I’ve just glanced at it because I find it unbearable to look at my own writing, but I did look at the chronology. I skimmed the footnotes. This is not footnotes of anything you’ve ever read. They’re not scholarly footnotes. It explains the footnotes are so much fun. They explain the jokes that are in Tripmaster Monkey. I knew that Tripmaster Monkey used a difficult book. I just made the jokes that I knew and reading my work. My brothers and sisters are the only people that think that I’m a funny writer, that I’m a comic writer from the very beginning. And so could you just say a little bit about the editing process? I can’t believe what went into this.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I will have to confess something, which is that I did almost nothing for this book. All credit goes to the Library of America and their professional editors for doing all the footnotes and all the selection of the text and everything. I agreed, “Hey, all these books are great. They should be in here, all the excerpts.” And then of course, I did proof the scholarly footnotes and so on. The Library of America did a great job on this book. Then they think they bring someone like me on board, I think, because of my relationship with you as a student and as a writer who’s been influenced by you. It’s my honor to have my name on the book more than anything else.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
You mentioned about Tripmaster Monkey that I got so much more out of this book now rereading it a few weeks ago than I did when I read it as a college student back in 1990 or so, because I understand so much more of this book. You’re talking about how in the Library of America edition, there are all these footnotes to explain things. I don’t know if I would benefit from the footnote, but I thought I understood so much more about this book after a few decades of maturity and wisdom and experience and so on, but also knowledge about the things that you were writing about in this book.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
For those of you and the audience who don’t know anything about Tripmaster Monkey, it’s about this very charismatic, ambitious, young Chinese American playwright named, Wittman Ah Sing. Of course, his the name is a reference to Walt Whitman, I sing America, and so on. It’s also a book that is about Chinese American culture and history and Asian American culture and history. Reading it again, I did laugh a lot actually, because I recognize all these things that you’re talking about. There’s a whole history, for example, in this book of Asian American writers and Asian American literature. You’re calling out all your antecedents like Jade Snow Wong and Carlos Bulosan and the Eaton sisters from the late 19th century.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
You were performing not just a novel in this book, but also a work of history. I think of it as one of our examples of the great Asian American novel, Asian in parentheses. It is an Asian American novel. It’s also an American novel, great American novel, but one in which Chinese immigrants, Chinese culture, Chinese American culture, Asian American culture is being completely sutured into San Francisco and its history, the Bay Area, Berkeley, and then through all the United States. It also lays the foundation for what comes later in your career with The Fifth Book Of Peace, which I want to talk about, too, but let’s just talk about Tripmaster Monkey for a moment. Did you think that you were writing the great parenthetically Asian American novel when you were doing it, or how were you envisioning this book?

Maxine Hong Kingston:
When I started Tripmaster Monkey, I had already finished Woman Warrior and China Men. I felt that I was writing my Chinese ancestry, Chinese myth, Chinese poetry, my ancestors going way back thousands of years. I was also working with Chinese language and also our Chinese accent as we speak English. I thought I am just stuck in this old world. When am I going to write the great American novel and not a Chinese novel?

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Also, the time of my youth, which I thought it’s such a wonderful youth. We were just coming out. They were beatniks. I aspired to be a beatnik, but I was too young, but here comes hippies. I want to be a hippie, and I want to write about that time. The language of that time was so wonderful. We would trip out and tune in and all of that in a whole psychedelic world. I wanted to write that, and it would be American. I didn’t want to do a Chinese flashbacks, and I did not know whether I could do it. I look back on it. It was very difficult. It was very hard for me to do that. I do not think that I could do it again. It’s the only book I have that’s a real novel. It’s fiction, and the work of fiction, it could be just the way that my psyche, but I am not a natural, a fiction writer. I had to change my state of mind, my imagination, my way of talking. It’s so much easier for me to write about real people and actual things.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I mean, it’s a great love letter to this particular time and place, the Berkeley, Bay Area of the 1960s, this particular kind of counter generation that apparently does a lot of drugs from what I could tell from the novel, but also having a lot of fun and play in a good sense. I mean, Wittman Ah Sing as a playwright, he wants to put on this great play that he’s composed, bring all of his friends together. The play itself and the performance and the actors in the community, all of that I think is part of your vision of what art and community and play can accomplish in the face of what people were encountering back then, which is obviously the war in Vietnam, which would become one of the major themes of your writing and your life. So far, this is a novel, which I think is a very successful novel, and the fact that it’s not about real people. I don’t know.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I mean, it seems like there was references to real people going on with characters of this book. You’re probably sick and tired of talking about Frank Chin, after all these decades, but this is a retrospective conversation. I’m just wondering, you’ve been asked this before, but to me, Wittman Ah Sing embodies a lot of Frank Chin characteristics, possibly other people as well. For the audience that doesn’t know, Frank Chin, one of the other major Asian American writers, certainly he came into his reputation before you did. In the 1960s and 1970s, he edited Aiiieeeee! along with his collaborators and really helped to put Asian American literature on into international conversation. But he really did not like your work. The Frank Chin-Maxine Hong Kingston, beef was a big thing for us in the ’90s to read about. Now, all these decades later, is there anything you want to say about that, any kind of final cap you want to put on that conversation?

Maxine Hong Kingston:
When I look at the overall way that Frank was reading my work, I see some big differences between us, not just accusing me of… He accused me of emasculating Asian man. I know where he is coming from is. I’m writing feminist work. I read about the macho culture, but then he sees it as an attack on Asian. I get that. He can do it, but the big one, big difference I think is that I am becoming more and more of a passivist. Frank Chin, one of his… What would you call it? Mantra is dòuzhēng. Fight war. Writing is fighting. I think that is a big difference that we clash over. All the time being a pacifist, I try not to clash.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
And so in all these books, I keep work, even when I am writing about warriors, I somehow work in a pacifist idea. I’m sure that Frank sees this as being against what he’s for. He also accused me of messing around with our inherited myths. He’s right. I do not give the correct classical versions. I think one of the worst things that I did was I wrote about Fa Mu Lan kneeling as her parents carve words on her back, dedicating her to China. That did not happen to Fa Mu Lan that happened to Yue Fei, a man, a warrior. I just took these two myths, and I put them together. That’s right. I got it wrong.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
The Chinese critics have also criticized my books for getting the myths wrong. What the Chinese did when they did the translations, they tried to help me out because if I got something wrong, they just deleted it from their edition. I did that on purpose because when I was writing those books, I believed in myth and in storytelling. If I could own a myth, then I could have that power. I wanted to give women the same powers that Yue Fei had. I just incorporated his story into my story.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I mean, Frank Chin is often associated with writing is fighting in the Asian American context, but apparently Muhammad Ali was the one who said it. In fact, I quote Muhammad Ali in my own context. I’ll try not to be too masculine about it though.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Speaking about emasculation of Asian American men, which was already a tired topic at Berkeley in the ’90s when I was there. It seems, to me, in Tripmaster Monkey and in the next book, Fifth Book Of Peace, where Wittman Ah Sing reappears, you make a very deliberate case for Wittman Ah Sing masculinity, but not necessarily maybe the masculinity that Frank Chin wants because Wittman Ah Sing like you becomes a pacifist who sees the work of art as being something that can try to lead us towards peace.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Like I said, the war in Vietnam has been a big theme in your work. One of my favorite stories from you is from China Men – The Brother in Vietnam. I’m assuming it’s autobiographical about your own brother. Just again to summarize it for the audience, your brother, he decides he’s going to volunteer for the Navy instead of waiting to get drafted during the war in Vietnam, because he feels like being in the Navy, he’ll have the least opportunity to kill somebody. And even if his ship does kill people, because if it’s missiles or whatever, he won’t be any more culpable than he would be if he were a civilian in the United States, because part of the point, and it’s a really powerful point in that story, is that we’re all culpable.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
In a military industrial complex, in a war machine, all of us, you say in that story, are responsible because we pay our taxes because of our consumers lifestyles, because of the fact that the commodities that we buy every day are part of the same chain or part of the same corporations that produce Napalm and Agent Orange and all of that. The line between some poor sailor on a Navy ship and your average civilian in the United States is very, very thin.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
It’s a really powerful story because you’re trying to make all of us aware of our culpability and responsibility in war. That war is not something distant over the horizon. War is actually a part of our everyday lives. That was published in 1980, I think. I don’t think in the four decades, ensuing that things have changed that much. If anything, things have gotten worse in the sense of we’re talking about the United States, our culpability as a nation in various kinds of horrific warfare.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
You’ve dedicated your life or at least the last few decades to trying to counter that in various ways. I’m hoping you can talk more about it, for example, that you were running writing workshops with American veterans of the war in the post-war years. I’m wondering what you hope those writing workshops would accomplish. I can imagine what you think writing accomplishes for you, but what did you think writing would accomplish for other people when it came to things like war and peace and coping with those things?

Maxine Hong Kingston:
I started the writing workshops for veterans after my house and neighborhood burned down here in Oakland, which is now I look back on… That was about 30 years ago. We had this big fire in Oakland, which after that fire was when they started scientifically looking at fires. They called it a forest urban interface, wilderness urban interface. At now, looking back out at 30 years later, it’s part of this global warming and burning. At that fire, the novel I was working on burned up also.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
After that fire, the trauma was that… I couldn’t read, let alone write. Then I’m thinking about, why don’t I start a writing group? So I could have support. I’ve always worked alone, but let me have some fellow writers around me. We’ll write together and see what happens, see whether we can come out of the trauma and find our way through story, and so I gathered veterans.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
The idea came to me, because it was around that same time, that Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese of Buddhist monk who just died, he gathered veterans of the Vietnam war. He meant North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, and Americans. I was at that retreat. People meditated together. Thich Nhat Hanh invented hugging meditation, which he invented with Martin Luther King. He taught these former enemies hugging meditation. We did Buddhist meditation, various kinds of rituals. It was a reconciliation exercise. It was during that time that I thought these people, these veterans, they need something else. I think they need an art. I went on Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreats, and I taught a writing workshop within his retreats for veterans. That’s been going on now for 30 years. What I believed is true when one writes a story, you take conflicts, the worst conflicts that you know.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
This is Aristotle. This is what Aristotle taught about drama. The great tragedy begins with conflict, and you just let that conflict happen. Let that war go on. Then you take that story further and further. There is this climax, and then there is all of that consequences, and then writing with understanding and with empathy. Then there comes a reconciliation in the story. There is resolution in the story and there’s understanding. And by the time you get to the end, the writer has become a different person. If we’re really good, whoever reads that story will become a different person.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
At the beginning, there were times when I’m not such a good teacher. In fact, as a young person, I was not a good teacher. The way I put it to the veterans was you’ve got to find a happy ending. Boy, they got mad at me. They’re not happy. “We can’t do that. You’re just a Pollyanna, and we don’t live happily ever after.” What I meant was keep going until you get to resolution and revelation. There are revelations that take place. Having reconciliation, revelation, resolution, that is happy.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I’m taking notes right now because I think you just gave me the ending of my third novel. I’m putting it to The Sympathizer’s trilogy. Okay?

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Okay. Viet, I took 30 years, but I finally taught you something.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I don’t know. I mean, we’re both writers now. I think we both now how difficult writing can be, and it’s a lifelong process. Each book sort of takes its own time to evolve. Having started writing this third book, but the first two books were both acts of confession force writing. Then you just gave me the idea because I wanted to put Thich Nhat Hanh in the third book in some way, and now you’ve given me this opportunity to figure out how to do that. Anyway, thank you so much for that. This will go down in history if I’m successful writing this third novel, that this is how I got my idea from Maxine Hong Kingston. Cool.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Now, Fifth Book Of Peace, your manuscript burned down in the fire, but again, you did recover. You did find resolution and revelation by continuing to write and writing this very large novel, very powerful novel about Wittman’s Quest for Peace during these years of the war in Vietnam. I think you’ve talked elsewhere about the fact that it’s much easier obviously to write novels about war or stories about war, because there’s built in conflict. There’s spectacle, and cultures are used to war. We’re used to war stories, and we know what that looks like. Whereas what a peace story might look like is a bit harder to imagine.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Especially when we go back to China Men, I mean, you could argue that there are many stories that are set in peace time. If we take Brother in Vietnam, what we see is that even peace time is not really peace time. Peace time is not peace time if we’re on war footing. It’s only peace time for us, not for the people we’re bombing. I’m curious if what kind of wisdom that you’ve reached over… Is it possible to write then novels or stories about the peace struggle, if not about peace itself, about anti-war stories that are not about war, that don’t center on soldiers in the way they wrestle with war? That’s a typical anti-war story that at least we have in the United States, I’m wondering, besides Fifth Book of Peace, have you encountered other works that are works towards peace, works that are about the peace struggle, works that are anti-war that don’t center soldiers and battles? I’m just wondering if you find any hope there in this kind of an artistic move.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
I can’t think of that offhand. I do remember having the idea that, is it possible? I guess, I was thinking about Chekhov. What was it? He said, if a gun appears in act one, then it’s got to go off by act three, something like that. I think I was quoting, but I have thought about that. I write a story that is dramatic, but does not have violent conflict. It’s very hard because even a verbal fight is also violent and hurts.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
There were so many times in my writing in which I wanted to tell a truth, but truths were too dangerous. And so what I would do is fool around and do change the structure of the story, such as through most of my writing, I wanted to protect my parents, immigration status, illegal. I would change the structure and I would say here’s what my legal father did. Then I would tell a legal story, which is very peaceful.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Here’s another way. Let’s pretend that this happened. I can’t remember whether it’s Tripmaster Monkey or The Fifth Book Of Peace, but I have Wittman Ah Sing hiding AWOL soldiers, and things turn out okay. I wrote it as fiction because in real life I and my husband, we hid AWOL soldiers. I did not want to tell anybody that not just because I didn’t want to get in trouble, but I thought the time will come again when I will need to hide people. I don’t want to let people know that I do such a thing. Then I wrote it in fiction. I was struggling with that, how to write the piece story, and I struggled. I just wrote what I wrote and I don’t know whether any of them came out that way. All of my books, I feel that I could not find an ending. All I could do was start the next book, and I can’t find the ending either. I don’t think that I’ve ever done it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
You talked about the happy ending. I’m influenced by the philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, in his book, Memory, History, Forgetting, where he does talk about the happy ending. We’re happy forgetting. And he said, “We get to a happy forgetting when we reach justice. If we don’t have justice, then we have an unhappy forgetting where the past…”

Maxine Hong Kingston:
You wrote about forgetting also. Yes. Go, Viet.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah. I think it’s related in terms of like, how do we reach… The false happy ending is just sort of the artificial. Well, let’s just wrap the story up and wrap it up with a bow tie, wrap it up with a bow, like Hollywood does. And of course, we have another war that’ll come a little bit later. A genuinely happy ending is really, really hard, which is why I think you were saying. It’s been hard for you to find that ending, that you’re talking about.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Maybe, what happens in real life is that we go through our lives. We have our hardships, our suffering, and that happiness is temporary. Then the next moment, there’s an unhappiness that comes up. That’s real life. In our writing, we could end it at any point. We could end it in the middle of a happy moment with just that moment of watching the sun go down and the rainbow goes across the sky. The end.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
You talked about your parents, your mother, and your father, and I read all of your works. I’ve never met your parents, but in some ways it feels, to me, just as an outsider to your situation that your parents live for me in these stories and in the stories you’ve told about them elsewhere, their responses to your work, for example, and the tensions that are there in your work. But what does it mean to tell a story about our loved ones, our family members when this act of writing is both an act of love and devotion, but also potentially an act of betrayal as you’ve talked about in your writing as well? It’s really a tight rope that you’ve walked so brilliantly in The Woman Warrior and China Men. I’m wondering if you’ve gone back and reread these books. I mean, Woman Warrior was 46 years ago I think when it came out. Though you haven’t gone back, and that’s just a part of the past now.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
You’re saying about my father being like your father, or you could take him as father figure. Notice that I call him the father, not my father, but I write about him as the father. I was very worried about my parents reading my work. I thought, “Well, it’s really good. They can’t read English,” but then the Chinese translated it, and I was really upset and nervous because then they’ll know what I wrote about them. Fortunately, the Chinese did very quick translation. I think the anger, especially anger at my mother, they softened it in the translation. My parents thought, “Oh, this is great.” They like it. As the years went on, I have a new code of ethics for myself. I have decided that I can’t write other people’s stories. It’s their story. I can’t just assume that they belong to me.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
My latest idea is that everything I write, I’m going to show it to people. In fact, I did that in The Fifth Book Of Peace. I wrote about the veterans, and I showed it to them and telling them. I just wanted to know the reactions, and I would change anything they wanted. I could leave them out. There some people who said, “I don’t like my story in there,” so took it out. I do not feel censored. I just feel that this is the right thing to do. The best ones were people who told me I didn’t get it right or I didn’t go deep enough, and so they would just tell more. They gave me so much. It was that I began writing in that way. Now when I think back, if I were to teach a writing class again, I would say to the students along with your writing, make a code of ethics, a writer’s code of ethics for yourself. You can write truly and without hurting anybody.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
I think I’m reacting to my parents. This is what happened. Before he died, my father said to me, “Don’t hurt anybody with your writing.” My mother really bawled me out. I don’t know what she was reading. Maybe she was reading something about me, or maybe it was something that got to her. Oh, I know. I went to my mother’s house, and I tried to steal the roll of paper, which was her cheat sheet for coming through immigration. I stole it, and she caught me. And then as she was holding it, she’s yelling at me that I write about their immigration. Then she says, “You know everybody hates you. You know that, don’t you? Everybody hates you, and they hate your writing.” She says, “Because you’re telling about this, you’re going to get us all in trouble. We’re all going to get deported. We’re all going to go to jail.” You do notice that I began The Woman Warrior by saying, “Don’t tell anybody my mother said,” and then I blog. That’s the way I deal with that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
This is a good place to wrap up our conversation with what we were saying. Part of it you were talking about is the dangerous life that writers live, that our stories are powerful and they can save us, but they’re also threatening to certain people as well, sometimes threatening to the powerful, sometimes threatening to the people that we love. I do want to end by saying that opening line of The Woman Warrior that you just quoted. I teach The Woman Warrior every time I teach Asian American literature class. I always make sure the students understand what’s happening in that opening line, that it is both giving voice to your mother, but also betraying your mother at the same time, and that tension is there for so many of us as writers, particularly from immigrant or Asian American kinds of families.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
In fact, in the memoir, I quote you at least twice, that one, that line, which wraps up the ethics of the writer for me. Then also another really important passage, I always make sure I want to point out to the students. I think it’s on page five of The Woman Warrior, where you say Chinese Americans. You say this very specifically. You address Chinese Americans when you think about, what parts of you are is Chinese culture, and what part of you are the movies? How do you draw that distinction? I think that’s so true for me as a Vietnamese American. I don’t know what is true Vietnamese culture and what is Hollywood either.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
What’s really important in that statement is that you directly address Chinese Americans. That is your audience. That is so powerful of a move, because I think we live in a culture where, obviously, there’s so-called majority. There’s so-called minorities. It’s instilled in the so-called minorities to speak to the so-called majority. And at least in The Woman Warrior, I think you explicitly reject that by addressing fellow Chinese Americans. I tell my students and I tell other writers, “This is what we should be doing. What Maxine does here in The Woman Warrior by being aware of who our audience and community is, and prioritizing and being explicit about who our stories are for.” Everyone else can listen in. It’s not that other people, non-Chinese Americans, can’t read these books. It’s simply that everyone else eavesdrops in on this conversation you’re having with your fellow Chinese Americans. I think that’s the way it should be. Because you were true to that conviction from The Woman Warrior onwards, we’ve been left with this incredible body of work.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Maybe the last thing I want to say about that is, I don’t know if you would agree with this, but you’re one of the, I think, founding figures of Asian American literature among other things. One of the founding figure figures of Asian American literature, I think, was awfully lonely to be you in 1976 when The Woman Warrior came out. Now, we’re living at a time, 46 years later, when literally every week, there’s a new book by [inaudible 00:58:42] writers. It’s incredible. You know?

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Yes. There’s so many.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I think [inaudible 00:58:46] work account. You work quite a very important role in opening the publishing marketplace, but also the imaginations of American readers, but readers all over the world to what Asian American literature is. It’s really a global thing now because my work and the work of you and work of so many other Asian American writers are translated in many languages published all over the world. And so the very idea of an Asian American, which was born here in the United States, is now something that people in other countries can’t understand. I’m thankful for being your student and for being a writer who benefited from the world that you helped to open up. Congratulations on this new volume from the Library of America devoted to your work, Maxine.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Thank you, Viet.

Category: Interviews, Videos

 

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