Free Library of Philadelphia | Maxine Hong Kingston in Conversation with Thanh Nguyen | The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey, Other Writings

Beginning with her stunning 1976 memoir, “The Woman Warrior,” Maxine Hong Kingston has forged a profound, richly imagined, and genre-defying narrative of the American experience from her vantage point as the daughter of Chinese immigrants. To mark publication of the new Library of America edition, Kingston joins Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, editor of the volume and her former student, for an intimate LOA Live conversation about her life and work for the Library of America.

Acclaimed for her contributions to feminism and Chinese American literature, Maxine Hong Kingston won the 1976 National Book Critics Circle General Nonfiction Award for her first book, The Woman Warrior, and the 1981 National Book Award for general nonfiction for China Men. Her many other books of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and essays include Tripmaster Monkey, The Fifth Book of Peace, and I Love a Broad Margin to My Life. A professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, Kingston is a recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, the National Humanities Medal, and a lifetime achievement award from the Asian American Literary Awards. Her latest work collects three of her classic books, a collection of essays about her time living in Hawaiʻi, and difficult-to-find writings in which she examines her creative process. Viet Thanh Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, the Dayton Literary Prize, and the Edgar Award for best first novel for The Sympathizer. His other work includes the novel The Committed, the story collection The Refugees, two books of nonfiction, and a children’s book. The Aerol Arnold Chair of English and professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, he has earned fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. (recorded 6/8/2022)

Podcast provided by podbay.fm | read for transcript below.

Max Rudin:
Hello, I’m Max Rudin, President and publisher of Library of America. And welcome to LOA live. Library of America is a nonprofit organization, dedicated to publishing authoritative new volumes of great American writers, and to keeping the many voiced American literary tradition, a vital part of our culture. A special welcome to Library of America fellows and members who support our mission.

Max Rudin:
2022 is Library of America’s 40th anniversary year. We’re celebrating it with special events, like this one. Please check our website, loa.org for details on future events. Tonight, for a special edition of LOA live, we welcome Maxine Hong Kingston. Her work is published this month in a new Library of America collection. The Woman Warrior, Chinaman, Tripmaster Monkey, and other writings. Volume number 355 in the Library of America series, edited by novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who also joins us tonight.

Max Rudin:
Publication support for the Library of America Kingston Edition was provided by a gift from Alana Ing Lim, her husband, Randy Lim, and their sons, Justin and Jordan Lim, in memory of Alana’s grandmother, Al Xi Ing, who was born in 1899 in Tulin Village in the Xinhui district of China, and who died in Seattle Washington in 1981. The volume is available for endowment through the Guardians of American Letters Fund to keep it permanently in print. For details, please visit loa.org/support. Special thanks to our partners for this evening’s program, Asia Society, Asian America Arts Alliance, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, The International Women’s Writing Guild, Singapore Unbound, the University of Southern California English Department, The Writer’s Guild Foundation, and You and Me Books.

Max Rudin:
Beginning with her 1976 debut, The Woman Warrior, subtitled, Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston’s audacious and imaginative storytelling transformed American autobiography, the American family memoir, and American writing more broadly. Along the way, claiming Asian American history and experience for American literature, and opening a path for the many writers who have followed her. Hua Hsu wrote in the New Yorker, “The Woman Warrior changed American culture.” For those who understood where Kingston was coming from, it was encouragement that they could tell stories too. For those who didn’t, The Woman Warrior became the definitive telling of the Asian immigrant experience. We’re incredibly fortunate to have her with us tonight. Joining, I think from the bay area. She can confirm that.

Max Rudin:
We’re also incredibly fortunate to be joined tonight by one of those writers who understood, the editor of the LOA edition of her work. Once her student at Berkeley, now a colleague and friend. Viet Thanh Nguyen is 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 Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and Professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature at the University of Southern California. He joins us from Los Angeles.

Max Rudin:
A reminder that we invite your questions and comments. The Q and A button is on your menu bar. Please let us know where you’re viewing from. Now, I’m honored and extremely delighted to welcome Maxine Hong Kingston, and Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Thanks so much Max for that introduction. Hello, Maxine. It’s good to see you again.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Yes. Hello.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
For those of you who don’t know, this is the second of three conversations I’m doing with Maxine in honor of this Library of America volume about her work. Three conversations is probably not enough. So, it’s really just a delight to be here with you. As Max said, I’m your former student, but I think once someone is a student, they’re a student always, which means I may be hitting you up for a letter of recommendation sometime soon.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Oh, well of course! [inaudible 00:05:52].

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
It’s awesome to be here with you. Well, I don’t know if you want to say anything in advance, but I know you’re going to be reading a few lines from your work.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Mm-hmm. Yes. First of all, I want to thank you. I thank all the readers, and the Library of America for this chance for me in my old age to look over my lifetime of work. But especially, I want to thank our sponsors, the Lim family, and the Ing family. If I had time right now, I would tell the myth of the Lim family. Well, in our dialect, we say Lum. And we owe you, because you saved our lives a thousand years ago. And there’s a whole history of that. And there is… And our family made a vow that we will always carry your shoes. So, and here you come into my life now, incarnations later, and giving me a place in the Library of America. So thank you. And as for the Ing family, we’re related. My great uncle, the river pirate, and my grandmother are also [inaudible 00:07:27]. So here we are, connecting again, many lives later.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Okay. What I want to do is read you some breakthrough sentences. And these are, they’re only a sentence long, but what happened was that it broke through, broke through my own writing and also to readers. Okay. The first sentence is this. “”You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “… what I am about to tell you.”” Okay. So, my mother put a [foreign language 00:08:35], a taboo on my writing. Don’t tell any of this. And so what I did, I just quoted her stricture against whatever I had to say. And the very next sentence I blab everything. And I continued doing that. And it just seemed to open the doors. What it is, is that I defied her and I’m rebellious. And I think that that is a necessity for writers to be rebels and to be defiant. And so after writing that sentence, there’s a whole lifetime of books that opened up.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
And I told family secrets, including our illegal immigration. I wrote history that has not been written in history books. And I broke rules of form and content. Okay. Just a next page, just very two pages later, I wrote this. “Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” I picked these two sentences, because it was Viet that pointed them out to me that I actually chose and addressed who my readers would be. And talking to Chinese-Americans and other readers can just listen in.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Okay. Then this is also in The Woman Warrior, the next chapter of The Woman Warrior. I wrote a sentence that I have gotten a picture. Somebody… There’s a library in Washington State I think. They’ve taken this sentence and put it in the front of the library on the outside of the building. “I learned to make my mind large as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.” At the very end of the next chapter, in which I write like a Kung Fu movie. And in Kung Fu movies, there’s always this revenge. Somebody does something horrible, and everybody else is getting revenge. And there’s a lot of violence and fighting. And so I thought of another way to get revenge. Is it possible for a writer to write non-violent action? “The idioms for revenge are, report a crime and report to five families. The reporting is the vengeance, not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words.”

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Okay. So as a writer, I figured out a way that I can be part of a war and a battle, but be non-violent. And the way to do it is to write. Okay. Then in China Men, here’s a sentence that I feel very happy about in China Men. And that is, it’s a vision I have that everything is interrelated. All of us are related. And this is also scientific, because this is about the ecology of the Earth. “Men build bridges and streets, when there is already an amazing gold electric ring, connecting every living being as surely as if we held hands, flippers and paws, feelers and wings.”

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Okay. At the beginning of China Men, I address my father. This is in the same way that I talk to Chinese-Americans. I am talking to my father directly, and he’s a very silent man. And so this is what I say to him. “I take after Mama, we have peasant minds. We see a strangers tick and ascribed motives. I’ll tell you what I suppose from your silences, a few words, and you can tell me that I’m mistaken. You’ll just have to speak up with the real stories if I’ve got you wrong.”

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Okay. And here is the last sentence of Tripmaster Monkey. And this is, in this last sentence I address all Americans and I call you Americans a name. “Dear American monkey. Don’t be afraid. Here, let us tweak your ear and kiss your other ear.” And now I’m reading the last sentence of The Fifth Book of Peace. And this is, it’s actually a couple of sentences, but it’s become a meme. This is on the internet now. “The images of peace are ephemeral. The language of peace is subtle. The reasons for peace, the definitions of peace, the very idea of peace have to be invented, and invented again. Children, everybody…” Oh, here, and again I’m addressing specific people that are readers. “Children, everybody. Here’s what to do during war. In a time of destruction, create something. A poem, a parade, a friendship, a community, a place that is the commons. A school, a vow, a moral principal. One peaceful moment.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Thank you, Maxine. The quotations that you’ve read remind me-

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Oh, Viet, I can’t hear you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
… Really?

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Now I can hear you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Okay, great.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Okay, gotcha.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
So I’ll repeat myself. Maxine, your sentences remind me of why you have the stature as being one of our great American writers, both in terms of your artistic power, but also your moral and political vision as well, which has helped us steer both Asian-American literature, but also American literature as well over the past several decades. And all the quotations that you picked from The Woman Warrior, I’ve actually taught whenever I teach The Woman Warrior. So we’re thinking along the same wavelength.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And as you mentioned, I’ve actually quoted from a couple of those passages in my own work. And recently, I gave a commencement speech at a college, at Franklin Marshall College, and I quoted a different thing, a different passage from The Woman Warrior, which you didn’t read, which is the passage about necessity, and extravagance. And that’s been a very influential passage, because two of my professors at UC Berkeley quoted that. Ronald Takaki in Strangers from a Different Shore, and Sau-Ling Wong in her book, Reading Asian-American Literature as this very powerful motif for understanding Asian-American culture and Asian-American politics. And maybe you can explain for the audience what that passage is about before I ask you my question about that.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Well, I have forgotten about that. What I was writing about are my mother, my father, my ancestors, and looking at their lives I saw that so much of what they did was out of necessity. Necessity for food, necessity for surviving wars, famines. They went through so much and a lot of what they did was out of necessity. One thing I learned when I was a kid it was, when I get into a situation, but it’s hard, just lie. And their lives were necessities. And so I was thinking of, I mean, some of the decisions they made were just terrible. And they… Just trying to save money and not giving us what things that we thought we needed. And breaking laws.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
And so, it was a way of looking at people’s lives and saying, “Sometimes there isn’t a choice. This is what one must do.” Then, writing about extravagance, what comes to mind now is that first story in The Woman Warrior is about my aunt who had an affair, or she had a baby out of wedlock. And I was thinking, “That is really extravagant.” When you are living this life of necessity and hardship, and the husband is trying to make a living, you don’t go get into an affair, that is such an extravagant thing to do. Or my parents having to buy something for us. That’s an extravagance. We can’t afford it. So that’s my thinking in The Woman Warrior about extravagance and necessity.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, the reason I brought it up in the context of a college commencement is that I was telling the students and their parents, look, obviously we’re so focused on necessity and needs, what’s important, especially when we’re in college. Our parents are paying these enormous tuitions or we’re paying these enormous tuitions. And while all that is really crucial, I also said, but we need extravagance. And I think one of the things that’s extravagant is beauty, is art, is writing. That’s, I think, it’s sort of implied in what you’ve been saying. Adultery? Sometimes, maybe? I don’t know? But I was talking about art and beauty to the graduates. And at the same time, the paradox you brought up a paradox in one of the sentences that you read is that, extravagance is necessary. We need beauty, we need art, we need writing, we need literature, we need storytelling.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And so I’m just wondering, for me, that’s a very important message to try to deliver to college students of all backgrounds, but certainly to Asian-Americans, specifically, who may share some of the same context that you have, or immigrants, or refugees. All of whom are driven by necessity for all the reasons that you mentioned. And yet, where would we be as Asian-Americans without our writers, like yourself? The Woman Warrior has provided so much necessary sustenance for so many readers, Asian-American and otherwise. I’m just wondering, The Woman Warrior was published in ’76. That was part of the context for it. Would you update necessity and extravagance for today in any way? I mean, do you have a sense of what is necessary now, versus what is extravagant now?

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Well, I can update it just in terms of myself. I find that my own necessities have changed. And what’s happening right now is that I am going over my diary, a diary that I kept. And as I’m reading it, I think, “This is…” And I kept it in secret, because I am so into secrets and telling them, but I would write secrets and I wrote freely. But now as I’m reading it, I think, “Hey, this is really good. I ought to publish this.” And then I think, “What about all these people whose secrets I’ve told?” And so a necessity that I’ve put on myself is that I am going, I am showing what I wrote about people to each person that [inaudible 00:25:12] wrote about. And I also tell them that they can change anything, add anything, delete anything. And I find this very difficult, because what happens is, I am confronting each person, each member of my family, each character, but they’re not characters, they’re real people.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
And then our relationship changes as they help me write this. The necessity is, I have made a new code of ethics for myself. And when I wrote The Woman Warrior and China Men, I wrote things about people who… and I did not tell them. And later I was very worried that they would be against what I said. And there were things that were mistakes. There’s one big mistake going… Well, it’s not a mistake, but if you remember the story of my bullying of the little girl? And when I did a reading in my hometown, Stockton, big auditorium. Many people were there. And I publicly apologized for what I did. And so since then I have been thinking, “These people belong to themselves. They don’t belong to me or my imagination.” And so I have been confronting everybody that I’ve been writing about and going back and forth with them. And I must say there are some people who do not like what I wrote.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Okay. Extravagance. At this point, I am 81 years old, and I have written so much. And my extravagance is to not write. There are days when I say to myself, “I don’t have to write anything. And I can do whatever I want.” I can accept a dinner invitation. I can go to a party and I don’t have to write. And I don’t have to write about it either.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, I think you’ve earned the right to be extravagant in any way you want to take it. And of course, necessity and extravagant, as you say, shifts over time. One of the things you mentioned though, was using writing to confront. Now, one of the ways by which you confronted in your writing was not only through your fiction, but through some of your nonfiction too. I think of an essay that’s included in the Library of America volume called Cultural Misreadings by American Reviewers, which you wrote in response to some of the responses to The Woman Warrior. And I read that when I was in college, I mean, I read both The Woman Warrior, and the essay. And I thought, “Wow, the cultural misread… this essay, is really powerful.” Because you refuse to back down in the face of these various book reviewers and the way they were taking on your work.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And I think that that actually was very influential for me, because I don’t know that we, who are writers of color, or women writers, or so called minority writers of any background, have the luxury of silence in the face of misreading. Now, I know there’s one attitude out there that says, well, you publish your book or your artwork, and then you leave it to the critics to decide whatever they’re going to decide about it. But that assumes that the critics are approaching your work from a shared cultural context.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And I think your essay was saying, no, that’s not the case. And I’m just wondering, whether you think the cultural context has shifted since Cultural Misreadings by American Reviewers? Do you think there are still cultural misreadings of your work taking place, or cultural misreadings of work by other women writers, or writers of color, or Asian-American writers? Does your essay or variation of your essay still need to be written today?

Maxine Hong Kingston:
I feel that things have changed since the reviews of The Woman Warrior came out. I mean, they were so stereotyped. And just reviewing my work for what they felt was the correct Chinese exoticism. Or, “Why don’t you have any oranges in your work? Oranges are sacred.” And reviewing my work as if I were Chinese and this was a translation. Even historians would just say, “Oh, you’re trying to make your peasant family sound good.” Oh, here’s, here’s a, here’s… This edition of The Woman Warrior, on the front it says nonfiction. And on the back, it says fiction. And so that was a problem that came out when The Woman Warrior was first published. It was in the UK, all the reviews dealt with, what is this? Is this fiction or nonfiction? And long essays on the difference between fiction and nonfiction. And it reminds me of my first rejection letter. And it was something like, “What is this? This is a pig and a poke.”

Maxine Hong Kingston:
So what happened in Britain was something just sank, because I mean, who cares? A reader… That’s not what we read for. We read for the enjoyment, the fun of a book, not thinking critically, is this a fiction or nonfiction? But what happened in Britain was that Sonny Mehta became head of Penguin, and he just took the whole book and reissued it. And this was a few years later. And by that time, the reviews came out just reviewing it as a story, as a regular book. I think nowadays, with ethnic studies, with Asian-American studies, black studies, and we’re doing much, much better.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah. I think I agree. One of my friends recently did a little survey to see how many Asian-American literary works have been published since 2020. I think the list was approaching 200 books. When I was in your seminar at Berkeley, which is about 1990. I think a new book by an Asian-American would come out every year, perhaps, if we were lucky. And so I would just freak out and run to the university bookstore and get the new book by David Wong Louie, or Jessica Hagedorn. And now literally it’s like every week, there’s a new book out there.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
So there has been a real transformation [inaudible 00:34:00] the number of voices that Asian-Americans, and many others, now have. Now on your point though, about the inability of readers back in 1976, some readers, to make sense out of what was going on in The Woman Warrior. It reminds me of, and the fact that this is both nonfiction and fiction, reminds me of the fact that you are many decades ahead of your time, because one of the hot literary categories now is auto fiction.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Yes.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
As you might know, that’s fiction that is totally based on an author’s life using an author’s name and we can’t tell what’s autobiography and what’s fiction. And a lot of this auto fiction is very apolitical, I think, and as written, honestly, by white people. And yet I think about you, and I think about another writer we could classify in Asian-American tradition as an auto fiction writer, Carlos Bulosan. And while the works are deeply personal, they’re also deeply political as well. So, congratulations on inaugurating a field, or helping to inaugurate a field in the Asian-American tradition where necessity and extravagance are brought together. Absolutely necessary to talk about our history and ourselves, but also absolutely extravagant to render it through art, and not only through autobiography.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Now, there’s a lot of discussion, obviously, about The Woman Warrior, which is a classic of American literature, but I want to talk a little bit about another book that you wrote, Tripmaster Monkey, which I had read when it came out. I believe it was about 1991. And I was a little confused in 1991, because I was very young, but also because there was so much happening in this book. And I reread it recently and I thought, “Wow, this is actually one of our first great Asian-American novels.” In the sense that it is like the great American novel, an ambitious novel that tries to tell the whole story of America or Asian-America through one particular narrative. So this is a really fun novel, it’s a loving history, and a satire of Asian-American emergence in the 1960s. Stars a character named Wittman Ah Sing, which is clearly a reference to Walt Whitman, but also to, as you read the book, it’s also, he’s an illusion to many other Asian-American literary figures, including your rival, if I could put it that way, Frank Chin, and maybe others.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And there’s so many references to Asian-American literature, literary history, the Eaton sisters, Chang and Ang, Carlos Bulosan, James [inaudible 00:36:21] Wong, and so on, and so forth. And it was an influential novel for me in a way that I probably didn’t realize, because when I wrote my novel, The Sympathizer, I alluded to Tripmaster Monkey without even being aware of it. Anyway, I want you, if you could, to read a passage from Tripmaster Monkey, I put it in your private chat, if you could pull it up. And then I have a question for you about Tripmaster Monkey from professor Rob Wilson of UC Santa Cruz, who I asked to help me out by contributing a few questions today. Since I knew we had three conversations together, and I was running out of ideas myself. So if you could read that [inaudible 00:36:59], and then I’ll give you Rob’s question.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Yes. Well, how do I do that? Or I have the book here, if you could tell me what page it’s on.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Do you see… There should be a chat thing at the bottom of your screen.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Just chat.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yes. Click on that. I sent you a chat.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Oh. Oh, here it is. Okay. It says, okay, “Here is Whitman’s classless society.” Is that what you?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Oh, would you like me to read that?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah, please.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Okay.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And I put it into everybody’s chat so they can read along.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Okay. “Here we are. Walt Whitman’s classless society of everyone who could read or be read to. Will one of these listening passengers please write to the city council and suggests that there always be a reader on this route? Wittman Ah Sing has begun a someday tradition that may lead to a job as a reader, riding the railroads through the West. On the train through Fresno, Saroyan through the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck through Monterey Bay. Cannery Row, along the Big Sur ocean. Jack Kerouac on the way to weed, of mice and men. And all of the central valley on the Southern Pacific with migrant Carlos Bulosan, America is in the heart. What a repertoire? A lifetime reading job. You don’t easily come home, come back to San Francisco, Chinatown, where they give you stink eye and call you a [foreign language 00:38:54], a whisker-growing man, beatnik.” My gosh, I forgot all about that. I forgot all about that. It does make me realize how big I was writing, because I just wanted to do all of America, not just Chinese-American writing, but American writing, where it all comes from. And wow. Okay.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
All your books are hugely ambitious. And it’s probably not a surprise that you can’t remember every single sentence you wrote from all of these books over the years. But here’s Rob Wilson’s question about this particular presence of Walt Whitman… Could you discuss this impact of Walt Whitman on your Chinese-American character Wittman Ah Sing, and, or more broadly on your vision of America?

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Well, my idea of writing about America was to do America in the sixties. And the reason was that I was a young person in the sixties, and I just thought it was the most wonderful time. And it was a time when the mind went psychedelic and there were all these wonderful ideals of democracy, and community, and art, and music. Amazing language, the slang of that time. The vision of how it’s possible to live. And how to end war, and how to live in peace. All of that. And so I wanted to write a story of that time and the way I felt and lived it. And in it, I would put my friends who, and what we did, and the music, the dancing.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
And I also wanted to write fiction, because I had written Woman Warrior and China Men, and clearly not made up. And I thought that I was a very, I was not a good writer. I’m not a novelist at all. So let me see whether I can write something that’s not real. Also, there were secrets that I wanted to hid. And well, why don’t I just tell them, but I’ll just call it fiction? Such as hiding AWOL soldiers during the war. And if those circumstances came again, I want to be able to hide people again, but I don’t want anybody to know. So I just made Wittman do it. I called him Wittman, because I wanted him to be like Walt Whitman, the poet and Singing America. And so I named him Whitman, but spelled it wrong, because… And then Ah Sing, of course it’s I sing the Body Electric, but also it comes from Brett Hart and Mark Twain who called their China men. They, their last, they were called Ah Sing. So, I thought, “Well, I’ll give him that name to…” Okay.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
The naming your character Wittman after Walt Whitman reminds me of the fact that I had Chinese or Taiwanese-American friends who were named Wilson, and Bonaparte. Presumably, after the major political figures. Right? And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if their parents or other parents had named their kids after great writers, or great artists instead of the presidents and the generals.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Well, you name your son Ellison.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Right.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
I think that’s wonderful.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
But I have to do more explaining, because unfortunately most people don’t make the connection between Ellison and Ralph Ellison. Whereas if I were to name my son, Hemingway, people are like, “Oh yeah, Hemingway.” But of course, I don’t want to do that.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
I also see your naming your son Ellison as our honoring the black writers who have so influenced us and so helped us out to… They paved the way and we just came right in that door too.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
No, absolutely. I’m going to ask you another question from Rob Wilson, from UC Santa Cruz, and weave in another one from another audience member. So, you spent time in Hawaii, actually many years in Hawaii. And I believe you wrote The Woman Warrior while you were in Hawaii, right? You left Berkeley, and then you and Earl, your husband, went to Hawaii, partly to get away from the war climate of the United States. I think you taught there in Hawaii, and then you wrote The Woman Warrior while you were there. Now The Woman Warrior explicitly refers to talk story. And this is Rob’s question. Talk story is a Pidgin-English term used in Hawaii. Here’s a line from Pidgin, I’m just going to read it in English. “You like talk story about that? You have taken this… [inaudible 00:45:33] offend people by trying to say that in Pidgin.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
You have taken this term talk story and used it in Woman Warrior and elsewhere. Can you talk about some words or values and other influence you took from your years of living and teaching in Hawaii? Were they influential for you? And one of the audience members has a very similar question. I just want to call out John Simons from Honolulu, who also wants to know about the impact of Hawaii on your writing.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Oh, yes. It’s wonderful. Aloha everybody from Hawaii. But what happened when I was writing Woman Warrior in Hawaii, I was thinking of the Chinese term, [foreign language 00:46:23], and writing about my mother and the people around me. [foreign language 00:46:33]. And I was thinking, how am I… What? How can I translate that into English? And there it was, right in, everywhere in Hawaii. Talk story. That is the literal translation of [foreign language 00:46:56]. And so it was right there for me to pick up. And it fits, it fits entirely the same tradition that we have in China, and Hawaii. Passing on, orally, history, myth, just everyday life. It’s alive in Hawaii. The children talk story. This happened when I was writing Woman Warrior. I was watching the news, and somebody had committed a crime. And the police had hold him.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
And the reporter asked, “Oh, is he under arrest?” And the cops said, “Nah, we just bring him in to talk story.” So it’s… But in a way, when people talk story in Hawaii, they give it a form. They tell it in a way that it’s entertaining and traumatic. And so, that whole tradition, it just came together for me in Hawaii. Also, another way that Hawaii influenced me a lot is, all of that, the Vietnam War was taking place at that time. We lived right across from, we lived right on Kaneohe Bay. You could see the planes take off all the time. Taking off from the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station, heading for Vietnam. And since there was that peace movement at the Church of the Crossroads, and that was when we were hiding the AWOL soldiers.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
And so I have tried to write that. And also, the whole feeling of Aloha, and the air, and the people, and the way they relate to one another, which is… And the contradictory way of giving Aloha and love, but also being mean to one another. I try to put all of that in there. And also it helped me a lot to hear accents, English accents, because all the people of the different kinds of people that are in Hawaii, speak English with a different kind of accent. And I was trying to pick that up to do my Chinese accent, or Hawaiian accent. And trying to… It’s even different from generation to generation. So, the older people speak English this way, and the younger that way. And all of that influenced my writing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Right. We have time for a couple, [inaudible 00:51:06] a couple of questions from the audience. I think [inaudible 00:51:07] one or two questions. Here’s a question from Cynthia Die of East Boston in Massachusetts. Did any of your books take a turn you didn’t expect when you began?

Maxine Hong Kingston:
I think that all of it is taking turns unexpected all the time. I am not a person who writes an outline. I have no plot in mind. I don’t know where I’m going. And I just make the road as I go along. And it’s like, I write a sound or a word, and then the next one comes, and then the next one. And all of a sudden, a whole idea, or scene, or person enters. And I don’t know where I’m going until I get there. Yeah, it’s all a surprise.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
One more question from the audience, and that is from Greg Scully. Who’s from Canada, doesn’t say where in Canada, just all Canada. Sure. Sure, Greg. Comment on the relationship between memory, and mythology in your works.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Wow. Memory and mythology. Hmm. I can think that memory… Well, a couple of times there have been times in my life when I have seen a former incarnation, and I have seen myself as a man living in China. But I don’t know whether that’s memory, or whether it’s real, or whether it’s a dream? I wrote the sections of [foreign language 00:53:55] last. I had completed The Woman Warrior, just telling the everyday stories of being in school and so on. But then, when I finished that, I felt that as I wrote each draft, I could see further and my perspective changed, I could see further in time and in space. And then somehow the… I guess it’s memory.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
I heard the sound, chick, chick, chick, and that was, and it was my mother. When I was just first learning to talk, she would give me the chant of [foreign language 00:54:59], which began like that. I had forgotten all about it. And somehow, it came. And so is this like a universal memory that… I don’t know? Is it memory? Is it magic? Is it… Or here’s another thing. Okay? There’s no explanation for this stuff. At the end of The Woman Warrior, I have the barbarians fighting. And they are making arrows. And they can make arrows out of flutes, and they can make flutes into arrows. And as the arrows take off, they can make sounds and music. And so, I was sure that I invented that and I just made it up.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Years go by. And I am in Xi’an, and I find a dusty little museum. And there, under a dusty glass case and labeled up about a thousand years ago is an arrow made out of made… A flute arrow. And there it is. And what went through my mind, as I looked at it was, I made it up and I caused it to appear a thousand years ago. Oh, that reminds me of part of the poem I wrote. The, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life. In that poem, I write about Chinese time. And there is a myth or an idea in Chinese poetry that, if you write… A poet can be totally [inaudible 00:58:00] one reader. And if you just have one reader, you’re happy, and that’s as good as getting published. And this reader can come a thousand years from now. So maybe that was how I cause the arrow to appear. Also, your reader, can… You could be a thousand years ago, maybe somebody thought of you, and then that’s how you appear in writing. Okay. I think that is very abstract, but I think I answered your question.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
It wasn’t my question. It was a great conversation. And I have to remind people in the audience, this is part two of three conversations Maxine and I are having. I put into the chat for everybody, our next event, which is on June 8th, with the Free Library of Philadelphia, it will be virtual. So you can call in from anywhere. And I promise, I will ask different questions than I did today. So we’ll get some different answers from Maxine. And I’ll try to get in [inaudible 00:59:17] I wasn’t able to get to. Thanks so much, Maxine.

Maxine Hong Kingston:
Thank you Viet, and thank you everybody.

Max Rudin:
Thank you both very much. It was fantastic. You guys were just getting warmed up there. And in fact, there’s a ton of great questions that have just come in, which I guess they’ll have to forward to the Philadelphia event or the other events that are coming. Anyway, that was fantastic. Really great.

Max Rudin:
And you’ve been listening to Maxine Hong Kingston discuss her life and work with Viet Thanh Nguyen. Her writing has just been published in Library of America, in The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey, and Other Writings. Volume number 355 in the Library of America series.

Max Rudin:
Please join us for forthcoming events from Library of America. On Wednesday, June 1st, acclaimed poet, and bestselling champion for poetry, Edward Hirsch, joins us to discuss The Heart of American Poetry, his revelatory and deeply moving new book about the poems that have changed his life, and how our poetic tradition is, at its heart, a passionate conversation about American democracy.

Max Rudin:
Details about this, and other upcoming LOA live events can be found on our website, loa.org. Where you’ll also find information about Library of America’s Maxine Hong Kingston volume, about The Heart of American Poetry, and links to purchase those, and other additions of great American writing. You’ll also find recordings of tonight’s, and previous LOA live events. Thanks so much again, to Maxine and Viet for a terrific, lively, wonderful conversation. And I hope you all have a great evening.

Category: Interviews

 

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