Author Kingston returns to isles with thoughts on war and peace
There is nothing urgent or aggressive in Maxine Hong Kingston's voice. Even as the author talks about the life-and-death issue of peace in the world, she bears not an ounce of frustration, nor ill will or anger toward those who have failed to learn the lessons of past wars. Her approach is that of the dove.
Maxine Hong Kingston
Meet the author at these events.
2006 Biennial Writers' Conference, "Sparking Your Creativity": The National League of American Pen Women, Honolulu Branch, conference is Friday and Saturday at Hawaii Tokai International College Pacific Center. Kingston will give the keynote address and conduct a poetry workshop. Conference fee, $75; $25 fee covers Kingston's poetry workshop. Register at www.nlapwhonolulu.org or call 254-3271.
Celebrate Reading Festival: Hawaii Literary Arts Council event for educators and children 12 and older takes place 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 8 at the University of Hawaii Campus Center Ballroom. Admission is free.
Hawaii Book and Music Festival: This April 22 and 23 event at Honolulu Hale includes readings by guest authors and music performances, with proceeds directed toward improving literacy in Hawaii. Visit www.hawaiibookandmusicfestival.org, or contact Barbara Garofano at email@example.com.
Writing and Meditation Workshop: 2 to 5 p.m. April 22 at Church of the Crossroads, 1212 University Ave. Veterans will read from their writing, collected in the soon-to-be-released anthology "Veterans." Call 949-2220.
The National Book Award winner and renowned author of "The Woman Warrior" and "China Men" will be in Hawaii through April to participate in several literary events. She will also appear at a writing and meditation workshop at Church of the Crossroads, once a sanctuary for Vietnam soldiers gone AWOL.
"It was a different era, different time. Now we've gone into war in Iraq and it's looking like the endless war in Vietnam. It's getting less and less popular, yet it keeps going," Kingston said by phone from her home in Oakland, Calif.
As keynote speaker at the 2006 Biennial Writers' Conference presented by the National League of American Pen Women, Honolulu Branch, on Friday and Saturday, Kingston will speak on "The Art of Creating Peace Through Writing." Her latest book, "The Fifth Book of Peace" (Knopf, 2003), considers the existence in China's literary past of three mysterious lost books of peace.
Do they really exist?
"I don't know," Kingston said. "It could just be a metaphor. On the other hand, 'The Art of War' exists, so maybe the others exist, too.
"There are other Chinese books that are about making peace. In Buddhist and Taoist works there is concentration on how to live a good, peaceful life. It's such a wonderful ideal that we have to keep striving for. I thought, surely, if they exist, we would be following the directions. We're in such a mess. We've lost the map."
A sense of loss was magnified by personal tragedy when, in 1991, she returned from her father's funeral to find her home had burned in the Oakland fire, taking her past and a book in progress.
Although some people find untapped strength after tragedy or disaster, Kingston said, "I didn't feel that way. I felt I was really weak.
"One thing that happened to me was that I couldn't read. I couldn't concentrate. I'd try to pick up the newspaper and read a sentence but I couldn't keep going. That lasted for about six months. Every time I closed my eyes I kept seeing flames."
She pressed herself to write, noticing, "I went back to writing like a child."
Kingston said it took nine years to rebuild her home and life, and to this day she continues to make repairs.
"I see that you can't just rebuild. What's lost is lost. The neighborhood is not the same. The architecture is not the same, and people come out of it different. Nothing is the same."
THE BOOK AND Kingston's talk might seem prescient now that there's a new and increasingly unpopular war going on, but the gentle woman warrior says thoughts of war and peace have been a constant thread throughout her life.
"I was born during World War II; my mother was a refugee from war in China. Growing up, I was always very aware there was a war going on. There would be cousins coming through our house on their way to battlefields in Europe or the Pacific.
"I remember looking at Life magazine and seeing pictures of battlefields and death camps. That really horrified me," she said. "In all my work there has been some kind of war going on in the background. Even if it was about a girl and her mother, it was there."
For 12 years she has been conducting writing workshops for veterans of America's wars, and about 16 will travel with her to participate in the writing and meditation workshop. Their work has been collected in the soon-to-be-released anthology "Veterans."
"Their stories are very dramatic, very dynamic. They're full of deep feeling and sorrow," she said. "They don't write about war like an adventure story, although there is a lot of adventure. It goes beyond that. They write tragedy.
"There are 80 writers and it surprises me that 40 write prose and 40 are poets. It surprises me that people can contemplate war and come out with poetry."
KINGSTON SPENT much of the Vietnam War years in Hawaii, teaching at Mid-Pacific Institute and the University of Hawaii, while working on "The Woman Warrior: A Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts."
"I started 'Woman Warrior' at Lanai Lodge in one of its little rooms. I worked at a table turned toward the wall. I didn't want to get distracted by the beautiful scenery."
She also remembers getting the news that her book was to be published. "I was running up and down the halls at Mid-Pac shouting for my husband, so everybody knew it."
She had forgotten that this year marks the 30th anniversary of its publication, until she heard from the Asian-American Writers' Workshop in New York. The group will celebrate the anniversary in September. "It'll be right before my 66th birthday, so we'll both be celebrating."
In revisiting the work, she wanted to alter only one thing, which was to rewrite the chant of woman warrior Fa Mook Lan, which appeared again as a poem in "To Be the Poet" and "The Fifth Book of Peace."
"The Woman Warrior," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction in 1976, catapulted her to bittersweet fame.
"I like the fame but am relieved that it is not constant," she said. She has been both hailed for giving voice to a culture and inspiring a generation of Asian-American writers, and criticized for misrepresenting Chinese stories and perpetuating the myth of a mysterious East.
"I had a clear idea that I was writing in a new way and defining a people. I kept declaring that 'China Men' would claim America for us Asians. I did not predict that there would be such a renaissance of ethnic writers," she said. But she continues to encourage this in her workshops. Writing, after all, is another way of forging peace.
With her halo of white hair and gentle voice, she has the appearance and patience of a saint, which may come from years as an English teacher at Berkeley and in Hawaii, and a suspicion that humankind may never learn a way around strife.
"We may not ever know the outcome of our teaching because it may be harvested after our lifetime. The effect of teaching is slow."
That applies to enlightenment through writing as well.
"You can do your best to make your message as attractive, enticing and convincing as possible," she said, before trying to reclaim the word "convincing."
"I don't know if I want to use that word. It's like trying to conquer someone's mind and I don't ever want to conquer anyone with my work.
"To write you have to be ultra-conscious, try to understand the situation of people and somehow use intellect to describe the truth of what's going on. The process involves putting yourself in a quiet place so the writing can come. The process itself is peace-making.
"I just say, can we enjoy this work and maybe come to an understanding of each other? It's like making lovely music. I just enjoy the music and rhythm of the language, and I'm hoping I can write a music that's pleasurable."