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Maxine Hong Kingston: The Art of Making Peace

Maxine Hong Kingston has created some of the most widely read (and taught) literature of the late 20th century

By Michael Moore

Maxine Hong Kingston 170x170
Maxine Hong Kingston
photo by Gail K. Evenari

September 23, 2009

Maxine Hong Kingston had already written three seminal works* by 1991 when, driving home from her father's funeral, she saw the hills of Berkeley burning, and with them the novel she was working on, The Fourth Book of Peace. She risked her life to save it, but nothing remained except a block of ash.

Faced with the question, "Do I start over?" Hong Kingston said no.

That's the short answer. The long answer is the story of the rest of her life and why she is this year's guest speaker for the English Department's Esther Freier Endowed Lecture in Literature Series. On September 30, Maxine Hong Kingston addresses the University community with a lecture titled, "The Art of Making Peace."

Hong Kingston is revered as one of this country's great living authors. "She is a figurehead for Asian writers in particular, and one of the best known Asian writers today," says Josephine Lee, associate professor in the Department of English and one of the founders of the University's Asian American Studies program. "Her work rose to prominence at a time when interest in ethnic literature and women's literature began to arise, answering what it means to be a writer of color and a woman," Lee says.

Lee notes how Hong Kingston's work is not dated. "People remain impressed by the beauty of her work and how fresh it still is." The themes of Hong Kingston's books have great resonance for the issues of our time: immigration, assimilation, exploitation, racism, transnational cultural identities, how violence structures memory, what it means to be an "American," and what exactly is literature.

Department of English professor and recent department chair Paula Rabinowitz interviewed Hong Kingston early in her career (Michigan Quarterly Review, 1982). "I had been doing research on her work," says Rabinowitz, "and much of her discussion was on genres. Hong Kingston clearly stated that her two books (The Woman Warrior and China Men) were not novels or fiction. It was eye-opening as to how a writer perceives her work compared to a critic." The interview has been reprinted many times and is a keystone in the discussion of Hong Kingston's literary career.

A chapter in The Woman Warrior titled "No Name Woman" is one of the most anthologized pieces of writing in contemporary American literature. "It is one of the texts," says Rabinowitz. "She invented the post-modern memoir."

After the fire
Hong Kingston has a long-standing commitment to peace, beginning in the 1960s with her days at UC Berkeley, where she protested the Vietnam War. After losing her unfinished novel to the Berkeley fire, she started working with veterans of war, forming writing groups to help veterans tell their stories. This work led to the publication in 2006 of Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace.

Hong Kingston has continued to go out on the streets, protesting the wars of this generation. She was arrested twice in 2003, for a protest against the war in Iraq and a Code Pink anti-war demonstration on International Women's Day (March 8).
And she has continued writing. One of her recent books is The Fifth Book of Peace, pulling together ideas from the lost novel (which was to be a sequel of Tripmaster Monkey) and setting them against the story of the fire and stories of growing up during World War II.

"It is important," says Rabinowitz, "to think of people as living writers, living people who are making tremendous contributions to the present."

Maxine Hong Kingston is a true role model for those who wish to live engaged in the present.

Maxine Hong Kingston will present the Esther Freier Endowed Lecture at the Sept. 30, 7:30-9:30 p.m., Ted Mann Concert Hall. Free, hosted by the Department of English, with a reception and book-signing to follow.

For more information, see the event detail, e-mail Terri Sutton, or see the Esther Freier lecture series.

*The ground-breaking memoirs The Woman Warrior, China Men, and the edgy novel Tripmaster Monkey.

Michael Moore is a communications director at the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the U's Institute on Community Integration.