Orlando is the Story of a Writer by Maxine Hong Kingston




Tuesday, August 11, 2019 (audio file 150811a – 25 m 51s) Transcribed by Tobi Harper


Introduction, Kate Gale, Ph.D.: Now that we’re all fully awake, it is my privilege to introduce Maxine Hong Kingston. The work of a great work is that – after you’ve experienced it – you cannot imagine your life without it. Think about your life without Beethoven’s Ninth. Think about your life without Virginia Woolf. Think about your life without The Woman Warrior. Maxine has written numerous books and won many, many awards. When you look up the list you feel like, Are there any awards that she missed? But I feel that her greatest legacy is right here. All of us who walk differently in the world because we read that book and we understood what it means to claim our own language. I have a PhD in literature and one of the things that they like to talk about in literature is colonized language. And the whole idea is that we are now supposedly in a postcolonial world. It’s not nearly as postcolonial for women though, is it? And the reason it’s not is that colonization starts at home. And Maxine’s books address that very subject. What is it like to lose your language and your identity and your idea of who you could be in the world in your own home? Because if you have your own queenness in your own house, but when you walk out into the world you’re not recognized, that’s one thing; but if you’re negated in your own house, then you never learn how to grow wings. So, I would say that, for all of us, reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s books feels like we grew wings. Please welcome, Maxine Hong Kingston.


Maxine Hong Kingston: You have to grow wings to use this thing [laughter and audience laughter, adjusting microphone].

Welcome, my dear women artists. Here together, we’re generating the faith and the hope that by being together we can help one another make the writing life easier, make the writing life joyous. I remember as a girl – I think I was about eight years old – when I said “Oh, the writer’s life is for me.” And then, not too many years after that, “Oh, why did I want that? That’s a wretched life.” That is a wretched life, and I am a wretch of a writer. Virginia Woolf called Orlando a wretch.


“The wretch takes to writing … this is bad enough in a poor man, whose only property is a chair and table set beneath a leaky roof, for he has not much to lose after all; the plight of a rich man who has houses and cattle, maid servants, asses, and linen, and yet writes books is pitiable in the extreme. The flavor of it all goes out of him. He is riddled by hot irons, gnawed by vermin. He would give every penny he has, such is the malignity of the germ, to write one little book and become famous. Yet all the gold in Peru will not buy him the treasure of a well turned line. So he falls into consumption and sickness, and blows his brains out. Turns his face to the wall. It matters not in what attitude they find him, he has passed through the gates of death and known the flames of hell.” (Orlando, Virginia Woolf)


So that’s the life you have signed onto. [laughter]

So here’s Virginia Woolf telling us the conditions of a writer. Even a favored writer such as a wealthy man. Then she begins too – Orlando gets in a better mood sometimes and [laughs and laughter] so he’s feeling really hopeful at this point. “He paused and into the breach thus made leapt ambition, the harridan, and poetry, the witch … and desire of fame, the strumpet.” [laughter] And then he’s thinking of the ideal, the life that we lust for. “There was a glory about a man who had written a book, and had it printed, which outshone all the glories of blood and state.” So to have finished a book and to publish it, that is the highest glory. Okay, now that’s Orlando as a man, and even with all the benefits and advantages of a man, he cannot get that poem written. And then he becomes a woman, and as a woman, he – no, she, as a woman, she decides to do what we are doing right now. Maybe – let’s get together with other women and then when we’re all together we’ll be able to find our voices and we will find our stories. And so, Orlando goes and hangs out with the prostitutes. And so that’s who we are, we are hoes, we are hoes. [laughter] And these are the people that she will trust. “Nell brought Prue, and Prue—Kitty, and Kitty—Rose, had a society of their own of which they now elected her a member. Each would tell the story of the adventures which had landed her in her present life, in her present way of life. So they would draw around the punchbowl, which Orlando made it her business to furnish generously, and many were the fine tales they told and many the amusing observations they made. For it cannot be denied, when women get together … they are always careful to see that the doors are shut and that not a word of it gets into print.” So, women get together, and we inspire one another, we trust one another and so we tell our secrets. And we entrust our secrets to women and their listening ears draw the stories out of us. And so, these hoes [laughter] … they are really happy and they are telling their stories … Virginia – I mean Orlando says, “Oh this is great, I’m going to write this down and I’m gonna publish it” and then they go “What! Don’t, no, DON’T PUBLISH IT. These are our secrets, don’t even write it down. We can talk story, but don’t write it, and don’t publish it, because” – I don’t think it says why;  but I think it’s because if we let our secrets out there, we’re vulnerable and then we will get hurt and our secret society of women will be destroyed.


And so, Orlando, she’s with her people, her women, and they are telling her “Don’t tell.” And so that is the first sentence in The Woman Warrior, and that’s my own mother! My own mother saying to me, “Don’t tell anyone what I am about to tell you,” and then she tells me the most incredible, wonderful stories, and I am to hold them without any writing them down. So, here is Orlando wondering, How am I going to write the poem, “The Oak Tree,” and she works for three-hundred years [laughter] and it’s still not coming. She can’t finish it, she can’t even find the middle of it. She has not only one room of her own – she has three hundred and sixty-five rooms – and she still can’t write it. She has one hundred and fifty indoor servants, she has eighty horses, and the poem still doesn’t come. So, what to do? I think the room of one’s own is a metaphor for privacy. But Orlando is such a good hostess, she is such an angel, she has such good manners, that she cannot kick out her visitors and her suitors who barge in on her. When they are there, she cannot work on her writing. So, when she was a man, she was courted by the Archduchess Harriet, and then when Orlando turns into a woman, she thinks Harriet’s not stalking her anymore; but one day she appears and she turns into Harry. So Harry’s courting Orlando, and he just stays there and stays there. He has him for tea, and he just won’t leave. [laughter] And so, Orlando thinks about topics of conversation, she’s so bored. And she just – you know, she’s such a good hostess, she cannot say “Please leave.” “Indeed, Orlando was at her wit’s end, what to talk about? And had she not bethought her of a game called fly lou, at which great sums of money can be lost with very little expense of spirit.” So she says okay, we can have a gambling game, and if she hadn’t thought of this game she would have had to marry him, she supposed, for how else to get rid of him? “By this device, however, and it was a simple one, needing only three lumps of sugar and a sufficiency of flies. The embarrassment of conversation of overcome, and the necessity of marriage avoided. For now, the Archduke would bet her 500 pounds to a tester that a fly would settle on this lump and not on that, thus they would have occupation for a whole morning watching the flies.” Doing that instead of writing her poems.


Looking for privacy, I never even knew to look for privacy. It’s in my culture … I have this big family, I have lots of siblings, and we all shared the room and the space; but not only that, I come from the culture of China. And in Chinese, there is no such word as privacy. Nowadays, there is a term for “the right to privacy,” but that’s a legal term. This idea of solitude is not there. So when I wrote The Woman Warrior, I was teaching at a boarding school in Honolulu and we were on-duty 24-hours a day. We lived with the students and we saw them all the time. They would even – oh, I’m remembering there’s a girl who took LSD, and it’s the middle of the night, and she just barges into our bedroom! I wake up, “What is this? There’s somebody here.” Even at night, no privacy. During those years, I had a little table in the living room; in all kinds of goings on, I would be in the corner and I was writing and I was talking to people and I trained myself to write even in the middle of a party or while I was chaperoning them on camping trips. Just let them get lost in the woods [laughter] and I’ll be there; so my model – my role model – had not been so much Virginia Woolf but Jane Austen. I have seen in her living room, just in that same corner, she has a table. It’s a little bit bigger than this table – this stool – and there’s a crack in the middle. And she’s working on her novels but she also has her needlepoint, so if somebody’s coming she puts her needlepoint on top of the writing and pretends that that’s what she’s been doing all along. For some reason, I am most like that. As a writer, when I was a kid if my parents asked, “What are you doing?” I would say “Oh, I’m doing my homework.” And then when I was writing The Woman Warrior, if my husband wanted to know what I was doing I just said, “I’m grading papers.” [laughter] To this day, if I get on the computer, I say, “Oh I’m going to go do my email.” I don’t know what it is, is it the shyness gene? Or what is it that I – I don’t want people to know that I’m doing this – this shameful, wretchful activity? [laughter] Maybe I do have a shyness gene. I looked at the words that people put out there, and I was really surprised that I saw so many people write the word shy. I don’t know – well – I don’t know! I am also shy, but I wonder, maybe shy people – we don’t like to talk a lot. But maybe we can write it down. Maybe shyness is part of the talent: that we get to be a writer.


So, having very little privacy in my life, it’s interesting to me to be in this retreat for almost a week … not interesting – it’s weird for me to be in this retreat [laughter], and so I am experimenting with solitude and aloneness. By the end of the week, I will report to you what privacy feels like. And what I have learned. Okay, now about this motto that we’re all wearing about our necks. “Write against the current.” Okay, so we’re all sort of vowing, and we have this thing around our neck like a stone that says, “Write against the current.” In Orlando, Virginia Woolf says that we are enveloped in the spirit of the age. There is no escape from the spirit of the age. And she lives – Orlando now lives –  in the age of the British Empire; and when she tries to write, her true words from the inside of her are not coming out. It was not Orlando that spoke but the spirit of the age. Such is the indomitable nature of the spirit of the age that it batters down anyone who tries to make stand against it far more effectually than those who bend to its own ways. So she lives in the age of the British Empire and then she comes into this time of the confining Victorian Age. There isn’t the freedom that she had when she was a man during the Elizabethan Age. The spirit of the age seeped into her poem and she found her writing getting soggy and dank, and she says, “All of a sudden a gamekeeper arrived in her poem. So what’s that? I’m writing like D.H. Lawrence!” [laughter] And, oh, and that connects D. H. Lawrence and Orlando – that connects us, because here we are; we’re here where D.H. Lawrence and Frieda came. So they were writing all that gamekeeper stuff, all that gamey stuff that Orlando wanted to keep out of her poetry. So here we are soaking up some D. H. Lawrence experience too, and how are we gonna keep that out of our writing? So, here we have Orlando living in the age of the British Empire and there’s no getting out of it, and there’s no wave of writing differently. So what becomes of us? Women of the American Empire, how are we going to write against the current? Can we write against the current – or should we even try to write against the current? In her next book – the one that comes after Orlando – which is A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf tells the women, “Do not write protest. Do not write the novel of protest. Don’t protest.” But how can we be women of the American Empire and not protest? I do not have an answer to those questions, and please think about this: Maybe by Thursday we’re gonna come up with an answer.

(audio file 150811b – 24m 6s)

Please notice that – you know it’s very subtle, it’s just off-handedly that she writes, so maybe you missed it – Orlando has three, four, five children. We don’t know the exact number because she’s not paying attention [laughter], and she can’t quite remember. Somewhere in there, she can’t quite remember the marriage either … there’s some lady named Pepita, maybe they had some kids, very vague. But what we look at, of course, is that Orlando abandons all those children and that was done as a man. He had the children, and he just completely forgets about them and abandons them. But then Orlando has – as a woman – she has a baby! And let’s see, I think I have the page where she has the baby; it’s just two sentences [laughter]. So I just want to show you it really happened. It’s toward the end of the book. Toward the end of the book, she’s really relieved because there’s been a lawsuit, and it turns out that his marriage to Pepita has been annulled and he’s feeling so happy because he doesn’t have to pay any child support or inheritance and those children are illegitimate. So, as a woman, Orlando has a baby, and this is told: “‘It’s a very fine boy, m’lady’ said Mrs. Banting, the midwife. In other words, Orlando was safely delivered of a son on Thursday, March the 20th at 3 o’clock in the morning.” That’s the last we hear of this son! [laughter] So, to be a woman, and to write, we must not have any kids.


You know, in her diary, where Virginia writes about Vanessa Bell, the artist, she says “Oh, she’s not a great artist. She might have been if she didn’t have all those children.” And Virginia didn’t have any children, so what are we mothers to do? And it’s too late. [laughter] And so what are we wives going to do? Even in a happy, perfect marriage, as what Orlando had in a perfect, happy marriage – there are no poems. So if you have your book, turn to page 165 – turn to page 165. On page 165, in there is a blank, blank spot. You see this blank right here? In some editions it’s a whole page that’s blank. That’s how much writing you’re going to do if you get married. [laughter] Yeah, yeah. Especially if it’s a happy marriage. Because the communication, the communion is so perfect between the two of you, and your minds and souls communicate so well that you don’t even need any words; so this is what you end up with. So she’s had years of that – she’s really happy, she’s so happy. And she doesn’t even have to be a writer she’s so happy. And then she starts thinking – do we have to make a choice between life and art? And she’s thinking about what makes a perfect life. And she says, “Life and a lover, that’s all we need for the perfect life. Life and a lover.” And then, because the spirit of the age is upon her, her wedding finger starts to itch. And she notices that everybody else are these perfect (married) couples, and she tries to fight it. And she says, “I said life and a lover, not life and a husband!” [laughter] So she’s word free at this point, but one day the wind comes up – and her husband had said, When the wind comes up and the sails go, that’s when I will have to leave. So he jumps on his steed and he rides to the ship, and he’s gone, and she’s so relieved.


“And she heaved a deep sigh of relief, as indeed well she might, for the transaction between a writer and the spirit of the age is one of infinite delicacy, and upon a nice arrangement between the two the whole fortune of his works depends. Orlando had so ordered it that she was in an extremely happy position; she need neither fight her age, nor submit to it; she was of it, yet remained herself. Now, therefore, she could write, and write she did. She wrote. She wrote. She wrote.” (Orlando, Virginia Woolf)


So, Orlando finishes “The Oak Tree,” and she publishes it. And she wins prizes. It took 300 years. But what are we going to do –  who do not have 300 years? Virginia Woolf studied time. She went to the British Museum where the archives of Einstein’s papers were kept and she read about relativity and lights and time. And I’m sure she was thinking about “How am I going to get more time?” Orlando ends on the present moment. This nanosecond that we are in right now. You know, this clock that has been striking since the beginning of the book, it keeps ringing throughout the book, and striking and ringing and on and on. And right at the end, the clock strikes, and we are in the present moment. And when the clock strikes, there’s a great explosion – the present moment is the big bang.


“Like thunder the stable clock struck 4, never did any earthquake so demolish a whole town. The gallery and all its occupants fell to powder, her own face that had been dark and somber as she gazed was lit as by an explosion of gunpowder. In the same light, everything near her showed with extreme distinctness. She saw two flies circling around and notice the blue sheen on their bodies. She saw a knot in the wood where her foot was, and her dog’s ear twitching. At the same time, she heard a bough creaking in the garden, a sheep coughing in the park, a swift screaming past the window. Her own body quivered and tingles as if suddenly stood naked in a hard frost. She noticed the separate grains of earth in the flower beds as if she had a microscope stuck to her eye. She saw the intricacy of the twigs of every tree. Each blade of grass was distinct and the markings of veins and petals.” (Orlando, Virginia Woolf)


You know that when you try to be very present, and to live right now, and to not miss a thing, that’s when you start noticing every grain, every ant. You notice all the details of life, and yet, you would think that that’s heaven. That you’ve already gotten into eternity, and that it’s true that eternity and the present are one. And just as you understand that, notice there’s this explosion, and everything breaks loose, and we don’t know whether what is true and what’s really there or not – it’s gone. So, Orlando managed to live time in many ways. To live centuries and also to live in this nanosecond of the present, and to live it thoroughly.

So I myself have been experimenting with time, because I am also obsessed by time. To be a writer, it’s not enough time, I don’t have enough time. How can I also live life fully if I write? Shouldn’t I be with my husband and kids? Shouldn’t I be enjoying my guests? And do I need to give that up and to be a writer? Can I do something about time? So I’m going to tell you about some experiments I’m doing with time. Okay, one of them, I know a lot of people are doing it: Buddhist meditation. The promise there – what we’re trying for in meditation – is to get into the present moment, and to live that fully, and to live the present consciously. But the faith is that the present is the only reality: There is no past, and there isn’t a future, it’s just now. Another way they think about it is the present contains all of the past and the future. So all that we need is the present, and that’s the same as eternity. And maybe even Einstein would say that. But that makes it all the more scary when we read Orlando and see it all blown apart. Okay, another experiment, and I write about this is in The Woman Warrior, and that is to make my mind as large as the universe is large and so contain paradox. A practical way for me to think about this: if I know history and I know the history of the human race and the history of many cultures, then I will have lived for all those thousands of years of history that I know. So when I wrote Fa-Mulan, she lived over a thousand years ago. And please notice I write, “I, Fa-Mulan, I am getting my horse and my sword and I’m riding into battle and I’m taking my father’s place in battle.” And I write about her in the first person, and that’s my way of getting her powers. Getting mythic powers. Also, she’s a thousand years old, so I just grabbed a thousand years right there. [laughter] Do you know, it’s interesting to write in the first person. I’m also hoping that when the reader reads anything in the first person, that the reader also embodies those ideas. What I’m doing now … I must have some water before I tell you what I’m doing now. [laughter]


I am 74 years old, and I had a great idea that I am writing my posthumous work while I am still alive. And I feel so free saying to myself, This is not going to be published. If it’s going to be published, it’ll be 100 years from now. I already told my agent this, if 100 years from now it can be published; and I feel so free because I am free of form, I am free of critics, I am free of the whole publishing business. And I am free of fashion, the spirit of the age. I am free of trying to write beautifully. I am not going to do that angelic prose anymore, or poetry. And so I feel that – and I’m also letting go of time – and letting go of – and oh, I can die at any moment and it doesn’t matter because this book doesn’t have to have an ending because it goes in all different forms. And it’s going so fast, I’m usually such a slow writer. It takes me a decade a book, but this time – when I’m not worrying about grammar or form or anything – I’ve already written 1200 pages. And I’m still going!


The last idea about time: I write about time in my book, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, which is in poetic form. I Love a Broad Margin to My Life is a quote from Henry David Thoreau. And when he says, “I love a broad margin,” he means he wants a lot of space. But he also means I want a lot of time. I write about a Chinese idea of time. This idea that time is linear and Orlando lives from the Elizabethan Age in a linear way to the Edwardian period, the Victorian period, and all that. That’s so British. It’s linear! In Chinese time, it’s circular – it’s not even circular, it can go backwards! It can go backwards; it can go forward. It goes all over the place, it looks more like an infinity sign. There is a myth that poets have that my reader will come a thousand years from now. It’s okay if I don’t get published next week. Somebody a thousand years from now will read my poem. Notice it’s not even a lot of readers; it’s just one reader and I’m already happy. You don’t have to make the New York Times Best Seller list.


“(Oh, but the true poet crosses eternal distances. Perfect reader, come though 1000 years from now. Poem can also reach reader born 1,000 years before the poem, wished into being. Li Bai and Du Fu, lucky sea turtles, found each other within their lifetimes. Oh, the hopes of Chinese time and Chinese poets. You don’t have to be a poet; you live in the turning and returning cosmos this way: An act of love I do this morning saves a life on a far future battlefield. And the surprising love I feel that saves my life comes from a person whose soul somehow corresponding with my soul doing me a good deed 1,000 years ago.)”


There’s one place that’s sort of complicated, so I just want to say this. It’s possible that our reading Virginia Woolf and Orlando now is causing Virginia to write it in 1928. So every time we read – whenever we read it – we’re causing her to write it. There’s even a scientific word for this; this is called retrocausation. We can cause things to happen in the past. Okay, so this is so complicated; I’m going to end by just reading those lines again. “(Oh, but the true poet crosses eternal distances. Perfect reader, come though 1000 years from now. Poem can also reach reader born 1,000 years before the poem, wished into being. Li Bai and Du Fu, lucky sea turtles, found each other within their lifetimes. Oh, the hopes of Chinese time and Chinese poets. You don’t have to be a poet; you live in the turning and returning cosmos this way: An act of love I do this morning saves a life on a far future battlefield. And the surprising love I feel that saves my life comes from a person whose soul somehow corresponding with my soul doing me a good deed 1,000 years ago.)” [applause]


“I write something that I wish for,” Kingston said.

Maxine Hong Kingston is an internationally acclaimed Chinese American author spearheading conversations about peace, feminism, and race relations. Born in Stockton, California, Maxine earned her bachelor’s degree from U.C. Berkeley, where she currently teaches as Professor Emerita. She has written three novels and several works of nonfiction about the experiences of Chinese immigrants living in the US. Her first book, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, received a National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, and her second, China Men, received the American Book Award. Maxine has also received a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Humanities Medal (1997), the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, the Anisfield-Wolf Race Relations Award, several National Endowment for the Arts Writers Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian American Literary Awards, the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters from the National Book Foundation, and many other awards and honors including, most recently, the National Medal of Arts. Maxine lives with her husband, Earll Kingston, and son Joseph in Berkeley, CA. 2015 AROHO Fellow of Distinction, Waves Discussion Series  Keynote Contributor

Author: A Room of Her Own

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