Waves Returning: A Q&A With Maxine Hong Kingston




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

Introduction, Kate Gale, Ph.D.: Maxine has been looking at all of your questions and talking to God and [laughter] she is back to talk with us about some of those questions and some other things she has on her mind. Could we all please have a big round of applause for Maxine Hong Kingston. [Clapping and cheering]

Maxine Hong Kingston: Okay before I answer your questions, I’m going to answer a question that I asked you. And that was the question that came out of my reading of A Room of One’s Own in which Virginia Woolf says, “Don’t write protest.” The woman writer should not write protest. Okay so what does she mean? And the question I asked was “How can a woman of the American Empire not write protest?” [“Yeah!” clapping] [Maxine laughs] In Orlando, she calls the age that she has to deal with the British Empire, and she also – there’s two places where she makes sly snide remarks about America and Americans. Okay so the question again, how can a woman of the American empire not write protest?

Well, my answer to that question is that maybe what Virginia Woolf is saying is don’t write in reaction to some other writing. Don’t write in reaction to the male books that are out there. You come at it with something brand new and fresh and modern and original. She does not mean to stop political action. You can understand that when you read her book Three Guineas. Non-fiction, very well argued, very political, and philosophical. I have three guineas, I have this much money, and I can give to three different causes, which ones will they be? This is something we carried out. One of those guineas is money that we will give as a scholarship to a woman. And that will change that woman and it will change the world. And so look at us, we’re doing that, we’re already doing that. Another guinea would go to a peace organization and she writes about violence, bombs, war, and she thinks what are the things we could possibly do? And what could women do? And she says, first of all, quit handing out the white feathers to your brothers. If the feathers meant – you see a young man in the street, or your family, and he’s not in uniform, well he’s a coward, so you hand him a white feather. You know what we just did today? We changed a metaphor! We changed an archetype! [clapping] The white feather no longer means, “You are a coward. You should go and commit some violence.” It means this wonderful, feminine power, and life. I mean, isn’t it incredible, right now we changed an archetype.

Okay, so that book, Three Guineas, it’s reasoned, but what I enjoy is when she uses a little story, a little image and there’s a footnote, there’s a Mayoress of a little town, and she refused to knit socks for the soldiers, and she will not roll bandages. Can you imagine the kind of reaction that she will get to that?

Okay so, I will answer a question that is not on the papers, but as I go around talking to people, there are the women who write shy, and they come up to me and tell me that there is something that – should she dare write something about her family or her lover or some weird thing that happened, some small thing or some shameful thing.

So here is my answer that I would like to give to those women and to remind all of us. The story and the poem, there’s a process, the process of story and art and poetry is magical. You can take the terrible things of this life and transform them into beauty and art and truth. Here’s what you do. You write down any of your terrible feelings, your anger, your hurt, you rant and rave, write down what’s ugly, and write down contradictions, and you name names too. And then you write down what’s shameful, what’s illegal, you put it all on there and don’t hold back. And then, you get all this stuff together and there will be an explosion because that’s the climax of the book. Because you put all this terrible stuff together and it’ll blow up. And that’s your high point of action, and when that happens, and as you write along, understanding starts to happen. Also, you write from points of view. So your worst enemy, the people you hate, the ones you’re angry at, you write from their point of view too. And so you understand everything. And then, by the end of the book, there is understanding and compassion. And there’s realization, there’s revelation, there’s recognition, there’s resolution, all of that happens in the magical shape and form of a poem and a story. Recognition is the English interpretation of what Aristotle said was the most pleasure that we get out of drama and story: recognition that we see our mother’s face and we understand her, and we see our own face, we see our enemy, and we understand all of it. Odysseus comes home and first his dog recognized him. But that was wonderful, we like that. And then his wife recognizes him, big beautiful moments there. Okay so, for all of you who feel that there are unspeakable secrets and feelings, go ahead and throw that into the story. And while you’re doing it, forget anybody who is – don’t think about anybody reading it. This is your secret story. Nobody’s going to read it. Think to yourself, I’m not going to publish this, I am just keeping it to myself but I am going to write it down. Then, years go by and you’ve been working on this material over and over again and thinking about it again and again and finding new words for it. Finding new shapes of the story, finding more details, finding what people said to each other, and then after many years of doing this you arrive at realizations and recognitions and your story becomes whole. It becomes beautiful. You started out throwing your ugly feelings in there but when you find the right words and the right way of telling it, the whole thing becomes beautiful. And then you can send it to the publisher. Because you’re thinking, well this is so beautiful, it is so complete, it’s so whole, and you have transformed yourself too, you have become whole, the story becomes whole. Then you feel okay about revealing it to the world. So now you get published and then you get worried, what if so and so reads it. And they’re going to sue me. Actually that happened to me, in The Woman Warrior, remember I wrote about Crazy Mary? And I was so young that the people I’d known, I felt like they belonged to me and I didn’t have to ask permission, I can call her Crazy Mary—which is her real name. So one day I was in my office at Berkeley and there came a letter from Crazy Mary’s nephew, who’s a lawyer, and he had it on his lawyer stationary and I was so scared and for the first time as I looked at that envelope, I thought, not just that I’m going to get sued, but she doesn’t belong to me. I didn’t make her up, she’s a real person in her own right and I co-opted her story, I just took it and exploited it and used it. Okay, and so I opened the letter and he says, “I want to thank you for writing about my Aunt. I now understand her and I understand the story of our family and the love with which you wrote.” And I thought, wow, my theory works! [laughter from Maxine and all].

Okay there’s something that I hear from my therapist, they keep saying trust the process. Do therapists say that to people? Trust the process? Well same thing here, trust the process.

Question: Have you seen progress in the literary world regarding the centralizing of Asian American Women writers?

Maxine Hong Kingston: When The Woman Warrior came out and it just exploded on the world, great reviews from all over, prizes, up on the New York Times bestseller list, and then in comes this blast and it comes from the Asian American – Chinese American men critics. And what they’re saying is that “You wrote lies. That is not the way that we Chinese Americans are. You are portraying us as sexist and you have emasculated us by writing that way. You are a race trader. You are in bed with the white publishing establishment.” You can see how this is very sexual. I mean all our women, the white man is taking all our women, that’s what they’re saying. And, you know, what helped me a little bit is that I saw that this was happening to the black writers too. And Alice Walker gets out there with The Color Purple and she was so attacked by black men and again, this thing “race trader.” Oh you married a white man also, all of that. And you wouldn’t get published if you weren’t pandering to the white readers. Okay, or the Latinas, they get the same thing. And so, okay, but that was last century. So let’s hope that as the new young women emerge that they won’t be welcomed by our brothers in that way. I have a feeling that things may be getting better because I saw President Obama, I met President Obama and he said “The woman warrior taught me how to write.” Yeah .. [clapping and cheering] I think the question is, is it centralizing—yeah, I think our writing is getting in the center. And let’s hope that our brothers are strong enough now and powerful enough so that they don’t feel that they can get their power just by beating on us.

Question: “What advice would you give to Asian American writers and women writers of color?

Maxine Hong Kingston: Women of color are so wealthy with story. We have so much in images and in culture and in language and the way that we speak the American language. We have so much that’s never been done before. Nobody’s done what we have! And we haven’t stopped mining that. You know, I, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, we’ve only done a little bit. There’s more, there’s so much more. We are very wealthy, and let’s just remember that. [clapping and cheering] And as I said about language, we have this amazing English language, actually, we have an American language. And what is coming into it are all the rhythms and accents of all the other people. Of people coming from all over the world with their rhythms. And so we bring our languages and then we make a new American language.

Question: “Who and what made you succeed?”

Maxine Hong Kingston: I must say that real people, the actual people, felt to me more like obstacles than help. [chuckling] And so I think what supports me is the spirit of the artist. Maybe they’re the muses, and also women that I read about like Virginia Woolf or Jo March. I’m going to be like Jo March [laughs with audience].

Question: “What does it mean to be a woman writer instead of just a writer?”

Maxine Hong Kingston: I think Cynthia Ozick dealt with that in an interesting way. She wrote a letter to the “New York Review of Books,” and she says, “Don’t you call me a Jewish writer. I am a writer.” You know when she says something like that, you can imagine how Jewish people would say, “Wait a minute, where’s your Jewish pride? Are you a self-hating Jew that you don’t want to identify as a Jewish writer?” But what she wants to say is let’s not put labels on it, let’s not put gender labels, let’s not put race labels. We are this archetypal writer. So I think about it when I look at Wikipedia. Don’t look under Wikipedia and look under my name. It’s so bad. “She’s a Chinese American writer who won the National Book Award for her Chinese American writing.” Okay I don’t mind being called a Chinese American writer, but that’s not all I am. And what helps me from not worrying so much about these labels is that when I have looked in bookstores and libraries and at universities, I see my books being shelved as biography, autobiography, anthropology, sociology, China, California history, oh even once it was in Black Studies [laughter], and oh and then fiction and nonfiction. If you have that pink edition of The Woman Warrior. Anybody have it? Oh, I want to show you something. Just to show that you can escape categorization, on the front cover it says, “Winner of the National Book Critics Award for Nonfiction” and then you turn it over and the publishers put at the top “Fiction.” [laughter from Maxine and all] Yes, so I wouldn’t worry about how you’re categorized.

Question: “Is there any legitimate reason to include your first name on manuscript submissions? For example, first initials, last name, instead of gender identifiers”

Maxine Hong Kingston: Well, when I read this question I right away thought of E.R. Doctorow, who just left us, and then J.K. Rowling, who’s so big, and then E.E. Cummings. So what do people want to accomplish by having their initials and their last name? Is it because they would like, oh in the case of E.E. Cummings, does he want to be, like, really humble? So like, you know, all in small letters? He doesn’t want to be famous and for everybody to recognize his big name? Is it because you would like the reader to read without prejudices and without thinking that I am hearing from a man or a woman? Maybe you want to leave it mysterious who you’re hearing from? But it seems to me that you get the book out there and instantly they’re gonna find out who you are. So really I don’t think it makes any difference. It all depends on the writing itself and not who writes it, or the name on the cover.

Question: “What is your process of editing? Is it typically the same or does it vary?”

Maxine Hong Kingston: The best process of editing that I have is everything that I write I read aloud. When you read something aloud you’re using all your body and you can hear the way your voice sounds, you can feel how the words feel in your mouth, your body will get all of the emotions that are in those words. So that’s what you do, you read aloud, and all the punctuation just falls into place.

Question: “When did you know you were a writer?”

Maxine Hong Kingston: Three incarnations ago. [laughter] I think I’ve always been doing it. I have always felt this pouring forth of story. Of course, there was a time that I couldn’t write yet because I was just a baby. But my mother says that I was born talking. Actually, she started like, “Oh you were three months old and you were already talking,” and then she says, “Oh you were two months old,” then, “Oh you were talking all along…” Oh you know, so when I’m talking, I was doing talk story. So it’s all verbal and making up songs and … You know what I think I’ll do? I will say to you the first poem that I ever wrote—I mean, no not wrote, said. Okay, what it is, is that my, I had two great uncles, they’re called my third grandfather and my fourth grandfather, but they are my great uncles, and they drove a stagecoach which they had converted into a vegetable wagon. They had two black horses and they drove those horses into town to deliver the vegetables. And we lived on the second floor and my mother opened the window and she’d hang me out the window and she had me around the waist and she says, “Sing to your grandfathers! Make them laugh, tell them a poem,” and it was like she squeezed this poem out of me. [laughter] And so the translation is like, “Hey third grandfather, hey fourth grandfather, where are you going? Your horse shoes clippity clopping clippity clopping, where are you going?” [Collective awwww] And then my grandfathers would applaud and I thought, Hey this is—I like this! [laughter and clapping] And then when I translate that, I see again how different my first language is from English. Even the sounds of the horses, like Chinese “Cup cup-ka, cup cup-ka” and the “clippity clop clippity clop.” And you know it’s just always playing with those rhythms and different languages. So still, I’m not a writer, I’m just talking and babbling and I think I became a writer when I got the alphabet. And you can say anything in the alphabet. You can even write Chinese, using the phonetic alphabet. And so as soon as I got the alphabet, that’s when I became a writer, in this incarnation.

As we have been thinking about what Virginia Woolf has listed as what a woman needs in order to write a novel, as she says, I realized that I did not have a room of my own, I did not have money, I had to work for money, and that means that there’s no time, and I got married and I have a kid, and I protest, and you know what, I could write those books anyway. [laughter from Maxine, applause and clapping].

That is what we came here to find out, that we could write those books anyway. In spite of all the obstacles, in spite of all of that, that’s what writing against the waves is, it’s writing the books anyway. Thank you so much.




“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

Share This Post On