Maxine Hong Kingston
(27 October 1940-)
National Chiao-Tung University, Taiwan
See also the Kingston entry in DLB Yearbook: 1980.
BOOKS: The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (New York: Knopf, 1976; London: John Lane, 1977); China Men (New York: Knopf, 1980); Hawaii One Summer: 1978 (San Francisco: Meadow Press, 1987); Through the Black Curtain (Berkeley: Friends of the Bancroft Library, University of California, 1987); Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (New York: Knopf, 1989).
OTHER: “Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers,” in Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities, edited by Guy Amirthanayagam (London: Macmillan, 1982), pp. 55-56;”Personal Statement,” in Approaches to Teaching Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1991), pp. 23-25.
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS -UNCOLLECTED: “Duck Boy,” New York Times Magaune, 12 June 1977, pp. 54-58; “Reservations About China,” Ms., 7 (October 1978): 67-68; “San Francisco Chinatown: A View from the Other Side of Arnold Genthe’s Camera,” American Heritage, 30 (December 1978); 35-47; “A Writer’s Notebook from the Far East,” Ms., II (January 1983): 85-86; “An Imagined Life,” Michigan Quarterly Review, 22 (Fall 1983): 561-570; “A Chinese Garland,” North American Review, 273 (September 1988): 38-42; “Violence and Non-Violence in China,1989,” Michigan Quarterly Review,24(Winter 1990):62-67.
One of the most outspoken contemporary feminist writers, Maxine Hong Kingston states in her autobiographical book The Woman Warrior (1976), “The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. . . . What we have in common are the words at our backs. 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.” With prose that both unsettles Chinese American sexism and American racism, Kingston is a “word warrior” who battles social and racial injustice. It is perhaps surprising that Kingston could not speak English until she started school. Once she had learned it, however, she started to talk stories. Decades later, this once silent and silenced woman is becoming a notable Americanwriter.
Maxine Hong Kingston was born to Chinese immigrant parents, Tom Hong and Chew Ying Lan, in Stockton, California, on 27 October 1940. Her American name, Maxine, was after a blonde who was always lucky in gambling. Ting Ting, her Chinese name, comes from a Chinese poem about self-reliance. The eldest of the six Hong children, Kingston had two older siblings who died in China years before her mother came to the United States. Kingston recalls the early part of her school education as her “silent years” in which she had a terrible time talking. Later Maxine, who flunked kindergarten, became a straight-A student and won a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley. In 1962 she got her bachelor’s degree in English and married Earll Kingston, a Berkeley graduate and an actor. She returned to the university in 1964, earned a teaching certificate in 1965, and taught English and mathematics from 1965 to 1967 in Hayward, California. During their time at Berkeley, the Kingstons were involved in the antiwar movement on campus. In 1967 they decided to leave the country because the movement was getting more and more violent, and their friends were too involved in drugs. On their way to Japan the Kingstons stopped in Hawaii and stayed there for seventeen years.
At first Kingston taught language arts and English as a second language in a private school. In 1977 she became a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii at Honolulu. A few days after she finished the final revisions of China Men (1980), a Honolulu Buddhist sect claimed Kingston as a “Living Treasure of Hawaii.” Kingston herself, however, was still looking homeward, having always felt like a stranger in the islands. She and her husband moved back to California, while their son, Joseph, stayed in Hawaii and became a musician. In 1992 Kingston became a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Kingston’s writing relies heavily on memory and imagination. “We approach the truth with metaphors,” declared Kingston in a 1983 essay, “An Imagined Life.” She also told Paula Rabinowitz in a1987 interview, “The artist’s memory winnows out; it edits for what is important and significant. Memory, my own memory, shows me what is unforgettable, and helps me get to an essence that will not die, and that haunts me until I can out it into a form, which is writing.” Kingston denies, however, that the use of memory in her writing is simply a form of exorcism, but she insists that it is a way to give substance to the “ghosts,” or “visions,” in her life. Her writing also denies classification: she is recording the biography of a people’s imagination. Her first two books are Kingston’s biographies of ancestors whom she has never met and records of things about which she has only heard. Imagination becomes her way to approach these characters and incidents. For instance, she imagines five ways for her father’s arrival in America in China .Men. She is proud of this imaginative feat because by inserting multiple stories into her “biographical” works she is able to transcend generic boundaries and protect the illegal aliens she is writing about at the same time. “To have a right imagination is very powerful,” Kingston told Rabinowitz, “because it’s a bridge between reality.”
The major sources of Kingston’s memory and imagination are her mother’s stories and her father’s silence. Kingston’s father, Tom Hong, was a scholar trained in traditional Chinese classics and a teacher in New Society Village before his immigration. In the United States he washed windows until he had saved enough money to start a laundry in New York with three of his friends. Later, Hong was cheated out of his share of the partnership. He moved with his pregnant wife to Stockton and started managing an illegal gambling house for a wealthy Chinese American. A major part of his work, besides taking care of the club, was to be arrested; he was silent about his true name and invented a new name for each arrest. World War II put him out of this cycle of managing and getting arrested because the gambling house was shut down. After a period of unemployment he started his own laundry and a new life for himself and his family in America.
Brave Orchid (or Ying Lan, in Chinese), Kingston’s vocal and practical mother, was a doctor who practiced Western medicine and midwifery in China. She did not join her husband in New York until 1940, fifteen years after they had parted. In America, Brave Orchid exchanged her professional status for that of a laundrywoman, cleaning maid, tomato picker, and cannery worker. Undaunted by the difficulties in her life, this “champion talker” educated her children with “talk stories,” which included myth, legend, family history, and ghost tales. “Night after night my mother would talk-story until we fell asleep. I could not tell where the stories left off and the dreams began,” Kingston recalls in “The Women Warrior. Through her talk stories, Brave Orchid extended Chinese tradition into the lives of her American children and enriched their imagination. Yet Kingston is also aware of the fact that the mother’s talking stories were double-edged: “She said I would grow up a wife and slave, but she taught me the song of the woman warrior, Fa Mu Lan,” Kingston recollects in The Woman Warrior. While Brave Orchid’s storytelling was educational, it also reiterated patriarchal and misogynistic messages of traditional Chinese culture. Moreover, as in traditional Chinese education, Brave Orchid did not explain her stories. Kingston needed to interpret her mother’s stories and became a storyteller herself.
Her community also played a decisive role in Kingston’s writing. Comparing herself to Toni Morrison and Leslie Silko, Kingston argues that what makes their writings vivid and alive is their connection with community and tribe. Yet Kingston refuses to be “representative” of Chinese Americans. “A Stockton Chinese is not the same as a San Francisco Chinese,” Kingston stated in an interview with Arturo Islas. Unlike “the Big City” (San Francisco) and “the Second City” (Sacramento), Stockton, a city in the Central Valley of California, has a relatively small Chinese population. At most the Stockton Chinese American community is a minor subculture of Chinese America. Yet Stockton became a “literary microcosm” for Kingston, whose knowledge of China derives from its people. And the language spoken in this community, a Cantonese dialect called Say Yup, supplies Kingston with distinctive sounds and rhythms. What Kingston has done in her writing is to translate the oral tradition of her community into a written one.
Moreover, the physical environment and social class in which Kingston grew up played an important role in her “education” as a writer. Kingston spent her childhood on the south side of Stockton, an area populated by mostly working-class and unemployed people of mixed races. The “Burglar Ghosts,” “Hobo Ghosts,” and “Wino Ghosts” that crowded young Maxine’s childhood memory testify to the importance of street wisdom and survival skills. Kingston insists on the audiotape Maxine Hong Kingston: Talking Story (1990) that had she been born in a middle-class suburb, her struggle to be a writer would have been harder.
In contrast Kingston calls her seventeen years in Hawaii an extended vacation. Her time there provided her with the necessary distance and perspective to sort out identity problems and to finish her first two books, The Woman Warrior and China Men. Kingston was uncertain how her work would be received when she finished The Woman Warrior. She was ready to send this collection of fiction to other countries or keep it for posthumous publication if she failed to find a publisher. Luckily, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. gambled on this unknown writer and published Kingston’s book as nonfiction. To the surprise of both publisher and writer The Woman Warrior became an immediate best-seller. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction in 1976 and was rated as one of the top ten nonfiction books of the decade. As late as 1989 it was still on the trade-paperback best-sellers list. Kingston’s next book, China Men, earned her a National Book Award. Both books are widely taught in literature, women’s studies, sociology, ethnic studies, and history classes.
Kingston’s success, however, earned her the enmity of some Asian American critics. The most fundamental objection to The Woman Warrior is its generic status. Some Asian American critics question whether it is valid to call the book an autobiography when there are so many fictional elements included in her personal experience. Moreover, they fault Kingston for presenting her personal experience as “representative” of the Chinese American community. The real problem, however, seems to rest on those readers who have misconceived the text. In her 1982 essay “Cultural Mis-readings” Kingston herself laments the fact that many critics of the dominant culture have misread her and measured her against the stereotype of the exotic, inscrutable, mysterious Orient. Kingston’s first two books belong to the postmodernist mixed-genre tradition. Her books are not autobiographies as a specific genre but an “autobiographical form” that combines fiction and nonfiction.
One way to look at Kingston’s major works is to regard them as different stories of growth. In The Woman Warrior the first-person narrator explores her identity formation in relation to her mother and female relatives. In China Men the narrator grows in her understanding of the stories other male ancestors. Together these two books reveal the development of a Chinese American woman by uncovering the repressed stories of her family and of Chinese American history. Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989), her true fiction, on the other hand, reports the artistic education of a young Chinese American bohemian, Wittman Ah Sing. Another dominant theme in each of Kingston’s major books is finding a mode of articulation for her characters: the silent aunts and the narrator in The Woman Warrior, the reticent father and suppressed grandfathers in China Men, and the olaywright-to-be Wittman in Tripmaster Monkey. Evolving along with her writing, Kingston recorded her own growing pains and her struggles to find a distinctive voice.
Kingston’s main project in The Woman Warrior is to avenge oppression by reporting stories about the women in her family. The book opens with “No Name Woman,” a story other nameless aunt in China. This aunt became a family outcast for getting pregnant out of wedlock and finally drowned herself and her newborn baby in the family well after the villagers raided her house. Brave Orchid reveals this family secret to the young Maxine on the onset of the daughter’s menstruation to caution her against sexual indiscretion. At the same time, the mother attempts to suppress this story by forbidding the daughter to repeat it. Kingston, however, purposely reports the story as an act of political resistance to Chinese patriarchy and repression in general. Furthermore she contrives different reasons for her aunt’s pregnancy: the aunt could have been a victim of rape and patriarchy; she could also have been a passionate seductress and an individualist. Through active imagination, Kingston gives this aunt life and immortality in her own way.
In “At the Western Palace,” the fourth sectic of “fhe Woman Warrior, Kingston tells the story of her other silent Chinese aunt, Moon Orchid. Th “thrice-told tale” – told to Kingston by her sister, who in turn heard it from her brother – is the only third-person narrative in the book, and it communicates the hazard of poor adjustment to American reality. Moon Orchid, whose name alludes to her insubstantial presence, has lived comfortably in Hong Kong on the subsidy from her husband. Through the manipulation of Brave Orchid, Moon Orchid is forced to come to America to collect her lost husband and claim her title of first wife. After she discovers her thoroughly Americanized husband, a successful doctor who has remarried, to an English-speaking wife, Moon Orchid’s old Chinese life based on an illusion of changeless stability is shattered. Becoming paranoid and morbidly afraid of change, Moon Orchid repeatedly claims she is being followed by foreign “ghosts.” She is finally sent to a mental asylum, where she dies.
By telling Moon Orchid’s story, however, the narrator creates a voice for this oppressed woman from the East. Brave Orchid diagnoses Moon Orchid’s mental disorder as stemming from her mis-placed spirit. By recording her aunt’s disintegration, Kingston gives Moon Orchid a place in her “mother book” and appeases the aunt’s spirit. She even transforms the mental hospital into a quasi-utopian community of women. For the failing Moon Orchid her stay in the mental institution paradOxically brings her needed stability and a temporary place to anchor her spirit. She also finds acceptance from her “daughters,” psychiatric patients of different races, and therefore is able to talk “a new story” about perfect communication instead other old one of persecution.
The second section of The Woman Warrior,”White Tigers,” is an often anthologized and discussed part of the book because of its fantastic portrayal of a female avenger. This story of the swordswoman is derived from the tale of the leg-endary Chinese heroine Fa Mu Lan, who substitutes for her aging father in a military conscription.
In Kingston’s version the swordswoman studies martial arts from a pair of mysterious old couples and leads a peasant uprising against the tyrannous emperor. After she decapitates the misogynist baron who has exploited her village and ruined her child-hood, the swordswoman renounces her masculine power and returns to the traditional roles of daughter-in-law, wife, and mother. In “Personal Statement,” Kingston calls the story of the swordswoman “a fantasy that inspires the girls’ psyches and their politics.” By adopting the story of an exemplary woman who has successfully balanced her roles in the public sphere, which is almost always dominated by men, and in the private sphere of home, Kingston is imagining victory over the androcentric Chinese and Chinese American traditions.
While Kingston has been faulted by Asian American critics and sinologists for inaccurate allusions to Chinese stories, the strength of “White Tigers” comes from her rewriting of traditional legends and mythology. In “Personal Statement” Kingston explains that “myths have to change, be useful or forgotten. Like the people who carry them across the oceans, the myths become American.The myths I write are new, American.” In “White Tigers,” for example, Kingston creatively rewrote traditional myths and appropriates male heroic legends for her woman warrior. Through this creative mythmaking Kingston created a heroine who transgresses traditional gender boundaries. The swords-woman describes how her parents carve their names, vows, and grievances on her back. Although undeniably an act of bodily mutilation, this act rep-resents a coveted family acknowledgment for Chinese and Chinese American women. Furthermore Kingston’s description of the script on the swordswoman’s back is a deliberate combination of physical and artistic beauty: “If an enemy should flay me, the light would shine through my skin like lace.” Through this revision of the chant ofFa Mu Lan, ‘Kingston vicariously satisfied her urgent desire for family recognition.
The mother’s story, “Shaman,” is situated in the middle of the book. The Woman Warrior not only chronicles the development of the daughter Maxine but also the mother’s struggle for self-definition.”Shaman” records Brave Orchid’s passage from a traditional woman to a respectable woman doctor.
After the deaths of her two children born in China,Brave Orchid decided to leave her uneventful life in New Society Village to study medicine in Canton,the capital of the province. In the medical school Brave Orchid earns outstanding grades and summons the courage to challenge the “Sitting Ghost.” She volunteers to spend a night in a haunted room in the dormitory, reportedly defeats the ghost as it tries to attack her, and mobilizes the whole student body to participate in her exorcising ritual. In a sense Brave Orchid’s struggle with the Sitting Ghost is a symbolic battle with the limits of traditionalism.
Back in her village Brave Orchid uses her intelligence to establish herself as a renowned doctor. Not unlike the fantastic swordswoman, Brave Orchid “has gone away ordinary and come back miraculous, like the ancient magicians who came down from the mountains.”
Brave Orchid’s American daughter must also learn to fight the “ghosts” in her life. the Woman Warrior is subtitled Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. “Once upon a time,” the narrator recalls, “the world was so thick with ghosts, I could barely breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars.” While some readers may find this use of ghosts jarring, Kingston does not use the term in any pejorative sense. Her world of ghosts is a result other parents’ refusal to acknowledge America and of the shadowy residues of the Chinese past in her childhood and young-adult life. The narrator protests, “whenever my parents said ‘home,’ they suspended America.
They suspend America. They suspended enjoyment, but I did not want to go to China.” Significantly, the reconciliation of the mother and the daughter in “Shaman” occurs after the mother finally gives up on the ancestral homeland. “We have no more China to go home to,” the aged Brave Orchid laments. The daughter, now released from the “ghost” of China that was imposed on her as a child, can freely acknowledge her matriline age: “I am really a Dragon, as she is a Dragon, both of us born in the dragon years. I am practically a first daughter of a first daughter.” This reconciliation of mother and daughter precedes “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” the last section of The Woman Warrior, in which Kings-ton recalls her struggle with a personal voice from kindergarten to the narrative present: “My silence was thickest @ total @ during the three years that I covered my school paintings with black paint, “Kingston writes. The blackness of her paintings is not a sign of mental disturbance, as her American teachers have assumed: “I was making a stage curtain, it was the moment before the curtain parted and rose,” the adult Kingston explains. Once the curtain is up, there is “sunlight underneath, mighty operas.” This transformation of blackness-inarticu- lateness into carnivalesque drama provides an excellent metaphor for Kingston’s development as a writer. Later, in Tripmaster Monkey, a mighty opera unfolds in Wittman’s theatrical production. The psychodrama of young Maxine’s linguistic struggle is concretely enacted in an incident that takes place when she is in the sixth grade. One day young Maxine confronts and physically attacks a quiet Chinese American girl, admittedly her double, in a basement bathroom after school. But only “sobs, chokes, noises that were almost words” come out of the girl, never a comprehensible word. “If you don’t talk, you can’t have a personality,” Max- ine shouts (to herself as well as to the other girl). Maxine’s sadistic cruelty signifies her own inner trauma of inarticulateness. After this underground encounter, Maxine spends eighteen months in bed “with a mysterious illness” and the quiet girl lives under the protection other family for the rest other life.”?@ After years of silence the teenager Maxine finds an angry voice in a confrontation with her mother. Before this showdown Maxine has tried un- ‘ successfully to confess to the two-hundred-odd offenses that she has committed in her young life, such as tormenting the silent girl and stealing from the cash register at the family laundry. “If only I could let my mother know the list,” Maxine thought, “she @ and the world @ would become more like me, and I would never be alone again.” Yet the mother puts a stop to Maxine’s attempt at communication, and the pain of silence finally drives Maxine to shout out her defiance of Chinese- misogynism and her desire to leave home. This triumphant voicing, however, is immediately under- @nr h\r thp narrat-nr’s sorrowful reflection as an older and wiser person: “Be careful what you say. It comes true. It comes true. I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation. I enjoy the simplicity. Concrete pours out of my mouth to cover the forests with freeways and sidewalks. Give me plastic, periodical tables, t.v. dinner with vegetables no more complex than peas mixed with diced carrots. Shine floodlights into dark corners: no ghost.” Her ghost-free new life is based on a rootless sterility represented by the concrete and plastic culture. She has escaped the Chinese interdiction of female speech at the expense of a maternal inheritance of rich imagination. It takes years for Maxine to come to her right artistic voice.
At the end of The Woman Warrior, Maxine finishes her story of development with a return to her matrilineage. This reconnection is mediated through that talk. story. The daughter continues the story that her mother has started “The beginning is hers, the ending, mine” telling about T’sai Yen, a poet who had been abducted by a nomadic tribe, had two children with the barbarian chieftain, and later was ransomed back to China. T’sai Yen brought her song, “Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” back, and it “translated well.” For Kingston, T’sai Yen is an emblem of the artist par excellence, whose poetic power is capable of trans forming a weapon, the whistling arrow, into a musical instrument. Like the transformed swordswoman in “White Tigers,” T’sai Yen is a word warrior who serves as a model for the author of The Woman Warrior. Thus, the interpenetrating stories in The Woman Warrior provide a link between Kingston’s past and present. The central metaphor of the book is a Chinese knot in which various strands are interwoven into a work of folk art. Kingston, as “an outlaw knot-maker,” weaves the past and the present together into an intricate pattern to create her “mother book.” By talking stories she successfully builds a matrilineage to counterpoint the traditional Chinese patrilineage and unmuffles a personal yet rooted voice for herself. were supposed to be she decided to take the men’s stories out of her first book because they seemed to interfere with the Kingston wanted to call this father book “Gold Mountain Heroes.” Later, however, she changed the title to China Men because she. feared the original title might confirm a stereotypical concept that the early Chinese immigrants were merely gold diggers. Moreover, China Men, a literal translation of the Chinese characters for Chinese, overturns the use of the pejorative Chinamen. Hence Kingston’s neologism at once embattles the historical insult of the Chinese immigrants and proudly acknowledges the ancestral roots of Chinese America.
The foremost political agenda in China Men is to claim America for Chinese Americans. Directly influenced by William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain (1925), which she calls a biography of America, Kingston purposely starts her story in 1860, where Williams stopped, and carries the American story forward. “In story after story Chinese-American people are claiming America, which goes all the way from one character saying that a Chinese explorer found this place before Leif Ericsson did to another one buying a house here. Buying that house is a way of saying that America -and not China is his country,” declared Kingston in a 1980 interview with Timothy Pfaff. In China Men she extends the narrator’s personal story to re-construct a family history, which in turn questions the “official” national history of America. Like the swordswoman in “White Tigers” who substitutes for her father in conscription, the narrator wages a linguistic battle to claim America for four generations of China men. In The Woman Warrior Maxine is weaving a strand of matrilineal line into patrilineage; in China Men she weaves her own subjectivity into the strands of men’s stories. This “appropriation” of the male position also presents a continuation of the word warrior’s “revenge by report” proj
Kingston also attempts to “educate” her readers. She compares China Men to “a six-layer club sandwich or cake,” interlacing six present-day stories of her male relatives with vignettes of myths. She deliberately leaves it up to her readers to figure out the intertextual relationships of the myths and the modern stories. In the prologue, “On Discovery,” Kingston revises an episode from a classical Chinese romance: while searching for the Gold Mountain, Tang Ao gets trapped in the Land of Women. He is forced by a group of Amazons to have his ears pierced, to have his feet bound, and to serve at the queen’s court. In Tang Ao’s story Kingston embeds a double-edged criticism of Chinese sexism and American racism. By highlighting Tang Ao’s suffering in his state ofeffeminization,Kingston created a feminist critique of Chinese sexist practices and an allegory of the ??emasculation??of the Chinese immigrants in America.By opening the book with Tan Ao??s story Kingston underlines her two main goals in China Men :to retrieve the Chinese past and to reexamine American history.
The narrator of China Men identifies herself as a family historian with the self-assigned and sometimes distrubing task of safekeeping family histories and memories. In a chance encounter with her newly immigrated aunt from Hong Kong, for example, the narrator first feels reluctant to listen to the aunt??s horror stories of the past, but then she recalls her “duty”: “I did not want to hear how she suffered, and then I did .I did have a duty to hear it and remember it.” In ??Personal Statement?? Kingston talks about how women play the role of keeper and weaver of stories, whereas men tend to alienate themselves from the past: ??The men have trouble keeping Chinese ways in new lands. What good are the old stories??KWhy not be rid of the mythical, and be a free American??? Claming an American birthright through storytelling, however, the daughter-storyteller proves the men??s desire to forget the past to be mistaken. Kingston??s ??rememory??of family struggles exposes a history of discrimination and paves the way for personal and communal healing.
As she opens The Women Warrior by retrieving the silenced discourse of a nameless aunt, Kingston prefaces the present-day stories in China Men with a story of her father??s repressed Chinese past.?? You say with the few words and the silence: No stories. No past. No China,?? the narrator says of her father??s denial of the past. She aims specifically to counterpoint his repressive silence:?? You fix yourself in the present, but I want to hear the stories about the rest of your life, the Chinese stories?K.I??ll tell you what I suppose from your silences and 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. ??In ??The Father from China ??the daughter-narrator proceeds to ??immigration to New York. Later, Kingston admitted that she found her father??s reactions ??satisfying??because she has successfully engaged him in a literary dialogue through marginalia that he wrote in a copy of a Chinese translation of China Men .Tom Hong wrote his commentary on his daughter??s stories in beautiful Chinese calligraphy ,giving her the satisfaction of having been treated as an intellectual equal instead of as an object of a abusive language in her father??s misogynist curses. Moreover, she finally ??lured?? her father out of his habitual reticence and won his appreciation. Thus, the daughter succeeded in returning the repressed language to the father through her literary creation.
In ??The American Father?? Kingston describes the father she had known as a child in Stockton. The daughter??s most painful memory in this section is perhaps the recollection of how her father became a ??disheartened man?? after losing his job in the gambling house. His inertia was finally broken when her sister made him so angry that he leaped from his easy chair to chase her (although this sister claims that it was the narrator who was chased.) Lured into action the father starts the family laundry business.?? The American Father?? ends with a description of how the father planted many trees near their house,?? trees that take years to fruit,?? symbolizing the slow yet firm rooting of the Hong family in America.
??The Great Grandfather from the Sandlewood Mountain?? and two vignettes on mortality again foreground the importance of speech. As a contract worker on a Hawaiian sugar plantation, Bak Goong (Great Grandfather) is forbidden to talk during work. As a trickster figure, the ??talk addict?? Bak Goong then invents ways, such as singing and coughing, to circumvent this interdiction:?? The deep, long loud coughs, barking and wheezing, were almost as satifying as shouting. He let out scold disguised as coughs.?? His final liberating act is to organize a shout party for his fellow Chinese workers. He mobilizes the workers to bury their homesickness and anger in a huge hole:?? They had dug an ear into the world, and were telling the earht their secrets. ??After the party they could and sing at work without interference from the white overseers because the workers?? unrestrained demonstration of emotion and strength has caused fear among the whites. Moreover, the new ritual of shouting attests to the fact that these Chinese workers in Hawaii are actrually Americans because they help to build the land. As Bak Goong proudly exclaims,?? We can make up customs because we??re the founding ancestors of this place.??
??The Grandfathers of the Sierra Nevada Mountains,?? ??The Laws,?? and ??Alaska China Men?? highlight the tenacity of the Chinese Americans faced with racial discrimination in the American legal system and in daily life. The narrator places her emphasis on the collective identity of Chinamen-her own grandfather included-in their efforts to conquer natural obstacles and to survive exclusion in American. The American railroad system is physical evidence of China men??s contributions. As the Civil War, China Men banded the nation North and South, East and West, with crisscrossing steel.?? Thus, the granddaughter-narrator proudly calls her forefathers ??the binding and building ancestors.?? The narrator provides a vivid description of how Ah Goong and other Chinese workers risked their lives setting off dynamite manually in baskets dangling over ravines. The group spirit of the Chinese workers is most apparent in a rail-road-strike episode. After failing to gain equal treatment with white workers decide to stage a strike and pass on the plan inside the summer solstice cake. Their slogan for the strike is ??free men, no coolies, calling for fair working conditions,?? and their pursuit of freedom resonates with the spirit of American Revolution.
In the middle of China Men Kingston includes a catalogue of anti-Chinese exclusion laws from 1868 to 1978.This intrusion of legal documents at first seems incongruous .Yet the juxtaposition of Kingston??s personal language and government legal language underlies the victimzation of Chinese American by political manipulation. At the end of ??The Grandfather from the Sierra Mountains” the narrator describes how Chinese workers were “driven out,” even murdered, after the railroad was completed. Speaking as the daughter of those Chinese American victims, Kingston again illustrates the importance of recovering and remembering the past.
“The Making of More Americans,” “The Wild Man of the Green Swamp,” and “the Adventure of Lo Bun Sun” include Chinese American and sinocized European adventure stories about where and how Chinese immigrants build their homes. It also registers an ambivalence about where the “home” for Chinese Americans is. Each of the protagonists in the five family stories told in “The Making of More Americans,” for instance, needs to decide on their home address. The ghost of Say Goong (Fourth Grandfather) lingers until his brother tells him to go back to China; cousin Mad Sao cannot continue his American life until he escorts the hungry ghost of his mother back to her home village; paranoid Uncle Bun flees America. Kau Goong (Great Maternal Uncle), on the other hand, renounces old China and his old wife and is buried in America; the Hong Kong aunt and uncle immigrate to become the newest addition to the narrator’s Chinese American family.
“The Brother in Vietnam” illustrates another identity problem for Chinese Americans and clearly presents Kingston’s pacifist message. Stationed in various Asian countries during the Vietnam War, he feels lost and tries to find a “center” of identity for himself. His anxiety turns into nightmares and muttering in his sleep, which wins him the title of “Champion Complainer.” The brother feels ambivalent when he passes the military-security check, which serves as evidence of his Americanness: “The government was clarifying that the family was really American, not precariously American but super-American, extraordinary secure Clearance Americans.” Yet he refuses to be trained as a language specialist for fear of being made to interrogate prisoners of wars. His refusal of linguistic exploitation by the military reinforces his kinship with his sister word warrior.
The epilogue, “On Listening,” circles back to the prologue, “On Discovery.” The narrator recounts a warm discussion among young Filipino Americans about the whereabouts of the real Gold Mountain. Together with “The Brother in Vietnam,” this finale extends the text to the next generation of Asian Americans, as the spirit of inquiry and the ability to listen are passed on. Furthermore, Kingston illustrates how the daughter-narrator, in her attentiveness to the heteroglossic “voices” around her. blossoms into an expert storyteller.
For years Kingston was reluctant to visit China for fear that what she discovered there might invalidate everything she was thinking and writing. Her impression of China was also colored by the misogynist Chinese sayings she had heard as a child. In an 1978 essay, “Reservations about China,” Kingston also criticized the practice of aborting female fetuses in Communist China. In 1980, after Finishing China Men, Kingston finally visited China and saw for the First time the China that she has created in her imagination. As she told Rabinowitz, “I think I found that China over there because I wrote it. It was accessible to me before I saw it, because I wrote it. The power of imagination leads us to what’s real. We don’t imagine Fairylands.” The warm welcome she received from many Chinese gave Kingston a sense of homecoming, of going back to a place she had never seen but had imagined so well. Having used up her Chinese memory, she could concentrate on her American reality in her next book, Tripmaster Monkey.
In a 1980 essay titled “The Coming Book” Kingston envisioned writing a book that “will sound like the Twentieth Century” when read aloud. “The reader will not need a visual imaginadon, only ears.” Nine years later, Tripmaster Monkey:His Fake Book was published. In this heteroglossic novel, Kingston continues her project of claiming America and further explores the mentality of Chinese American males. The male protagonist, Witt-man Ah Sing, a fifth-generation Californian newly graduated from Berkeley, is a Joycean young artistand a self-appointed playwright of his tribe. Set in the 1960s, Tripmaster Monkey recounts Wittman’s odyssey through San Francisco) Oakland, Sacramento, and Reno and his efforts to create his own “deep- roots American theater” “A Pear Garden of the West” that will perform a continuous play for many nights. Like Kingston’s earlier books, Tripmaster Monkey is constructed around a web of Chinese intertexts, from the third person narrator, identified by Kingston as Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy, to the Chinese classical romances that serve as sources for Wittman’s extended ex- travaganza. Nevertheless, Kingston skillfully translates these Chinese intertexts into Chinese Ameri- can idioms with many allusions to Western literature, movies, and bohemian culture. The title of the novel serves as a metaphor for the mixture of the culture of the bohemians and that of China. Wittman, experiencing drug-induced “trips” in the novel, imitates the mythical Monkey King from a Chinese classic, Journey to the West. The Monkey King is a rebellious and mischievous trick- ster figure who is capable of seventy-two transformations and who, according to legend, is responsible for the introduction of Buddhism into China from the West (India). As Wittman declares to his “would-be girifriend” Nanci, “I am really the present-day U.S.A. incarnation of the King of the Monkeys.” Like the Monkey King, Wittman wants to unsettle established institutions with his outrageous conduct. Significantly, in his one-man show Wittman raves against misleading reviews that describe his play as “East meets West” and “Exotic” by claiming that the play itself is “The Journey In the West.” Positioning himself in the West, the American monkey deploys his play to embody his American “trips.” In his rebuttal Wittman also speaks for Kingston, whose works have often been misread. The novel’s subtitle, His Fake Book, again alludes to Journey to the West, in which the Monkey King discovers that the Heart Sutra he has sought is blank and jumps to the conclusion that the scrolls are fake. The scrolls turn out to be authentic after all, but only people with wisdom and insight can decipher them. Its JOM Another achievement of linguistic innovation. Thenovel displays an amazing verbal diversity, and, as Kingston predicted, it appeals to the reader??s aural sensitivity. It is also a complete American book in that Kingston constantly plays with modern American language: ??I already finished writing those Chinese rhythms. So I was trying to write a book with American rhythms,?? Kingston told interviewer Marilyn Chin. In the ??Pig Woman?? episode, for instance,Wittman comes across a Chinese American girl, Judy Louis, on the bus to Oakland. Bored by Judy??s gibberish, Wittman suddenly visualizes her as a blue boar: ??He leaned back in his seat, tried forward, and she remained a blue boar. (You an make a joke about it, you know. ??Boar?? and ??bore??).?? The fantastic metamorphosis reminds the reader of the Circe story, in which men are changed into pigs through magic. It also alludes to the Monkey King??s marvelous power of transformation and to his companion, Piggy. In Tripmaster Monkey Kinston is a magician with words, transforming linguistic puns into imagined reality. This playfulness with language in also strongly reminiscent of James Joyce??s Ulysses (1922), another heteroglossic novel.
Wittman??s name is another deliberate linguistic name. Wittman Ah Sing is a ??man of wit?? aspiring to be an heir to the great American poet Walt Whitman?Awho ??sings?? about ??I?? so powerfully in his poetry. In an interview with Shelly Fisher Fishkin, Kinston admitted the srong influence of Whitman on Tripmaster Monkey, expressing admiration for the freedom and the wildness of Witman??s language, which to her sounds as though it could have come from modern 1960s slang. She even uses lines from Leaves of Grass ?Vsuch as ??Trippers and Askers???Xas chapter headings in the novel. Yet her protagonist is not exactly Whitman. While trying to name his son after his favorite poet, Wittman??s father, Zeppline Ah Sing, misspelled the name, demonstrating the limitation of imitation and making a transformation that is necessary if Wittman is to be a unique Chinese American poet.
Ah Sing is also an American name that allows Wittman to claim his Chinese American identity. In his sols show Wittman discusses the origin of his American surname: ??I??m one of the American Ah Sings. Probablly there are no Ah Sings in China. You may laugh behind my family??s back, that we keep the Ah and think it means something. I know it??s just a sound. A vocative that goes in front of everyone??s names?K.In that Ah, you can hear we had an ancestor who left a country where the language has sounds that doesn??t mean anything–la and ma and wa?Xlike music.?? The meaningless yet musical vocative in this ??new American name?? signifies the Ah Sings?? link to their Chinese ancestors as well as their new American identity.
In an interview with Phyllis Thompson, Kingstion calls Wittman ??a prankster, ?? and ??a ne??er do well.?? Wittman is unattractive. He is biased, egocentric, chauvinist, and has other unlikable characteristics. He snubs F.O.B.?Xfresh off the boat?XChinese immigrants while he himself is sensitive about being discriminated against. The feminist narrator is critical of Wittman??s relationship with his ??wife, ?? Tana, commenting constantly to the reader that Wittman is going to pay for his androcentric attitude. Yet while Kinston sometimes criticizes him, at other times her treatment of him seems to be almost affectionate, and she always seems to view him with interest.
Kingston??s distanced, yet interested, attitude toward this male protagonist indicates a significant breakthrough. After her two successful ??memoirs?? written mainly from a first-person perspective, Kingston shifted to the third-person point of view for her novel to get away from the shadow of egotism. By writing about a male character, or ??The Other, ?? from a distanced perspective, Kingston told Marilyn Chin, she finally found an artistic and psychological solution to her ??long struggle with pronouns.?? Realistically, Kingston pointed out to Fishkin, women did not have such exciting and dramatic lives in the 1960s as men did. By providing a female narrator, furthermore, Kingston dramatizes the tension between male and female perspectives: ??He??s very macho-spirit. The narrator is the great female, so he struggles with her and fights with her and refuses to accept reality. He has to learn to be one with the female principles of the world.?? At the end of Tripmaster Monkey the narrator allows Wittman to have the spotlight to himself and blesses him in a material tone: ??Dear American monkey, don??t be afraid. Here, let me tweak your ear, and kiss your other ear.?? This omniscient narrator is also reminiscent of the storyteller in Chinese folk literature and classic romances, who introduces necessary information and guides the reader. Drawing on the Chinese tradition of talk story, Kingston created her female storyteller-narrator to monitor her trickster monkey.
Wittman is a conscientious young artist-to-be struggling to find his own voice. Born backstage to members of a vaudeville troupe, Wittman ??really does have show business in his blood.?? His artistic ambition is to be ??the first bad-ass Chiba Man bluesman of America?? so that he can create a Chinese American culture that consists of something besides beauty contests and handlaundries. The most important lesson for Wittman, however, is to learn that military heroism, as represented by the heroes in the Chinese romances, is inadequate. To be a true artist Wittman needs to become a pacifist.
Kinston??s own pacifism is readily apparent in Tripmaster Monkey. She took part in antiwar marches during her years in Berkeley and worked with a group of resisters in Hawaii to provide sanctuary to deserters. In a 1990 essay titled ??Violence and Non-Violence in China, 1989, ?? she praised the Chinese students who attempted to achieve democracy through peaceful means, and she actively supports prodemocracy Chinese student groups. In Tripmaster Monkey Kingston??s message is unmistakably pacifist: ??Our monkey, master of change, staged a fake war, which might very well be displacing some real war, ?? the narrator says in describing the effect of Wittman??s three-day play.
Wittman??s carnivalesque play is a crystallization of the love of fun. He asserts that instead of digging for gold, his Chinese ancestors came to America to have a good time: ??The difference between us and other pioneers, we did not come here for the gold streets. We came here to play. And we??ll play again. Yes, John Chinaman means to enjoy himself all the while?K.We played for a hundred years plays that went on for five hours a night, continuing the next night, the same long play going on for a week without repeats, like ancient languages with no breaks between words, theater for a century, then dark.?? Wittman??s assertion undermines the stereotype of the money-thirsty Chinese and values fun over materialism. In writing Tripmaster Monkey Kinston was finally able to use her abundant sense of humor to the full. She commented to Arturo Islas that her readers often fail to understand the humor in her works, such as the ??sitcom?? in Moon Orchard??s story and the trick Bak Goong plays on the white missionary women: ??I guess when people come to ethnic writing, ?? Kinston remarked, ??they have such a reverence for it or are so scared that they don??t want to laugh.?? Wittman??s outrageous language and behavior, however, force the reader out of this false sense of reverence.
Moreover, Wittman??s play is at once universal and culturally specific. His theater is based on the principle of expansion and inclusion: ??I??m including everything that is being left out, and everybody who has no place.?? The content of the play, however, is distinctively Chinese American, mixing Chinese stories and American vaudeville. Bringing back the tradition of the extended theatrical performance, Wittman is able to define a community. As the narrator states, ??Community is not built once-for-all; people have to imagine, practice, and recreate it.?? From a lonely romantic contemplating suicide at the beginning of the novel, Wittman becomes an artist able to shoulder the responsibility of re0creating his community. His play, like Kingston??s writing, directly opposes American individualism and embodies the collective spirit of the Chinese American community.
Kingston is now teaching in the English department at the University of California, Berkeley, and writing a book that is tentatively titled ??The Fifth Book of Peace, ?? in which she writes about her father??s death and the loss of an earlier draft for the book in the 1991 Oakland fire. She links this fire thematically to the Vietnam War, writing about the war as it is represented by the protagonist of Tripmaster Monkey and about her warrior woman??s heroic homecoming.
Kingston??s works have enchanted and inspired many readers while enraging some others. No matter how her works are received, Kingston succeeds in her ??revenge?? by reporting the crimes of sexism and racism. Despite her diminutive physical stature, she deserves the title of a word warrior in every sense. Kingston??s literary innovations are also significant contributions to American literature. As Kingston herself says, ??I am creating part of American literature?K.?? Contemporary American literature has been enriched by the addition of the powerful words of Maxine Hong Kingston.
Timothy Pfaff, ??Talk With Mrs,. Kingston, ?? New York Times Book Review, 19 June
1980, pp. 1, 25-27;
Arturo Islas, ??Maxine Hong Kingston, ?? in Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking
1983), pp. 11-19;
Phyllis Hodge Thompson, ??This Is the Story I Heard: A Conversation with Maxine Hong
Kingston, ?? Biography, 6 (Winter 1993): 1-2;
Paula Rabinowitz, ??Eccentric Memories: A Conversation with Maxine Hong
Kingston, ??Michigan Quarterly Review, 26 (Winter 1987): 177-187; Marilyn Chin,
??A MELUS Interview: Maxine Hong Kingston, ?? MELUS, 16 (Winter 1980-1990):
Maxine Hong Kingston: Talking Story [audio tape] (NAATA, 1990);
Shelly Fisher Fishkin, ??Interview with Maxine Hong Kingston, ?? American Literary
History, 3 (Winter 1991): 782-791
Women Writers (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990);
Cheung, ??Don??t Tell??: Imposed Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior, ??
PMLA, 103 (March 1988): 162-174;
Cheung, ??Talk Story: Counter-Memory in Maxine Hong Kingston??s China Men, ??
Tamkang Review, 24 (Autumn 1993): 21-37;
Cheung, ??The Woman Warrior versus The Chinaman Pacific: Must a Chinese American
by Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp.60-81;
The Woman Warrior, ?? in Ethnic Passages: Literary Immigrants in Twentieth-
Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp.154-190;
Maxine Hong Kingston??s The Woman Warrior, MELUS, 12 (Fall 1985): 5-12;
Suzanne Juhasz, ??Maxine Hong Kingston: Narrative Technique and Female Identity, ??
In Contemporary American Women Writers, edited by Catherine Rainwater and
William J. Scheik (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985), pp.173-189
David Leiwei Li, ??China Men : Mazine Hong Kinston and the American Literary Canon, ??
American Literary History, 2 (Fall 1990): 482-502;
Li, ??The Naming of a Chinese American ??I??: Cross Cultual Sign/fications in The Woman
Warrior, ?? Criticism, 30 (Fall 1988): 497-515;
Li, ??The Production of Chinese American Literary Tradition: Displacing American
Orientalist Discourse, ?? in Redefining the Literatures of Asian-America, edited by
Shirley Lim and Amy Ling (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), pp.319-
Shirley Lim,ed.,Approaches to Teaching Kingston??s The Women Worrior(New York:Modern Language Association of America,1991.);
Amy Ling,Between Worlds:Women Worrior of Chinese Ancestry(New York:Pergamon Press,1990);
Ling,??Thematic Threads in Maxine Hong Kingston??s The Women
Carol Neubauer,??Developing Ties to the Past:Photography and Other Sources of
Information in Maxine Hong Kingston??s China Men,??MELUS,10(Winter 1983):17-36;
Lee Quinby,??The Subject of Memoir:The Woman warrior??s Technology of Idiographic Selfhood,??in De/Colonizing the Subject:The Poetics of Gender in Women??s Autobiography,edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson(Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press,1992),pp.297-320;
Leslie Rabine,??No Lost Paradise:Social Gender and Symbolic Gender in the Writings of Maxine Hong Kingston,??Signs,12(Spring 1987):471-492;
Roberta Rubenstein,??Bridging Two Cultures:Maxine Hong Kingston,??in her Boundaries of the Self:Gender,Culture,Fiction(Urbana:University of Illinois Press,1987),pp.164-189;
Malini Johar Schueller,??Theorizing Ethnicity and Subjectivity:Maxine Hong Kingston??s Tripmaster Monkey and Amy Tan??s The Joy Luck Club,??Genders,15(Winter 1992):72-85;
Linda Ching Sledge,??Maxine Hong Kingston??s China Men:The Family Historian as EpicPoet,??MELUS,7(1980):3-22;
Sidonie Smith,A Poetics of Women??s Autobiography:Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation(Bloomington :Indiana University Press,1987);
Sau-ling Cynthia Wong,??Autobiography as Grided Chinatown Tour?Maxine Hong Kingston??s The Woman Warrior and the Chinese-American Autobiography Controversy,??in Multicultural Autobiography:American Lives, edited by James Robert Payne(Knoxdville:University of Kentucky Press,1992),pp.248-275;
Wong,??Necessity and Extravagance in Maxine Hong Kingston??s The Woman Worrior:Art and the Ethnic Experience,??MELUS,15(1988):3-26;
Wong,Reading Asian American Literature:Form Necessity to Extravagance (Priceton,N.J.:Priceton University Press,1993.)
A collection of Kingston??s papers is at the Bancroft Library,University of Califonia at Berkeley.