Author Maxine Hong Kingston, ever the reader, felt left out of the books of her childhood. There were virtually no Chinese-Americans in the stories she found in the Stockton, Calif., public library and precious few girls. But "in a way it's not so horrible to be left out," Kingston says today, "because then you could see at a very early age that there's an entire mother lode of stories that belong to you and nobody else.
"You think, my goodness, I know a lot of girl stories. You could make up half of literature because of all the women that have been left out. And Chinese Americans."
Kingston tapped that lode, first with "Woman Warrior," her fact-and-fantasy memoir of a girlhood among ghosts based on stories her mother told her. Then with "China Men," stories of men who came to the United States to build railroads and work the mines and were largely ignored in the history books. Kingston won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976 for "Woman Warrior" and is now at work on a novel about a young Chinese-American trying to find his role in the Bay Area at the start of the 1960s.
Many American readers don't know what it's like, being left out of books. But Kingston, whose early identity was wrapped up in books, found she projected herself into what she read, no matter the characters' backgrounds.
"I read all of Louisa May Alcott, always identifying with all those girls but popping out of the story when one of them married 'a little Chinaman and he was so odd.' He wasn't beautiful like the other people in the story. Then you start to think about where you belong in literature. Are you that person? I thought a lot about that," Kingston recalled on the patio of the home in Studio City where she lives with her husband Earll, an actor.
"I always knew the people around me were very dramatic and I never saw their story in any of the books I read. I wanted to put their story into literature but when I was younger, I didn't know how."
What evidently helped her find her way into literature was reading books by Howard Pease, who lived in her hometown of Stockton. In one of his adventure stories, "Thunderbolt House," Pease "named the streets, and he showed the parks that were in Stockton and the neighborhood, and you were asking about writing what you know, well, it's so exciting to read about what you know, to find out it was possible to put Stockton and Stockton streets in a book and for this man to be born in Stockton and write these books." Kingston met Pease when she was in high school. "All that made it more possible. I could say, 'Hey, I'm going to do all this.' "
In these days of identities, does Kingston consider herself a feminist writer, an American writer, a Chinese-American writer or a feminist Chinese-American writer?
"I'm all those things. I suppose some people would find any kind of label very confining because you always want to be able to be a writer for all people. Not just because of being commercial, but because language is a way to get from any human being to another human being.
"If I'm called a Chinese-American writer, it has that connotation, 'Well, she's pretty good for a Chinese-American . . . .' "
There do appear to be more Asian-American writers in print today, more Asian-American playwrights at work. Are more people finding their voices or are more people finally listening?
"I think there are more people writing. There are more small presses. There are more theaters that we founded ourselves, not just in California, but in New York and Seattle. But we are finding how hard it is to write when the audience doesn't know the background.
"I had envied other writers, mainstream writers. I always thought they could easily make Biblical or Greek and Roman mythology references. I thought they could do that while I had to be encumbered doing great sections of boring exposition because nobody knew my background. But I'm beginning to see things very differently. Now I think that the general population doesn't remember Greek and Roman myths. They don't remember the Bible. So everybody's in the same boat."
Kingston, 44, wrote the Chinese scenes in her first two books based largely on what her family remembered. She deliberately hadn't gone there herself and consciously sought to recreate "the myth of China" as the people recalled it. Then she went in briefly once from Hong Kong and last fall took her first extended trip through China with a group of other writers cosponsored by UCLA and the Chinese Writers Association.
Kingston's parents, who were born in China and have never returned, still live in Stockton. What, she was asked, did they want to know about their old village when she got back?
"The most important thing, and I would never have predicted it, they wanted to know was whether people were wearing shoes. If I had thought they would have asked that, I would have looked. I think they were all wearing shoes." Her mother didn't believe her. She thought they were so poor they would be barefoot.
"I looked through my photographs and showed them that my cousins had on shoes." Her mother said they put on the shoes because they knew she was coming.
For Kingston herself, it was a trip of interior as well as exterior discovery. "I learned that I'm very much like a Chinese peasant," Kingston said. "I'm one of them. It was a wonderful linguistic pilgrimage because we started our trip in the north; the language was thoroughly foreign. We always used translators. I couldn't understand anything. The longer we were there, the further south we traveled, the more I could communicate. By the time we got to Canton, I really surprised myself. I gave a speech in public in Chinese. I felt very proud of myself because I spoke peasant Chinese. I thought all those communists must think my class credentials are impeccable. I'm certain none of them will give a speech at a formal banquet in peasant language."
She visited her family's village in Guangdong province, discovering little things that almost made her wish she'd been there before writing "Woman Warrior." Yet she also found that memory and story telling are accurate. "Everything was very much as I had imagined. The people were just as dramatic as I thought they'd be."