“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you . ...” --"The Woman Warrior”
Usually after lecturing to students, author Maxine Hong Kingston becomes a Dear Abby for would-be Asian-American writers. She said the students, one-by-one, take her into the corner. And they all describe the same predicament and ask the same question.
“They say they are majoring in engineering or premed and what do I think about them dropping out and becoming a writer?” said Kingston, author of “The Woman Warrior” and “China Men.”
Kingston spoke twice recently at a multicultural women’s writing conference at UC Irvine, where 34% of the freshman class is Asian. Counselors there say many Asian students bow to pressure from immigrant parents to shun the arts and work hard to land jobs in the more lucrative fields of computers and medicine. Kingston encouraged them to lower their standards of living so they don’t find themselves working so hard that they can’t do what “makes living worthwhile.”
Kingston--who says she was “born to write"--does not understand people who do not rebel “against anyone who would try to suppress their artistic spirit.”
Indeed, the most exciting stories come from immigrants, according to Kingston, 45, one of eight children of immigrant parents and the first Chinese-American to write a best seller that is also considered modern literature. Ten years ago, she received the National Book Critics Circle Award for “The Woman Warrior,” a mix of family secrets, history and sometimes violent myths she heard as a child growing up in Stockton, working in her parents’ laundry. She now writes full time from the home in Studio City she shares with her husband, Earll Kingston, an actor.
“I am not a good person,” she told an audience of ethnic women writers in her delicate, self-described “pressed duck” voice. She tucked graying shoulder-length hair behind an ear. “I knew people would not like the stories I told. I did it anyway. I just risked it. You tell the truth no matter who it hurts.”
A bantam warrior with a sly sense of humor, Kingston blends yin and yang in her autobiographies. In the “The Woman Warrior,” Chinese women are sometimes slaves who cower and scurry “like pheasants that have been raised in the dark for soft meat.” Or they may be like her “No-Name” aunt who, shamed by an illegitimate birth, drowned herself and her newborn in a well.
But there also are heroines like Fa Mu Lan, the fearless swordswoman of myth who chops off men’s heads. And they include Kingston’s own mother, Brave Orchid (translated into English), who at 38 obtained a license to practice medicine in China during a 15-year separation from her husband, who was sending her money from his laundry in America.
And they include Kingston herself, who tries to sort it all out. Caught between glorious legend and grubby reality, she yearned to grow up “American normal.”
Forged a Path
Considered a milestone in American feminist literature, “The Woman Warrior” also forged a path for other ethnic American writers to follow. Sandra Cisneros, Chicana author of “The House on Mongo Street,” said “The Woman Warrior” inspired her because she had never before seen in print anyone directly addressing one’s “foreignness” in American culture. “There were no models to say it’s OK to write about my otherness. It was greatly reassuring to me.”
The book is being adapted for film and stage, Kingston said.
Her work, however, is more appreciated in the general population than in the Chinese-American community, where many believe she has misrepresented the Chinese-American experience, distorted Chinese myths and perpetuated stereotypes of the Chinese, said Kingkok Cheung, assistant professor in the English department at UCLA. “Men say she caters to trendy feminism. I think all these attacks are a bunch of nonsense. Anyone has a right to write about their own experiences.”
Many Chinese-American students, however, say they relate to her experiences, said Elaine Kim, assistant professor of Asian-American Studies at UC Berkeley. Terri Quinto, a UCI junior, came to both Kingston’s talks. A native of Hong Kong, Quinto said she wants to land a job in computer science but also hopes to write. “One thing for sure,” she said of Kingston, “she makes me proud to be Chinese.”
Kim said young women students particularly appreciate Kingston’s account in “The Woman Warrior” of an imaginary and symbolic attack on a female schoolmate whose quietness infuriated her. Kim said the girl is an alter ego for Kingston, whose own silence had once been mistaken for a low IQ.
“I am going to make you talk, you sissy girl,” she tells the terrified girl in the book. She writes: “If she had little bound feet, the toes twisted under the balls, I would have jumped up and landed on them--crunch!--stomped on them with my iron shoes.” “ ‘Woman Warrior’ is about me, but me at different times of my life. I am no longer those people,” Kingston said in response to a question from an audience of about 300 mostly non-Asian women.
Her parents, she told the audience, are now both proud of the popular and critical acclaim her writing has received.
But until she published her first book at age 36, she said, she had to live with a sense of having disappointed them. “Their way of encouraging us is to keep telling us we aren’t any good. You come home with an A-minus and it’s not good enough. Not everybody responds well to that. Some children get crushed by it.” The only ones who make it are those who say, “I’ll show you, I’ll do it right,” Kingston said.
Wife and Slave
Only recently, she said, her father, an unfulfilled poet, stopped saying of her, “What a smart child she was. Too bad she didn’t turn out right.” Her mother, who had given up medical practice to join her husband working in the family laundry, had told her she would grow up to be a wife and a slave.
But at the same time, Brave Orchid indirectly encouraged her writing with “talk-stories.” “She was such a powerful storyteller,” Kingston said, “I feel as if I am her technician.”
Kingston started writing poetry at age 8. Pressing clothes in the laundry, she said, “words would come. . . .”
Later, she said, she searched for the “right livelihood"--work that would support her writing habit as well as give back energy. In high school and college, she worked as a clerk-typist. “I knew it was boring and would leave my head alone. But I guess I got confused because it looks physically like being a writer.” She worked on novels on company time and was fired twice.
At UC Berkeley, where she majored in English, she wrote for the college newspaper. But she felt her “voice was trapped,” and her stories never fit the inverted pyramid form of writing news with the least important information at the end.
She taught creative writing at the University of Hawaii. But there, the clumsy dialogue she read in students’ papers disturbed her own writing, she said.
Eventually, she taught at a boarding school in Hawaii. There, she wrote “The Woman Warrior.” Sometimes, she said, she wrote in the projection booth while showing films to students.
During the 17 years she lived in Hawaii with her husband and their only child, Kingston was named an official “Living Treasure of Hawaii” by a Honolulu Buddhist sect. She also wrote a series of essays for the New York Times on such domestic topics as washing dishes, buying her first house, her son and his mystical visions. They were published in a collection, “Hawaii One Summer.”
She now writes on a personal computer every morning. Her work in progress is a novel set in San Francisco in 1963. She described it as a comedy about a 28-year-old fourth-generation Chinese-American man. The book is her first true fiction and has been more difficult to “shape” than her autobiographies, she said.
Struggling with organization, she said, she tried to convince a writer friend that a novel should actually be disorganized in order to truthfully reflect the disorder in the universe. But the friend, angered by her attitude, replied it is a writer’s job to bring a sense of the whole to the chaos of life.
Even so, Kingston said, she “could not impose artificial order on chaos, so I had to keep going until it found its own order.” The book is now 1,000 pages long, and she is rewriting at the rate of five pages a day.
Famous the past 10 years, Kingston no longer needs to find another job to make a living. She said she hopes success has not affected her work. “I try not to respond to bad critics.” If she did, she said, she might start writing down to people, writing for “obtuse” people or people who don’t have “big hearts.”
“You also don’t want to respond to good critics; they might be praising you on things you should be improving on.”
Her best critic, she said, is her husband, “the most sensitive reader I know.”
The criticism from minority men, she said, is among the most hurtful because they are so vocal. “They say they are not writing novels because they have been castrated by mainstream society. They say we (minority women writers) are hand-in-glove with the white male establishment.”
But even after 10 years of critical and popular success, she said, publishers treat her like a first novelist. “Publishers say, ‘How do we market you? You have no track record in fiction.’ ”
“So, you see,” she said wryly, “we are not hand-in-glove with the publishers.”