Standing amid the messy stacks of literature at Dutton's Books, back to the cash register, author Maxine Hong Kingston was facing her readers in Brentwood.
She crinkled her eyes at them, smiling as she sized them up. They were men and women, a mix of young hip and middle-aged settled, and most were clutching a newly autographed copy of "Tripmaster Monkey."
Many of them, too, were toting Kingston's earlier books, "China Men" and "The Woman Warrior." Some of them sipped champagne from plastic glasses, and all of them were sizing up Kingston, the diminutive storyteller-myth maker-novelist in their midst.
Then she started, breaking the expectant silence with a brief explanation of the Chinese mythology that threads through "Tripmaster Monkey." Instead of stopping in China, the mythical King of Monkeys who helped bring the Buddhist scriptures from India ends up in Berkeley in the 1960s.
This mischievous do-gooder lives within Wittman Ah Sing, 23, hip UC Berkeley grad, born in Sacramento, a child of the theater, a free spirit and a free thinker, someone out to change the world or, at least, save its inhabitants from themselves.
Then Kingston, 48, reaches for her clear, oblong glasses and places them on the end of her nose. As she bends forward, her face is curtained by thick sheets of shoulder-length gray hair.
She looks for all the world like somebody's grandmother--fragile, demure, probably a quiet woman who crochets on the bus.
Bee-e-een! Ha Ha. Fooled you, Kingston's alter ego, Wittman, might yelp just about now.
For as soon as Kingston's breathy, high-pitched voice begins reading "Tripmaster Monkey's" only sex scene, much more funny than erotic, the audience realizes that Kingston is anything but fragile or demure. And she's no grandmother either.
One can almost see the monkey grinning over her shoulder as she reads.
So they got it on, and they were graceful, just so much foreplay, just so much fervor and abandon and sweat, positions normal. Classic moves. Silently went at it. She didn't say much, and he didn't say much. Mouths against parts of the body, he did not make her blurt out, 'I love you.' Well, . . . they were hardly acquainted, after all, and one didn't want to turn off the other by seeming overly weirded out. Don't grunt and groan repulsively. Be courtly. Be mannerly. And honest.
So the spirit of the mischievous monkey lives, too, in Maxine Hong Kingston, the eldest of six children born of Chinese parents in Stockton. She is a woman who likes to shake people up, spook out their stereotypes and then revel in the understanding that follows.
"I think the best feeling in the world is understanding between two people," she was saying in an interview over lunch in Beverly Hills. "I think that is probably the whole point of sense and everything, just to get communication between two human beings in all of time and space. . . . I think that is why writers write, so that the writer and the reader can have communication. That's the only purpose."
And Kingston, like Wittman, a Berkeley graduate and '60s radical who will not suffer fools (regardless of their race, creed or color), toils over her communication. It has to be just right. Often it isn't, so she goes back and tries again.
It took her eight years and 12 drafts to finish "Tripmaster Monkey," which her publisher calls her first novel but which Kingston says is really her second, counting the one she finished about 15 years ago, never showed to anybody and has kept in her closet (first in Hawaii, then in Studio City and now in Oakland) ever since.
And before "Tripmaster Monkey," there was "China Men," which took four years and won the National Book Award for nonfiction, and "The Woman Warrior," which took three and won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Started at Age 8
Kingston's been writing for 40 years, starting with the poem that came to her in a rush when she was about 8 years old, sitting at her desk in a Stockton elementary school classroom nearly bored to stone with yet another exercise in drawing the map of California.
"I started writing this poem ," she says, her eyes sparkling with the memory. "It came out of nowhere. And the room got really bright, and I was just writing, and it rhymed. It was in four-line stanzas. It was just great. It was so easy. It made me believe in muses and gifts, you know. It just came out of nowhere."
That was the exception. Most of what Kingston writes comes out of a definite somewhere, feelings and experiences that spring from deep inside her--cultural, spiritual, personal and even coincidental bits and pieces.
In "Tripmaster Monkey," for example, Wittman and his new blond bride, Tana, embark on the same hippie-chic honeymoon that Kingston and her husband, actor Earll Kingston, did 26 years ago: dinner at Sutro's, picture-taking in a coin-operated booth and a trip to Coit Tower.
And Kingston's parents were not amused by any of it. Nor for that matter was Wittman's family when he finally brought Tana to meet them. He introduced her as his pahng yow , or friend, and not until he was out the door, in a hurry, rushing past, did he shout back that they were married.
"My parents often even said to all my brothers and sisters and me that if they hadn't sent us to that high school, Edison High School, then we would have married Chinese people," Kingston says.
She laughs at the thought now. The idea of battening down the hatches, protecting one's family from an invasion of American culture, is silly, bordering on ridiculous, but she deeply understands where it comes from.
The storyteller offers yet another tale. Three weeks ago, she and her family attended the spring banquet of their benevolent association, or tong . She was surrounded by her roots, people from the same region in China, the extended family that she had grown up with. But there were more than Chinese faces at the table.
"And it made me feel so good because the Caucasians were people's daughters-in-law and sons-in-law, and the Filipinos, too. You know, people worry about being assimilated. Then you lose your culture, you lose your roots, you turn into a banana and all that stuff.
"What's happening is . . . Chinese people don't lose their Chineseness. They actually bring other people in. . . . So I'm saying those people are Chinese also."
It has taken years, of course, for Kingston to integrate the disparate parts of her own life.
Until her sophomore year at Berkeley, she was an engineering major--"What a wrong path! I was just lost on a wrong path"--and even after graduating with a degree in English, she took a job as a typist, something her parents, both professionals in China, had pushed her toward.
Pushed Her Dreams
"They wouldn't allow themselves to dream about wonderful things for us," Kingston says. "They just couldn't even think of college for us. It was like beyond their wildest dreams. . . . And so I had to really keep insisting, 'I think I can go to college. I think I ought to do that.' "
Kingston graduated from UC Berkeley, where she met her husband, in 1962 and by the time she went back for her teaching credential in 1964, the Free Speech Movement was in full swing. She and Earll even became ordained ministers of the Universal Life Church--just as Wittman did in a ruse to avoid the draft--and Kingston says she was one of the few brave women who recited coffee shop poetry.
"I think that I have become the Chinese-American person that Wittman aspires to," she says, looking back. "I understand what that is and I see that I embody values that are, that I know, come from Asia, and then I also embody values that are American and very strong in me. And I've integrated and I've become a whole person."
Not that she is immune to self-revelation. It is with the enthusiasm of a child eager to tell of some new discovery that she describes a three-day retreat with other Asian and Asian-American women at the home of a Japanese painter in Marin County.
Kingston says the retreat, in honor of the Japanese custom of "Girl's Day" on March 3, made her realize that even she had been "hypnotized" by the standard of white American beauty.
"I think I'm a pretty awake person and that I appreciate all kinds of beauty in the world. But then at the end of the retreat, I realized how beautiful these women are, and how much it took for me to really see it, to go on this retreat with them, and to be surrounded by them. Because I am a person of this world, I also see this standard of blond beauty and it makes it harder for me to see my own beauty or (the beauty) of these other women."
But things are changing, she is quick to add.
"I just took a walk this morning and I was so surprised! I was up at Saks. You know all the mannequins, along one whole side of Saks, they're Asian! I think that's amazing."
And pivotal in Kingston's odyssey has been her writing. "The Woman Warrior," published in 1976, is a memoir-in-progress, a menage of memories, ghosts and myths that weaves together the lives of Kingston's mother and other female relatives with her own.
In "China Men," published in 1980, Kingston explores the squandered dreams of her father and other male relations as they struggle with finding their way in America.
Even Kingston's first published work, an essay she wrote when she was 15 that appeared in a Girl Scout magazine, showed her concern with defining the whirl of conflicting emotions and experiences that are part of living within two cultures.
The essay, "I Am an American," earned her $5.
"I think life is very chaotic, and art is how you make sense of it, and how I understand it, and how I come to terms with it," Kingston says. "I do get caught up in it. I think that's Stage 1. I guess that's part of living with it, and in it, and getting lost in it, and then working it through. I think that is why it takes me 20 years between the time that I experience an event, or a feeling, or meet a person, before I can write about it.
"Like I write about being a child when I am in my 30s. Then I write about Wittman when I'm in my 40s. . . . You know, that story about my two brothers in Vietnam? I started that last section in 'China Men' during the war in Vietnam. I tried to write a story that would help stop the war, and I couldn't finish it until 20 years later. Then I could make sense of it."
And what next for this Woman Warrior who says she was so sure that nobody would understand her writing that she was prepared to just pile up her manuscripts, in her closet, until after death perhaps, when somebody would discover them and publish them?
"I guess my next big idea is to write this book where Wittman grows up and by doing it, I think I will also make Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield grow up, because this is . . . this is a vision of the adult American, and so far, it hasn't been done. So if I can do it, I'd do it for all of us."