Last spring, a small circle of writers and scholars eagerly pored over a new book by Maxine Hong Kingston, the best-selling author of “The Woman Warrior” and “China Men.”
They knew Kingston had wrestled with the manuscript for years. A few even had heard she wrote the book, in part, to defend herself against her longtime literary foe, Frank Chin, a combative writer and the first Asian-American to have his plays staged in New York.
The rumors were true, according to most people who closely follow the Asian-American literary scene.
No white critics got it. But Kingston’s “Tripmaster Monkey” (Knopf), a rollicking, surrealistic novel of the ‘60s in Berkeley, is a roman a clef of the Asian-American literary world. Although Kingston denies it, most close observers of the two writers believe much of the main character, Wittman Ah Sing, is modeled after Chin.
In one of the best-kept secrets in American letters, Kingston and Chin have locked pens in a literary duel that has lasted more than a decade.
Call it a clash of writing philosophies between a proud feminist and a Chinese-American Normal Mailer. A debate over how writers of color should portray the myths of their cultures. Or, as some see it, a vendetta by a male author embittered by Kingston’s success.
Since the debut of “Woman Warrior” in 1976, Chin has attacked Kingston in forum after forum, in essay after essay. He charges her writing is “white, racist art” that distorts beloved Asian myths and folk tales to fit her feminist views.
Silent on the issue for years, Kingston has spoken out in recent months. In an interview at her home in Oakland last fall, she compared Chin’s views to censorship in China: “I’m afraid Frank is staging his own Cultural Revolution in this country.”
But at the end of her novel, she ventures a peace offering to all men: the warlike Wittman evolves into a loving pacifist.
In contrast, Chin mocks Kingston in his new book of short stories, “The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co.” (Coffee House Press). In one tale, Chin parodies “Woman Warrior” by writing of a woman author who changes the Joan of Arc myth by turning her into a man who is castrated and burned at the stake.
Many wish for a debate between the two authors. But Chin avoids events Kingston plans to attend. Last year, he refused to join a star-studded lecture series at UCLA that featured Kingston, novelist Amy Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”), dramatist David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) and psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen (“Goddesses in Everywoman”).
The literary dispute is more than an academic parlor game. Educators from Stanford to Yale are debating the values of non-white thought. Literature reflects a culture, defines a people. In this sense, the struggle between Chin and Kingston is a literary battle for the soul of Asian America.
“Maxine and Frank are brilliant writers,” said Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, the co-author of “Farewell to Manzanar” and a close friend of Kingston. “It’s sad this has all happened.”
The children of immigrants, Kingston and Chin both were born 50 years ago in the Year of the Angry Dragon. Both studied literature at UC Berkeley during the Days of Rage and plunged into the politics of the era. Both envied each other’s early writings.
Chin was the first to rise to literary stardom. After he founded the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco, his groundbreaking plays, “Chickencoop Chinaman” and “Year of the Dragon,” debuted Off Broadway in the early 1970s. Critics from the New Yorker to the Village Voice praised his theater for its power, originality and humor. The playwright raged over the fragile psyches of Asian-American men and against the Charlie Chan and Dr. Fu Man Chu stereotypes. He railed against meek minorities who swallowed the racist images of Asian males as eunuchs or yellow devils.
Novelist Ishmael Reed likens Chin to Malcolm X. “Frank forces Asian-Americans to confront their devils,” said Reed, a friend. “He tells the truth.”
Chin, however, has written little fiction since his glory days. He teaches sporadically. Many speak of him today as if he’s a relic of a more militant era.
Kingston soared into the big leagues in the late 1970s. Her two award-winning memoirs, “Woman Warrior” and “China Men,” put her in the world’s pantheon of revered authors. Her books are taught widely in literature, women’s studies, history and sociology classes. Vintage has printed more than 500,000 paperback copies of “Woman Warrior.”
Feminists and many Asian Americans see Kingston as a literary pioneer who triumphed over racism and sexism. Her work is “a crucible” for Asian-American issues, said Elaine Kim, a dean in the School of Letters and Sciences at UC Berkeley. “She opened a lot of doors for us,” observed author Tan.
Chin and Kingston first sparred by letter. In 1976, Kingston and her editor asked Chin to endorse her soon-to-be-published book. The book was conceived as a fiction collection, but Kingston’s publisher, Knopf, felt it would sell better as an autobiography. They titled it, “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.”
A barrage of correspondence followed, as the two authors plunged into a debate over the moral issues unique to artists of color.
Chin wrote Kingston that her prose was moving and lyrical. But he couldn’t back this book that purported to be a nonfiction account of a Chinese American. He argued that autobiographies by Asian Americans were cloying bids for white acceptance. “I want your book to be an example of yellow art by a yellow artist,” he wrote, “not the publisher’s manipulation of another Pocahontas.”
A dismayed Kingston wrote Chin that she was “experimenting” with genres, blending the novel and memoir. “Who knows whether the stories are ‘real’ or not?” she explained.
Soon the literary duel turned into a full-blown cultural debate.
The dispute first flared publicly 12 years ago in Honolulu at the “Talk-Story” literary conference at the Mid-Pacific Institute. The conference was an emotional, coming-of-age event for Asian-American writers and poets, and their growing body of work.
Kingston predicted trouble in an essay published in the Los Angeles Times before the event. “I feel fear and rivalry,” she wrote. “We Asian Americans are very hard on one another, clobbering one another’s work, name-calling and finger-pointing.”
Because of Kingston’s presence at the conference, Chin had refused to fly to Hawaii to speak on a panel on Chinese-American literature. His friends, though, dominated the panel.
Chin’s pals lionized the absent playwright, calling him “a literary giant.” Echoing Chin, they raked Kingston’s new book, “Woman Warrior.”
An angry Kingston rose from the audience to defend herself. In a quavering voice, she told her critics that her work speaks for itself. They had “misread” her book, she argued.
The stormy issue always arises at conferences of Asian-American educators. Many women refuse to appear on panels with the brash Chin. Many compare the dispute to the tussle between novelists Reed and Alice Walker over the portrayal of black men in “The Color Purple.”
Others say Chin is guilty of censorship. “I admire Frank’s work very much,” said playwright Hwang. “I also admire Yeats, but I don’t admire that he embraced fascism once in his life.”
“A lot of people have had sleepless nights over this one,” said Steve Sumida, a literature professor at the University of Michigan and a friend of both writers. “There are so many conflicting loyalties.”
In recent interviews, Kingston has insisted that Asian Americans must create their own unique mythology. She believes the tales will die if they do not change for a modern audience.
“I don’t claim I’m an archivist preserving myths, writing the exact, original version,” she said. “I’m writing a living myth that’s changing all the time.”
In Kingston’s mythology, she changes Fa Mu Lan, a warrior girl immortalized in a popular Chinese folk ballad, into a “female avenger” who slays an evil, women-hating baron.
The swordswoman Fa Mu Lan gains strength from vows carved onto her back. In real Chinese folklore, those vows are cut into the back of a male hero, a great general named Yue Fei.
Kingston defends her version of Fa Mu Lan, having said recently: “I changed the literal tale, but no way did I change the spirit of the myth.”
In his search for a mythology for Asian Americans, Chin turned to classical Chinese literature. He found a new ethic he calls the “heroic tradition,” based on outlaw bands and philosophers in works such as “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and philosopher/general Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” Another hero of Chin’s: Kwan Kung, the god of literature and war.
The outlaws showed courage, loyalty and integrity, according to Chin. That heroic moral code died when the Chinese came to America. To help revive the tradition, Chin recently published two children’s books based on old Chinese tales.
Feminist scholars brush aside the heroic tradition. Kim of UC Berkeley called it “just another old boys’ club.” UCLA literature professor King Kok Cheung said the tradition glorifies “aggression and martial valor.”
In a new anthology, “Divisive Issues in Contemporary Feminism,” Cheung writes that “the stage is set for a confrontation between heroism and feminism in Chinese-American letters.”
Chin contends there is a spirit of equality in the ancient tales.
“The image in romantic lore is of two warriors, a man and a woman, armed against the world,” he said. “Where are the bound feet? There’s more misogyny in the Bible and Greek literature than in Chinese mythology.”
Fans of Maxine Hong Kingston filled the courtyard of an old brick library in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Kingston read a loaded scene from “Tripmaster Monkey.” Wittman Ah Sing makes love to a white woman he just met at a Berkeley party.
“He parted her sweet, suckable toes and kissed one. . .” read Kingston. “Her feet were so beautiful and so human. He hoped some day he would get to know her well enough to ask her to make love to his toes.”
She wrote this passage, she said, to celebrate the Chinese-American body. She also wishes to free her ancestors of their bound feet after years of sexual imprisonment.
“But this Chinese-American man is making love to a white woman’s toes,” she said. “I couldn’t write a scene where he is making love to a Chinese-American woman. There’s too much karma between us.”
The bad karma between the sexes has tormented Kingston, a Tibetan Buddhist and a pacifist. In “Tripmaster Monkey,” she hoped to transcend the ugly words hurled out by the two camps. The narrator in “Tripmaster” is Kuan Yin, Buddhist goddess of mercy.
The character many believe to be Kingston’s incarnation of Chin is Wittman, a jive-talking playwright in Berkeley in the ‘60s. Wittman roams a fantastical landscape, crashing parties and quoting Rilke. At one point, he pole-vaults across heaven with his huge penis.
Kingston and her publisher, Knopf, say the Wittman character has nothing to do with Chin. The character is a composite that came to her vividly from her dreams and paintings, Kingston says.
In an interview last fall, Kingston spoke at length for the first time about Frank Chin. She recalled the thrill of Chin’s theatrical debut in New York, and the later PBS broadcast of “Year of the Dragon.”
“It was a very daring breakthrough,” she said. “The music of his language was beautiful. But I almost feel like Frank’s in a time warp. I would really like to see him bring his art into the ‘90s.”
Over the years, Chin’s accusations appear to have haunted Kingston, even influenced her work. According to one theory, Kingston views Chin as a literary soul mate, her male alter ego. “If I am to grow at all as a writer and a person,” she wrote Chin in a 1976 letter, “I have to wrestle with an understanding about men and write about them/you.”
Moreover, according to friends of the two, some of Chin’s warnings in his letters to Kingston came true. When “Woman Warrior” started rising on the bestseller lists, Kingston grew troubled over the patronizing tone coming from white book reviewers. They left the impression that “Woman Warrior” was a tour guide’s inside look at a strange, exotic people.
“Maxine was afraid a lot of the praise she was getting was racist praise,” recalled literature professor Sumida. “You can imagine how terrible this was when she wanted to promote understanding, not confirm stereotypes. In a way, Frank Chin was right.”
Kingston is moving on. Her next book, which she calls a “global novel,” will be on Vietnam veterans seeking a communal sanctuary, a place of harmony among races and sexes.
“We need to find a language of peace--a peace myth,” said Kingston. “I’ve chosen to give the old stories a new significance. Frank Chin wants to keep the old meaning, the warlike meaning, and that’s sad. You can’t save the world by being Don Quixote.”
Frank Chin yanked out a shiny guitar from under the table and strummed a passionate flamenco tune.
“A lot of us played in Berkeley coffeehouses,” said Chin, who once taught flamenco to Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger. “It was mostly gringo music, though.”
Chin and his third wife, Dana, a schoolteacher, and their 5-year-old son live in a small hillside flat in the Silver Lake district. The writer rarely goes out. “I’m a real recluse,” he said.
Chin’s background is rich in Chinese-American lore and steeped in tragedy. His great-grandmother owned a brothel on Stockton Street in San Francisco, he said. His late father was president of the Chinese Six Companies, the old clan leaders.
According to Chin, his father and mother, who was 15, abandoned the baby Chin at a foundling home in Berkeley. Chin was sent to live with an old white couple in a tar-paper shanty outside Placerville.
When he was 6, Chin’s parents reclaimed him and took him back to Oakland’s Chinatown. According to Chin, he was beaten often by his father, a strict, conservative man.
Years later, during the theatrical run of “Chickencoop Chinaman,” Chin offered to fly his folks to New York for closing night. But the elder Chin insisted his wife go with him to a big tong banquet in Chinatown. Their car crashed that evening. Chin’s mother was killed.
“When my father was an old man,” said Chin, “he gave me a jade ring, introduced me to the elders, took me to banquets. For the first time, he acknowledged me as his son. But he never respected my writing. He died believing I never worked a day in my life.”
In Chin’s fictional world, his male characters fight to gain that respect, that lost childhood. They search for a “true” Asian-American manhood and history amid tourist Chinatowns and mythic Wild West landscapes.
Chin’s enemies scoff at his literary scholarship. They accuse him of “Maxine-bashing.” His protests, they say, only mask his envy of Kingston’s success.
Chin is an easy target. His temper and intellectual arrogance have driven away all but a cadre of loyalists.
One awkward episode unfolded at the East West Players Theater in Los Angeles a few years ago. Chin was giving a reading of a new play. The young playwright Hwang, recently graduated from Stanford, wanted to meet Chin, one of his literary heroes.
After the reading, the two were introduced. But when Chin learned the stranger he was greeting was Hwang, his hand grew limp. He growled and stalked away from his stunned admirer.
Friends describe Chin as a loyal, proud, generous man. He lavishes public praise on writers he admires while never mentioning his own work.
Others call Chin a private, deeply tormented person. “Most people write for the pure pleasure of finding the truth or shaping opinions,” said a close friend of Chin. “That’s not why Frank writes. At some point, the anger always gets triggered.”
“I’ve gotten angrier over the years,” Chin said. “Why? Almost all the literature now is a rejection of everything Asian and an acceptance of everything white. Look at Kingston’s great achievements.”
The “Angry Man” persona is the key to Chin’s manhood and complexity. Chin thinks each bold word of his, each righteous act, will save his Asian America from the hated stereotypes, from death by assimilation--and from Maxine Hong Kingston.
Proud beyond reason, Chin seems trapped by his persona, the thinking goes. Acknowledge or befriend Kingston? That might betray his life’s work, the justification for his rage.
As for Kingston, some think she is trapped by her reputation as a feminist mother beyond reproach. Students and professors fawn over her at readings. Essays on her by feminist critics are almost worshipful. A male scholar says Kingston might tarnish her image if she publicly admitted Chin helped shape her writing. But Kingston’s myths are daring, open, compassionate. She evolves as her art evolves, most literary experts agree. “I’m the modern-day incarnation of Fa Mu Lan,” she said.
Nearly all agree that Chin’s true myth is still in the making. Until he confronts the hatred that obscures his vision, he is still an Asian Eldridge Cleaver, whose literary cause is a violent crusade.
Is a truce possible?
“I’d be willing to debate him,” said Kingston. And Chin seems to be mellowing a bit. His creative juices are flowing; he has quietly started a novella that looks for the little boy abandoned by his parents.
At a recent lecture in Oakland, Chin told a small audience the tale of the jade phoenix and the golden dragon. Most read the story as a creation myth of the great West Lake in China. But Chin sees it as a fairy tale of martial and marital equality.
“The dragon and the phoenix,” he said, voice booming, “polished a giant pearl with magic water for hundreds and hundreds of years. . . . They gave up their home in heaven to make the pearl together, to make it perfect.”
Chin’s face softened. His eyes widened like a child’s. “That is integrity,” he said. “That is love.”