A literary master of her time, Maxine Hong Kingston has spent her career in search of personal truth and social justice. The author of such canonical Asian-American texts as The Woman Warrior, China Men and 2003’s The Fifth Book of Peace, Kingston is currently in the process of compiling an anthology of short stories and poems written by over 40 armed service veterans. Known as much for her political activism – she was arrested for protesting against the war in Afghanistan outside of the White House – as her writings, Kingston recently took some time out of her schedule to chat with Artsweek about her upcoming stint at UCSB as a distinguished visiting fellow in the College of Creative Studies.
How different are events like these from the requisite book tour? Is it easier to do readings right after a book release, or do you feel you gain some perspective on your work(s) after a year or two?
You know, on a regular tour, I meet the people through the media. A lot of it is radio shows, television shows and also bookstore readings. And this is really different in that it is a school and the people are actually studying my work. It’s a more studious audience, a more academic audience. I expect everybody there to be a reader. It’s different because a book tour can be really exhausting. What they’ll do is maybe you can go to ten cities in two weeks and its every day. You get on an airplane or a train everyday and then you get out and do a whole bunch of stuff. Sometimes three, four, five interviews in a row and then you go to bed and you get up and you get on another plane and you go to another place. Whereas this is not as exhausting and I’m focused and I’m there in one place. It’s just not as intense in that I meet a large audience and we have interaction.
With a schedule as busy as your own, how often do you write?
I try to write everyday, even on the road. And I’m really good just at writing anywhere. I can do it on the beach, I can do it on the plane. The plane is really good because you’re just in this enclosed space for hours and hours and there’s no interruption. I can get a lot done.
Are there constant thoughts and ideas being tossed around, or are you more of a sit down and type for ten hours kind of person?
I’d rather just be home and have all the time in the world. In a way I’ve kind of trained myself to do the work anywhere because I think most of us lead the kind of life where it’s a luxury to have time alone; to have extended time alone in one place. It’s a luxury and we have to work hard to establish that. I just train myself so that I can work anywhere. I can even be in the middle of a living room with a whole bunch of people [where] the rest of the people are socializing and I can just be in a corner and working.
Culture obviously plays an important role in all of your stories. When was the last time you visited China? Do you try to go back often?
I was in China last year. I was in Shanghai and Hong Kong because they had an international book festival and it was really very wonderful for me to be considered and read as a Chinese writer as well as an American writer. I saw that in China they were establishing the idea of a world Chinese literature. So somebody can be writing in Europe or America or Peru and we can be writing in different languages and still be considered Chinese writers. The idea is that there was a Diaspora of Chinese people, as there have been Diasporas of all kinds of people. And so we’re all over the world and we’re telling the stories of ethnic Chinese people. I see it as a global phenomenon. I plan to go to China again probably this year and possibly doing a guest professorship, kind of like going to Santa Barbara, at Hong Kong University.
After the release of “The Fifth Book,” do you feel you enjoy writing fiction more than non-fiction, or vice versa?
I don’t think I enjoy one more than the other. They feel very different to me, but it’s not a matter of enjoyment. The difference is in fiction want to let my imagination be as free as possible, but in non-fiction the task is to arrive at the truth. But it’ s an interesting paradox that sometimes you arrive at the truth through imagination. It’s all very interesting, but I think of both processes as being very difficult, but then, sometimes, very easy, so I don’t know. [Laughs.]
Besides writing, you’re also very politically and socially active. Can you tell me about some of the causes/campaigns you lend your time to?
One big event… I was in Washington D.C. when the Code Pink women were trying to prevent the start of the war in Afghanistan on International Women’s Day three years ago. I was one of the people arrested in front of the White House. Alice Walker was another one and I just saw her yesterday, so we reminisced about that and we talked about what a really glorious, wonderful, loving day that was. Then, my next project, a project I’m working on right now, is… I’m culminating an anthology of writing by war veterans. Right now we have 1,072 pages and it’s going to be called, “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace.” This book is coming out in October, but in April there is going to be a book and music festival in Hawaii, and a bunch of the veterans are going over for the festival and giving a preview of that book. We’re going to be giving a writing retreat at the Church of the Crossroads in Honolulu. That church is very meaningful to us because during the Vietnam War it was a sanctuary for AWOL soldiers. So now, we’re going to be inviting people in the military to come join us for this writing and meditation workshop. What we’re doing is we’re having veterans of former wars welcome people who are in the military now and just gathering. We’re going to find the strength in us that will help us to live our lives or to live our American lives.
Is the book being compiled from interviews, or are the soldiers submitting personal works?
This is a group of veterans and family members of veterans who’ve been meeting for twelve years. It’s a writing workshop I started, so this the work that people have been doing for twelve years. These are stories which they have worked on and refined, and there’s poems. So we’re just gathering the work that people have been doing all these years. There’s about 40 prose writers and 40 poets, and during these years a lot of people have already published their work, and so we’re reprinting those and then we’re publishing the ones that haven’t been published before. The anthology will have a lot of fresh new work and also writings that people have published.
And you’ll be credited as an editor?
Yes. I’m editing.
So when you sit down to write the forward, what will be the driving message or point you hope your readers to get out of the stories?
I want readers to know our history and for readers to know what war is as it is lived by people who have been through it, and also for readers to see the social and psychological consequences of war. The title of the book is “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace,” and all of these people who’ve been to war and who’ve been through war, when they come back they’re looking for how to live at peace again. It can weave through storytelling [help them] come to reconciliation. So, the stories are not just about war, they ask the questions, “Can we arrive at peace?” “Can we end the war?” “Can our country and can we ourselves be at peace?” There are stories that are about war and peace.
Looking into the future, what do you think it will take to right the wrong turns the Bush administration has made, both domestically and abroad?
I don’t know. Don’t you feel like people are seeing the error of our ways? You know, when I think back on the Vietnam War it was just like this. It kept dragging on and pretty soon twenty years go by. And I think, “Will it really take that long?” Haven’t we seen enough pictures of injustice and torture and wrong thinking? It seems what happened during the Vietnam War was that there was such an accumulation of horror that people just started changing their minds. I don’t know. Is that what’s going to have to happen? I hope it doesn’t
take that long. I hope it doesn’t take one horrible cataclysm, like dropping a A-bomb or something. When you look at past wars there would be some horribleness that’s so unendurable that people just quit. And I hope it doesn’t take anything like that. You know, I watch the numbers of how many have been killed, and it’s just American soldiers. And you see 2,000 and it goes up and up and up… even one is a big number. Does it take [that] sort of erosion everyday? I don’t know what it’s going to take.
When you sit down and write now, do you find yourself jaded by what’s going on around you, or hopeful?
I always work until the hope comes. I find that that works in poetry too, even a short poem. You start off writing down all the despair and unhappiness, and as you process it through words and through art, somehow, by the last line, the hope or light, or something shines at the end. That always happens in art. That happened with all the stories that the people wrote for the veterans’ anthology. I have a lot of hope in art.
As a child, who did you look up to and/or what books do you remember having a big impact on your youth?
I read “War and Peace” and I’ve been thinking about “Don Quixote” a lot lately. I think that’s an incredible book. At the end of the book, Don Quixote is in such despair because he went into action with all the ideals that he had found in books and then he’s so disillusioned that he throws all of his books out of his library and he sets them on fire. Of course I read “Little Women,” which of course is about a writer. It’s about a girl becoming a writer and I love that. That was such a role model. Louisa May Alcott was a role model.
Where do you see yourself in ten or fifteen years?
Well, I see myself with at least one more, big novel about aging. Something like ‘Don Quixote,” the knight who goes out on the last quest. He’s an old man and he’s out on his last quest. I also see poetry, [writing] short works which capture moments. Every moment is full of life.