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Maxine Hong Kingston: "China Stockton Berkeley Hawaii Vietnam"

By Elaine Yu

Long ago in China, Knot-makers tied string into buttons and frogs, and rope into bell pulls. There was one knot so complicated that it blinded the knot-maker. Finally an emperor outlawed this cruel knot, and the nobles could not order it anymore. If I had lived in China, I would have been order outlaw knot-maker.

The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston was coming to Harvard. Posters were up everywhere heralding her arrival, and word of mouth carried her name across the campus. On the night of the event, drenching rain could not deter the hundreds of students and faculty members who crowded into Science Center B, dripping umbrellas in one hand and copies of Kingston's various books (e.g. The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey) in the other.

Kingston's is a well-known name both for the quality of her writing and for the controversy surrounding her books. Her literature about growing up as a Chinese-American girl has been acclaimed as the finest of its genre. The Woman Warrior won the National Book Critics Circle Award for the best work of nonfiction when it was first published, and Kingston herself has been declared a "Living Treasure" by the state of Hawaii.

At the same time, Kingston has been labeled a radical feminist, a fake and a traitor to her Chinese heritage. But the popularity of her books is incontestable. These antinostalgic nonfiction memoirs recount the sometimes fantastical tales of her childhood. Many times, her own life-stories are intertwined with myth and story-telling, as if Kingston herself had a hard time distinguishing between the two. This melding of fact and fiction has brought criticism from some quarters, and praise from others.

The complexities of her fame might have led members of the crowd to expect a hardened, embattled writer who, like most who have achieved worldwide recognition, is fairly arrogant. Instead, at the traditional Harvard time of seven minutes after the hour, a minuscule lady with long glimmering gray hair took her place in front of the podium (she was too short to stand be seen standing behind it). At first, it was hard to believe that this gentle, unassuming woman was the famous Maxine Hong Kingston whose ideas had had such a large impact upon American literature. It soon became obvious, though, that her true power lay not in an imposing presence, but in her beautiful gift for words.

For the next hour and a half, the audience listened enthralled as Kingston discussed the issues of boundaries, homes and belonging, all the while embellishing her lecture with many quotes from her books. Her innovative literary forms, and her obvious attention to descriptive detail, make her works accessible and easily appreciated by all. The first excerpt she quoted opened with this passage from her most famous book, The Women Warrior: "In the midnight unsteadiness we were back at the laundry, and my mother was sitting on an orange crate sorting dirty clothes into mountains -- a sheet mountain, a white shirt mountain, a dark shirt mountain, a workpants mountain, a little hill of socks pinned together in pairs, a little hill of handkerchiefs pinned to tags..."

In addition, much could be inferred about the meaning behind her works by simply listening to Kingston recount her stories using her own intonations and gestures. When she assumed the voice of her mother, she spoke in a soft lilting voice that was vaguely reminiscent of Mia Farrow: "I can't stop working. When I stop working, I hurt. My head, my back, my legs hurt. I get dizzy. I can't stop." However, in speaking as her younger alterego, Kingston acquired an oft-frustrated voice, touched with a confused innocence: "I don't want to hear Wino Ghosts and Hobo Ghosts. I've found some places in this country that are ghost-free. And I think I belong there, where I don't catch colds or use my hospitalization insurance. Here I'm sick so often, I can barely work. I can't help it, Mama." By reading out-loud these excerpts from The Woman Warrior, and from her other various books, Kingston was able to visibly convey her own feelings with a depth of emotion and realism that could not be garnered from the printed page.

Kingston's lecture was not composed of solely reading through her works, however. Whether explaining her books in more detail, or wandering through territory yet unwritten, her topics varied from Hawaiian mythology to redefining homelands and boundaries for immigrants. She covered the Vietnam war, and the reactions of Asian-American soldiers when faced with an enemy distinguished by their Asian ethnicity. She addressed, in personal and general terms, the tension created within personal ideologies when great forces such as state and ethnicity are obscured. Her subjects were not solely rooted in Asian-American culture; she repeatedly emphasized complete multiculturism of all individuals: "Hear the opera... hear the passover... do you want to hear me yodel? Hear the songs we sang against Genghis Khan... Do you want to hear it?" (Tripmaster Monkey).

In her introduction of Maxine Hong Kingston, Susan R. Suleiman, professor of Romance and comparative Literature, correctly referred to Kingston as a "pioneer in the 'ethnic American' kind of writing; her work is truly 'between borders.'" Kingston's manner communicated the gentle vibrancy of a woman whose literature crosses the boundaries of fact and fantasy, mother and daughter, immigrant and native. Her magnificent lecture truly displayed a writer and her work at their best.

This event was sponsored by the Committee on Degrees in Women's Studies in celebration of its 10th Anniversary, and the Department of American Literature and Language. Future events include: November 1996 -- Olmen Hufton, "Writing the History of Women in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800"; March 1997 -- Conference on "Figures of Feminism: A 10th Anniversary Celebration of Women's Studies at Harvard."

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