A writer’s journey
Maxine Hong Kingston speaks at Literary Sojourn
September 13, 2003
The entire audience was still in their seats as they waited for Maxine Hong Kingston, a tiny woman with a big literary voice, to take the microphone.
Author Gus Lee called her an icon and a mentor. Her work opened doors for Asian American writers such as himself, he said.
For Kingston, Saturday’s Literary Sojourn in the Sheraton Steamboat Resort’s Grand Ballroom was the first stop in a 26-city publicity tour for her new book, “The Fifth Book of Peace.” According to legend, King-ston said, there were once three books of peace in ancient China. Their whereabouts are unknown.
“Of course, the book ‘Art of War’ by Sun Tzu is still alive and widely editioned in many languages,” she said. “Maybe those books of peace never existed. Maybe it was the world’s way of giving me a writing assignment. I searched everywhere for a book of peace and realized I would have to write it myself.”
The book’s story began the day her first draft was destroyed. In 1991, a fire swept through California’s Berkeley-Oakland area. One house burned every five seconds, including Kingston’s home.
She saw the smoke and decided to save her book. The sky was black and the sun was red as Kingston snuck past the police blockade.
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“I got close to the place where my house should have been. Everything was black and devastated. There were no landmarks and nothing recognizable,” Kingston said. “I stood there and thought, ‘I am now bookless, thingless and fatherless.'” (Her father had just passed away.)
“The fire burned my book of peace. It felt cosmic. I must be onto something if the forces of destruction are coming after my book.”
After the fire, Kingston said she lost her ability to write fiction.
“Fiction is this compassionate art form,” she said. “I couldn’t care about imaginary people. I wanted to use my writing to care about myself. I wanted to use it for curling in the corner and crying.”
Instead, she plastered the Bay Area with fliers inviting veterans to join her in a writing community. They would meet for days at a time to write their war stories and “see if we could arrive at a peaceful ending,” Kingston said. People came from all wars — veterans of gang wars, Israeli veterans, even veterans of the Viet Cong.
The book they wrote together slides back and forth between fiction and nonfiction.
The veterans started collecting stories for her about writers who lost manuscripts to hungry pets or maids who burned them as kindling. Kingston recorded the names of those authors in her book as she mixed her story with the stories of the veterans and the made-up stories of her fictional characters.
Ernest Hemingway, Nikolay Gogol, Aldous Huxley, Louisa May Alcott, William Carlos Williams and Toni Morrison all lost books they had written, Kingston wrote. “But books and poems exist elsewhere than on paper.”
It took 12 years of writing to produce “The Fifth Book of Peace.”
She ended the book by saying goodbye to the veterans who had worked with her, and she decided to rewrite the chant of the Woman Warrior from her first book, this time in poetry form rather than prose.
“I think it is closer to the way the Chinese said it. It’s not a war chant,” she said. “It’s a coming-home-from-war chant.”
While she was writing the book, America was shaken by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. America bombed Afghanistan and Iraq. And all the while, her editors were worried that Kingston’s message would be outdated by the time she finished her manuscript.
“I was aware of that, and I tried to write a peace message for all time,” she said.
Kingston was one of five authors who spoke at Saturday’s Literary Sojourn. Hundreds of people gathered to hear the stories behind books written by Kingston, Tim Cahill, Gus Lee, Alexandra Fuller and Colum McCann.
Each author encouraged audience members to follow their own literary muse.
Lee, author of four books including “China Boy” and “Chasing Hepburn: A memoir of Shanghai,” told the audience, “If any of you have entertained the idea of being a writer, embrace that idea. If ever there were a poster child for not being able to get published, it is I.”
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