Maxine Hong Kingston, Stealing a Book, Magic, and Navigating the Taboo

Let’s go back in time for a bit.

Wednesday, February 16th 2011, 7pm. Elliott Bay Book Company

When I was five or six, I started taking Tae Kwon Do lessons alongside my big brother. The school was a few blocks from our family’s house. We’d go down our street, hang a right, pass an abandoned lot, hang a left, and pass a furniture store, a laundromat, a thrift store, another storefront that changed businesses every once in a while, and then the Tae Kwon Do school would be right there. This was the first martial arts school of many. Many many.

After spending years walking back and forth along this route, I got to looking at what the thrift store had in its windows. There was always a dress form by the open door, wearing something glitzy and flashy. Sometimes it was sequined or had lots of bead work, or silk that fluttered as the cars passed on the street. The only thing I ever bought from the thrift store was a men’s brown leather jacket. It was $20. Thirteen years and many tatters later it still fits.

On Saturdays, the thrift store was closed by the time I got finished training. People would leave boxes of book donations outside the storefront where the dressform usually stood. One Saturday afternoon when I was seven years old, one  faded book caught my eye: The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston. So I took it.

I learned a lot of lessons, particularly around page 96, where Brave Orchid has to fend off a Sitting Ghost. It taught me the power of will, and defending one’s territory with justice and righteousness. None of that is in the text as such… But the meaning struck me clearly. I’ve read it many times since then.

I never dreamed I’d get to meet the author. The book was so old, I thought surely she was dead or floating around as a Bodhisattva or something. I’m so used to the idea of sages belonging to a distant and misty past that it never occurred to me I’d be able to talk with her. She has a new book out called I Love A Broad Margin To My Life and a friend in San Francisco told me she would be in my city in a week. I was flabbergasted, starstruck, and twitterpated, so I grabbed a friend and demanded [politely] that we attend.

She is tiny. She has long flowing white hair and bright, laughing eyes. She is at once alert, warm, joyous and universally loving. The thing that struck me the most about her appearance (other than her tininess, she really is petite) was the juxtaposition of her elegant red shawl and black dress, with these bright turquoise rain boots with yellow daisies or paisley or something on them.

I took notes on her reading like a lecture, and at the end I grilled her with questions.

Kingston is very involved in her time and the world around her. She is an activist and pacifist in addition to her writing. She joked about her output, “I just can’t stand this anymore, a book every decade.” Her most recent work is billed as autobiographical, but is actually an extended poem. She felt much more free writing verse, and said she leaves decisions about the book’s category to her publicist. They know better, she laughed.

I realized that the reason I love her so much is that she sees ritual and ceremony in everything. She explained that this is part of having a poet’s eye. That’s how she’s able to mix everyday observation with imagination and hidden worlds…. The way she undulates between the two to create a surreal vision that’s completely believable, fantastic, and naturally true.maxine

She spoke a great deal about ritual and ceremony. She says that there may be certain events or circumstances for which we can do nothing but have ceremony. When we create ritual, we have resolution and the awfulness is over. It takes a poet’s mind to recognize ceremony in things. She talked about veterans using art and ceremony to heal their wounds and come out of hell. One of the stories in Woman Warrior is about one of her great aunts who was driven to drowning herself in a well because she bore an illegitimate child. Many years later, Maxine went back to the village where it happened. She and her husband had been treated politely by the villagers, as if they didn’t know how to react.

One hot day, a villager came around with a bowl of water for Maxine and her husband. Maxine put her fingers in the water – the same water from the well where her aunt drowned, the same water the villagers drink – and daubed it on her forehead and her hands. The moment meant something to her, as a way of forgiveness through water. By creating this ceremony, and treating it as ceremony, she was able to create greater spiritual meaning and reconciliation between her family and the villagers.

I realized that this use of spontaneous ceremony is present in both her writing and her life. Both blend of subtle surreal interpretation of reality.

“Is that a constant state?” I thought. Unbidden, she answered.

“Creativity and imagination, being awake, that’s the mind of a fiction writer.”

In the last chapter of Woman Warrior the character Cai Yan married into the barbarian tribe, and writes “Songs for a barbarian red pipe.” These songs are meant to be cultural translation. Her new book thrives on cultural blending. She used long scrolls of Chinese paintings as the structure for her new book. She imagined one character traveling the Silk Road. The scroll showed horses, tents, geese, and the sands that stretched from nation to nation across the world. She drew connections to contemporary issues, pointing out that the Silk Road goes to Iraq & Afghanistan. She drew correlations between the Chinese Grave-sweeping celebration清明节 and the Mexican Dia De Los Muertos. All of which tied back to ritual, ceremony, celebration, and reconciliation.

She read a passage from her book about an anti-war protest in 2003 she participated in. It took place on International Women’s Day (March 8), and it was coordinated by women-initiated anti-war organization called Code Pink. “How can it be that all the cops are men wand all the protesters were women. We regressed to the prom dance; each cop stepped forward one at a time and chose one girl. They laughed and held the cops elbows, smiled for their mug shots, the cops said “stop smiling, why are you smiling, don’t do that.” She shared a jail cell with Alice Walker that day.

When there was a lull in the Q&A, she said “any questions? Or if you just want to tell me something?” I wanted to express to her what a huge impact her story left on me. How she was my spiritual guide. It didn’t come out quite right. When I told her I stole her book out of a thrift store donation bin, she made a slightly appalled face. When I added that I was seven at the time, the crowd laughed. I don’t know if she did, I was too embarrassed to look at her again.

(My Q) How much of your writing is your time and place? Are the same stories with you everywhere?
(Her A) Play between stories in the past, and present/new. Life interplays with it. You can have a choice – Parataxis, lacuna, space, ellipsis. Taking something out leaves an interesting space. It lends interesting layers to a story.

(Another’s Q) Do you worry about what the community thinks about you (i.e. the Asian-American community)
(Her A) Don’t let people put taboos on your creativity. It’s important for emotional and psychological health to write and express – good or bad. The more you storytell the better you understand it. Keep going through dramatic confrontation, which leads to resolution and reconciliation. When the story is whole, it then will be beautiful. After that, you can decide to publish or not.

(My Q)You refer to the writer in Woman Warrior as the writer… Is your writer-self separate from your everyday self?
(Her A) I only write when I’m unhappy. If I’m happy, I just go out and enjoy it. Joy is also effervescent, why not capture it. [An excerpt from her new book talks about joy/inspiration/lovely things dropping from the sky like jewels, and she just runs around outside with a basket]
(Another’s Q, that I also wondered but was too shy to ask) Is “Woman Warrior” fiction or autobiographical?

(Her A) There should be broad margins, not close distinctions. Real people have imaginations and dreams. Are their memories, their dreams, are they not real? The best way to write about people is to show their dreams. Toward the end, we queued up to get autographs and buy copies of I Love A Broad Margin To My Life. When it was my turn to get a book signed, she gave me a knowing smile and said, “you’re a writer, aren’t you.”

We chatted about California, where I was thinking about moving at the time, to seek out the Bohemian Artist Lifestyle. I meant to get a photo with her, but I was too star struck. On the bus home, I kept opening up my yellowed, scotch-taped copy of The Woman Warrior, and looking at her autograph. “Sister Writer! MHK.”

I’m pretty sure she’s more or less my neighbor now, and yet, I still can’t believe it really happened.

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