Tag Archives: storytelling

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.


The Best Stories Give Us Questions, Not Answers

I just watched Stephen Fry’s “Wagner & Me.” Over the course of the story, Fry tries to reconcile his love of Wagner’s music with the fact that Hitler felt much the same way. Fry mentioned that one of the things that made Hitler’s rallies so spectacular was that they incorporated staging on an operatic scale; as well as the massive emotional resonance of ultimate good fighting ultimate evil. In short, Hitler attempted to bring a story to life. It brought to mind other examples of how human beings try to take stories in their literal form and bring them into reality — and what happens when we’re handed the answers.

Stories  come to life most successfully as allegories and metaphors for reality. They capture a small slice of our world, neatly arranged and displayed for our pleasure.

Longer stories, such as biographies or historical fiction, still lose a good chunk of their details and accuracy when translated into books and movies. The infinite complexity and interconnectivity of life never resolves in an emotionally satisfying way.

When we accomplish a lifelong dream, we expect the curtains to roll when it’s over. They don’t. We go on. That makes for a crappy ‘ending.’

To achieve that emotional catharsis at the end of a story, the writer has to be reductionist. The idea of evil is reductionist. Life would be much easier if all that stood between us and Happily Ever After were one evil person or persons to be destroyed.

What makes stories resonant and compelling, what makes them linger in our hearts long after the telling’s done — are big uncomplicated seemingly universal ideas. Evil, love, goodness, honor, and joy are all things we want to share in and experience; but translating those ideas to reality in that form demands a high price. It’s romantic to hear someone would die or kill for you… but less so when you suddenly have a corpse on your hands.

Stories that can change the world are the ones that make us think about what we’ve just read/seen/heard. They make us consider what it would be like to be in that situation. They ask what life would be like with access to certain technologies. They ask what life would be like under different types of governments. They ask us how we can be braver, or more honest. They ask us not to kill dragons, but what does it mean to be a hero. The best stories don’t give us answers. They give us questions.

The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
― Plutarch

If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.
— George S. Patton Jr.


No Story is Too Small

In the wake of the Seahawks victory, there was some noise about defaced public property. People got drunk and made silly decisions. It was reminiscent of excited fans’ absurd behavior when the SF Giants won the World Series. During the celebration of a baseball victory, a shoe-shine stand on the street corner was burned to the ground.

A man lost his livelihood because of a sports victory.

It turns out that this man, Larry, had struggled for many years with his heroin addiction, and wore a suit to work every day—even though he was sleeping under a bridge. When he was contacted by reporters, he told his story, and said that giving up is not an option.  It’s something he doesn’t believe in.

I must have passed him a hundred times before I learned his name — much less the trials he had overcome before the burning. I’m too fixated on my story, and my own main characters.  I think in movie culture we don’t see the value of having a huge cast, but in text it can be used to extraordinary effect. They crop up in the story later and reveal their importance, even if you didn’t notice at first.

Seemingly small stories like this are all part of something bigger. As we’re writing, we fall in love with main characters, main events, and main ideas—forgetting that ‘throwaway’ characters also have histories, families and dreams. They don’t carry the burden of the main narrative on their shoulders, and are free to explore the world you’ve created. They’re free to be afraid, to spy, to run from one scene to the next—and surprise you with what they reveal.

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.
— Vincent Van Gogh

There is nothing insignificant in the world. It all depends on the point of view.
— Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Any path that narrows future possibilities may become a lethal trap. Humans are not threading their way through a maze; they scan a vast horizon filled with unique opportunities.
— The Spacing Guild Handbook