Maxine Hong Kingston: A Life in the Arts

by Patrick Sung

When I asked author Maxine Hong Kingston to share some thoughts on the challenge of writing, her answer was unflinchingly honest: "All of it is challenging, each step challenging in a different way. Usually, I get the most scared at the composing of the first draft. Don't know whether anything will come. Don't know whether the words will coalesce into form. Years of work can come to nothing."

But in just a few weeks, the University of Miami will have the honor and delight of sharing in Kingston's years of work. On Friday, October 26, she will be giving a lecture at the Storer Auditorium titled Open Borders of the American Language, an Ibis Literary Reading and Performance Special event as part of UM's yearlong celebration, Taking Flight: The Year of the Humanities and the Arts.

Kingston's relationship with the arts is long and storied. Her first book, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), is a staple of university curricula nationwide. She has been recognized twice by the National Book Foundation, first for her groundbreaking work China Men (1981), and again in 2008, when she was the recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She is the author of several other acclaimed books, including Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989) and The Fifth Book of Peace (2003).

Today, she remains one of the most acclaimed Asian-American authors of our time. As one of the first in a generation that included authors like John Okada and Amy Tan, Kingston has witnessed the flourishing of Asian-American writing in recent years. "There was a time when I read every Asian and Pacific Islander American author," she says. "But now there are so many that I no longer keep an eye on each one. It is miraculous; we have created a literature."

In her own work, Kingston is by turns humorous and witty, grave and keenly aware of life's tragedies. The majority of her books have strong elements of autobiography, which she does not shy away from: "I don't think of remembrances as complications but as riches. Memories and history are gifts, wealth, maps."

Her writing also possesses a powerful political dimension. She says, "I feel that my books can be read in sequence as the evolution of a pacifist," and Kingston herself has been active in the anti-war protest movement. A recent story collection that she edited Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace (2006), as well as her latest work, the free-verse poetry collection I Love a Broad Margin to My Life (2011), tackle the human consequences of war and the struggle for harmony in day-to-day life.

Kingston has earned her renown as an artist of words, and when discussing the life and goals of the artist, she is again frank: "Artists of every generation and culture work with universal conditions - how to be free, how to find time, how to create beautifully and truly? Market conditions vary but pay them no mind. You change the market; don't let the market change you." It is a great pleasure to welcome to Miami an author who has lived by these words to the fullest of her ability.

 

Patrick K. Sung is a first-year candidate in fiction from Orange County, California. His first short story was published by Literary Laundry in 2011, and a selection of his flash works is available in the anthology Story Book by Unbound Press. He is currently working on his first novel.