Best known for her 1975 memoir, The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston has made a career of blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, dreams and reality, even the living and the dead. More recently she edited Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, a collection of fiction, nonfiction and poetry written by veterans. The following is a transcript of an interview I conducted with Kingston when she visited Montgomery County Community College for their annual Writers Conference in November of 2009.
Your work tends to blur a lot of boundaries—fact and fiction, for example, as well as the living and the dead. Why does the interplay between these seeming opposites assume such a central role in your work?
It could be because I feel constrained by labels or boundaries—and by stereotypes, which can bind a person in. I am working on freeing myself as an artist, freeing my voice. Maybe it also comes with my upbringing. I come from immigrant parents and am always trying to bring two cultures together, always trying to find where the common ground is.
When you mention that common ground, I’m reminded of a passage toward the end of Tripmaster Monkey in which a character named Yale Younger, playing the part of the famous conjoined twin Chang Bunker, rails against his audience, yelling, “We know damned well what you came for to see… You want to look at the hyphen. You want to look at it bare.” Is it fair to say that looking at the hyphen is one of your own major interests? How do you look at the hyphen without making a freak show out of it?
That is a freak show. Chang Bunker is from Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins. They were actually Chinese twins, and they were freaks during the Civil War. There’s our country being torn apart, and Abraham Lincoln actually invited them to the White House to show that the North and South should get together. And it’s even freakier because one of them got drafted—but you can’t take both twins. So what I’m doing is using the ligament that joined the Siamese twins as a hyphen. When you think of Chinese-American or African-American, so often there’s a hyphen put in there, and I’m trying to say, “Wait a minute—the hyphen should not be something that separates but something that joins. Let’s integrate everybody and everything.”
There’s a sense of ambivalence there, too. There’s so much that Wittman Ah Sing, the protagonist of Tripmaster Monkey, is in some ways both proud of and ashamed of in terms of all of the cultures that are acting upon him. Do you see that as central not to any specific culture but to America in general?
I suppose if we think of Americans in general, there has always been a looking down on new Americans by the ones who’ve been here a long time. Aside from racial terms, we have terms like greenhorn for people who haven’t learned the American ways. There’s a class structure that we all set up, and those who do well have to affirm that anything is possible here. That’s why there’s a looking down on those who don’t make it.
So we have these mythologies built into our culture, and if you’re not living up to those mythologies, somehow you’re a failure. I love the way within your work, the mythologies are living with us so palpably. When you talk about them, especially in Woman Warrior, a lot of them are Chinese mythologies that follow your characters throughout the narrative. But even in America, it’s still very plain for us.
That is a theme that goes through all of my work. Here are mythic ideals and mythic heroes and heroines—and always feeling I don’t live up this. There’s myths of bravery, myths of success, but also myths of some of our great ideals such as being a peacemaker or democracy, democracy being an ideal that we don’t live up to if we assume that some of us are not as good as the others. When I’m teaching, I especially find it important that even talent should be democratic. Writing, like art, does not depend on genius, but we can learn to write the poem or learn to write the big novel.
This reminds me of your recent work with veterans. You’re taking people who really don’t have training in writing, but you’re working with them to produce very moving work. What drew you to this project?
What drew me was that I was trying to write a book of peace. Again, I was thinking of a Chinese myth that inspired me. There were, at one time, three books of peace, and they were all lost—in book burnings, library burnings. I thought I would write one for our time, and that book burned in one of the big California fires. Then I thought I would gather a writing community around me, and they would be veterans of wars because then they could ask the really hard questions about war and about peace. I gathered that group, and together we learned ways of drawing the stories out of one another. We were writing in community, and we listened to one another. It was my faith that everyone has a great human story, and it’s just a matter of finding the ways to bring those stories out.
Did you encounter any resistance as you were working with veterans, especially in the early going with this project?
I don’t think it was resistance. It was more like tantrums and outbursts. The outpouring of anguish. There would be tears, and there would be screaming and acting out. Balling out everyone around, balling out the world. Then my task would be to help someone use this energy and shape it and form it into words, into story, into poetry.
In a lot of cases, I think it’s very much what we do in a composition class. The ideas are all there, so how do we shape those? How do we give you a voice?
Yes. And how do you take all of this chaos that’s in our feelings and in our minds, and find the words for it.
Right—making sense of that chaos so that it becomes sensible, so that you can share your story, which in a sense is sharing your burden, with another human being.
And then the story or poem has the most miraculous arc and shape, because as we put conflicts into this form, it will naturally take you to revelation of meaning. And by the end of the story, there is resolution.
In a way, you’re enacting that positive version of the hyphen that you mentioned. You are becoming that connection, as opposed to the division. That’s where the value of writing is. But when you’re working with veterans, how do you decide what to include or what to leave out?
The whole process of editing is difficult. But, again with my ideal that all of us can write beautifully and that we can process trauma into art—that we can make a piece of beautiful art and that we can transform a war experience into a wonderful war story—with that idea, I made it my goal that everybody who wanted to be published in a book will be published. And we did make that goal. It’s a huge book with eighty people—forty poets, forty prose writers. The way it works is that people have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Constantly, I am editing and shaping. And I’m not the only editor. Some of the veterans themselves are editing. We’re editing each other, giving each other feedback, and after many, many drafts, everybody came up to publishing level.
I love that you say it’s all about revision, always returning to the project, because it’s never really done. That’s what I emphasize with my own students, too. They get so frustrated, especially initially, and they say “What do you mean I have to go back? I’ve said all there is to say.”
But in college, there isn’t time to do multiple rewrites. At most, people have time for one. And that improves it a little bit, but if you can work on a story over many months, many years, and finding the excitement, the drama, the rest of the story, we come to a great work.
To hear the full interview, click the play button below.
Produced by Matt Porter for Montgomery County Community College On the Air. Airdate 12/6/09.