Maxine Ting Ting Hong Kingston was born on 27 October 1940 in Stockton, California, to Chinese immigrants, Tom and Ying Lan. The first of her parents' six American-born children, Maxine was named after a lucky blonde American gamester in a gambling parlor her father managed. Raised monolingually in Chinese at home, Kingston went through grueling times when she went to school. "When I went to kindergarten and had to speak English for the first time, I became silent," she writes. "My silence was thickest—total—during the time that I covered my school paints with black paint. I painted layers of black over houses and flowers and suns…." What happened when she did learn to speak and write English, she narrates eloquently in the interview.
Maxine Hong Kingston received her Bachelor's degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1962 and married Earll Kingston soon thereafter. They have one son. She taught school in California and Hawaii for a number of years after earning her Teaching Certificate in 1965. She has been a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii, a Distinguished Professor at Eastern Michigan University, and is currently on the faculty of the English Department at the University of California at Berkeley.
Kingston's first book, The Woman Warrior, won a number of prestigious awards: the general nonfiction award from the National Book Critics Circle in 1976; Mademoiselle Magazine Award, 1977; Anisfield-Wolf Race Relations Award, 1978. She was given the National Endowment for the Arts writing fellowship in 1980 and was named a Living Treasure of Hawaii the same year. Her second book, China Men was named to the American Library Association Notable Books List, 1980; American Book Award for general nonfiction, 1981; Stockton (California) Arts Commission Award, 1981. She also received the Hawaii Writers Award in 1983. Kingston's other works include Hawaii One Summer (1987) and the highly acclaimed Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1988), which won the PEN USA West Award in fiction. Her stories and articles have appeared in a number of periodicals, including The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Ms., New West, New Dawn, American Heritage, Mother Jones, and Washington Post.
In November 1993, Maxine Hong Kingston was invited to give a convocation address at Weber State University on the occasion of the 10th anniversary celebrations of Weber Studies. This interview was taped on Friday, 12 November 1993, in Kingston's suite at the Radisson Hotel, in Ogden, Utah.
Read an essay by Maxine Hong Kingston published in this edition of Weber Studies.
|Neila C. Seshachari (Ph.D., University of Utah) is Professor of English and Editor of Weber Studies at Weber State University. Her interviews with Ann Beattie, Alan Cheuse, and May Sarton have appeared in the journal. Her latest publications include a short story in the anthology Living in America: Fiction and Poetry by Asian American Writers (Westview Press, forthcoming in Spring 1995) and a personal essay in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (forthcoming, Fall 1994).|
Seshachari: Yesterday [11 Nov. 1993] at the Convocation Address at Weber State University, you said how in writing The Woman Warrior and China Men, and even Tripmaster Monkey, you left out the endings deliberately as not being important, and you proceeded to say how your new book in progress would include those. Thus, you will begin implementing your new vision with a book of endings, so to speak. Could you explain that vision, as well as your plans for the new book in progress?
Kingston: It wasn't that I left out the endings thinking they were unimportant. I left out those endings because I wasn't wise enough and I didn't know the endings. The Woman Warrior ending perhaps is the one I most deliberately left out.
At the end of the Chinese traditional chants, the Woman Warrior comes home and turns from a man, a general in armor, back into a beautiful woman, and then she presents herself to her army as a beautiful woman and sends the soldiers on their way. Now I had left that scene out of my version of The Woman Warrior because I was writing in 1975. I wanted a feminist book and I didn't understand the importance or why, in the ancient myth, you would have this strong figure turn into such a feminine person with make-up. The chant tells about her beautiful, long, black hair and how she wears it up and she puts flowers in it. She wears a silk dress and she's a classically beautiful woman. I left that out because I didn't see the need for a modern feminist to wear make-up.
Seshachari: When I first read The Woman Warrior, I felt disappointed that Fa Mu Lan, after all her conquests, came home and subsided into a very docile and obedient wife.
Kingston: And I didn't even tell in that story the entirety of her makeover. But I want to include that ending now.
Seshachari: In a different voice probably?
Kingston: Yes, yes, and also with a different wisdom and understanding. I want it very much now to be a hopeful story about homecoming from war, one that shows how a war veteran can transform herself into a peaceful, nurturing, mothering, feminine human being. She becomes more human and humane.
Seshachari: If you had used a traditional voice, you might have made your readers feel that she became a thing, a possession, a wife. But your newer, wiser voice might bring out the actual sense of her being a partner in the family.
Kingston: Also, I am telling her story in a different context now, and I am writing about a different phase of human life. The Woman Warrior is still a story of adolescent growth. It tells the journey from being a girl to a woman and so there's just that rite of passage of a young person. But the way I want to use that story now is, I am writing about middle age, the middle of life and even the end of life. I'm talking about the end of a war. And here is not a knight setting out for adventure at the beginning of a bildungsroman but one who has finished the war. It is a story of how to come home, how to reintegrate oneself into one's family and community.
Seshachari: And how differently would you end China Men and Tripmaster, if this were a book of three different endings?
Kingston: I ended China Men when the brother returns from Vietnam. It ends on a very flat sentence, "OK, everything is OK." He did not kill anyone, and he was not killed. It's not triumphant, it's not heroic, it's just survival, and that was all the wisdom I knew. And now, 20 years later—I feel that 20 years is a period of time when we live through traumas, troubles come inside of us, and we process them, we live with them, we study them with the conscious mind, then we are able to put them into artistic expression. So 20 years later, my brothers have made lives for themselves beyond the war. They have come home, and they have been able to create peaceful, humane lives. And so, I need to continue "The Brother in Vietnam" past the adventure story and past the adolescent-young-man story into middle age.
Seshachari: Then would you want to change Tripmaster Monkey or continue…
Kingston: Continue, not change it. See again, Tripmaster Monkey ends during Wittman's late adolescence. Wittman is a boyish person and he has just gotten married but there's no commitment or understanding of what marriage is. Not enough time has gone by to test the marriage, to test the carrying out of one's values and principles. The story ends when he decides that he will be a draft evader. You know, for young people there are these instant decisions. But the real test of a human being is a long term carrying out of ideas, and so the next book is about Wittman becoming older and middle aged.
Seshachari: His is a memorable courtship, brief but very picturesque. It catches the sense of the 60s very well.
Kingston: His wife Taña will be in the new book, so that we can see what kind of people they become. Is a six-month relationship a genuine relationship? What other powers are needed in the characters in order to sustain their love?
Seshachari: In "The Novel's Next Step" published in Mother Jones in 1987, you talked about the global novel, and I think you very wisely said that the time for the American Dream and the American Novel is in a sense over. We've got to think globally and include the chaotic elements in our lives but lead them to a non-violent end. Are you going to integrate these three stories in terms of the ideals you talked about in that article?
Kingston: Yes, that article was in a sense my outline.
Seshachari: You called it your minimalist novel.
Kingston: Yes, what I wanted to do was… I was going to write against the minimalist novel in order to write a global novel. The reason I was thinking of a global novel was that I began to notice that every city that I went to anywhere in the world is a cosmopolitan city. You come to Beijing, London, anywhere, and you are surrounded by people from all over the world. Every country has had its diaspora and everybody is going everywhere, and so in order to write a story about any city, any American city or any other city, you have to be able to write characters from every cultural background. A story of a city is also the story of all the people on the entire planet.
Seshachari: You're saying in every city there's a microcosm of the macrocosm...
Kingston: There are really few tribes where there are people of just one race and one cultural background. Everybody is all mixed in together. Characters come from different linguistic backgrounds. I hear pieces of many languages…. If I write this novel in English the characters will have accents from all over the world. The novelist has to have an ear for the varieties of even one language.
Seshachari: Even in the United States there is no one single standard accent. There are people of so many cultures congregated here.
Kingston: And then of course there is Black English, which is so important and central to the American language. Any American novel has to have that basic sound.
Seshachari: And did it all come about—this vision of yours—because you negated or erased an end to the Fa Mu Lan story? Did that start you thinking you had left the family out, that you had left harmony and good familial cohesion out?
Kingston: I think it comes out of my observation of daily life and just knowing that in any one day or any one trip to the market, it feels like traveling around the world.
Seshachari: In "The Novel's Next Step," you also talk of the idea of social action. Now you have initiated some interesting group activities with Vietnam veterans. How did this idea of trying out with the veterans, exercising your social zeal for peace, come to you?
Kingston: It seems to me, like most of my ideas, it came gradually. There is of course the Vietnam war and my own peace activism at that time. Also my having two brothers in the service during the Vietnam war. During that time, like other Peace Activists, I tried to think of ways to help stop the war, to help pacify all of us. I had many adventures at that time. We were in Hawaii. We were some of the people who held a church sanctuary for AWOL soldiers. All during the Vietnam War, I could feel there was a darkness hanging over the whole world and it lasted for so long. I had a son, and I was horrified that some day he would be drafted. All of these feelings of being a mother were very strong in me, and I felt very protective of not just my son but my brothers. And I didn't want my son to grow up in a world where there is going to be a draft. Those times were very interesting. People were trying to solve the most terrible problems. I have friends who also had children at that time and some of them had the baby at home without a doctor, thinking that maybe they won't register this baby. And if they don't register him, then he will never be drafted. And then the war ended so inconclusively. I was just looking through news clippings that I have of that period and soldiers were still trickling home in the mid 70s from Vietnam. So it was inconclusive—it wasn't an ending. And I was thinking, I want to make an ending. I want to be able to manipulate reality as easily as I can manipulate fiction. Do we imagine the world? If we imagine characters, can we cause them to appear in the real world? What if I could strongly write peace, I can cause an end to war.
Seshachari: Chaos theory tells us that the littlest flappings of the wings of a butterfly can cause turbulence someplace else. By the same theory, the beginning of an action by a visionary writer like you could just as well create a wave or a surge of yearning and action for peace.
Kingston: I love that [idea]—that scientists can verify that imagination can manifest a physical reality. So, I was thinking, the end to the Vietnam War is not just that they stop shooting and we stop shooting. That's not the end. The end has to be something very wonderful. The Vietnamese have a commune in France. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, has a religious commune in France, and I was thinking how wonderful if I could bring a group of Vietnam veterans to live in community with Vietnamese people.
Seshachari: And you went along?
Kingston: No, this is just still in the imagination. I'm thinking, That's the way I want to end a book. I want to raise the money to take a group and go there and then I can just witness the coming together of all these people. To me, that would be a true ending to the war with Vietnam.
Seshachari: You have already begun something here.
Kingston: Yes. I've begun all the intermediate things. One reason that I started these writing workshops with the veterans is that I got a lot of mail from veterans. They write to me about their experiences in war, and they ask me questions about, Oh about all kinds of things, about ethics, about trauma, about how to write. I was gathering quite a lot of mail, a big stack, and I kept saying, Why do they write to me? It must be because they read my books or something, but I didn't know how to answer these letters, and I didn't answer them. I just kept putting them in a stack until I could come up with an adequate answer. What can I say to these people? And then it came to me that I wanted to answer them in person. I wanted to hear their stories in person and I wanted to give them something. And what I could give them is the best thing I know, which is the method of writing.
Seshachari: Yesterday you remarked how you were changing your traditional ideas about writing. You said how we all have this idea of writing as a solitary act and how you too went into your attic, you a petite woman, with the ceiling of the attic no more than 2 inches higher than your head. Since working and writing with the veterans, have you now come to recognize that writing can be a communal act? And, is your writing that takes place as a communal act of the same quality or better than the writing that took place when it was a singular act?
Kingston: I… hmmm…
Seshachari: Of course I do recognize that even when we sit in a communal setting, each one is writing one's own.
Kingston: Yes, I am a solitary writer even among the community of writers. I am not sure what the direct effect others' writing has on my writing. So far, when writing in community the work goes faster. I can feel our group energy pushing me to work better. Writing alone, I'm very slow. So that's one good effect. The veterans are writing the most wonderful, strong stories. We pull the stories out of one another with our intense listening.
Seshachari: Would you have been able to write one complete segment of The Woman Warrior, say "Shaman," in a communal setting?
Kingston: I do believe that our lives and our art go together. Who I am and what I write are the same. The Woman Warrior is about a young girl trying to come to an understanding of herself; she is still individuating, she is learning what is secret and what is public. I wrote with the privacy of writing a diary. What I am writing now is about public life and about communal life, and so I set up the outside world to be the same as my inside world.
Seshachari: So, when your subject matter evokes solitude and relies heavily on the solitary thinking mind, the emotive mind, it is better to sit by yourself in solitude and write, whereas, if your object is say global peace or a communal venture, then it might be better to write in a communal setting. Are you trying that out right now?
Kingston: Yes, and I feel that the writing process doesn't just begin when you are putting words on paper. It begins in the living that you do before, and I feel powerful enough now so that I can set up my daily living circumstances in order to support me and support my art. I do a lot of this by instinct, like bringing the veterans together. I don't figure it out until later.
Seshachari: Your instincts are marvelous. You were a trailblazer even in the early 1970s when you started writing. Nobody had written an "autobiography" like The Woman Warrior. I call it a "mythopsychic" autobiography, by which I mean it's a psychic autobiography which draws heavily on mythology.
Kingston: I like that. That makes sense. The way I've looked at it is that I want to write about myself and other people in the truest way possible. To write a true autobiography or biography, I have to know what the other person dreams and how her imagination works. I am less interested in dates and facts.
Seshachari: Asian women generally tend to be socially inhibited. The act of writing is an act of baring oneself, in the Eastern sense, without shame or shyness. But you write about your grandfather going down the basket in such surprisingly uninhibited ways! How did you shed your inhibitions to grapple so brilliantly with psychic realities?
Kingston: I feel that writing is also a very secretive act…
Seshachari: But it becomes public the moment it is printed.
Kingston: But that's later. Also, it's not really public in that, while people are reading it—and they are reading quietly and alone—you are still at home doing whatever you're doing in private.
Seshachari: But what when your mother says, You wrote this about your grandfather?
Kingston: But she never did; she only said, Oh this is so accurate. I had an Asian-American student, a Korean, and to pay her way through college, she was a stripper in North Beach. She was doing that at night, and in the daytime she came to school. In my class, she wrote a story telling about her thoughts and feelings. She didn't want to show her writing to other students because she said, I'm baring my soul. She felt embarrassed to exhibit her inner life. But I feel the opposite. I think that for somebody to read my words is not shameful because the communication is so complete. When the reader reads the first person narrative, the "I" becomes the "I" of the reader, so the reader becomes me. So how can there be public shame?
Seshachari: What a useful dictum for all writers! It's the most difficult thing to bare oneself and be genuinely honest from the depths of one's mythic racial memory.
Kingston: Yes. I have this motto which is, Pay attention and tell the truth. And in telling the truth, sometimes you tell it fictionally, sometimes you tell it non-fictionally.
Seshachari: When you were talking about the veterans, you told us about the meditation walk, where you felt you were in communion with mother earth and father sky and all creation including humans. How would you connect your inspiration for your creative writing with your communal solitariness?
Kingston: Well, I don't do all my writing in the community. Much of my writing is in solitude, but I feel that it's vital that periodically there be this gathering of communal energy. It inspires me and I go back into solitude. It's like a wave—you know the wave goes out and comes to shore. This writing in community is a new discovery for me. I've spent too many years carrying writing as if it were a burden that's only mine. I want to tell everybody, and young people too, that there are many things that we must do in community. I wish I had started sooner.
Seshachari: You remember the address you gave in San Francisco at the 1991 MLA convention just after the Oakland fires?
Kingston: Yes, I remember.
Seshachari: You had lost your manuscript in the flames.
Kingston: And I asked people to give me things. I asked them to give me titles or ideas on The Books of Peace. I asked them to find Hemingway manuscripts, Anaïs Nin pictures, Vietnam war stories, World War II stories. That's right, I remember that. Right after the fire I gave speeches asking people to give me things. What I was doing was saying, You are my community. I'm not going to write your book all by myself! Will you help me write it? You help me with the research and just send me all this material.
Seshachari: Did you receive a lot?
Kingston: A lot. A lot. Yes.
Seshachari: And are you going to make use of it in your new book? Is it titled Another Book of Peace?
Kingston: I think of Another Book of Peace as a subtitle; I'm also beginning to think maybe I'll call it The Fifth Book of Peace…
Seshachari: Since the fourth one went up in flames too?
Kingston: Yes, yes, so this will be a fifth one. People have sent me things... and of course I make use of everything they give me. Somebody brought me a teddy bear. A woman was sitting in church, and she said a vision came to her in church. The vision was, she remembered she saw me on television and I was using an Epson QX10 computer and she had an old Epson QX10 at home she wasn't using. A vision came to her in church, Give Maxine your computer. So here's this woman at the door. She gave me a computer. People brought me clothes, shoes, underwear stories. Audio and videotapes of my readings from the work in progress.
Seshachari: And was that the beginning of your "communal" life?
Kingston: That could be. There was a fire, and then the very next couple of weeks I was telling people to help me with the research.
Seshachari: So you had to be deprived in order to gain…
Kingston: …to get this idea of community.
Seshachari: How wonderful. It's almost like a biblical or mythic story.
Kingston: One idea that I had too was that the only things that remained after the fire were the things I gave away. Literally so, because the gifts that I gave to people, the people after the fire brought the gifts back. So I was thinking, all that remains is what I gave.
Seshachari: How did you learn to accept the finality of that loss and proceed with your writing life as if nothing had happened?
Kingston: Oh, I haven't accepted the finality. If it were possible, I would not have had any of this happen. Seshachari: But then you said you didn't want hypnotists to hypnotize you and have you regurgitate the lost book of peace from memory.
Kingston: No, no because that's only memory. I don't want to regurgitate. Writing should be constantly an act of creation and going forward into the new. But I've been thinking a lot about loss and memory because my father died just before the fire, so there was that loss of my father and then the loss of the house and the loss of the book. Everything happened at once. But everybody has losses. Working with veterans, I understand now that the mourning is never over. We will always have mourning after a traumatic event; after a loss there will always be mourning. We want it that way because we don't want to forget our feelings for that person or that thing. However, the mourning changes; mourning breaks up into different elements. We will mourn in different ways and one way of mourning, perhaps you pass a spot or you go under a tree and you remember a person that you talked to under that tree. That's his spirit visiting you. Maybe by that time you feel very happy because you remember. That remembrance and that happiness are mourning, too, transformed.
Seshachari: As long as a person is alive in the mind of another human being, that person is not truly dead.
Kingston: Yes, and that person is alive in you and in your heart. I am sure that our relationship with those people continues to grow and I will continue to resolve my relationship with my father even though he's dead. I can still think of things to say to him. It's too bad that he can't answer, but sometimes he can even answer—
Seshachari: It's a dialogue in the mind?
Kingston: Yes, because then you think, Well, he would have said this and this, and so his presence is continuing.
Seshachari: Very early in your writing career, in an interview with Timothy Pfaff in The New York Review of Books, you said that writing was like having a fit or going to war. Besides helping release tensions, it served you as a form of social activism and so in the new book that you're going to subtitle "Peace," will that be your major goal—to achieve peace?
Kingston: Yes, yes—to put out into the world a vision of peaceful living and of how human beings can relate to one another harmoniously and joyfully and how groups of people come together. I feel that peace has hardly been imagined. It is rarely dramatized in the theater, in the movies, even in books.
Seshachari: It's only in fairy tales we say, "and they lived happily ever after."
Kingston: Good. I'm going to take that "happily ever after" and continue it and ask, Well, how did they live next? I am meeting the veterans again in mid-December. I think it's a good time because it's the holidays, it is going to be the end of a year and the beginning of a new year. It's a good time to stop and think about the past and the future.
Seshachari: And there's the winter solstice too.
Kingston: That's right. It's a very good time to be with other people and to take stock, assess where you've been and where you're going.
Seshachari: Changing the subject here, I want you, if you are willing, to talk about that little misunderstanding or rift between you and Frank Chin, et al.
Kingston: Well, you know, I don't think of it as a misunderstanding or a rift or anything that's between him and me. It's always been him with these attacks, and I usually don't answer at all. He calls me terrible names such as race traitor. He even wrote me a letter that he's going to beat me up if he sees me. I don't want to honor him with answers.
Seshachari: Has he met you at all?
Kingston: No, we've never met.
Seshachari: Maybe if you did meet, he would recognize you for the warm-hearted human being you are.
Kingston: Oh, no, no. I think that in order to recognize a warm-hearted human being, you have to be a warm-hearted human being yourself. Actually, I've stopped reading his work, because I think he does not mean me well. I read for inspiration and life and help, and I don't think he wants to help me. What are the real important issues at stake? I have identified two. One of them is the racial and cultural myths. Whom do they belong to? Frank would say they belong to real Chinese such as himself. And they do not belong to, for example, the Caucasians. My feeling is, if somebody goes to a bookstore and buys my book, then they have bought the myths, and they can have the great myths of China by reading them. The only way that myths stay alive is if we pass them on. He has also been saying that there is a true text, including the chant of the Woman Warrior. Now I know that myth is not passed on by text; it's mostly passed on by word of mouth, and every time you tell a story and every time you hear it, it's different. So there isn't one frozen authentic version; there are many, many authentic versions different from person to person.
Seshachari: Feminists especially talk of writing alternate myths, and I think alternate myths, in very simplistic terms, imply there is a view of one myth from the male or patriarchal perspective and there is a view of the same myth from a woman's or feminist perspective. When written from a woman's perspective, the myth takes on different shapes and can be interpreted in opposite ways.
Kingston: That explains, why, as a woman, it's absolutely clear to me that we have the freedom of creating alternate myths, and for Frank Chin, as a male, there is a monolith, one monument of a myth. The other difference—I just discovered this recently and am very surprised at this coincidence—I think he just published his translation of The Art of War [Sun Tzu , ca., 500 B.C., ascribed to Sun Wu] one of the traditional Chinese books of war. He's brought this into the world at the same time that I am writing my book of peace. You can see the fundamental difference in values.
Seshachari: Critics think of Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as the quintessential novel of 1960s; I think you have also written a quintessential novel of the 60s in Tripmaster Monkey.
Kingston: Yes. John Leonard called it the Great American Novel of the 60s.
Seshachari: I remember that. But you wrote your novel much later. You wrote it in the 1980s. So I am particularly curious about its genesis. How did you think of writing about the 60s in the late 70s.
Kingston: I am a very slow, slow writer and thinker and reader—
Seshachari: You are a perfectionist.
Kingston: Actually I think maybe it's the normal course of creation. The journey in the Odyssey takes 20 years. It takes 20 years to live an experience, learn its meanings, find the words to tell it. I loved being a young person in the 60s. There were many, many wonderful adventures.
Seshachari: Did you feel privileged like Wittman?
Kingston: Yes, I thought sitting in a coffee house was being in heaven. One of the wonderful things about the 1960s was language. There was a new language and there were wonderful new ways of describing psychedelic states, spiritual states, trying to find new words for political actions like those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. What do you call that when you sit at the lunch counter and you don't move and you do it with peace and love?
Seshachari: Sit-ins, be-ins, whatever-ins; perhaps satyagraha?
Kingston: Sit-ins and be-ins, yes, love-ins and psychedelics. And I love the slang of the period. And so, of course, I wanted to write a book about that period, using that language. Also when I was writing China Men and The Woman Warrior, I felt very much like a translator. I was always translating Chinese into English and finding English words for Chinese ways and dialogue. I felt so free when I got to Tripmaster Monkey. I could use my language and I could use the language that I loved to listen to.
Seshachari: Its language is inside out. It's as if some new person has written this book. It's great. I was also interested in this Monkeytell me about the title. You worked it in so well throughout. Wittman's the monkey, and you work it in very clearly.
Kingston: This is the first book that I named by myself. That name came to me even before I started writing. Tripmaster was a word from the 1960s. People could be on acid, and there's a tripmaster who suggests trips for them and who guides them and keeps them from flipping out. I feel that I myself was very good at doing that. Often I would be the one who would not take drugs and the other people would take the drugs. I would make sure they were safe. Very different from Ken Kesey. I wanted to make sure that they did not go to any dangerous places, make sure they went to beautiful places with flowers and music and birds. So that's the "Tripmaster," and as for "Monkey," it's utterly clear to me that the monkey spirit came to America in the 1960s. Monkey was at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and on the march to the Pentagon. It's the most interesting coincidence that Monkey accompanied Tripitika to India and, isn't that funny—Tripitika and Tripmaster begin in the same T-R-I-P? Isn't that odd?
Seshachari: When I connected Wittman to the Buddhist Tripitika Monkey [in the questions sent earlier], I thought, Am I concocting this link by myself or is there something to it?
Kingston: I think that it's one of those language miracles. It's right out there in the universe you know, those coincidences, those true coincidences that come together, that Monkey and…here is Monkey mind and he is even pre-human in the scale of evolution. He has to rise in this ladder of humanity and become a Buddhist Bodhisatva. And there's also biological evolution that has to take place. I like the subtitle too, His Fake Book.
Seshachari: Why did you call it His Fake Book?
Kingston: I'd walk into music stores and look at sheet music and find fake books.
Seshachari: What are they?
Kingston: Jazz musicians often made collections of basic melodies of tunes which they improvised off of. I was thinking that I would write about many trips, suggest many stories. I was turning 40 when I was writing it and I was thinking, Oh, I'm going to die and this book is going to be so long and I'll never finish it. It took eight years and at one point it was a thousand pages long. So I thought, maybe if I can just suggest the beginnings of some stories, somebody else will take off on them and finish them.
Seshachari: You published some 300 pages of the 1000 pages. Did the other 700 pages [of Tripmaster Monkey] burn with the rest of your belongings?
Kingston: Oh, yes. There's nothing left. But the thousand pages of Tripmaster Monkey mostly I took that [manuscript] and condensed it. So it wasn't as if I cut out sections. But, it's turned out that I will be the one who will finish the story of the Tripmaster Monkey growing older because I did manage to live past 40 and 50. I'm hoping that people will say, They call the monk and monkey "Trip" because they go on a long, long trip.
Seshachari: Had you read Hsuang Tsang's account and Wu Ch'eng-en's novel of the same name…
Kingston: Oh, The Journey to the West.
Seshachari: Journey to the West [Hsi-yu Chi] and Arthur Waley's translation, Monkey: Hope Novel of China [NY: Grove, 1958].
Kingston: Yes. I had. I read them when I was younger and reread them when I was older. I read Journey to the West when I was writing Tripmaster Monkey too because I just wanted to verify to myself, Am I catching the spirit of this monkey person? Am I right in seeing monkey's presence?
Seshachari: Did you read the original Chinese or did you read them in translation?
Kingston: In translation. My Chinese is not good enough to read it. I just wanted to make sure that I was correct in my understanding of monkey mind. I was seeing monkeys all over in the USA in the 60s, so I read that book to make sure that I was getting the right spirit and also to see whether there were some stories that I had forgotten that I could just grab.
Seshachari: I noticed too that at the time you were writing your Tripmaster Monkey, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was writing his Signifying Monkey.
Kingston: I know, I know. See, so the Monkey was here, and it went inside Henry Louis Gates's mind, and it went inside my mind too.
Seshachari: And he takes it as a kind of trope. He calls it a peculiarly African American rhetorical trope. How would you signify your monkey?
Kingston: I love it whenever I find [something] like the African American Monkey and Chinese Monkey—when I find out that they are both monkeys and they are both here in America, then I feel connected to African American people and again inspired that we are all one human race. I think it's so important for us to find figures like that, so that we can make our human connections. My monkey signifies the way the natural mind and body work—jumping around, undisciplined. Buddhists say "monkey mind" and "horse willpower."
Seshachari: I loved your idea when you said [in the Convocation Address] that you have learned to be Black by reading ethnic literature. We have all learned to be White by learning about pilgrims and pioneers and in that sense I learned to be Chinese by reading China Men and The Woman Warrior. I think it's a marvelous concept of letting in multicultural ideas through reading and changing oneself into the quintessential American who is multi-ethnic.
Kingston: Yes, yes. You know when Alex Haley wrote Roots—and I think Roots came out the same year as The Woman Warrior—when I got that book and read it, I felt, yes, those are my roots; they're not just his roots, they're not just Black people's roots, those are my roots. Those are my roots all the way to Africa. And Alex Haley gives them to me as a gift and I receive them by knowing about those roots and by reading that book and by letting all of that awareness into my consciousness and into my heart.
Seshachari: Of the current trends on campuses in teaching ethnic literature, one is called "particularism," where one learns only about one's own culture, like all the African-American students taking a Black History course, all the oriental students taking an Asian-American Literature course and so on. Then there is the other one called "pluralism," where one takes multi-ethnic literature all together. Sometimes I'm distrustful of single ethnic courses because students in their youthfulness take that history to be the totality of history.
Kingston: Yes, yes. Also we can enter through any door of this great palace that we have. If we're going to have concentrated Black Studies, Asian-American Studies and so on, it would be great for the Blacks to go to the Asian-American Studies course and the Asians to go to the Black Studies course or the men to go to Women's Studies and so on.
Seshachari: But that rarely happens.
Kingston: I know it rarely happens. But there's nothing in the rules that says it cannot happen. I mean, it's not institutionally recommended—it's all voluntary. So we do it to ourselves, ghettoize ourselves. But I do believe that if we study any one discipline deeply, it will connect us to everything else.
Seshachari: All minority literature is richly textured, and its literary artistry is always complex because most writers are reinventing themselves or their native culture. In a sense, you are reinventing Chinese mythic culture. It seems to me that those who cannot read original works of their mother culture must face slightly greater problems. Can you elaborate on some of the problems that you faced as you began to write The Woman Warrior? What I'm saying is, immigrants of Indian origins send their children to their parents, to their brothers and sisters in India, where the children learn some Indian language and even if they can't read too well, they read well enough to get a flavor of it. I would imagine that because until very recently China was behind the dark curtain and secondly because Chinese ideograms are so numerous that it's a hardship to learn them as a language, it becomes difficult for Chinese immigrants to partake of their culture in its original flavor. So did you ever feel that you were losing something or were you trying harder to understand? What were your responses to the questions you faced as you began to dip into that Chinese mythic consciousness? It's as if the Chinese language was a vast ocean and you didn't know how to swim.
Kingston: Well, I think that I first contended with these questions when I was about 7 years old, and, you know, my first language is Chinese, and I only knew people who spoke Chinese. I talked story and I invented poems and made up songs and I heard stories, but when I began to know the English language and somewhere around 8 years old, I started to write, and the English language was so…
Kingston: No, no. Bright, full of freedom. I felt freedom because the English language is so easy, and I thought, My gosh, everything I hear I can notate it! I can notate Chinese. I can write Chinese in English. I can write English in English and I never had that power when I spoke only Chinese. You speak Chinese and then the written language is completely different. There's no system. It's one word at a time. But all of a sudden, with the 26 letters in the English alphabet you can write anything, so I just felt I had the most powerful tool, and I felt free to express myself.
Seshachari: Have you ever written Chinese words in the Roman script?
Kingston: Oh yes. That was considered cheating when we were in Chinese school. The teachers did not like us to do that, but we would, in pencil, lightly write the Roman script next to the characters and then we would read it out loud. If they found out, they would hit us. But we discovered a method which they use today in teaching Chinese. Now they put Chinese into Roman script for people to study. It's easier to learn that way, and we children were doing it when we were 6 or 7 years old.
Seshachari: Do you think it would be good for China if people learned only the 26 letters of the Roman script?
Kingston: But then we lose that beautiful calligraphy.
Seshachari: Yes, yes.
Kingston: The Chinese are always monkeying around with the language. I don't like it when they simplify the really complex characters because they're so pictorially wonderful. But that's a different art. I heard a talk by Anita Desai and I was so impressed. She said that she chooses to write in English because in English you can replicate the rhythms of any of the hundreds of Indian languages.
Seshachari: I have this other question about ethnic minorities. Central to the communities of minorities is the concept of the "psychic frontier" and the imaginary line which demarcates Us vs. Them. The Whites vs. African-Americans, African-Americans vs. Oriental or Asian-Americans and so on, and this frontier is a shifting frontier—it has to be. Arnold Krupat defines it as a "shifting space in which two cultures encounter one another." Can you comment on that frontier vis-à-vis the Chinese-Americans and the Anglos? How has it changed from the time you were a 7-year-old going to an Anglo school and discovering the English language as a power tool, and now when you are trying to enlarge the area of understanding between different ethnic groups?
Kingston: I must say that I never pictured psychic space like that because the actual way in which people live in my hometown of Stockton was not in well-defined ghettos. People were very much interspersed.
Seshachari: And yet, until you were 7 years old, you didn't have a single Anglo friend, right?
Kingston: I didn't meet any of them until I went to school.
Seshachari: And would you define that psychic space where you really didn't mesh—where although you lived so close, you did not talk with a White friend?
Kingston: Actually, there weren't any White people in our neighborhood. But there were Black people. The next door people were Black, and there were Mexicans and Filipinos, but they were all very interspersed and while we saw them, we didn't go inside one another's houses, that's true. But that time when I didn't have any friends of other colors, that was a very short time. As soon as I started school—and my parents put me into school very early, I think they lied about my age, I must have been only 3 years old. At that age I met all kinds of other people. In Stockton, there isn't a China Town where people lived. So I don't quite have that sense of very clear boundaries between one and another.
Seshachari: I have one observation though. European immigrants into the United States appear to lose their ethnicity much faster. Within two or three generations, they get so totally assimilated into the big melting pot mass that we call them typical Anglo-Americans whereas, the third and fourth generation Asian-American immigrants appear not to be [so totally assimilated] because of their color.
Kingston: Also because we look different. And we have different customs, we have different language, and then also the deliberate prejudices...
Seshachari: And so would you say that people of color on this continent are in a kind of psychic diaspora? For instance, the third and fourth generations of Chinese still think of China as their country of origin. But the third or fourth generation Germans or Norwegians have no ubiquitous consciousness of another home in Europe.
Kingston: There are many constant diasporas from home countries, and when we are here, diasporas throughout the American continents. You know, the average American moves every four and a half years. And yet, the people of color have stronger senses of community than I imagine the average White person has. These can be communities that band together in hardship, the worst ones being gangs. But then there are also religious communities in the churches. There are China Towns, Asia Towns, family associations that were started 200 years ago when people first came here, and they still flourish today. So, in one sense there is this falling apart, losing old languages, losing the old ways, but maybe not so much losing of the old values—
Seshachari: And the communal solidarity?
Kingston: Yes, yes.
Seshachari: Bharati Mukherjee once said that every immigrant must feel powerful because he or she can reinvent one's own past. We see this happen all the time—it is a unique opportunity to gain some kind of self-confidence or a better self-image. So in a sense, we are reinventing our own vision and reinventing our past. We're also reinventing our present and our future and our vision—both in mythic and actual terms. And this vision comes to us in terms of what it is now to be an American, because we are now in America.
Kingston: And we made this stuff up, we made this country up.
Seshachari: Yes, exactly. And so, what is your vision of an ideal American in this multi-ethnic culture? Your vision interests me since you are writing the Peace book.
Kingston: I guess I would start from the very ground. I picture a people living in harmony upon the earth…
Seshachari: In that Mother Jones article you said, Marry interracially. You gave two or three different ways of how people could be global citizens.
Kingston: When I said Marry interracially, I was thinking, Oh that's fun. Of course, it's already happening. The rate of "out-marriage," as they call it, among the various Asian populations is 75% and the rate of out-marriage among the Jews is 75% and so it seems that number, 75% is the magic number. Everybody is an "other" and here are all these "others," potentially enemies, and it's such an opportunity to learn how to get along with people you don't like, people you don't look like, and so we can learn the most difficult love.
Seshachari: You once said you were claiming America in China Men. When I read The Woman Warrior, I felt you were claiming womanhood for all of us.
Kingston: Oh, that's wonderful.
Seshachari: In your Book of Peace, what would you be claiming?
Kingston: Oh, what would I be claiming this time? What I would like to do is claim evolution—that we can evolve past being a warring species into a peaceful species so that we are not predators anymore, and that we stop being carnivorous. If only we could stop being cannibals—
Seshachari: You recognize that's very difficult, of course. For instance, during The Warring States period in China [481-221 B.C.], Confucius or K'ung-fu-tzu, who hailed from the state of Wu, was crushed because even the ruler of Wu was not amenable to giving him a state job. The poor visionary died never recognizing how he would soon become an idol worshiped in the decades and millennia to follow.
Kingston: It seems that we just continue being a Warring States period.
Seshachari: Jesus could not stop the warring state. Gandhi could not. But I suppose we cannot give up and say it doesn't succeed.
Kingston: No, we just keep trying and we keep using the simple, gentle tools that we have.
Seshachari: You said in the Mother Jones article that "the dream of the great American novel is past. We need to write the global novel. Its setting will be the United States, destination of journeys from everywhere." This idea of enlarging the frontier of the novel is wonderful. And in the Kennedy era of the early 1960s, for example, the American frontier—the actual Western frontier—moved into the realm of space. Not having anymore territory to explore or conquer, the United States turned its attention to the conquest of outer space. Today, our very terminology is so entrenched in metaphors and tropes of battles and conquests. We are conquering space, we are conquering something. In The Woman Warrior you used another such trope, but of course this had legitimacy in the sense that Fa mu lan actually went to war.
Kingston: I tried to change the noun "warrior" by putting that adjective "woman" in front of it. Maybe it softens the word—it's a particular kind of warrior.
Seshachari: Can you think of a usable term that approximates the social notion of conquest and is still rooted in pacifism?
Kingston: Well, I guess Martin Luther King Jr. said "overcome, we shall overcome." That's a lovely word "overcome." It's coming home, and over means going high and flying above. That's very nice. But at a PEN international congress in Toronto and Montreal, I was talking about the global novel. Somebody asked the question, Where are you going to set your novel? When I said the United States, they booed me. The Canadians were saying, Why again your country? Again the United States? So, you know, I was being ethnocentric, and I didn't even mean to be. All I meant was I need to start from where I am, and I happen to be in the United States, but I did realize, Oh, it does not necessarily have to be the United States. I need to write in a bigger way; my own consciousness needs to be larger.
Seshachari: And as you said, since the novel has to reach out into its chaotic boundaries, the global boundaries may become cosmic boundaries?
Kingston: I teach William Carlos Williams in my Reading for Writers course at Berkeley. In the 1920s, he was calling for a book that was worthy of the Americas. He was thinking of a big American novel. He was not confining it to the United States. Williams was thinking of the Americas; he wanted a book that was speaking from the large ground of these two continents.
Seshachari: One could think of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. It comes closest to being a global poem.
Kingston: Yes, it's global and it's American. What I love about Whitman is that he never forgot he and she, man and woman. How did we slide so far backwards from Whitman?
Seshachari: And so the novel in prose would have to have that similar reach.
Kingston: Yes, the reach that would include everyone. You know when Wittman [in Tripmaster Monkey] produces a play, he invites everybody he knows to be in the play—
Seshachari: I liked that.
Kingston: I want novels like that. Put everything I know and everyone I know in them.
Seshachari: And everyone has a part?
Kingston: Yes, everyone has a starring role. Everyone is a star.
Seshachari: Everyone is also a spectator?
Kingston: You're right.
Seshachari: Both a spectator and a star. That's wonderful. At the end of Tripmaster Monkey, you said, Wittman Ah Sing has now learned to bring to the surface his Asian-American consciousness, and now his problem is to become a global citizen.
Kingston: Oh, yes, yes.
Seshachari: You were suggesting that we are inwardly ethnocentric and we are who we are, an Asian American or an African American or a Mexican American and so on. And in becoming a global citizen one has to turn one's gaze outward. And you suggested some things like interracial marriages, an education that emphasizes pacifism as a societal value, and involvement in sanctuary-type movements, which also include the idea of the city of refuge. How many average people who are the solid foundation of our society but not necessarily writers or readers have the opportunity to become global citizens? The average American does not read much and does not write at all.
Kingston: I think that if a person doesn't read, maybe they cannot come out of themselves. You know you delineated a…I think a growth process of human development…first there is an awareness of the ego, the self, and then of another and many others to become a communal person. And we need to go even beyond that—our family, tribe, Chinatown, gang, nation—into a larger selflessness or agape. I think it is a very rare person who will take on public and global responsibilities. They don't even go out to vote, and you only have to do that once in two years. Reading and writing should expand and transform the self.
Seshachari: Average persons are not readers in the best sense. Even students who go to class and get their grades don't always read critically.
Kingston: I just read about scientists who measured the strands of neuropeptides in our brains. They found that in the people who are most educated and who consistently read books, the strands actually get longer. In the brains of the ones who don't read, the neuropeptides get shorter. We physically change because of our reading and thinking, and then I hope we become strong enough to create a good society around us. Reading must be an essential tool for envisioning and making the world.
Seshachari: So it becomes a vision that is likely to be just beyond our reach?
Kingston: I hope not. We're publishing more books than ever—
Seshachari: Some people are reading more books than ever but others are not reading any at all.
Kingston: This morning we were looking at the best seller list in USA Today. They publish a list of 50 books so that they can list more than the 15 that are in the New York Times list. There are hardly any literary books on the list.
Seshachari: Your next publication will be. In your keepsake Bancroft Library book, Through the Black Curtain, you say that when you learned to write English, you realized that you had parted the Black Curtain and that you were out.
Kingston: Yes, yes. But it keeps swinging shut. When I write, I am at the theater you know. I look forward to the curtain opening up and seeing what's behind. I keep knowing that when I open it, there are all kinds of gifts and visions. And God is behind there.
Seshachari: At the end of the book, however, when you had also just finished writing Tripmaster Monkey, you said" I think I'm drying up."
Kingston: I often feel that way, like the weather. In California, we're into our seventh year of drought.
Seshachari: At the end of Tripmaster Monkey too, you say that you felt you had no more books within you.
Kingston: Oh, I did? You know what that comes from? Every time I write, I put everything I know into the one work. And then when I get finished with it, I say, Well that's it. I don't know anymore.
Seshachari: And then you reinvent yourself.
Seshachari: How do you feel about The Woman Warrior and China Men being adapted into a play? Are you satisfied with the translation of your books into a new medium?
Kingston: I am amazed at the richness and beauty of the play—the costumes hand sewn in China, the immense stage sets and glorious lights by Ming Cho Lee, the voices of the actors transmitting my stories mouth-to-ear, the fusion of Western and Chinese music, the kung fu acrobatics. Much of what I write came out of talk-story. I put talk-story into text. Now, the play returns text to talk-story, and children and non-readers can appreciate these myths and legends too.
Seshachari: Did you write the script?
Kingston: No, Debra Rogin is the playwright. Her feat was to find an organizing principle for my complex non-linear books. She has braided three strands together—myth, ancestral history, and the life of a young girl. Watching the play, I kept thinking what an interesting girl I was!