MAXINE HONG KINGSTON (b. 1940)
Chinese-American Author, Poet, Peacemaker, and Professor Emeritus of University of California at Berkeley, California, U.S.A.
Photograph courtesy of the CitySon Philosopher. Taken at Kepler’s Books, Menlo Park, California, U.S.A.
Keep this day. Save this moment;
Save each scrap of moment; write it down.
Save this moment. And this one. And this.
AN EVENING WITH MAXINE HONG KINGSTON
I suspect that when many of us think of Buddhist influences on American literature, the first writers we think of are the Beats, but there are also very fine contemporary writers: Maxine Hong Kingston, Lan Cao, Anne Waldman, and Charles Johnson among others. Hence, I was delighted when, as part of the two-week-long celebrations of my sixty-first birthday, the CitySon Philosopher took me to dinner at Cafe Barrone and afterward next door to Kepler’s Books – a favorite among family and friends, the local independent – to hear Maxine Hong Kingston talk about her new book, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life.
Story gives form and pleasure to the chaos that’s life. By the end of the story, we have found understanding, meaning, revelation, resolution, reconciliations. Maxine Hong Kingston
This newest book is a memoir in long poem, in effect like the old-country tradition of writing a poem on a scroll. Flowing. Organic. Seemingly endless. It was occasioned about six years ago by Ms. Kingston’s sixty-fifth birthday. When I dipped a ready toe into its rippling waters of free-verse, my own preference, I was not disappointed.
Going to author presentations is one of our nicer family traditions. Having both already read The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, my son and I looked forward to hearing what Ms. Kingston had to say. There’s also a certain amount of local pride. Ms. Kingston was born and raised in Stanford, a university town and the next one over. She derives from a family of Chinese immigrants with strong culturally inspired story-telling and poetry traditions. This family experience combined with some years in Hawaii and traveling to China and elsewhere enriches Ms. Kingston’s writing and lends vitality, color, and perspective to both her prose and poetry.
Am I pretty at 65?
What does old look like?
Ms. Kingston immediately addresses the issues of aging and fears of dying, both in her book-presentation and in the book itself. She talks about being superstitious and thinking that as long as she has things to write “I keep living…” She tells the origins of the title: Thoreau. It’s a line from Walden that, she says, also hangs framed over her desk. She explains the Chinese custom of “writing poems back” and tells of her dad who would write poems to her in the margins of her books. Charming! She is now translating these for publication, though that was never her dad’s intention. Or so I would infer. She encourages us to write our own poems in the margins of her book, which certainly are wide.
Ms. Kingston stands in front of us, like a fragile little bird, reading excerpts from the book, which I delight to hear. She is ten years older than me and remembers the same key events: civil rights, women’s rights, Vietnam, Iraq … and so on. She’s lived the immigrant experience. She does indeed sound like a Buddhist. Has the Buddhist sensibility: respect for life, for silence, for present moment.
When Ms. Kingston has finished her presentation and Q & A, my son excuses himself and kindly goes to buy two copies of the book. We stand in line with others, waiting for her to sign our books. Every moment spent attending to writers, talking about books and writing, is precious…even more this one, because I am with my son and the writer happens to be one with whom I share values, gender, and the context of time. She also is a mother with one son.
Finally it is our turn: Ms. Kingston sits tiny and cheerful with pen in hand. She greets us, as cordial as she has been with each reader. She writes my name in big, bold sprawling black letters and “Joy and beauty and delight” and signs her full name, with “Hong” in Chinese characters. In the privacy of my mind, I think: teachers do indeed come in many guises and Ms. Kingston provides an engaging example of Buddhist values in action and at work.
Finally, my son and I head for his car, for home, and for good reading, just as we so often have over the past forty years. I feel sated. As long as we have dear children, fine friends, authentic authors, and good books to read and our own stories to write, we have everything. Life is indeed full of joy, beauty, and delight. Thank you, Son! Thank you, Ms. Kingston!