With the publication of her first book, The Woman Warrior, in 1976, Maxine Hong Kingston entered into the literary fray at the border of nonfiction and fiction and took up the motif of turning the sword into the pen—an approach that has permeated her career. Most recently, Kingston has been nominated to receive the 2008 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. In addition to numerous other awards, she has been titled a “Living Treasure of Hawaii.” Her other works include China Men, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, Hawaii One Summer, To Be the Poet, Veterans of War, and Veterans of Peace.
In September, Hot Metal Bridge caught up with Kingston to talk about her most recent book, The Fifth Book of Peace. In it, she describes losing the manuscript of her second novel in a house fire; a retelling of that novel, which takes place during the Vietnam War; and facilitating writing and meditation workshops with war veterans and Thich Nhat Han.
HMB: In The Fifth Book of Peace you have a passage where you talk about writing as meditation. Could you talk about how writing and meditation and teaching all go together in your life?
MHK: And the silence and breathing, which I’m convinced helps us with the rhythms of language. Writing as meditation includes learning to listen to one another. So it’s a whole day in practicing how to be silent. When you’re silent, the inspiration and the stories come. I really like it that all inspiration means is to breathe in, and when you breathe in, the imagination does work better. You will know what you’re feeling. In the silence, the stories and the words have a space to come to.
HMB: What kind of exercises do you have [the workshop participants] do?
MHK: When we first began the workshops, I would think of a writing prompt. Now the groups are led by people taking turns and it’s up to them to think of the subject or the idea that we’re going to write about. People come up with all kinds of ideas and they like to kid around that they’re all rebellious people, and so they keep saying, “Well I’m not going to write about that, I’m going to write about whatever I want.”
[Writing and meditation workshops are] such a necessity because people are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and they can really use whatever help that they can get to express themselves and to feel better again. When we are writing, we learn to be quiet and to sit and to let our thoughts and emotions come. Meditation just helps you with the discipline of being able to sit quietly. The only difference being in meditation you just let the thoughts come and go. But and in writing, you take notes and write them down!
HMB: What about the critical voices in your head while you’re writing? How do you deal with them?
MHK: I just try to ignore them, I guess. I also find that when I go deeply enough into what I’m doing then I don’t hear them anymore. It’s not helpful to have critical voices coming at you!
There are times when I give myself permission to be just as stupid as I want. And that’s one way of answering those voices: I don’t care, this is really dumb, but it’s important for me to get this down. I might not even publish this, but it doesn’t matter. It’s important that I express this.
Later on in your career, there are all those people who write criticism. They don’t like what you’re doing and they tell you what it’s about and that’s not what it’s about. At first I used to read all my critics and react emotionally to them, and I felt so bad. Once in awhile I’d even write back to them. But now I just find that, again, maybe it’s a process of getting older and getting used to it and even less curious about reviews. So I’m able to have a review and just glance at it and if I see that it’s going to be awful I just don’t even read it. I used to wonder about writers who say, “Oh, I never read my reviews.” Aren’t you curious about what they’re saying? But I’ve gotten that way too. I think I might read it if it might be helpful, but if it only discourages me, then I don’t read it.
HMB: What about the voices of the people who are characters in your book?
MHK: That’s a hard one. I had one where I went to an art exhibit in a mental hospital and there was Crazy Mary. Her paintings were on the wall but with her real name, I mean first name and last name, which I didn’t put in the book. But I looked at her paintings and I thought, “Oh no, she’s not just a character that belongs to me—she exists in her own right.” And I feel so badly that I just used her as a character without permission or anything. I felt like I owned her because I thought about her and felt so much about her.
But then years later I got a letter and it was from her nephew and at first I thought, “Oh no, now he’s really going to let me have it.” But in the letter he thanked me for writing about her and said, “You helped our family understand ourselves and her better.” Then I realized that if you truly work and paint a true portrait of somebody and you understand this person as well as you can, then the people who read it will feel good; they will feel honored; they will come to a resolution by reading your work. You can write about somebody with a lot of love and the person comes across more loveable maybe than they would in real life. I felt very relieved.
After that I made up a code of ethics for myself as a writer. I decided that I would not write about anybody anymore unless I get permission from them. Not permission for the writing before, but after I write it, I’ll show it to them and if they say that it’s good and go ahead and publish it then I will. If they don’t like it, then I won’t publish it. So I made up this code for myself.
I used it when I wrote The Fifth Book of Peace because I showed all those veterans what I said about them. Some of them corrected me to make things a little bit more precise, but it was okay. But it really surprised me that the women veterans did not like their portraits. They did not like their names in there, or they would say, “Put me in there but don’t put my name.” I decided I would make a generic person and just call her “woman vet,” and compiled them.
This idea about writing about real people and what you owe them—my ideas about it evolved through the years. All the way from taking their story and keeping it for myself and then ending up realizing that it’s not my story no matter how much I imagined or emoted over it. I have found that when people correct it, it really does get more powerful rather than less powerful. It’s not like censorship, which would make it less powerful. It gets closer to an accuracy and truth.
HMB: You were an English teacher for years before you wrote The Woman Warrior. What advice do you have for teachers who write?
MHK: Wow, I spent so many years as a teacher who writes. I did a lot of weird things. I taught this course that’s called “Film and the Novel.” I gave them all five novels that had been made into films. I’d show the films, and while they were watching the films, I’d be writing. [Laughs.] I spent a lot of time trying to fit in some writing time because teaching takes so much energy.
Quite often I felt that it was like I was stealing time from the writing. But then when I look back on it, I am pretty conscientious and I probably overdid the teaching anyway. One trouble I had: when I was teaching students how to write—especially when they were writing dialogue—then it threw my own dialogue off. It’s like I couldn’t hear my own voices so well because their dialogue would be just clumsy enough. In the same way that reading a lot of high school compositions can wreck your spelling off? [Laughs.] I found that it did that with dialogue also. I was just aware of it, so I guess that’s how I handled it, by being more aware of it.
HMB: How do you balance writing and meditation? What does your daily rhythm look like?
MHK: Being a morning person, I used to do the most important thing first thing in the morning when my mind is really fresh. I would just get out of bed and do the writing. But then my priorities began to change after I did some meditation. After meeting Thich Nhat Han and meditating with him and his community, I began to feel that there were things that were more important than meditation. Like life, which is what meditation is all about: it’s your relationship with life, it deals with the relationship with people and with yourself. So I changed my daily life so that the first thing I do is meditation. When that’s taken care of, then I can have breakfast and then I can write. It’s just a matter of changing priorities and writing is not the most important thing in my life. It’s the people you love—it’s being a living creature on this earth.