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Maxine Hong Kingston is one of the most influential Asian American authors of the twentieth century. Her postmodernist amalgamation of oral histories, myths, family stories, and fictionalizations have become the yardstick against which Asian American writers are measured.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Daughter of Chinese Immigrants
Maxine Hong Kingston was born on October 27, 1940, to Chinese immigrants living in Stockton, California. Her father, Tom Hong, had immigrated to the United States through Cuba, eventually co-founding a laundry service with three friends in New York City. Her mother, Chew Ling Yan (Brave Orchid), stayed behind in China until Tom could afford to send for her. In the interim she attended a Westernized medical school and became a physician and midwife. Hong’s English name, Maxine, was inspired by a lucky gambler. Her Chinese name, Ting Ting, comes from a Chinese poem concerned with self-reliance. Her mother had two children in China, but they died overseas, leaving Kingston the eldest of six (American-born) children.
Finding Her Voice
Kingston’s education got off to a rocky start, for in kindergarten she refused to speak and covered all her drawings with ink from a heavy black marker. She flunked kindergarten, never finding the words to explain that the black lines over her drawings were black curtains reminiscent of those her parents used for privacy during World War II, a time when many Asian
Americans feared retribution and discrimination due to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and alliance with Nazi Germany. However, she also attended Chinese school in the afternoons, and there she was able to find her voice and interact with other children. In time she learned the English language, and, by the time she began attending Sunset High School in Stockton, she had become an honor student and even won an award for her writing.
Kingston received various scholarship offers and accepted one from the University of California, Berkeley, where she majored in English and wrote for the university newspaper. She graduated from Berkeley in 1962 with a BA in English, and that year married stage actor Earll Kingston, whom she had met during a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo (1943). Fellow Berkeley graduates, both were active in Vietnam War protests and in efforts to protect free speech. Kingston has remained active in antiwar movements: in March 2003 she was arrested, along with novelist Alice Walker, Nobel Peace laureate Jody Williams, singer Michelle Shocked, and comedian/actor Janeane Garofalo (all members of the organization Code Pink), for protesting the United States-led invasion of Iraq. The Kingstons’ son, Joseph Lawrence Cheng Mei, was born in 1964.
Move to Hawaii
In 1965, Kingston earned her teacher’s certificate from Berkeley and began teaching English and mathematics at a high school in Hayward, California. However, the Kingstons soon became disturbed by the increasing violence of both police and protestors during the antiwar movement, as well as many of their Berkeley friends’ drug addictions, so in 1967 they moved with their son Joseph to Oahu, Hawaii—a locale they thought would be immune to United States militarization. They lived there for nearly two decades, with Kingston teaching English as a second language at an exclusive school. In the meantime, she worked on the memoirs that eventually became The Woman Warrior and China Men, publishing excerpts during the 1970s in various magazines.
First Literary Success
Ultimately, Kingston blindly chose three literary agents out of a telephone directory and sent them fifty polished pages of her manuscript of The Woman Warrior. One of those agents, John Schaffner, agreed to take on Kingston as a client and submitted her manuscript to Knopf, which agreed to publish The Woman Warrior under the category autobiographical nonfiction in order to make it more marketable. The book was reviewed by New York Times critic John Leonard, who was impressed with Kingston. He quickly informed other editors of Kingston; the result was that Kingston sold 40,000 copies of her first book-length work. The Woman Warrior was an overnight success.
Return to California
Kingston returned to California with Earll in 1984 and took a position as senior lecturer in English at the University of California, Berkeley. While there, she published two limited edition texts, Hawai’i One Summer (1987) and Through the Black Curtain (1987), collections of previously published essays and sketches (although the latter included sections from her then-forthcoming novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book). In Hawai’i One Summer, Kingston explains how being in Hawaii, where she was accepted as a local, nourished her artistically. She later fictionalized her Hawaii years via the characters Wittman Ah Sing and his wife Tana in the “Water” section of The Fifth Book of Peace (2003).
Considered by many to be her first actual novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989) is the story of a 1960s Berkeley graduate-turned-beatnik named Witt-man Ah Sing. The gentle satire of the novel is hinted at in its title, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, which alludes to the “tripmaster” in an LSD or mushroom trip and the Monkey King of Chinese legend. While most reaction to Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book was favorable, some reviewers were disappointed because Kingston so drastically changed the direction of her prose. In fact, Trip-master Monkey: His Fake Book was pegged by more than a few critics as an artistic failure.
Making More Time for Family
Kingston’s next publication was a chapbook co-authored with Luisa Valenzuela titled Two Foreign Women, in which she briefly discusses the writing of Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. A decade later she finished her next book-length project, To Be the Poet (2002), a complete departure for her based on her William E. Massey Lectures at Harvard University in 2000. Here, Kingston decided to try her hand at a mixture of prose and poetry, noting that the ”long book” (that is, The Fifth Book of Peace, which she was writing when To Be the Poet was published) takes away from her time with family.
Kingston continues to write and lives with her husband in Oakland, California.
Works in Literary Context
Kingston has often been called a ”word warrior” because her prose confronts Chinese American sexism and American racism. But Kingston deals with these and other difficult issues not only in her literature, but outside of it as well. Whether she is fighting for equality or promoting pacifism, her tireless efforts to play the Monkey King (in one of his seventy-two incarnations) by subtly jabbing at ”the system”—even while being received by dignitaries or given awards for her literature—show her devotion to having a real, positive impact on the world. Kingston’s writing is primarily influenced by several things: her experience growing up in America as the daughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants; her mother’s storytelling; and her education at Berkeley.
Translating Oral Tradition into Writing
Kingston’s belief that a life can be fictionalized in one continuous story, even if the story unfolds over four books written some thirty years apart, is certain to change the face of the publishing industry. Her legacy to literary history also includes her experimentation with genres, combining fiction and mythology with nonfiction, mingling autobiography, biography, and history. In the process, Kingston has elevated the oral tradition—in the form of the talk story—so that it is equal with the written word in her works. She has poeticized the language spoken in her Stockton Cantonese community, a dialect called Say Yup, which has resulted in her distinctive sounds and rhythms. In essence, she has translated the oral tradition of a community into a written one. In fact, Kingston posits that community, or tribe, is what makes literature come alive, and her emphasis on community, comparable to authors such as Toni Morrison and Leslie Marmon Silko, has influenced those Asian American authors who have followed in her footsteps.
Kingston’s thoughtful grappling with the issues of ethnicity and assimilation (from both the male and female points of view) has changed the way in which these problems are addressed by minority authors. Kingston’s literary legacy has been enormous, as Tan, David Henry Hwang, Gish Jen, Fae Myenne Ng, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Gus Lee, and Sigrid Nunez have been strongly influenced by her mythicizing of Chinese American history.
Works in Critical Context
Kingston first attracted critical attention when she published The Woman Warrior, which became an instant success. Her next work, China Men, received positive reviews for both its style and its political stance. While most reaction to Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book was favorable, some reviewers expressed disappointment in her change of style, some going so far as to label it an ”artistic failure.” Over the course of her career, Kingston has gained the respect of the literary community and is now credited with being an instrumental force in the battle for ethnic writers not to be judged as mouthpieces for their cultural heritages. Kingston also has helped to change the way Americans think about ethnicity, with her constant fight to change the English language to make it more inclusive.
The Woman Warrior
Perhaps unsurprising given the complexity of The Woman Warrior, early reviews, though mostly positive, often reflected critics’ and reviewers’ confusion about, and wildly different reactions to, Kingston’s narrative. For example, three articles from the late 1980s and early 1990s, YaJie Zhang’s ”A Chinese Woman’s Response to Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior,” Frank Chin’s ”The Most Popular Book in China,” and Sauling Cynthia Wong’s ”Autobiography as Guided Chinatown Tour?” argue over the veracity and value of the myths and representations in The Woman Warrior. As Edward Iwata reported, Chin had concluded that Kingston was ”the publisher’s manipulation of another Pocahontas,” insisting that Kingston’s text offered ”fake” myths and was informed by racist stereotypes. On the other hand, Zhang accepts the representative quality of Kingston’s amalgamated characters, seeing her own upbringing reflected in the stories; she felt The Woman Warrior had captured the essence of growing up as a first-generation member of an ethnic minority. Meanwhile, Wong took on Chin and his ”Chinatown Cowboys” who raided academic conferences attended by Kingston in order to challenge and ridicule her. Wong argues that the myths included in The Woman Warrior are not ”fake,” but rather remade and modernized so that they still have value.
According to critic Sami Ludwig, The Woman Warrior remained on the bestseller list for paperbacks until 1989 and by 1993 was still selling steadily, totaling some 450,000 copies. Since its publication in 1976, the book has gone through many editions and printings, and it has been translated into more than three dozen languages.
Time magazine named it one of the ten most important nonfiction works of the 1970s. And, as the Modern Language Association (MLA) points out, it is the most often taught text in universities, used in teaching a variety of disciplines, including education, sociology, psychology, anthropology, women’s studies, Asian studies, American literature, and composition.
- Chau, Patricia P. Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.
- Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.
- Chin, Frank. Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Feng, Pin-Chia. The Female Bildungsroman by Toni Morrison and Maxine HongKingston. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.
- Huntley, E. D. Maxine HongKingston: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.
- Ling, Amy. ”Chinese American Women Writers: The Tradition Behind Maxine Hong Kingston.” Redefining American Literary History, edited by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward Jr. New York: Modern Language Association, 1990, pp. 219-236.
- Simmons, Diane. Maxine HongKingston. New York: Twayne, 1999.
- Skandera-Trombley, Laura E., ed. Critical Essays on Maxine HongKingston. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.
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