Maxine Hong Kingston
Photo © Gail K. Evanari
WaterBridge Review: Your latest book, The Fifth Book of Peace, grew out of the devastation of the Oakland Hills fire in 1991 and the loss of your manuscript, The Fourth Book of Peace. What were some of the similarities and differences between the writing of the two books?
Maxine Hong Kingston: Desert Storm at the start of the year and our California fire in the autumn. The lost book was fiction. In fiction, I could imagine our world at peace. I could invent characters who handled conflict nonviolently. After the fire, I couldn’t write fiction anymore: fiction is a compassionate form. I selfishly wrote for myself.
WBR: You’ve done something very different with The Fifth Book of Peace. It encompasses both nonfiction and fiction. What genre do you feel categorizes it best?
MHK: There ought to be a genre called "nonfiction-and-fiction." Or "fiction/nonfiction." "Novel" is a good word, simply meaning "new." Strange that it’s been co-opted to mean "fiction." There are fiction novels and nonfiction novels. The working name that I made up for the form that I was writing is: “A fiction-nonfiction sandwich.”
WBR: Your work with your Vietnam veterans’ writing workshop has been a big part of your life. Did The Fifth Book of Peace find inspiration through your work with the workshop?
MHK: The veterans’ writing workshop was the first time I tried working in a writing group. I’d always been the solitary writer: I had an actual garret in the house that burned. Writing-in-community — the peer pressure, the support, the group energy, the deep listening — inspired me.
WBR: How do you find peace of mind in your everyday life?
MHK: I meditate, garden, do aerobics, tap dance, roller blade, make jam, make compost, dehydrate fruit, cook the vegetables I grow, draw and paint, read and write. You know, I don’t believe it’s possible to be personally at peace while the world is in turmoil. I have to walk in a peace march, write letters to my representatives, volunteer to do some good work — only then do I feel better.
WBR: What are some of the books waiting for you on your bed stand?
MHK: On my side of the bed: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale. Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt. A Woman Explorer in China, Tibet, and Mongolia 1921-25 by Mabel H. Cabot. Chinese Creeds and Customs by V.R. Burkhardt. Two books by Cynthia Ozick: The Messiah of Stockholm and Bloodshed and Three Novellas. On the other side of the bed, my husband has Dogs by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger. Booking Hawaii Five-0 by Karen Rhodes. The Actor’s Chekhov by Jean Hackett. Nobody’s Perfect by Anthony Lane (this book just moved over from my side). New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry edited by Eliot Weinberg, translations by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder et al. Bay Area Historic Homes, a museum guide.
WBR: If you could choose, who would be your favorite hero or heroine in fiction?
MHK: In childhood, Jo March. Today, the personae/poetic voices/narrators of Grace Paley and Mary Oliver.
WBR: And what character in a book most resembles your own personality?
MHK: The narrators in my own books are closest to resembling me. But, while under the spell of reading any great book, I say to myself, “Yes. That’s me.” Raskolnikov. Hans Castorp. Every one of the Brothers Karamozov. Every one of the Bennett sisters. Me.
WBR: While under the spell of so many different characters, is there a specific talent you would most like to have?
MHK: I seem to have lots of talents already. I’d just like to be better at all of them. World Literature Today gave me the most wonderful review. They said that the measures of my poetry are "as pure as any danced by the matchless Gregory Hines.” Wow!
WBR: Other than traveling the world through books, is there anywhere you would like to travel to?
MHK:My husband and I keep discussing this question, but I can’t think of any place I want to go. Traveling is a terrible, painful uprooting. I treasure each day that I get to stay home. But then, I just finished a 30-city book tour.
WBR: Is there anything you consider your most prized possession?
MHK:After the fire, I didn’t want things. At about age 50, I began to scheme to give things away — and I do this more urgently as I get older. I have to connive to get people to take my stuff. Everybody has too much stuff. I love that cartoon where the Dalai Lama opens an empty gift box and says, "Nothing! Just what I’ve always wanted."
WBR: After something as terrible as the 1991 fire, what is your worst nightmare?
MHK: I don’t want to give word to my worst nightmares. They might come true.
WBR: Then what would be a dream come true?
MHK: I also don’t want to tell my wishes. Too superstitious. Too embarrassing. And they might not come true.
WBR: And lastly, what’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
MHK: I refused to participate in a teacher-instigated class spanking of a bad boy. I white-water rafted the Colorado River. I went to jail trying to prevent the shock-and-awe of Iraq. I didn’t have a feeling of bravery doing these things.