Also known as: Maxine Hong Kingston, Maxine Ting Ting Hong, Ting Ting Hong, Maxine Ting Ting Hong Kingston, Maxine H. Kingston
Birth: October 27, 1940 in Stockton, California
Source: Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2009.
Entry updated: 10/02/2008
Maxine Hong Kingston "blends myth, legend, history, and autobiography into a genre of her own invention," wrote Susan Currier in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980. Kingston's books The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts and China Men are classified as nonfiction, but, according to Anne Tyler in the New Republic, "in a deeper sense, they are fiction at its best--novels, fairytales, epic poems." Both books are based on the history and myth imparted to Kingston by members of her family and other Chinese-American "story-talkers" who lived in her childhood community in Stockton, California. "The result," noted Contemporary Novelists contributor Sanford Pinsker, "is a species of magical realism, one that continually hovers between fact and the imagination, between what was and what might have been."
Pinsker added that "the confusion of actuality and invention may be worth quarreling about, but what matters finally are the stories themselves--and they are quite good. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to think of books that detail the joys and pains of growing up within a strictly defined ethnic community that could match Kingston's sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph, page for page. She is, quite simply, a marvelous writer." The Woman Warrior and China Men, he said, "remind us that what James Joyce, an Irishman on the other side of the world, set out to accomplish when his protagonist set off to forge on the smithy of his soul 'the uncreated conscience of my race' can also happen when a young Chinese-American writer sets out to discover who she is amid the rich tapestry of memory and the imagination."
Currier described The Woman Warrior as "a personal work, an effort to reconcile American and Chinese female identities." Primarily a memoir of Kingston's childhood, The Woman Warrior also concerns itself with the lives of other women in her family, as embellished or imagined by the author. According to Washington Post critic Henry Allen, "in a wild mix of myth, memory, history and a lucidity which verges on the eerie," Kingston describes "their experiences as women, as Chinese coming to America and as Americans." "Its companion volume, China Men . . . attempts a broader synthesis," said Currier, "dealing with male Chinese 'sojourners' in North America and Hawaii, but it is inextricably tied to the autobiographical interests of The Woman Warrior. " Kingston's mother dominates The Woman Warrior while her father is the focus of China Men. "In both books," Currier commented, "additional characters flesh out the social, political, and cultural history Kingston introduces." China Men also includes the fictionalized histories of several members of Kingston's family and the community in which she grew up.
Harper's critic Frances Taliaferro remarked that the books' "titles plainly speak their ostensible subjects, female and male; just as plainly the books must be read together.
Though I have no inherited command of the terms yin and yang, it seems to me that like those opposing principles the two books form one whole, for the shaping imagination is indivisible." Kingston told New York Times Book Review critic Timothy Pfaff that she considers the two works "one big book. I was writing them more or less simultaneously. The final chapter in China Men began as a short story that I was working on before I even started The Woman Warrior."
Many of the stories included in The Woman Warrior are reconstructed from those Kingston's mother related to her as "lessons 'to grow up on,'" wrote Currier. Kingston's mother, referred to as Brave Orchid in the book, married her father in China, before he immigrated to New York City. For fifteen years he worked in a laundry and sent part of the money he earned back to China, enabling Brave Orchid to study for certifications in medicine and midwifery, which eventually provided her with a good income and respect in what Ms. critic Sara Blackburn called "a starving society where girl children were a despised and useless commodity." She came to the United States when her husband sent for her, having to give up her medical practice to work for the benefit of her family as a laundress and field hand. Her first two children had died in China while she was alone, but within her first year in the United States, at the age of forty-five, she gave birth to Maxine in Stockton, where the family later settled.
Maxine was named after a lucky blonde American gamester in a gambling parlor her father managed. The first of her mother's six American-born children, she grew up surrounded not only by the ghosts of the ancestors and characters who peopled her mother's tales, but also by Americans who, as "foreigners," were considered "ghosts" by her mother. And, according to New York Times Book Review critic Jane Kramer, the young Maxine, "in a country full of ghosts, is already a half-ghost to her mother." Kingston's memoir, described by Time critic Paul Gray as "drenched in alienation," is also characterized by ambiguity, since, as he points out, it "haunts a region somewhere between autobiography and fiction." It is difficult to distinguish whether the narrator of the book's stories "is literally Maxine Hong Kingston," Gray commented. "Art has intervened here. The stories may or may not be transcripts of actual experience."
Kingston turns to the men of her family in China Men, a book that also "span[s] two continents and several generations," according to Currier. New York Times reviewer John Leonard commented that it is "framed, on the one hand, by a wedding and a funeral, and, on the other, by the birth of boys. . . . In between is sheer magic: poetry, parable, nightmare, the terror and exhilaration of physical labor, the songs of survival, the voices of the dead, the feel of wood and blood, the smell of flowers and wounds. History meets sensuality." In China Men, wrote Allen, Kingston "describes the men slaving for a dollar a week building sugar plantations; smuggling themselves into America in packing crates; building the railroads; adopting new names, such as Edison, Roosevelt and Worldster." Although women are not prominent as characters in China Men, Kingston told Pfaff, "There still are women who take the role of storyteller. The women are not centerstage, but without the female storyteller, I couldn't have gotten into some of the stories."
In order to "understand the men with whom she is connected," Kingston adopts many of the same techniques she used in The Woman Warrior, indicated New York Times critic Mary Gordon, "the blend of myth, legend and history, the fevered voice, relentless as a truth-seeking child's." She begins with the story of her father, who has trained as a scholar in China, and, according to Gray, "is subject to black moods and bitterness over his low estate" during much of Maxine's childhood. Perhaps in reflection of his heritage, "his angriest curses vilify women's bodies," wrote Gray. "The girl both understands and is bewildered." But, since her father was not a "story-talker" like Brave Orchid, and was silent about his past, Kingston must "piece together the few facts she has and invent the rest," Gordon wrote. Newsweek critic Jean Strouse commented that "in a dreamlike mix of memory and desire, she tries out versions of her father's life, weaving them through her narrative." Not only does the author recreate his life in China and provide five different versions of how he entered the United States; she also widely separates the story of "the father from China" from that of the man she knew and refers to as "the American father."
In Kingston's tale, "the father from China" found his skills in calligraphy and poetry useless in the United States. After immigrating, he became part-owner of a laundry in New York City, wrote Frederick Wakeman, Jr. in the New York Review of Books, "along with three other China Men who spend their salaries on $200 suits, dime-a-dance girls, motorcycles, and flying lessons." Kingston follows this account of idyllic bachelor existence with an ancient Chinese ghost story about a beautiful spirit woman who, wrote Wakeman, "beguiles a handsome traveler until he loses nearly all memory of his family back home." Eventually, the man is "released from her spell" and returns to his wife. "In the same way," pointed out Wakeman, "the father from China turns away from the lure of his three high-living friends, and puts the temptations of bachelorhood behind him after his wife joins him in New York." But, according to Kingston, soon after Brave Orchid arrived in the United States and weaned her husband away from his companions--she cooked the men elaborate meals and insisted they keep the Chinese holidays--the partners cheated the father from China out of his share of the business. The couple then left for California where "the American father" had to struggle to support his family.
The book, commented Strouse, "is about a great deal more than sexual warfare, however. It tells of emigration, persecution, work, endurance, ritual, change, loss and the eternal invention of the new." In a later section of the book, Kingston presents the story of the father she knew in Stockton, and she ends China Men with characters of her own generation, relating the tale of a brother's tour of duty in Vietnam and his attempts to locate relatives in Hong Kong. Rounding out the book are the highly representative, embellished histories of earlier China Men who preceded her father to America. She tells of a great-grandfather who traveled to Hawaii to clear the land and work on a sugar plantation. The overseers forbade talking, she relates, and Gordon maintained that "nowhere is Mrs. Kingston's technique--the close focus, the fascination with the details of survival strategies, the repetitive fixated tone--more successful than in her description of the plantation workers' talking into the earth in defiance of the silence imposed upon them by white bosses. The men dig holes and shout their longings, their frustrations, down the hole to China, frightening their overseers, who leave them alone." "The poignancy of that moment is the fruit of stunning historical reconstruction coupled with the imagination of a novelist," Gray indicated.
Throughout the rest of the work, Kingston often blends history with pure fantasy. "What makes the book more than nonfiction," wrote Anne Tyler in the New Republic, "are its subtle shifts between the concrete and the mythical." Washington Post Book World critic Edmund White commented that "by delving into her own girlhood memories, by listening to the tall tales her Chinese immigrant parents told her . . . by researching the past in books and by daydreaming her way into other lives, the author has stitched together a unique document so brightly colored that it seems to be embroidery sewn in brilliant silk threads, a picture of fabulous dragons sinuously coiling around real people, a mandarin square of triumph and privation, of memorable fact and still more vivid fancy." Kingston, he indicated, has "freely woven fairy tales into her recital of facts and rendered her account magical." As Tyler commented, "Edges blur; the dividing line passes unnoticed. We accept one fact and then the next, and then suddenly we find ourselves believing in the fantastic. Is it true that when one of the brothers was born, a white Christmas card flew into the room like a dove?"
In her imaginative fervor, Kingston often alters and even popularizes classical Chinese myths. Although, in general, Wakeman found China Men praiseworthy, he wrote that "as Kingston herself has admitted, many of the myths she describes are largely her own reconstructions. Often, they are only remotely connected with the original Chinese legends they invoke; and sometimes they are only spurious folklore, a kind of self-indulgent fantasy that blends extravagant personal imagery with appropriately voelkisch themes." He added that "precisely because the myths are usually so consciously contrived, her pieces of distant China lore often seem jejune and even inauthentic--especially to readers who know a little bit about the original high culture which Kingston claims as her birthright."
However, Kingston wrote that, as a sinologist, Wakeman "is a scholar on what he calls the 'high tradition,' and so he sees me as one who doesn't get it right, and who takes liberties with it. In actuality, I am writing in the peasant talk-story Cantonese tradition ('low,' if you will), which is the heritage of Chinese Americans. Chinese Americans have changed the stories, but Mr. Wakeman compares our new stories to the ancient, scholarly ones from the old country, and finds them somehow inauthentic." Furthermore, claimed Gordon, "the straight myth and the straight history are far less compelling than the mixture [Kingston] creates." As Kingston told Pfaff, "I have come to feel that the myths that have been handed down from the past are not something that we should be working toward, so I try to deal with them quickly--get them over with--and then return to a realistic kind of present. This time I'm leaving it to my readers to figure out how the myths and the modern stories connect. Like me, and I'm assuming like other people, the characters in the book have to figure out how what they've been told connects--or doesn't connect--with what they experience." "This sort of resurrection," concluded Wakeman, "is an important way for Kingston to establish a link between her present Americanness and the China of her ancestor's past. The myths--which by their very nature mediate the irreconcilable--initially make it possible for her to rediscover an otherwise lost China, and then summoning it, lay that spirit to rest."
Kingston's first outright novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, presents Chinese history and myth with a wild humor through the character of Wittman Ah Sing, a young Chinese-American in 1960s San Francisco whose philosophy of life calls for doing as one pleases whatever the consequences. His life is not without frustration, though, as white Americans fail to accept him fully--even though he is a fifth-generation American, "as American as Jack Kerouac or James Baldwin or Allen Ginsberg, as American as Walt Whitman, 'the poet that his father tried to name him after,'" noted LeAnne Schreiber in the New York Times Book Review. But he also is an incarnation of the mythical Monkey King. "Like Monkey, the trickster saint of Chinese legend who helped bring Buddha's teachings to China, Wittman will bring China to America," Schreiber explained, and he means to do so by staging a massive theatrical production. Herbert Gold, in his review for Chicago's Tribune Books, believed that the novel "blends the kind of magic realism familiar to readers of Latin American fiction with the hard-edged black humor of flower-epoch comic writers and performers--a little bit of Lenny Bruce and a whole lot of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Kingston's energy, talent and unique perspective make an odd dish work, like some sort of hefty Chinese nouvelle maxi-cuisine stew." Schreiber noted that "Wittman is at times compelling, touching, wildly imaginative, and yet he made me long for another voice. . . . Except in occasional descriptive passages, I cannot hear the precise, sinewy, and, yes, let's admit it, beautiful voice of the author above the racket of her creation." Writing in the New Republic, Anne Tyler allowed that Wittman occasionally "wear[s] us out with his exuberance," but she noted that he and his story hold the reader's interest thanks to "the tiny, meticulously catalogued details that fill his quieter moments." She summed up Tripmaster Monkey as "a great, huge sprawling beast of a novel, over 400 pages densely packed with [Wittman's] rantings and ravings and pranks and high jinks. . . . That Wittman is Chinese gives his story depth and particularity. That he's American lends his narrative style a certain slangy insouciance. That he's Chinese-American, with the self-perceived outsider's edgy angle of vision, makes for a novel of satisfying complexity and bite and verve."
In To Be the Poet, which is based on Kingston's 2000 William E. Massey Lectures at Harvard University, the author presents a book about her decision and desire to become a poet or, at the very least, to lead the life of a poet. "Prose is tremendously hard work," Kingston told Lori Tsang in an interview for the Women's Review of Books. "Just once in a while I want the happy life of a poet." In the book, Kingston recounts how she gathered advice from other poets and writers and goes on to talk about her past and how she is attempting to live like a poet. The book also includes some of Kingston's poetry. Noting that To Be the Poet reads "like short diaries," Publishers Weekly contributor Michael Scharf remarked that devotees will appreciate Kingston's versification of the story of The Woman Warrior Mu Lan "even as they await her return to other forms." Writing in Library Journal, Ron Ratliff commented, "What results is irreverent, serious, and playful but always instructive."
Despite her professed desire to focus more on poetry, Kingston had been working for more than a decade on a sequel to her novel Tripmaster Monkey. Calling the book The Fourth Book of Peace, Kingston drew her inspiration from a Chinese legend about Three Books of Peace. As the legend goes, the books discussed how humans could live in peace but were destroyed by fire. Ironically, Kingston had been working on the book for two years by 1991 when a fire destroyed her home and the only copy of the manuscript while Kingston was away attending her father's funeral. As a result, Kingston had to begin again, and she ended up producing a much different book than a traditional novel. "Kingston writes in a panoply of languages: American, Chinese, poetry, dreams, mythos, song, history, hallucination, meditation, tragedy--all are invoked in this complex stream-of-consciousness memoir," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor of Kingston's reworked book, called The Fifth Book of Peace. Kingston divides the book into four sections. The opening section, "Fire," describes Kingston's experience of returning from her father's funeral only to find her manuscript destroyed. In "Paper," Kingston recounts the Chinese legend about the Three Books of Peace as her inspiration to write the book that was lost. In the third section, "Water," the author reconstructs her lost novel as she tells the story of Tripmaster Monkey character Wittman Ah Sing and his wife, Tana, as they flee to Hawaii as part of Sing's plan to evade the draft during the Vietnam War. The final section, "Earth," recounts Kingston's real-life efforts at conducting writing workshops for Vietnam and other war veterans.
Writing in Entertainment Weekly, reviewer Rebecca Ascher-Walsh remarked that the book "is thoughtful and passionate, but ultimately the gamble of mixed modes of storytelling doesn't pay off." New York Times Book Review contributor Polly Shulman commented that Kingston does not repeat her past success in combining fiction with memory, as she fails "to integrate the sections of the new book." On the other hand, a Publishers Weekly contributor praised the book and the book's thematic focus on why people can't live in peace instead of war. Referring to a passage in the book in which Kingston's mother visits her in a dream and asks what she has been doing to educate America, the reviewer remarked, "This is vintage Kingston: agent provocateur, she once again follows her mother's dictate 'to educate the world.'"
Born October 27, 1940, in Stockton, CA; daughter of Tom (a scholar, manager of a gambling house, and laundry worker) and Ying Lan (a practitioner of medicine and midwifery, field hand, and laundry worker; maiden name, Chew) Hong; married Earll Kingston (an actor), November 23, 1962; children: Joseph Lawrence Chung Mei. Education: University of California, Berkeley, A.B., 1962, teaching certificate, 1965. Addresses: Office: University of California, Department of English, 322 Wheeler Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720. Agent: c/o Author Mail, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
General nonfiction award, National Book Critics Circle, 1976, for The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts; Mademoiselle magazine award, 1977; Anisfield-Wolf Race Relations Award, 1978; The Woman Warrior was named one of the top ten nonfiction works of the decade by Time magazine, 1979; National Education Association writing fellow, 1980; named Living Treasure of Hawaii, 1980; China Men was named to the American Library Association Notable Books list, 1980; National Endowment for the Arts Writers Award, 1980 and 1982; American Book Award for general nonfiction, 1981, for China Men; Stockton (CA) Arts Commission Award, 1981; Guggenheim fellow, 1981; Hawaii Award for Literature, 1982; Hawaii Writers Award, 1983; PEN West Award in fiction for Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, 1989; California Governor's Art Award, 1989; Major Book Collection Award, Brandeis University National Women's Committee, 1990; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1990; inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1992; National Humanities Medal, 1997. Honorary degrees from Eastern Michigan University, 1988, Colby College, 1990, Brandeis University, 1991, University of Massachusetts, 1991, and Starr King School for the Ministry, 1992; honorary Nation Book Award medal for "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters", National Book Foundation, 2008.
Writer. Sunset High School, Hayward, CA, teacher of English and mathematics, 1965-67; Kahuku High School, Kahuku, HI, teacher of English, 1967; Kahaluu Drop-in School, Kahaluu, HI, teacher, 1968; Honolulu Business College, Honolulu, HI, teacher of English as a second language, 1969; Kailua High School, Kailua, HI, teacher of language arts, 1969; Mid-Pacific Institute, Honolulu, teacher of language arts, 1970-77; University of Hawaii, Honolulu, visiting associate professor of English, beginning 1977; Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Thelma McCandless Professor, 1986; University of California, Berkeley, Chancellor's Distinguished Professor, 1990--.
The Woman Warrior was adapted into a play by Sharon Ott and produced at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 1994.