May 25, 2007
On Memorial Day weekend, the JOURNAL presents an illuminating interview with Maxine Hong Kingston, acclaimed author of many books including the award-winning THE WOMAN WARRIOR and her latest book VETERANS OF WAR, VETERANS OF PEACE. For the past 15 years, Kingston has been working with veterans more than 500 soldiers from World War II, from Vietnam, and now, from Iraq as well as other survivors of war to convert the horrors they experienced into the words and stories that Kingston believes will help them cope and survive. (Read excerpts from the collection of writings by veterans and their families.)
Maxine Hong Kingston began writing at the age of nine ("I was in the fourth grade and all of a sudden this poem started coming out of me"). She won her first writing award-a journalism contest at UC Berkeley-when she was sixteen. In 1976 THE NEW YORK TIMES praised her first book, THE WOMAN WARRIOR, comparing it to Joyce's PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, saying, "It is an investigation of soul . . . Its sources are dream and memory, myth and desire. Its crises are crises of the heart in exile from roots that bind and terrorize it." At the age of thirty-six, she was a celebrity, winning the National Book Critic's Circle Award. Other books would follow, and the praise would continue to be unstinting. In 1980, she was named a Living Treasure of Hawai'i by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai'i.
In 1991, following a massive fire in the Oakland-Berkeley hills that consumed Maxine's house and the only copy of her manuscript-in process, THE FOURTH BOOK OF PEACE, and as the first President Bush was ordering the invasion of Iraq, she began offering writing and meditation workshops for veterans, to help them give voice to their experiences and work toward personal peace. As she'd hoped, the writing became a process of healing and renewal not just for the veterans but also for Maxine. She drew on the experience of these workshops in THE FIFTH BOOK OF PEACE.
In 1997, Maxine Hong Kingston was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton. In March 2003, she was arrested for crossing a police line at the White House as part of a CODEPINK action to protest the Iraq War.
She retired last year from her career teaching literature and creative writing, mostly at UC Berkeley, where she was known for offering personalized instruction to each student, even in auditorium-sized classes, encouraging "real communication."