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Maxine Hong Kingston Return to the Timeline
Maxine Hong Kingston
Maxine Hong Kingston reads from her book, THE FIFTH BOOK OF PEACE, April, 2005, at Cesar Chavez Public Library in Salinas, California. More than 100 people watched the sun rise as supporters who turned out for a 24-hour read-in to help save the libraries in John Steinbeck's hometown prepared for a culmination march.

AP/The Salinas Californian, Richard Green
Novelist, short-story writer and poet whose work involves a profound examination of the history, experiences, and identity of Chinese Americans. Maxine Hong was born to Chinese immigrant parents in 1940 in Stockton, California. She graduated from the University of California-Berkeley in 1962, married an actor, Earll Kingston, and went on to teach in California and Hawaii. Returning to California, she is now a professor at Berkeley.

Kingston's first book, THE WOMAN WARRIOR: MEMOIRS OF A GIRLHOOD AMONG GHOSTS (1976), received widespread acclaim and won the National Book Critics' Circle Award for non-fiction. Strongly autobiographical, the work movingly explores the difficulty of first-generation Chinese immigrants, torn between two cultures and histories,yet it also examines the potential for personal strength deriving from a fusion between two cultures. Its concentration on the experiences of Chinese and Chinese American women was balanced by her second book, CHINA MEN (1980), winner of the America Book Award for non-fiction. Kingston documented the exploited, impoverished lives of immigrant Chinese male laborers in the 19th century West, and recorded their considerable though unrecognized contributions to the making of the modern West, particularly through the building of the transcontinental railway. In a laconic, understated style she also publicized the deeply racist laws that affected the Chinese in America, including the fact that Chinese were not allowed to become American citizens, and that Chinese immigration became illegal with the Chinese Exclusion Act. Kingston's third book, a novel, TRIPMASTER MONKEY: HIS FAKE BOOK (1989), received Iess acclaim. It involves the travels and development of Wittman Ah Sing and his attempts, sometimes successful, to improvise an amalgamation of Chinese and American literary traditions.

Despite their being labeled non-fiction, Kingston's first two books are similar to her third in fusing documentary realism, autobiography, history, fiction, and myth in a brilliantly controlled prose style. While she frequently focuses on the pain and appalling injustices that have been a part of Chinese American identity, a concurrent theme in her writing is the adaptability of myth and its capacity to be imaginatively renewed and therefore to offer guidance, hope, and strength. When criticized for her adaptations of Chinese myths, she has responded by arguing, "myths have to change, be useful or be forgotten."

Further Reading:
ARTICULATE SILENCES (1993) by King-Kok Cheung; MAXINE HONG KINGSTON (1999) by Diane Simmons; CRITICAL ESSAYS ON MAXINE HONG KINGSTON (1998), edited by Laura E. Skandera-Trombley, and CONVERSATIONS WITH MAXINE HONG KINGSTON (1998), edited by Paul Skenazy and Tera Martin.

From THE ESSENTIAL GLOSSARY: AMERICAN LITERATURE by Stephen Matterson. © 2003 Stephen Matterson. Reprinted by permission of the author.


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