It’s been 44 years since Maxine Hong Kingston published The Woman Warrior, her bestselling memoir that helped reshape the genre and that remains highly influential to this day. No less an authority than Barack Obama, who bestowed the author with the National Medal of Arts, in 2014, cited The Woman Warrior as inspiring his own memoir, Dreams from My Father. Kingston’s sway is also felt in the writings of Amy Tan, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, has praised The Woman Warrior and Kingston’s China Men (1980): “I was Kingston’s student at Berkeley,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “But I was a bad student, a rebel who had not yet paid his dues. I needed those books...even if I did not know it. Giving us what we don’t know we need, something we may even resist—perhaps that’s one definition of greatness.”
Kingston was born on October 27, 1940, in Stockton, California. She wrote The Woman Warrior while in her early thirties. “Unlike most ethnic coming-of-age tales of the time, it seeded doubt about its own authenticity,” Hua Hsu wrote about The Woman Warrior in a New Yorker profile of the author in June. “The characters tell one another stories drawn from Chinese lore and Chinatown gossip, imagining alternative time lines. The book is complex and captivating, a constant toggling between the mundane grit of the family’s laundry business and epic, surreal dreamscapes. By the end, you don’t know which, if any, of these stories are true, or whether they constitute a reliable depiction of Chinese-American life.”
Kingston has written numerous books since, including Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989), The Fifth Book of Peace (2003), and I Love a Broad Margin to My Life (2011). And she remains active, despite the pandemic. Earlier this month, Kingston and her husband, actor Earll Kingston, gave a charming virtual reading of Carol Diggory Shields’s children’s book Baby’s Got the Blues from their garden in Oakland. Surrounding them were the fruits that the author has tended to for years.
Stories of Our Time
John Freeman, the host of the California Book Club, is editing an anthology of the best contemporary American short fiction from 1970 to 2020. Among its authors are Ted Chiang, Sandra Cisneros, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Patience, dear reader: The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story doesn’t come out until May 4, 2021.
Meantime, if you missed Freeman’s conversation with C Pam Zhang for the inaugural event of the California Book Club, you can watch it here.
Learning from Octavia E. Butler
One book you won’t have to wait for is Lynell George’s A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler. This new work by the California Book Club selection panel member examines the creative life of the late science-fiction writer—and how others can learn from it.
More than 145 years ago, one of Los Angeles’s earliest bookstores opened to fanfare. An ad in the Los Angeles Daily Herald announced the news on April 6, 1875: “C.A. Bonesteel & Co. would most respectfully announce to the citizens of Los Angeles and the adjoining towns that they have just opened a large and entirely new stock of books and stationery.… Paper bags, manilla and straw paper a specialty.” Not visible in this photo outside the shop at 43 Main Street: a large sign that reads “RIFLE AND PISTOL SHOOTING” and hints at L.A.’s rough-and-tumble origins.
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