Event Recap: Putting Language to Reality in ‘The Woman Warrior’

Maxine Hong Kingston and California Book Club host John Freeman were joined by Kingston’s friend, the novelist James Janko, to discuss her genre-blurring memoir.

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Last night at the California Book Club gathering, host John Freeman beautifully introduced Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior by referencing the bard Homer, who traveled around telling stories. Freeman said, “I used to think that was perhaps just the best way to tell a story, for a story to be passed from one person to the next. But every now and then, it feels like a series of stories land into one person, into one body.” He described Kingston’s memoir, published in 1976, as “quite simply, a gorgeous, groundbreaking book full of stories.”

When Kingston joined him in conversation, Freeman asked her to take guests back in time to another reality and imagine herself into the life of the person who wrote this book in Hawaii. She remarked, “Another reality. I think it’s all the same reality. Isn’t there just one reality? Let me see. I have been writing ever since I was a child…and, all the time, trying to put into words reality. The reality of dreams, the reality of imagination, but also the reality of this material world, and the reality of all of the people. Every person on this earth has a story, and I want to write every single one of them.”

As the conversation continued, Kingston shared stories of her writing life, which spans seven decades. When Freeman asked her to read, noting that a pleasure of the book is its many voices, Kingston said, startlingly, that she was disappointed that everyone knows about Fa Mu Lan, who is a killer. She would rather another woman warrior she’d referenced in the book, Ts’ai Yen, be regarded as the hero; Ts’ai Yen came back from war with music. Kingston explained she would write about Fa Mu Lan differently now.

In a fascinating twist, Kingston shared a passage she had written “correcting” the way she’d originally written about the legend of Fa Mu Lan. The correction emphasized that the character had battled with the purpose of sparing her father from the brutal nature of that life. After reading the correction, Kingston concluded, “I wrote The Woman Warrior as a heroic feminist story, and this brings me back to the original, good idea, which is that the life of the warrior is wretched.”

Freeman agreed that one of the powers of the book is to conceive of the warrior as a pacifist and noted that Kingston has been arrested and has put together anthologies in the name of peace. He introduced special guest James Janko, noting that the novelist “was a medic in Vietnam and refused to fire his weapon. In addition to that, he won a Bronze Star for his valor.”

The warmth between Janko and Kingston, who have been friends for years, was palpable. He told her he’d read her writing long before meeting her in ’93. He was working as the lone night watchman on Alcatraz Island when he read it. He shared a stunning sentence from her National Book Award winner China Men, which he believes goes to the heart of all her books: “Men build bridges and streets when there is already an amazing gold electric ring connecting every living being as surely as if we held hands, flippers and paws, feelers and wings.”

He noted that he loves not only the language and poetry of her work, but also her mischief, which threads through each book. He mentioned that around 45 years after its publication, The Woman Warrior still speaks to us. He asked Kingston, “How did writing The Woman Warrior change you? Does the world change as you write it?”

Kingston noted that this is her hope. She said, “To write from the inside of people that you’re mad at, from the inside of the enemies, all of that is a spiritual, psychological exercise, and, yes, I do find that I change.… We do hope that when readers put themselves through that reading, they change, too.

Freeman returned, agreeing with Janko’s observation that there is poetry in the book, saying, “There’s something in this book where language is not just a story. It’s not just in the air. It’s actually written on the body. The body is written by language, and I wonder if you can just talk about that as a concept, that the body is made by language. How does that affect the way you conceive of story, if it’s not an ethereal thing but a transmitting of what the body already is?”

Memorably, Kingston responded, “What I have thought is that imagination put into an artistic form—that we create reality. If I can write about a peaceful person, for example, then maybe I can put that idea out there, that a pacifist is possible, and then we can live that way, we can live out our ideas, and put it out into the real world.”

Next month’s California Book Club selection is There There. Author Tommy Orange, host John Freeman, and a special guest will be in conversation on November 18. Mark it on your calendar and join us!•

Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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