David L. Ulin: Good evening, everybody. Welcome to the California Book Club and to what's going to be, I think, a really wonderful and exciting conversation with Maxine Hong Kingston about her or magnificent miraculous first book, The Woman Warrior. I'm David L. Ulin. I'm the books editor of Alta Journal. We're going to start the conversation in a moment, but first we have a few things, just a little bit of housekeeping to get ourselves set up and underway.
I'd like to welcome you to the California Book Club and to Alta Journal. California Book Club is a monthly discussion of works of California literature. This is actually our first anniversary tonight. We launched last October 2020 in the midst of the lockdown and we are now about to begin our second year, and I couldn't think of a better, more suited writer then Maxine Hong Kingston for us to start it up with.
I want to introduce our partners. I'll name them quickly, and then we'll move to a couple of other things and we'll get going. We are partnering on the California Book Club as always with Book Passage, Books Inc., Book Soup, Bookshop, Diesel, a bookstore, the Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine, Vroman's Bookstore, and ZYZZYVA.
We do have a sale I want to introduce for California Book Club members for just $50. You can get a year of Alta Journal. You can get this California Book Club tote bag, which I'm actually going to be traveling with this weekend because of its multiple pockets, perfect for carry on, and one of our upcoming California Book Club books. Those include Tommy Oranges' There There, and Hector Tobar's, The Barbarian Nurseries. Take a look and please consider that. Watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this deal.
Also, after the event tonight, if you want to keep the conversation going, please visit the California Book Club Clubhouse. This is a space for book club members to dig further into The Women Warrior, share questions, discuss the conversation this evening and upcoming California Book Club books. You'll find links to the sign up for the clubhouse in the comment section and in tomorrow's email.
Before I turn it over to my colleague, John Freeman, I just want to say I'm really excited about this. I've read and taught The Woman Warrior a dozen times or more over the course of the last 10, 15, 20 years, and I consider it to be a real touchstone work of memoir and multi and cross genre and genre blurring. It's a wonderful piece of work on so many levels. I'm really looking forward to this conversation. John, I'm going to turn it over to you. John Freeman, the host of the California Book Club.
John Freeman: Hi there. Thank you so much, David. Really lovely to see your face and thank you everyone for joining us. If you're like me at some point, Homer made a lot more sense when I realized that Homer wasn't just a person, but perhaps a concept as in that all the stories and the legends and the sort of fabulous images and the poetry that was in the Odyssey could have come from one person and then been refined over the years as that story was told and retold and refined by a series of Bards who traveled around and told it, allowed to other people.
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, and I would suggest that The Woman Warrior is one of those moments. It is quite simply a gorgeous, groundbreaking book full of stories. It's a memoir. It's a female avenger story. It's a story about storytelling, and it is a series of reckonings with the stories that Maxine Hong Kingston grew up with in Stockton, California in California, in the 1940s and fifties, and going to Berkeley in the 1960s.
It's a series of reckonings with how she was supposed to be good about the stories and silences that they came with. This book has been such a gateway to other writers, not just Asian Americans. She's gifted writers with a form, a way to explode silences, a series of metaphors and how to deal with ghosts, a kind of inspiring warrior posture in which vengeance was sculpted, not as destruction, but as restorative creation because through a series of fabulous examples of how to imagine the unknown, she showed what lurks in secrets and occlusions and told the not told story of immigrant life and contextualizing these within the stories that were in fact told. She created a charismatic book about being Chinese American, and she demonstrated the groundbreaking comfort that comes from dealing with this along a fluidity of gender.
Something she carried forward in this book's twin, China Men, which is a series of stories as told by the same narrator, only older and in which that narrator imagines a similar but different series of stories from the past and a man's perspective. China Men won the National Book Award in 1981. These books were conceived, Maxine Hong Kingston has written as a whole, and they've been periodically reunited once in a boxed set and once in a modern library edition of the two books. This joinery isn't just publishing [inaudible] over the value of great books. It's part of an homage to the ongoing pursuit that Maxine Hong Kingston has basically undergone in her entire life, which is to carry forward the stories of the past and to follow the adventures of her various narrators and their hauntings and their curses, and to deal with the frightening legacy of suicide in erasure that keeps pushing forth in various forms of hers.
As I mentioned, she was born in Stockton. Her parents were a teacher and a doctor. She went to Berkeley. She taught school in Hayward, and then she moved to Hawaii where she wrote this incredible book. Her other books include Tripmaster Monkey, which is a great California novel, I think, a novel whose character is based on Son Wil Kong and whose main character Wittman Ah Sing is named after Walt Whitman and whose exploits during the 1960s San Francisco, we hear about and his attitude towards changing his attitude about his Chinese American heritage changes over time.
She's also written a Fifth Book of Peace, which is Tripmaster's sequel and the story of the fire that took the earlier version of that book to be a poet, which is a lecture in which she realizes that among a life of transformations, her final transformation is to being a poet, the sort of manual for how to find poetry in life.
She's also the author of I Love A Broad Margin In Life, a memoir and verse, and she's the editor of an anthology veterans of war, veterans for peace. She's won a National Humanities medal, a medal for distinguished contribution to letters, a National Medal for the Arts given by President Brock Obama and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian American Literary Awards. And what's clear from this body of work, which is stretching now at this point across almost six decades, is that Maxine Hong Kingston's work is one long book, a labor, but also a transformation. Let's start off where it all began in 1970s Hawaii in a hotel room, I think, with this extraordinary journey of The Woman Warrior coming to life. Please join me in welcoming Maxine Hong Kingston. Hello, Maxine.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Thank you, John. That was such a wonderful introduction. I feel appreciated and I feel understood, so thank you.
John Freeman: It's a slightly comical way to begin. Maxine, you have to unmute because as anyone who's read this gorgeous book knows that it's sort of the challenge of this book, isn't it?
Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes. I'm always worked on how not to be silent. Yes. And it's a story about bullying people into talking.
John Freeman: Your forms of silence that you're dealing with here are many, and I want to talk about them over the course of this hour, which we're going to share with your good friend, the novelist James Janko, who's going to come in in about 20 minutes, but because books that are going on 50 years old can seem inevitable, I wonder if you could do what you do in this book, which is to take us back in time to another reality and imagine yourself into the life of the person who wrote this book. And maybe tell us a little bit about what you were thinking at the time, where you were, and perhaps some of the things that you knew you might have to do in order to get this book off your chest.
Maxine Hong Kingston: 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 as a child, I would often think of where is this coming from? At one point, I was very sure that I've been a writer for three incarnations and all the time trying to put into words reality and the reality of dreams, the reality of imagination, but also the reality of this material world and the reality of all of the people.
At one point, I thought every person on this earth has a story and I want to write every single one of them. Okay. But I did not know these stories in The Woman Warrior. There was a day when my husband Earl and I, we decided to go to Lanai on the tiny little nothing island. We'd been living at a boarding school with all the children and being in local parentes for all of them, as well as teaching. Let's just go to a nowhere place. And so we went to Lanai and there was a 10 room hotel and the bowling alley was broken, the bulb on the projection machine was broken at the movie house. And so there was nothing to do. And then for some reason, I just felt like something was coming.
And so I got the little table. I turned it away from the window away from the beautiful view of the ocean and Hawaii, and I turned it toward the wall and I didn't have any paper, so I got an envelope. There was just an envelope, and I just started listing scenes, powerful scenes of feeling and to commit suicide of the woman stoned to death because they thought that she was a woman stoned to death. I just made a list of the time that I bullied the girl. I made a list and it felt to me like each one was a story, each one was a scene, each one full of feeling. And so I came out with, I guess, an outline for The Woman Warrior.
John Freeman: My God, what an amazing lightning field existed near that bowling alley. The book begins with your mother speaking, and it ends with you speaking and I suspect that's on purpose to some degree. Your mother doing what you described and later explain as talking story. And for those in the audience who perhaps haven't read this book, I envy you, your experience coming. Can you say a little bit about what talk story was and how you just turned it from a practice, an experience into a literary form?
Maxine Hong Kingston: Well, the talk story is a literal translation of [foreign language]. It is a great long tradition probably going back not just to ancient China, but all the way back to Homer, when people, they did not write the stories. They told them. At long ethics. I was in my mind it's [foreign language] and in Hawaii that I found the translation. It is an everyday word in Hawaii. Talk story. Kids get together. We're going to talk story. I saw television. There was some news. There was this guy who got arrested for something and they were interviewing a cop. Well, is he under arrest? No, no, no, no. We just brought him in to talk story, and I thought, wow, that there's my translation. So that's how I got the words. They're not mine. I didn't make it up. They come from another language and they also come from Hawaii.
John Freeman: This book is full of radical freedoms. You enter the life of a legendary figure, who saves her village by going into battle disguised as a boy. You enter the mind and experience of your aunt when she comes from China to visit your mother, her sister. You enter into periods of transformation and I wonder to some degree, how much of those freedoms come from your mother, because in the beginning, she's telling you, do not tell this story. You must not. And yet, she's telling you. She's breaking the secret herself. And I wonder if there's a kind of paradox in that opening.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Oh yeah, yeah. There is. There is that, but there's also what she said was don't tell anyone what I am about to tell you. And I have noticed it's not just me. Alice Walker begins The Color Purple something like, I can't tell anyone, but you, God, and Tony Morrison, It was either swell or the bluest eye where she says quiet as a it's kept, and then she grabs everything. It's the writer trying to break through silence, breaking through taboos, and then somehow the whole book has to do with breaking out of silence and then also finding the voice.
John Freeman: If you can read a little bit from the book now, so we can hear one of its many voices, the pleasure of the book being that it is a voice with many voices within it, and that you've found a form to do that.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Okay. So what I'm going to read are the last two paragraphs of the book. The title of The Woman Warrior, it's been a disappointment to me because I've been trying to find the way to peace and to being a pacifist, and it's also a disappointment to me that Fa Mu Lan, I feel that I brought her here to the west and now everybody knows about her, but she is a warrior. She's a soldier. She's a killer. I would rather this other woman be a hero. And so this is Ts'ai Yen and she is among the barbarians.
The barbarians were primitives. They gathered in edible reeds when they came along rivers and dried them in the sun. They dried the reeds tied on their flag, poles and horse's mains and tails. Then they cut wedges and holes. They slipped feathers and arrow shafts into the shorter reeds, which became knock whistles. During battle, the arrows whistled high whirling whistles then suddenly stopped when the arrows hit true. Even when the barbarians miss, they terrified their enemies by filling the air with death sounds, which Ts'ai Yen had thought was their only music. Until one night, she heard music tremble and rise like desert wind. She walked out of her tent and saw hundreds of the barbarians sitting upon the sand, the sand gold under the moon. Their elbows were raised and they were blowing on flutes. They reached again and again for a high note, yearning toward a high note, which they found at last and held, an icicle in the desert. The music disturbed Ts'ai Yen. Its sharpness and its cold made her ache. It disturbed her so that she could not concentrate on her own thoughts. Night after night, the songs filled the desert, no matter how many dunes away she walked. She hid in her tent, but could not sleep through the sound. Then out of her tent, which was apart from the others, the barbarians heard a woman's voice singing as if to her babies, a song so high and clear, it matched the flutes. Ts'ai Yen sang about China and her family there. Her words seemed to be China and her family there. Her words seemed to be Chinese, but the barbarians understood their sadness and anger. Sometimes they thought they could catch barbarian phrases about forever wandering. Her children did not laugh, but eventually sang along when they left her tent to sit by the winter campfires ringed by barbarians.
After 12 years among the southern Xiongnu, Cai Yan was ransomed and married to Dong Si so that her father would have Han descendants. She brought her songs back from the savage lands, and one of the three that has been passed down to us is 18 stanzas for Barbarian Reed pipe, a song that Chinese sing to their own instruments. It translated well.
Why I want people to remember this woman warrior is that she came back from war with music. Also, they could change the arrows into flutes. Okay. So they made flutes into arrows, but they could also change arrows into flutes. In a way, I thought I made this up, but then we were in China in Xi'an and I found an old, dusty museum, and I actually found these flute whistles.
Another thing that I'm dissatisfied with that I did not tell, that the reason that she came back to her people was that she founded a library, and I left that out. Okay. Another dissatisfaction I have with a Woman Warrior, is I forgot... I didn't say that Fa Mu Lan was a Weaver. So, I want to read you a correction. I also was dissatisfied with myself because I took a lot of liberties and freedoms and I changed the stories, and at one point, I wanted to tell everybody, this is the real true translation, as good as I can get about the original chant of Fa Mu Lan and the chant starts with the sounds chic chic chic, chic chic chic. That is the sound of the shuttle going back and forth across the loom, and the word chick means to weave, and it also means to knit, and it means to heal.
Chic chic chic, chic chic chic, Fa Mu Lan is weaving the shuttle through the loom when news of the draft comes. Each family must provide one man to be a soldier in the army. Sparing her dear father, the retched life of a soldier, she disguises herself as a man and goes in his stead to war.
With a horse, heavy armor and her hand fitting sword, she fights wars. She is away long years and many battles, so long a time that her father and mother grow old and die. At the head of her army, giving chase and being chased, she suffers wounds. Blood drips red from the openings of her armor. Her army chasing and being chased, passes her home village six times, back and forth past her home. But she cannot stop to place offerings on the graves.
She wins in terrible battle. The King proffers reward. Fa Mu Lan asked to return home. She leads her army to her home village and orders them to wait for her in the square. Indoors, she takes off man's armor. She bathes, dresses herself in pretty silks, and reddens her cheeks and lips. She up sweeps her long, black hair and adorns it with flowers. Presenting herself to the army, she says, " I was the general who led you. Now, go home."
By her voice, the men recognize their general, a beautiful woman. "You were our general, a woman. Our general was a woman, a beautiful woman. A woman led us through the war. A woman has led us Home." Fa Mu Lan disband the army. "Return home. Farewell." Beholding and becoming Yin the Feminine, come home from war. Chic, chic, chic, chic chic chic.
One very important thing that I learned, that I was so happy that I found, it says that she spared her father the wretched life of a soldier. A soldier's life is wretched. It's not heroic. I wrote The Woman Warrior as a heroic, feminist story. And this brings me back to the original good idea, which is the life of the warrior is wretched.
John Freeman: Thank you so much for reading that correction and that poem to us. It is one of the powers of the book, is to conceive of the warrior as a pacifist. Peace has been an everlasting value you for you. Over the last five years, you've been arrested in its name. You've put together anthologies in its name. I'd like to bring on your friend a novelist, James Janko, because he could speak to some of the things we've just been talking about, that you've been reading about. He's the author of The Clubhouse Thief and Buffalo Boy and Geronimo, which won the Northern California Book Award. But he was also a medic in Vietnam and refused to fire his weapon. In addition to that, won a bronze star for his valor. James, thank you for joining us. The floor is yours.
James Janko: Thank you. Thank you, John. So good to be with you. Thanks for the intro. Dear Maxine, known you a long time. But I actually knew your writing before I met you in '93. I read The Woman Warrior on Alcatraz Island. I was a night watchman out there. The tourists had the place in the day and at night, there was a lone watchman, and that was me. So what a great place to read The Woman Warrior: a Girlhood Among Ghosts. But I want to start, there's a sentence from Chinamen that I think goes to the heart of all of your books. I've always seen you as a poet. This also goes to the heart of how you've lived your life. Here's the sentence. It's a perfect, true poem.
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 pause, feelers and wings.
That goes to the heart, I think, of all of your work, all of it. Now The Woman Warrior, on any page of it, I could find a poem. I could pull out a sentence, and I could read you a poem. Some of the pages, probably several. I could do that with all your books. But, besides my love of language and poetry, I love your mischief, because that's a thread for all your books, as well.
I'm going to just read this really brief passage. This is when your mom is a doctor. Okay? And she's describing her practice, she says... You're describing her practice.
When my mother went doctoring in the villages, the ghosts, the were people, the apes, dropped out of trees. They rose out of Bridgewater. My mother saw them come out of cervices. Medical science does not seal the earth whose nether creatures seep out hair by hair disguised like the smoke that dispels them.
So she goes on and on. Your mother tells of her stories. And at the end of this passage, this is the mischief that I really admire.
Before we can leave our parents, they stuff our heads like the suitcases, which they jam pack with homemade underwear.
The question I have for you, in the Veterans Writers Group, which you've led since '93, which is still going. One of the first sessions you mentioned to us that in the act of writing, we change. Whether we're writing a story, a poem, an essay book, the actual act of writing changes us. And so the question is, The Women Warrior came out in '76, and now, some 45 years later after its publication, this book still speaks to us. And I think it changes whoever reads it. So then the question, how did writing The Woman Warrior change you? Does the world change as you write it?
Maxine Hong Kingston: You know, Jimmy, that is my hope. When I am teaching writing, that is a promise that I make to book writers, that surely, if you can face tragedies in your life and get through that form of storytelling, and you have antagonists and they meet and they fight it out, then you come to a denouement to come to, there is resolution. There is finding a meaning in understanding. I'm always hoping for that happy ending and surely going through that, not just finding the words, but there are the emotions.
Oh, another important thing, a point of view. To find the point of view. To write from the inside of people that you're mad at. From the inside of the enemies, all of that is a spiritual, a psychological exercise. And yes, I do find that I change, and then what you said about, we do hope that when readers put themselves through that reading, I do hope that they change, too. What was your question again? Was it how's it changed me? What did you say?
James Janko: Yeah. How did it change you, writing the book? And now it's so long, 45 years and volumes have been written about it. So there's the writing of the book. There's the response of the book, edging up on half a century. How does that change you? I'm going to leave that question. I want John to come back in and...
Maxine Hong Kingston: Okay. Okay. Well, I'll have to think about that anyway, because I'm not sure.
John Freeman: James, we're going to bring you back at some point. It is a potent question to ask with a transformative book if you can see the comment queue here, Maxine. There are so many people telling you that your book made them feel seen, it changed their lives. They picked it up in libraries. But it also reflects back on you.
I had a question that I wanted to ask because, James is right, every page of this book is full of poetry. One of the lines that really stuck with me, I'm not like David, but this is my fifth time through the book. Fa Mu Lan, at some point, she's about to leave home, and she says, she's not worried about coming home because she said, her family had written their names and address on me. I would come back. Because her back is completely written in their stories. And 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. I wonder if you can just talk about that, as a concept that the body is made by language. And how does that affect the way you conceive of story? If it's not an ethereal thing, but it's a transmitting of what the body already is?
Maxine Hong Kingston: Hmm. I must say I haven't thought about it in the way you've spoken about it. But what I have thought, is that imagination put into an artistic form that we create reality. That if I can write about a peaceful person, for example, then maybe I can put that idea out there that, 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.
Those two passages that you and Jimmy read, I don't remember. I don't remember writing them. But I do remember my mother constantly chanting the way back to our villages, the name of our tiny little village, the name of its county, the name of each province. All the way home, she would say it over and over again.
And I try to find those places on maps. They're so small, they are not on maps. And I have felt lost for a long time, also guilty that I could not find my way back to those villages. So in answer to Jimmy's question, I have thought about... So, I have some mighty dreams, nightmares and imaginations. And if I could just write them down. If I could write them down, then will I be free of those nightmares? The answer is no, they still kept coming back. but they might take a different form from the way I wrote them. They still keep coming back. And so I have thought that, no writing The Woman Warrior did not change me enough, so I need to write another one. I just did it. I did another one. And that wasn't enough. And so I did another one.
John Freeman: Are you, are you still visited in any way by ghosts?
Maxine Hong Kingston: Not so much as before. I think I must have spent at least, I don't know, 10 years of my childhood just scared. I so scared of ghosts and, and sudden appearances and magic and oh, for a long while, vampires. Vampires were the scariest. Lately, I have not been... Oh, and I read that communist book on How not to be afraid of ghosts. So I read that.
I think I am becoming a... I majored in engineering when I was in college. And I think I am becoming a realist, and I am more affected by the news and by what's going on. And so I am more of a realist, and there are ghosts, but they don't scare me as much.
John Freeman: There's a comment in the question box from a teacher who said, "I've read the woman warrior many times, and I'd only love the book I'm inspired by it. When I was an English teacher, this is one of the books I used for students. It's layered and stunning." And the commenter says she's deeply respects and admires you for what you bring to the world. I wonder if you can talk about the way that this book approaches storytelling and why it has been such a gateway for younger readers. You just mentioned being a realist. Why is it that at a certain age we're willing to listen to ghosts? We're afraid in that way. Is it because we're closer to the period when those ghosts are sort of poured into our ear, as you describe with your mother, or that we're nearer to being a kind of creature or animal that over time, we forget?
Maxine Hong Kingston: We haven't learned a reason yet. We don't know about logic. We haven't learned the scientific method. And so at the beginning, whatever comes in, you hear funny noises and you have no explanation so you make this up. I think that what human beings enjoy, of all the genres, what we really enjoy are ghost stories. And we have all kinds of feelings, pity and terror, ghost stories. Ghost stories, not written down ghost stories, but for people to tell one another's ghost stories. That is so thrilling and so wonderful. That is my upbringing and I think for most of us, for all of us, and then later on, we learn other genres or we try different things, but that is the beginning. The ghost stories.
John Freeman: The seventies, when you were writing this book, were such a great period for American literature. Toni Morrison debuted in the decade. Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara. Black arts was really moving, your books came out and it seems like, just among some of the writers you mentioned, you were all fed by feminism's push for new ideas. For acknowledgements and for human rights, the basic human rights that feminism demands. I wonder if you could reflect on how that changed literary methods in the time period, away from realism, towards something perhaps bolder?
Maxine Hong Kingston: Toni Morrison, whom I traveled with in China, Toni Morrison has said that she is writing the books that she wants to read. She's writing the books that are not out there. I had that feeling, also. That I have stories. I have feelings and experiences that have never been written about. Then, I had to figure out a way how to do it. Also, I was trying to write the stories and also the voices that I was hearing. They would be in another language, or they would be in dialect and accent. How do I do that? Also, I have no role models ahead of me.
So, I just thought, "Okay. I will write, however it comes to me." I would write sounds, fragment sentences, Chinese sounds. It wasn't like anything. Then, there was a point where I thought, "This is not publishable, but I'll do it anyway and see what happens." In a way, it's not even like taking chances, it's just like doing whatever comes and we'll see what happens.
John Freeman: There's a question from the audience. Someone named Dawn Dorland. She asks, do you have an ear for the voices that are in The Woman Warrior, or did you have to work to revise them, to get them to sound the way that they sounded in your head? How did you convey their orality on the page? Did you have certain techniques that you adopted?
Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes, I do hear the voices. Then, of course you can't remember all of it. So, there is trying to translate into words. Oh, one way is 20 drafts of trying to get it right. Okay, this is what I did and this is what I recommend to everybody. You read it aloud, you read it aloud, so that, when you read aloud, it's using the whole body. Your mouth and your breath and your tongue. Also, you hear it. Reading aloud takes me to being able to get those voices right.
John Freeman: There's some extraordinary details in this book. The book is in five parts, as we've mentioned. The first one is your talking about this aunt of yours, who winds up pregnant. You suspect it's from a rape or an assault, but you don't know. She, the aunt, kills herself and then we go into the second part of the book. Which is the legend of Fa Mulan, who disguises herself as a warrior and goes off to battle and rescues her village with the stories of her family of tattooed on her back.
The third chapter is your mother's story, roughly. Her journey to the United States. The fourth book is, to some degree, your aunt's story. The fifth is yours. Is you unstoppering your own breath, as well as, to some degree, that bullied classmate who you make speak. Then, you choose another warrior. But, across this whole book, you are, to some degree, the Uber warrior yourself. In storytelling.
I can't help but think that you're rescuing certain details from oblivion. Your mother, you describe buying a child slave, who's a girl. You break down the prices of the slaves and babies were free. It feels like one thing you are doing as a feminist writer, is claiming, across space and time, all other women and, to some degree, their plight. At the beginning of this hour, you said, "I want to tell everyone's story." But it feels like, in this book, and others going forward, you are strongly focused on the lives of women.
In the last couple months, we've sadly had reason to renovate that kind of understanding with #stopasianhate and the murders that took place in Atlanta. I wonder if you can speak about the resurgence of, not the resurgence, but the continued need to speak against violence against women. As a writer. What that means to you as a writer today.
Maxine Hong Kingston: My original impulse was to tell the story of the No-Name Woman, because the village wanted to obliterate her and to forget her. I don't know her name to this day. My family wanted to just erase her from existence. So, what I was doing there, was to remember her and to bring her back. To tell her story in as much detail as I could. But, my mother, she was such a good oral storyteller. I mean, she gave me the details on how much the slave cost and how babies were free. This woman giving birth in the pigsty.
All I had to do was to just remember what my mother said. Also, to put this one woman into reality. Now, everybody knows about her. This has been translated into Chinese too. It's made its way into the village. So, she goes from being nothing, but at least saved in literature. She's won. This impulse goes on. We're going to give reality and voice to as many people as we can.
John Freeman: That's a really beautiful and important belief. I want to bring back James Janko, because what you're saying right now, very much echoes what he does in his own work. I wonder, James, if you have any follow-up questions for Maxine?
James Janko: Yeah. As you were talking, Maxine, I had a couple things came to mind. You were saying you have these nightmares and you write them and they don't go away. So, I'm wondering, maybe you don't really choose what you write, but what haunts you points the way. I'm also thinking of just the writing process. Your sentences are so beautiful and surprising. As I was reading this Woman Warrior again, I thought of the sculptor Giacometti, who used to work these marathon hours. Somebody asked him, "Why would you do that? Why don't you rest?" He said something like, this is paraphrasing, I need to lose control of my intelligence to make something worth seeing. I feel that in your work. You leave the habit mind behind, so that you're able to find something new. Does that make sense to you?
Maxine Hong Kingston: Oh, yeah, it really does. It really does. There's this structure or the ego, or whatever it is. But, there's also that whole life of dreams and nightmares and vibes, of feelings among people. I seem to be losing this ability as I get older, but there was a time when I could meditate upon another person. Then, I'd actually feel that I enter that person and I could have that person's feelings. I could know how it feels to go through that life.
That is so irrational. It's not part of the regular habits of educated self. I do try, you can't even try, but sometimes, you just get into that, what do I call it? A mystical state. And Even the mystical state of omnissions. So then, I could see what's going on everywhere. Back to that story of when we went to Xi'an and I went into that museum. I saw a whistle that was also a flute, that was also an arrow. What went through my mind was, I made that up and it appeared. It appeared not only in our time, but it appeared a thousand years ago and I caused that to happen.
James Janko: Yeah. I mean, I got to repeat that sentence. I got to repeat that sentence from China Men, because it's so beautiful. I've known this by heart forever, man. You're talking about how the union of all things, the unity of things. Converging in one sentence. "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." It's not just beautiful poetry and all. I mean, this is true. This is why you can do that. You can really see how it is to be another person. I think that's the most exciting thing in writing.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes, yes.
James Janko: I'm me enough.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Oh, thank you, Jimmy. Yeah. I love that sentence too. Also, okay, so why do we need to write all these books? We're already connected. But, it's a reminder. It's a reminder that we do have connections and then we can break through this isolation and we can reach a reader. The reader can know what we are thinking. Sometimes, it's just so wonderful, when some of those readers talk back.
James Janko: Yeah, yeah. Going back to years ago with the vets writers group, you were asking us to look at how writing changes us. I also like to think about, wow, who would I be without all the great books that I've read? Oh, I would really impoverished. It's not something you can really analyze scientifically, but I would be a totally different person without all those books that I've read.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Well, Jimmy, I have a question for you. After you wrote Buffalo Boy and Geronimo, do you feel that you changed?
James Janko: Yeah. Yeah. I really did because, okay, I got drafted and I wasn't sent to Vietnam to get to know anybody, okay? So, when I was there, I actually got to know a translator really well. I got to know this guy Banh, who was a Chiêu Hồi. He would go with us in a platoon and he would be our scout. Tell us, "Oh, don't go there." He didn't speak English hardly at all, but he could point. Really, I came out of that with very little knowledge of the Vietnamese. Just scant knowledge. So, going back there and writing, it was my rebellion.
I want to know these people. I really was amazed by them. In the Củ Chi area where I was, and Tây Ninh , near the Cambodian border, it was just ravaged. Carpet bombing bombed everything, rice paddies, rivers, you name it. Defoliation. They're under all these bombs. I go, "Who are these people?" I really felt like, when I went back and got to know them and they're so generous and gracious, it changed me. It just opened my heart. I really feel like some of my writing, it has come from angst, but I feel like the best part of it has come from generosity. That's really the most important seed.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Yeah. Now I have the answer. I think that writing The Woman Warrior changed me in that I came to peace with my mother.
James Janko: Yeah, yeah. That's a big one.
Maxine Hong Kingston: After I wrote China Men, I feel at peace with my father. So, it's just for one person at a time.
James Janko: Well, I think we're edging up on 8 billion people. So, you got about 8 billion books to write, Maxine.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Well, you can do half of them, okay?
James Janko: I'll give my best.
John Freeman: Oh, I wish we had another 8 billion hours, because this has been such a wonderfully enlarging and spirit-restoring conversation. I wish we had more time. I want to read one more quote from the book and ask you one final question from the audience. In The Woman Warrior, Maxine writes, "My aunt haunts me. Her ghost drawn to me, because now, after 50 years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her." I think what's so powerful about this book is that it gave generosity as a virus as so many other writers and readers, to imagine people around them or to write stories.
In this book club, many of our writers were inspired by this book. Without it, C Pam Zhang's novel would not exist. Elaine Castillo's novel would not exist and we would be impoverished even further. So, it seems this golden ring gives back to itself. But, there's one question from the audience, from a person named Karen Chao, who, speaking of making, mystically, the thing you want to exist in the world happen by imagining it, she says, Ms. Hong Kingston, what is your advice for young people who are depressed about the state of the world and don't have hope that it will improve? Climate change, class issues, et cetera. What would you say to them?
Maxine Hong Kingston: I would say that you just let that hopelessness take over. Live that hopelessness and that depression and feel it and write it down. Write down what you are hopeless about. I think a lot of my writings come from when I am really down. You express that downness, even though it may look boring, it may look unimportant, it's not dramatic. But, just write down those feelings and go with it, go with it. It'll take you somewhere. Just follow that road, wherever it goes and something will happen.
John Freeman: Maxine Hong Kingston, thank you so much for this hour. For all your wonderful books, for joining us in this book club. I believe David has a outro message he'd like to pass along to us, but it really was a dream to speak to you. Thank you, James, for joining and for bringing your questions to the hour. It's enriched us all. David?
David L. Ulin: Thanks, John. That was a fantastic hour. It was brilliant before the answer to the last question and the answer to the last question really knocked me off my feet. So, thank you. I'm going to just quickly close us out here. First of all, huge thanks to Maxine and James and John for just a spectacular conversation. This interview has been recorded and will be available at californiabookclub.com for anybody who wants to watch it again.
This is just the first event of a really, really vivid fall of CBC. Next month, on November 18th, the guest is Tommy Orange for his novel There There. We'll also have Héctor Tobar on December 16th for his novel, The Barbarian Nurseries. I want to remind everybody about the sale on Alta membership for California Book Club members, go to altaonline.com/tote. Please participate in a two-minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event.
As always, stay safe, stay healthy. We'll see you all next week. Yeah, sorry, we'll see you all next week. We'll see you all next month. Take care everybody and thanks to everyone for participating tonight.•