May 10, 2023 | 2114th Stated Meeting | In-person event in Berkeley, California
On May 10, 2023, the Academy presented its Emerson-Thoreau Medal to Maxine Hong Kingston for her distinguished achievement in the field of literature. The award, named after Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, was first given to Robert Frost in 1958 and has since been presented to several notable authors, including T.S. Eliot, Hannah Arendt, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.
The program featured remarks by University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ, Academy President David W. Oxtoby, and Maxine Hong Kingston. Following the award presentation, Viet Thanh Nguyen joined Kingston for a conversation about her work. An edited version of the remarks and conversation follows.
Carol T. Christ
Carol T. Christ is Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. She was elected to the American Academy in 2004.
Good evening. I’m Carol Christ, UC Berkeley’s chancellor, and it is my distinct pleasure to welcome all of you—members of the American Academy and Academy President David Oxtoby, honoree Maxine Hong Kingston and her family, friends, and fans, and my colleagues from across the campus. This is, for all of us, a very special occasion and so, without further ado, I now formally call to order the 2114th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Before anything else, on behalf of the campus community, I wish to offer our congratulations and good wishes to our distinguished alumna and professor emerita, Maxine Hong Kingston, this year’s recipient of the Academy’s Emerson-Thoreau Medal for distinguished achievement in literature.
At Berkeley we are proud to count among our extended family of alumni and emeriti incredibly accomplished people who have made significant contributions to their academic disciplines, to the university, to our state and country, to our society, and to the entire world. Few and far between are those who have done all that and more. Few and far between are authors, teachers, and scholars like Maxine Hong Kingston who so fully exemplify and embody this university’s commitment to excellence and change-making in support of enlightenment and the greater good.
It was in 1958 that Maxine arrived at Berkeley to pursue a degree in engineering. How fortunate we are that she, like so many of her peers, was open to and influenced by the emerging counterculture, leading her to become an English major instead. And, it was here, on our campus, that Maxine met her husband Earll, who she married in 1962, the same year she graduated. This is an example of Berkeley one-stop shopping at its very best.
In 1976, Kingston published her first book, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. It combines myth, family history, folktales, and memories of the experience of growing up within two conflicting cultures. Among The Woman Warrior’s many layers, the reader will also find gripping and unique explorations of ethnicity, gender, and feminism. The book was an immediate critical success and a cultural phenomenon. On a personal level, as a professor of English, as an avid reader, as a citizen of this world, for me The Woman Warrior was an indelible, incredibly important book. Compelling throughout and beautifully written, it was a seminal work that introduced me, for the first time, to the Asian American culture and experience.
By the time Maxine joined the Berkeley faculty as a creative writing lecturer in 1990, The Woman Warrior had become, as described by our fellow faculty member, Robert Hass, “the book by a living author most widely taught in American universities and colleges.” She was also an exceptional teacher and a generous mentor who nurtured the talent of aspiring writers until she retired from active teaching in 2003. It was, suffice it to say, simply wonderful to have her as a colleague in the English Department.
Before President Obama presented the National Medal of Arts to Maxine, the White House issued a statement that succinctly summed up her extraordinary career. “Kingston’s novels and non-fiction,” it said, “have examined how the past influences our present, and her voice has strengthened our understanding of Asian American identity, helping shape our national conversation about culture, gender, and race.”
In so many ways, Maxine Hong Kingston’s work and career, values, and interests seem to express and exemplify much of what makes this university such a special place: disdain and disregard for conventional wisdom and the status quo, coupled with innovation and an abiding interest to make this world a better place. As a community, as an institution, we have individually and collectively been made better by her commitments and contributions, and for that we will be forever grateful.
I am very much looking forward to hearing from Maxine, and to her conversation with Berkeley alum Viet Thanh Nguyen. Before that, however, please join me in welcoming Academy President David Oxtoby to the podium.
David W. Oxtoby
David W. Oxtoby is President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was elected to the Academy in 2012.
Thank you, Carol. We are grateful to you for being with us this evening. It is a pleasure to be back in Berkeley after so much time away. The American Academy has strong roots here. The University of California, Berkeley is an essential member of our Affiliate network, and we have more than 230 individual members affiliated with the university.
Since our founding in 1780, the American Academy has celebrated excellence in every field of human endeavor. Just last month, we had the pleasure of announcing the names of our newest members—transformative thinkers and leaders from all areas of academia, the arts, industry, and policy. We have six new members from UC Berkeley in the class of 2023, and we are glad to welcome three of you here today: Philip Gotanda, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and Marla Feller. Congratulations!
I also want to congratulate and thank our new Board Chair, California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, who is here this evening. We are so grateful for his service to the Academy and look forward to his term as Chair, which will begin this summer.
And finally, I must acknowledge our Berkeley Program Committee, led by Pamela Samuelson with the help of David Hollinger and Randy Schekman, for their work to build community here in California. It has been too long since we were last able to be together, and I cannot think of a better reason to reunite than to honor Maxine Hong Kingston with the Emerson-Thoreau Medal for distinguished achievement in the field of literature.
The Academy is dedicated to advancing the role of the humanities and arts in American life. We know these disciplines are essential to our individual and collective well-being, and, as a result, are central to the work of the Academy. Through our projects like the recent Commission on the Arts and the ongoing Humanities Indicators, through the election of remarkable members, and through events like this evening’s, we strive to elevate their prominence and consider their power.
For six decades, Maxine’s complex writing has captivated this country, defying genres and expanding the very definition of American literature. Through her poetry, essays, novels, short stories, and memoir—to say nothing of her work leading therapeutic writing workshops for veterans, and her decades of teaching—Maxine’s career reminds us of the power of the humanities to make sense of our own lives and the world around us. She was elected to the American Academy in 1992, and we are so proud to be recognizing her with this award.
The Emerson-Thoreau Medal, one of eleven Academy prizes, has been awarded only twenty times since it was first given to the poet Robert Frost in 1958. Other recipients include Hannah Arendt, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, and, most recently, Margaret Atwood in 2019. The prize—named for Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—is given for a lifetime of literary achievement rather than for a specific publication.
We will hear more from Maxine about her extraordinary lifetime of work, and its ties back to these nineteenth-century transcendentalists, shortly. Maxine will be joined by a friend, colleague, and fellow Academy member Viet Thanh Nguyen for a conversation. Viet is a professor of literature at the University of Southern California and a Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Sympathizer. He has been a member of this Academy since 2018 and serves on our Commission on Reimagining Our Economy. Thank you, Viet, for facilitating our discussion.
But first, Maxine, would you please join me on stage for the conferring of the award?
I will read the official citation.
For her distinguished literary achievements, the American Academy confers the Emerson-Thoreau Medal on Maxine Hong Kingston.
Your contributions to the field of literature have been groundbreaking and transformative. Growing up in a community that struggled with racism and discrimination against Asian Americans, your writing explores the immigrant experience and the complex intersections of race, gender, and identity. With a body of work that includes novels, memoirs, and essays, you have garnered critical acclaim and numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal, cementing your place as one of the most influential voices in contemporary literature.
Your genre-defying writing, with its innovative and experimental style, vivid storytelling, and powerful imagery, offers the reader a wonderfully unusual blend of fantasy, autobiography, and cultural folklore that makes your work both genuine and intimate.
In addition to your literary achievements, you are a prominent advocate for social justice and human rights, speaking out against war and racism, and promoting the importance of diversity and multiculturalism in society.
Literary giant, trailblazer, and activist, you have broadened the literary canon and given a voice to underrepresented communities. An inspiration to future generations of writers and readers alike, your writing has expanded our understanding of the American experience and challenged us to think deeply about the issues of identity, justice, and the human condition.
Maxine Hong Kingston
Maxine Hong Kingston is Professor Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. She was elected to the American Academy in 1992.
I am so happy to have you all here: my friends, my family, my sanghas, my neighbors, my fellow Golden Bears, colleagues, alumni, students, my dharma brothers and sisters, my readers, my people, and my beloved community.
It is truly a miracle that we are all together here at this one place in this one moment of time. Please look at one another and let’s recognize ourselves as a beautiful, beloved community. Aristotle said that this kind of recognition was the greatest jewel, anagnorisis. I’m looking at you and you all look well dressed. I was surprised at how many people phoned me up and asked, “What am I going to wear?” Henry David Thoreau would have said just come as you are.
Now, in celebrating Henry David Thoreau, I want to tell you my Thoreau adventures. I discovered him when I was a kid and it was not a school assignment. I discovered him for myself at a time when I read how-to books, which continue to be one of my favorite genres. From Thoreau, I learned it’s okay to dress in homemade clothes, and it’s okay to have a little bit of money, and it’s good to raise your own food. And to this day, I am growing snow peas, and I just put in tomatoes. When I got older, I felt that I wanted to have a hut or a cabin, and so when we were kids, there was a shed in the backyard, and we turned it into a little house. We put in curtains and furniture and played house in it. But I was also thinking, what did Thoreau do in his house? He must have been writing. So I thought, I want to live like him, and I want to write like him. By the way, he didn’t call it a hut or a house; he called it a box. So I wanted a box too, and I didn’t want to share it with brothers and sisters. I wanted one to myself. We had a walk-in pantry. I cleaned it up, and I put in a table and a chair and my typewriter, and that became my office.
The next thing that happened was the hills fire, and our house burned down, and the neighborhood burned down. Some of those neighbors are here tonight. I thought, okay, we’re going to build a new house, but instead of a garage, I’m going to build a box just like Thoreau. And it’s about the same size as the box at Walden Pond. But I didn’t want to call it a box, and I thought studio sounded too pretentious. So here we are in California, and it is my casita. I wanted to live like Thoreau and write like him. I saw that in his writing, there are descriptions of every little thing, right down to the ants. You write from real life, and you write from your own experiences, and you do this in detail.
Since this is the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, I should address the sciences and scientists too. Talking about Thoreau is already scientific because he was as good as Darwin. His descriptions and notes on the fauna and the flora are as observant as Darwin’s writing about the finches. You heard from Carol that I started here at Berkeley as an engineering major. Not only was I going to be a scientist, I was going to be an applied scientist, and then I got an F in calculus. The only way to get my grade point average back up was to take English classes.
When I got older, I understood more from Thoreau’s life and his writing. What he talked about was meaningful work. You had to do work that had a good moral purpose. So I became a teacher, and I feel that that is the most worthy job on earth.
Thoreau talked about loving a broad margin to his life, and now I see that the word margin also means border. He wanted a wide, open border. Living in his box by himself, away from his neighbors, he could not escape the goings on of our world. And even in the woods, he could hear military music coming from Concord, and he knew it was his neighbors getting ready for war with little Mexico. When he refused to pay taxes for that war, that was when he went to jail. And you could see how that war, that militarism, that music reverberates to this day. Thoreau gave me inspiration and strength when I went to jail protesting shock and awe against Iraq.
I hadn’t read much of Emerson, but I knew about his influence on Thoreau. When I came here to register at Berkeley, we had to fill out some forms and one of the questions asked was: What is your religion? Do you know what I put as my religion? Transcendentalism. After the fire, which burned all my books, Toni Morrison sent me the Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I read about “The Over-Soul,” Soul written with a capital S and soul with a small s. I read about communion—that we can have an experience of the supernatural, of god, or whatever. That is what he meant by self-reliance, not just being an individual, but we can depend on ourselves to reach the great spirit. And he talked about the universal mind. And I said, wait a minute, this is the Dalai Lama. He writes just like the Dalai Lama. He also talked about form and how form appears and disappears, and again that’s like the Dalai Lama. And also finding god within yourself; that’s the Dalai Lama talking about Buddha-nature. So, I have had those experiences. I have had an experience of feeling lost in time and space and then I have to work hard to come back to this place and to this present moment in this place. I have felt the Over-Soul, and I have felt light coming into my eyes and infusing everything and everyone. I told all of this to Willis Barnstone, and I was expecting Willis to say, “Wow. That’s great. You have reached satori.” And you know what Willis said to me? He said, “Have you had an MRI?” So I went to Dr. Michi and asked her, “Can you give me an MRI?” And she did, and it came out okay. Just last week, the photo images of my brain, the front, the back, the sides, were archived at the Bancroft. You can check them out. There’s nothing wrong with my brain.
Earll and I just came back from New York celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Library of America. And knowing that we would be talking about Emerson and Thoreau tonight, we went to the Morgan Library, where there are manuscripts by Emerson and Thoreau. We saw a letter that Thoreau wrote to Emerson, and I could tell by Thoreau’s handwriting that he wrote fast. It was the flight of a feather quill, and he wrote lightly and very spontaneously. It’s hard to make out what he was saying. The writing is delicate and words were linked together (like Hawaiian when first written). You could see all of language flowing at once.
The letter starts off, “Dear Friend,” and I thought that’s very interesting. It doesn’t say Dear Ralph; it’s just Dear Friend. And it continues: “I am stealing this stationery to write you a letter,” and, well, that is so Thoreau. He doesn’t own things. He doesn’t have money. He just depends on friends to give him land to build himself a hut, and now he depends on them to give him his stationery. And the letter was a thank-you note to Emerson for a dinner party that he had had the night before. It was about how much fun it was to have Emerson’s little girl there—she’s fifteen months old. This really touched me because I’m a grandmother now, and here’s Thoreau and Emerson playing with a toddler. He’s describing her sitting on Emerson’s shoulders. And she’s talking, but she can’t pronounce things correctly; Thoreau wrote down how she pronounced baby words. And he wonders at the world from her point of view. “Edith studies the heights and depths of nature. On shoulders whirled in some eccentric orbit.” He is saying that this child is learning about the nature that Thoreau studies and loves, but it’s from a distance. Thoreau gets down to the ant level, but this girl is going to learn it from shoulder level. And please notice that he called Emerson eccentric—Edith is going to whirl in some eccentric orbit. There’s the orbit of the universe but also the orbit of Emerson’s twirling brain.
There are some things that Thoreau and Emerson did not write about that were important to their lives, that made their lives possible, and one of them is that they had a commune, a sangha, that made their way of life transcendent. Bronson Alcott put that commune together, but it was his daughter, Louisa May, who wrote about it best. I would like to think of her as another one of the little kids who was at their dinner parties. She writes about communal living in Little Men, and she also writes about communal living in the Rose in Bloom series. And in Work: A Story of Experience, she wrote about working in a factory. Realistically, she helped support these men and their ideals.
I’m coming to the end of my talk and coming to an ending makes me think of my own ending, meaning the end of my life. I am eighty-two years old and while I was in New York, the Library of America introduced me as one of the last three living writers in their series. The other two are Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry. So here I am, last living, but that’s not the worst of it. The New York Times called me up and asked me whether I could help write my pre-obituary. And they made this phone call in the middle of the Lunar New Year of the Rabbit season. I thought, oh, this is very, very bad. I am going to die. So I told them, “Of course not, I am not going to do this. And what’s more, the way that you are going to take this curse off of me is to send me some sweets.” And so then I waited and a few weeks later, here comes a box of really expensive chocolates. The person who was going to write that pre-obituary sent it through The New York Times to my agent and then my agent sent me the chocolates. So, the sweets went all the way around and we’re now okay.
I told this story to Chun Yu, San Francisco Library Laureate. She is a bilingual Chinese and English poet. And Chun said, “Ah,” because she understands that you don’t do that to somebody on a New Year’s. And Chun gave me White Rabbit candy. This is the year of the Black Rabbit, but White Rabbit candy is good. And since we are talking about death, I’m going to hand these bags of candy out. Be sure that you have a piece before you leave. And one more thing. When I was talking how we’re all connected, here’s another connection. I just found out that Rebecca Chace, the woman who asked for the pre-obituary, is Jean Valentine’s daughter. Jean Valentine was a great poet. When I found out that she was her mother, I thought maybe this isn’t so bad because she’s in heaven and she’s playing a joke on me. Thank you and have a long, long, lovely life.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen is a University Professor, the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and a Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. He was elected to the American Academy in 2018.
Congratulations, Maxine. It’s such an honor to be here with you. There’s a lot of symmetry to this event that some people in the audience may not know about. You graduated in 1962 from Berkeley; I graduated in 1992. I had a chance to take a class with you before I graduated. You grew up in Stockton, California, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. And I grew up in San Jose as the son of Vietnamese refugees. There was nothing in my background that would have indicated that I was going to become a writer. I think you knew that when I took your class. San Jose, California, was desolate, and the only thing that really saved me was the library. Would you describe your childhood to us, growing up in Stockton, and how you think the origins of becoming a writer were formed in Stockton in the 1940s and 1950s?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: I have felt the calling that I am a writer even before I could write. And I was telling stories before I could talk. I have sometimes thought that I am a reincarnation. This lifetime is the third time I’ve been reincarnated as a writer.
I don’t think Stockton was a desolate place. It was very rich because there were horses, and there were grandfathers. It was a city, but it was also country. We lived across from the Mormon Slough, and there was a train that would go around the Mormon Slough. There were people there we called hobos. The train goes by, and our house is bouncing up and down. As children there were these rumors that you could jump on that train and there was the ghost of a boy whose legs were cut off. And there were people coming out of the Mormon Slough who were chasing us around. All that goes into story. But I also come from a line of storytellers. My grandfather was the village storyteller. He sat in the plaza in the square and told stories. I asked my mother about those stories and she said, “They are the kind of stories that make the old ladies cry.” And I thought that’s what I want to do. In China, old ladies are really tough. They can take anything, and to make one of them cry is quite a feat.
Just as I was talking, a story came to me, and I would like to share it. Talking about the old days, I’m talking about a thousand years ago, and most of the stories that my mom told had to do with being refugees in a war. It seems like our whole family, generation after generation, is running from war. And she talked about our ancestors, who are the Song dynasty kings, and that the kingdom has fallen. One day, I was telling this to Chun, and she told me that her ancestors were the teachers of the Song kings. So, what gets me is how it all comes around. A thousand years later, Chun and I recognize each other, and she brings the White Rabbit candy.
NGUYEN: A lot of your writing is about rebels, about people who are either rebelling against family structures, like parents, or against the military-industrial complex. And here we are at UC Berkeley, and you’re getting the Emerson-Thoreau Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. There is this interesting dynamic I think in your work in terms of criticizing the center from the margin, the margin broadly defined. You quoted Thoreau and the broad margin in one of your books—that broad margin is in its title. I’m wondering if you can reflect on what that means to you, this dynamic between the margin and the center, being rebellious as a writer, but then also now, of course, being part of the American literary tradition.
KINGSTON: I remember being part of the Free Speech Movement, but I’ve always felt both in and out. I could be in the Free Speech Movement, and I can also be a teacher here. I was on peace marches while my brothers were in Vietnam or in the military. I know that I can see many points of view, and that ability to see all viewpoints and to be empathic with everyone is a talent or a quality that writers need.
NGUYEN: The story from China Men about your brother is one of my favorites. I write about it in one of my books, and it brings up for me one of the most important questions about your work. On the one hand, part of your reputation as a writer and especially as an Asian American writer is your effort to claim America as a place where we belong, where we’ve always belonged, and so on. And yet part of claiming America means also claiming things like the Vietnam War. All that tension, I think, has been central to your life and to your work. You have been a protester against the Vietnam War, against other wars that we have fought, and you have talked about this in your writing. I’m wondering if you can think through that for us, the challenge of what it means to claim the United States when the United States is both a country that has given us so many opportunities but has also done things like the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq and so on. It seems like it is a huge ethical and artistic challenge but also an opportunity for a writer such as yourself.
KINGSTON: The book China Men was when I consciously felt that I was claiming America. Being a minority person, especially Asian, we are seen as foreigners. And we could be citizens, we could be here for generations and still be seen and treated as foreigners. I thought it would be a feat of writing if I could tell the American story, if I could write the great American novel, and that is my way of owning America. Joan Didion visited Hawaiʻi a lot, and one of the things that she wrote was whoever writes the best about Hawaiʻi owns it. You can imagine how that went over with the Hawaiians. But as a writer, somehow when we put things into words or we turn something into art, it’s a way of owning and claiming.
NGUYEN: You are an Asian American writer; you are also a writer. Let me just say that I am always very irritated when I’m introduced as the Vietnamese American writer. That’s why I always make it a point to say things like the great white male American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald because it’s either adjectives for everybody or adjectives for nobody. So you’re a writer, but you’re also an American writer, and an Asian American writer, and a Chinese American writer. That’s been very important to me because when I went to school at Berkeley, I read Asian American literature for the first time and that actually gave me the motivation for writing that I didn’t have before.
For me, it was very hard to think of going home to my refugee parents and saying, hey, Mom and Dad, I’d like to write a novel. Your parents had a laundry; my parents had a grocery store. And they’re working twelve- to fourteen-hour days. They’re not reading. And then their son, who they’re sacrificing for, wants to be a writer. But reading books like yours, like The Woman Warrior, was important to me because the people in that book were people like my parents, and I thought, oh, if Maxine Hong Kingston can write this book, then maybe I can do something as well. When The Woman Warrior came out in 1976, it was a pivotal moment for something called Asian American literature. Before that, there were Asian American writers, dating from the late nineteenth century. But The Woman Warrior really put Asian American literature on the map in a lot of ways, and the reception for it was tremendous. In its aftermath, I remember that when an Asian American book appeared, I would get excited. David Wong Louie’s book is out, I’ve got to run out and buy it; Chang-Rae Lee’s book is out, I’ve got to run out and buy it. Now, there are Asian American books getting published every day of the year, and it’s amazing. Hua Hsu from Berkeley just won the Pulitzer Prize for Stay True about Berkeley in the 1990s—my generation. And I’m reading Fae Myenne Ng’s Orphan Bachelors right now. So, my question is, how does it feel to be, from my perspective, someone who is a foundational figure of what we could call Asian American literature? And how do you look at that story of Asian American literature from your own experience?
KINGSTON: I don’t feel that I’m responsible for that.
NGUYEN: I do. I think you’ve been very important to opening the doors for so many people, for so many generations of Asian American writers after you.
KINGSTON: Well, you were my student, and I feel that you could have done that without me. And I feel the same way about other Asian American writers. I think they were already good writers; it’s just that now there are opportunities to publish. I think the writers and the artists were always there, and the stories were always there. But now there’s more listening. And I really don’t think I’m responsible for that. In fact, there were some young Asian American writers who told me that they got the Maxine Hong Kingston rejection slip. And what is that? They would send their book to a publisher, and the publisher would say, “We already have Maxine” or “We already have Amy Tan. We don’t need another one.”
NGUYEN: It’s still a struggle for a lot of Asian American writers. When your book came out, everybody was looking for the next Maxine Hong Kingston, then when The Joy Luck Club came out, everybody was looking for the next Amy Tan, and so on. But I think there’s a slight tipping point because now there’s a plethora of Asian American writers of different backgrounds.
You brought up teaching, and I want to talk about that because you came here as a student from 1958 to 1962, and then you come back as a teacher in 1990. Your role as a teacher has been very important, both for the students at Berkeley but also for the many other things that you do, like the writers workshops for American veterans of the war in Vietnam. Personally, your teaching influenced me very much. That’s another dimension of your life that perhaps there has been less discussion about because obviously we are all focused on you as a writer. Would you talk about that part of your life as a teacher and what that has meant to you?
KINGSTON: I think about my mother often, and she would say, “Well, have you finished educating America yet?” So I can’t quit until I’ve taught everybody in America. I think I have had two callings in my life: one is to be a writer; the other is to be a teacher. There was a review of China Men, which said that there’s just one thing wrong with this book—it’s too educational. And that was exactly what I was trying to do. I was trying to be educational, but this reviewer used the word educational as a pejorative.
NGUYEN: There are so many things that Americans need to be educated about. Another way of thinking about this is that, in writing workshops of the MFA world and so on, the mantra is often, “Show, don’t tell,” as if telling is somehow bad and showing is better. I think we need both as writers, the showing and the telling, and maybe the educational part comes in because you tell us certain things. I often quote your opening line to The Woman Warrior, “‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I’m about to tell you,’” and then you tell everybody what your mother tells you.
KINGSTON: I just blab it out, yes. But there is a way that I get around that. My mother told it to me in Chinese, and so I didn’t tell it in the way that she told it. I told it in English. Earlier when you were talking about the brother in Vietnam, I just want to say that he’s here this evening.
NGUYEN: That is terrific; welcome, Joe. The reason I quote that line is because it summarizes so many things about the writer’s life and task. What is the point of writing anything unless it is to write about something that someone else doesn’t want you to write about? Because then you know you’re writing about something important. At the same time though, when you’re writing about what someone not only doesn’t want you to talk about, but has told you not to talk about, then you are suddenly enmeshed in this artistic and ethical dilemma, which is really complicated and problematic for a writer to be in. I feel that something powerful emerges out of that because you have to grapple with that dilemma.
KINGSTON: It is a struggle. A writer has a secret life, and that secret life has to come out. It is not enough just to cry and scream, though that is one way of letting it out. But what if you can put it into words? Even finding the words themselves is a struggle. And then there’s that ethical struggle. I can tell my secrets, but can I tell your secrets? One way I’ve dealt with this lately is I show the text to whoever I’m writing about, and I tell them, “If you don’t want this published, I won’t publish it.” Or “If you want to change it, go ahead and change it.” So that’s where I am now.
NGUYEN: I haven’t reached that level of wisdom and maturity yet. Let’s end with another question about the writing life because I know there are writers in the room here. You have been writing for decades now, and being a writer is not like having another kind of a job, where if you don’t go to work, you get fired. Being a writer, you have to motivate yourself, you have to get up and write, whether it’s every day or every week or every month. I’m wondering how you did that for so many decades? You now have the vantage point of looking backwards and seeing the ebbs and flows of your creativity and also reflecting on your reputation and reception. I would love to glean some wisdom and maturity from you, as I look back on my own writing career and as I look forward. How have you managed all those ebbs and flows of the writing impulse and the despair and hope that come with being a writer?
KINGSTON: Self-discipline is not easy. I make up games for myself. I say, okay, it’s got to be two hours every day, and even if I just sit here and nothing comes, I have to sit for two hours. And then there’s another one where I have to find just one word for the day. I discovered an old Chinese tradition. There’s such a thing as a four-word poem. It doesn’t have to rhyme; it doesn’t have to do anything but have four words. And then there’s also a tradition of seven-word poems, and then I think there is also a one-word poem. At New Year’s, you see a red paper and it has one word. Sometimes, I do a four-word poem or a one-word poem, and that’s it for the day. I might have a writing revolution when I have a new idea, and I do one page and then I get to do something else.
NGUYEN: Maxine, it has been an honor and a privilege to be your student, to edit your Library of America volume, and to be here talking to you today.
KINGSTON: Thank you, thank you.
OXTOBY: Congratulations, Maxine, and thank you for all that you shared with us this evening. And Viet, thank you for your wonderful moderation and interview. I would also like to thank everyone for coming this evening to celebrate such a pioneering voice. This concludes the 2114th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.