The American Academy of Arts & Sciences is awarding Maxine Hong Kingston the Emerson-Thoreau Medal for distinguished achievement in the field of literature. The Medal, named in honor of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, is awarded to an individual for overall literary achievement rather than for a specific work.
Born to Chinese immigrants in Stockton, California, Kingston weaves together memoir, fiction, and folktale, and explores race, gender, and memory. Her nonfiction works include The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, which won the National Books Critics Circle Award, and China Men, which won the National Book Award. Her work includes the novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, with the protagonist Wittman Ah Sing (named after Walt Whitman), as well as articles, poems, and short stories. Kingston is also known for leading therapeutic writing workshops for hundreds of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which resulted in an anthology she edited titled Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace.
Having lost her writing in the Oakland-Berkeley hills firestorm of 1991, she wrote The Fifth Book of Peace, a story about her quests for the three lost Books of Peace, which may or may not have existed in China.
Kingston is a Professor Emerita at the University of California at Berkeley. President Clinton awarded her the National Humanities Medal in 1997, and President Obama, the National Medal of Arts in 2013. Kingston was named a Living Treasure of Hawaii in 1980 and was elected to the Academy in 1992.
“Maxine Hong Kingston is a pioneering author who has expanded the very definition of American literature through her work,” said David W. Oxtoby, President of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. “As Maxine continuously redraws the boundaries between essay, autobiography, and novel, she earns great acclaim while also creating space for other voices and new stories.”
When notified of the award, Kingston responded, “I am gratified and hugely honored to be receiving the Emerson-Thoreau medal. The award’s connection to Thoreau is especially meaningful to me, as I have always found inspiration in his way of living and writing.”
The title of Kingston’s book length lyrical poem titled I Love a Broad Margin to My Life is itself a quotation from Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods and quotes from his poem in her own reflection on life as a writer, teacher, peace-activist, and parent. It includes the lines “Before I had language, before I had stories, I wanted to write.”
The Academy’s Emerson-Thoreau medal was first given to Robert Frost in 1958 and has since been presented to other notable authors such as T.S. Eliot, Hannah Arendt, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.
Maxine Hong Kingston will receive the award at an event in May: event information and registration.