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Q & A: Maxine Hong Kingston’s latest exploration is a memoir in verse
“Nine perfect lines.”
That’s what word warrior Maxine Hong Kingston says she wrote every day to complete her new, 229-page, free-verse poem-memoir, “I Love a Broad Margin to My Life.”
At noon Sunday, in the Mission Memorial building at Honolulu Hale, Kingston will tell tales of life in the gardens of words she has nurtured for her fans, critics and readers around the world.
Born in California in 1940, Kingston is a Chinese-American graduate of, and now professor emerita at, the University of California-Berkeley. First-generation immigrants from China, her father was a scholar in China and a laundry worker in America, and her mother was a midwife.
Kingston fired the imagination and passion of more than one generation with her 1976 epic adventure, “Woman Warrior: Memories of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.” Nine books followed, including “China Men,” “Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book,” “The Fifth Book of Peace” and “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace.”
She says, “Before we can leave our parents, they stuff our heads like a suitcase which they jam-pack with homemade underwear.”
Kingston started writing stories at age 7, but her poetry only came to print at age 65. Her new book is literally a new chapter in her writing life.
I asked her some questions about her latest work and relationship to Hawaii, reaching her by phone at her California home. Here are her responses.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON
Appearing at the Hawaii Book and Music Festival
Where: Mission Memorial building, Honolulu Hale
When: Noon Sunday
Question: What was your ancestral connection to Hawaii? What did you do here in 1967?
Answer: I came to teach high school. I felt a connection to Hawaii. My two great-grandfathers came from China to work the plantations, then returned to their home villages. Our son, musician Joe Kingston, was born in Hawaii. Seventeen years later we moved and he stayed. He is of the islands.
Q: Any special memories?
A: I was amazed when I taught a semester at Kahuku High School. I’d never seen a fireknife dancer in a May Day pageant.
Q: How do you give birth to your books?
A: In the past, very slowly. The “Monkey” book took 10 years. The next one, 12 years. My “Fifth Book of Peace” grew from a nonpeaceful moment. In 1991, after working years on the “Fourth Book of Peace,” I came home from a family memorial to find the smoldering ruins of our Oakland Hills home. The manuscript was in the ashes, so I started the next book.
Q: How did war and peace become a part of the fabric of your life?
A: When we moved to Hawaii it was the time of the war in Vietnam. Hawaii was filled with military. Church of the Crossroads was a sanctuary for vets. Seeing them brought up memories of cousins who stayed with us on their way to fight in World War II. All the stories stayed with me. We started the first Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace writing group, encouraging combat vets to tell their stories. Now they are growing around the world (www.vowvop.org).
Q: You ended up in jail in Washington, D.C. How did that happen?
A: In 2003 there was an anti-war protest in D.C. The police said to move. We
didn’t. Then Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” and writer Terry Tempest Williams and I went to jail. We sat in a cell four hours, sharing stories and singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
Q: How does the Hawaii Book & Music Festival compare to other book events?
A: This is my third invitation to speak at the Honolulu event. The most wonderful thing is that I get to meet my readers. At other book fairs we speak in a big auditorium, but there are no informal places for us to gather and meet. The first two visits were about vets. This one is about being a veteran writer moving into poetry.
—Lynn Cook / Special to the Star-Advertiser