Talking Story with Maxine Hong Kingston
by Trevor Carolan
For more than 30 years, National Book Award-winning author Maxine Hong Kingston has written on the complicated chains of history, nostalgia, and spiritual yearning—on the soul of place and home. For many readers her masterworks The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, Hawai’i One Summer, and The Fifth Book of Peace have come to seem like having a wise older sister in the next bunk whispering stories to us late at night. Long a committed antiwar activist, since the early 1990s she has led writing-and-meditation workshops for veterans of America’s wars and their families. Her new anthology Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace harvests their work in presenting a broad view of the power of story to help redeem and heal the wounds of unspeakable history. Reading these words of men and women tragically affected by war, we witness how it is possible to rebuild lives and to truly believe that we can be one people again, living in harmony. An edition for our time, it serves as testament to Hong Kingston’s conviction that community is not built once and for all: it must be imagined, practiced and re-created.
TBR contributor Trevor Carolan spoke with her recently in Oakland, California.
The Bloomsbury Review: Maxine, how did you get involved with veterans and the veterans’ writing workshop?
Maxine Hong Kingston: The start of it was Thich Nhat Hanh. I had gone to a couple of retreats that he had led and there came a time when he said he wanted to hold a retreat for veterans of the Vietnam war. He called for veterans of the war to meet Vietnamese people, and also other Americans. So he had a ceremony with all these old soldiers and himself as a veteran of that war, and they had all kinds of ceremonies including hugging meditation. There’s Vietnamese and Americans together, and Thich Nhat Hanh said when you hug one Vietnamese you hug them all. These soldiers who had been in the war were now embracing another person in their arms, and that leads to reconciliation. I was observing all of this and I thought, “They need one more thing; like, ah … a spiritual life is not enough! These veterans need to have artistic expression!” They needed an artistic life. I continued to participate in these retreats, and I brought a writing workshop. Actually, the writing workshop became the center of what veterans do in these retreats. Thich Nhat Hanh called it a retreat within the retreat. We did our own rituals and our own ceremonies, and the main practice was writing, to get their stories down. Once in a while we would break out into a larger group and listen to a dharma talk and we’d meditate with a larger group. But on the whole we would have our own room, our own separate table. Thich Nhat Hanh only came to America every other year, and Therese Fitzgerald, Arnie Kotler, and I were thinking this isn’t enough; so we held these retreats on our own, always emphasizing the writing, some artistic expression. Somewhere in this I got a Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award that said that I should use part of the money to do some community social work. I used it to carry on these writing workshops for veterans and their families. We met once a month for three years. At that point I tried to disband them; I didn’t want it to be like therapy that goes on for a whole lifetime. It all seemed natural at the end of the grant.
TBR: Are these people working writers themselves?
MHK: Most are just really veterans. Once they get in, some do become convinced that writing is the way they are going to come home from the war, to heal their wounds. What I tell them is “You went to war, to a terrible place, and you lived to tell the story; you need to tell us what you learned when you were out there. This is your gift, this is what you need to give to society and to your life.” There’s a sense of urgency; all these things are held in them, and when it just comes out it’s so beautiful because they’ve been cooking it all these years, decades. It’s been working in there. It amazes me how good their first drafts are. I can’t do that. They can. It often comes out perfect; they don’t need to rewrite and I think it’s because they’ve lived it and they’ve ruminated and saved it for 20 years. All I need to do is say, “Here’s a piece of paper, a pencil, let it out … ”
TBR: Do they all let it out?
MHK: There’s another side that was sometimes a tough hump to get over with many of them, because their previous experience in communicating had been in therapeutic situations. A lot of them were repeating what they’d said in therapy groups for a long time. Some of the transition was us insisting that this isn’t that same experience, it’s not reaching an emotional high and then going back and climbing the same mountain again. The difference between shouting out your experience in a group and writing it down is that you can perfect it in writing, reach a kind of end with it. You process it and then it becomes art. You turn war and chaos into art. There was a small percentage of dedicated writers who came into the group—they knew that. Their knowledge path was to say, “It’s not screaming out what happened to me in l971, it’s writing it down and perhaps changing it, perfecting it, molding it.”
TBR: And turning it into a product?
MHK: Well, as Buddhists we don’t think about a reward or a product. We’re just supposed to appreciate what’s happening right now. I never promised them that they were going to have a book or readings or money or anything. “You write this story for its own sake.”
TBR: How did this book actually come into existence then?
MHK: It must have been three or four years ago. People were seeing that we were accumulating a huge body of work—all kinds from everybody. Some people were getting impatient and they began publishing on their own. At a certain point I saw that we had lot of work, and I thought, “Is it possible that we could pull this together?” It happened that Arnie Kotler, who had previously established Parallax Press, began Koa Books as a new company, so it all fit. His first book was Cindy Sheehan’s story. Arnie was present at the beginning of the first veterans’ mediations and now he had a publishing company. The whole universe fit and this book could come out.
TBR: Was there any turning point that galvanized for you the urgency of working on this project to promote peace?
MHK: Not a crucial point. It all seemed like a steady, ongoing project. The longer we worked at it the more we began to feel like a sangha, a community. When the Lila Wallace Award was over I tried to disband the group but they refused to leave! I tried to change it a little bit by suggesting that we disband the big group and begin many little sanghas. But nobody left. Then I simply said, “Well, we’re just going to meet for the rest of our lives,” and that’s what we have now.
Perhaps one galvanizing point though was the fire that swept through here in 1991. It burned 3200 houses, including this one where we lived, as well as The Fourth Book of Peace that I was working on. Afterwards I was thinking, “How do you create again after something has been destroyed, after you have experienced destruction? How do you get going again, and how do I write again because my book has burned?” I didn’t want to just go by memory. An idea came up that I mustn’t write alone, that I should have a community. All this was happening at the same time as the veterans’ retreats. I thought, “Because I want to write a book of peace, the people I want in this community are veterans, people who’ve experienced war and know what that is.”
TBR: Michael Wong, one of the book’s contributors who once fled to Canada, writes of the Vietnam War that “Our honor died at My Lai.” Can I ask what you feel may have similarly died at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, or Guantanamo?
MHK: Oh goodness, I don’t know if I can answer that, because we’re always doing such things. We go into these terrible places and we come out of them again and again. Bush and everybody is saying, “We don’t torture.” Well, obviously we do torture and then we deny it. I would hope the idea that we are the good guys has died. In these workshops what I want is for us to write stories. When we write them we can understand them, become aware. If we could just understand the truth of what happened, then maybe we can change what happens in lives. About the idea of changing history, when an occurrence first happens it’s just chaos. Nobody understands what it means, it’s an explosion. But if we can get it into words then we change things from chaos to order, because it’s through order that we understand human events. There’s this amazing faith that artists have, that somehow with art we can change the world and make peace. It’s an incredible faith; I mean, aren’t there times when you don’t believe it for one moment? There are times when it doesn’t do any good; you work as hard as you can and here comes Abu Ghraib and more people killed …
TBR: Even Confucius faced this long ago. Doesn’t he say that the wise person does his duty even though all along he knows it’s hopeless? Yet don’t we have to do it anyway? It’s like the old belief out West that cowboys do the right thing, even when nobody’s looking.
MHK: That’s right—We do it anyway. If your premise is that guns, bombs, bayonets are not right, and that we will not use that power, then you have your brush, your pen, and that’s all you allow yourself. W.S. Merwin is building a rainforest on Maui. He says that with global warming it’s not going to do any good for him to plant trees, but he does it anyway.
TBR: Your writers’ group motto is “Tell the Truth.” Many of their stories reflect how commonly violence in the home begins long before any frontline combat.
MHK: Yes, by the time it gets to war, violence is already way down the line. But in the same way love can also start right here, in the home, in each one of us. We need to learn ways of expressing the pure energy of our feelings—anger and hate feelings especially—in a healthier direction that’s beneficial to the world.
TBR: In your introduction you mention Odysseus and his post-Trojan War saga. Like every wandering mariner he constantly talks about his story as he travels, yet it’s only when he finally returns home that he can discuss it fully. A lot of your book’s contributors talk about returning “home.”
MHK: We’re all existentialists. We create that home wherever we are, and the most important aspect of our writers’ home is the sangha we make around us. I am very interested in the idea of return. The Buddhists talk about how with every breath we return to our body, but you know we also have to return to our consciousness. When you go to war, you become a raging killer beast. Odysseus goes to war, but it takes him 20 years to return. In telling his story all along, he’s changing back from a killer beast into a human being. Now, Aristotle says that the greatest joy in art is recognition. When Odysseus finally gets home, people don’t recognize him. We have one writer in the book, John Mulligan, who went to war, came home, and his own mother didn’t recognize him. His own mother. At least we can speak …
TBR: Speaking of language, you’ve published a collection of poetry with Harvard University Press, To Be The Poet. Have you rededicated yourself as a poet? Are long books too energy depleting, or are you ploughing a new field, rotating the crops?
MHK: It’s all of that. It also tells of my desires that I should have some fun, write something short, and not have all these cares. I admire poetry so much and I want to be able to write in that heightened form.
TBR: Is this something new or an old affection? Ursula Le Guin also made a recursive move to poetry, although this might have alarmed her agent.
MHK: Right, agents don’t like that! I began as a poet when I was a child. I was constantly uttering and singing and writing poems. What’s coming to me now is a long poem. I’m thinking, “What is it that I want to be at the end of my life?” I want to concentrate all of life and look forward to age, to the end. So what’s coming is a long poem, five strong beats to every line, softer beats in between; many, many lines. This is the right form for me. I had about a hundred pages and then went back and did it again. Poetry is a perfect form for an older person because I don’t need to tell everything; I can jump around in time. I can skip a whole lot. It’s not as detailed and as descriptive as prose; it’s more impressionistic, less plotted. I think that’s the big difference between poetry and a prose work—plot. And I never liked plot anyway; plots just contain everything. We don’t want to be constrained, we want to be able to fly all over the place—that’s what poetry does.
TBR: Simone Weil says that the purpose of art and words is to testify—the way the trees blossom and the stars come out at night. Do you think Buddhists might conceive of art and literature as works of metta or karuna—kindness or compassion?
MHK: Aristotle says pity and terror are what drama brings forward in order for us to get the catharsis of art. Because I have a narrator in there, I did think that I was writing in the way of karuna, compassion, with Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. I wanted to be invisible so that everybody else could go about their drama and their plots. I began to see the narrator as Avalokitesvara, Kuan Yin [the Goddess of Mercy]; the narrator is very close to myself and I didn’t want anything bad to happen to any of my characters. I wanted to give them gifts; I wanted to correct them; I had a sense of being their creator and the person who gives them blessings. That attitude of being the kind narrator began in Tripmaster Monkey, and when I went on to other works I felt very clearly that I could even manipulate situations and atmospheres, so that we could see what kindness and compassion are like. The idea is, “How do we make peace?” Peace is actually created and that means creating a good relationship, creating a good sangha, and writing stories. Technically, writing and telling stories is traditional in all cultures: it’s probably built into our DNA that they have rising action that leads to a violent climax. We all love that sense of drama, that frightening climax. Well, I got thinking, “Can we write a story in which this climax is nonviolent and is still exciting?” That is against everything our culture is teaching us. Television, movies … there’s that violent climax. Can I write counter to this? Will people buy these stories? What will all the critics say?
TBR: The Burmese monks and other protesters were recently chanting metta when confronting the military dictatorship. They want a better social and economic situation for people. Can Gandhian methods prevail in any other context than that of a British-style empire?
MHK: You’re talking about a big stage—Burma, India, China. But the ways of peace are constantly taking place on small stages every moment, everywhere, right now, with each and every one of us, every single moment. We have the opportunity to make peace all the time. With the root of these small practices I’m sure they result in many scenes of love and being together. This Burma situation is at a stage when it’s too late; it comes after many acts of failing to show compassion. So we end up with this horrible situation and we think, “Now let’s practice our compassion.” Well it’s too late. It’s very hard for compassion to win out in such a situation.
TBR: Burma, where the democratic movement is struggling and which is Buddhist, is a thrall of China’s military dictatorship. Next door in southern Thailand Buddhist monks are being assassinated by Islamic terrorists who are basically warlords. With all this realpolitik coming at us, what can a nonfiction style encompass if it’s only peace-speak? Can it be a language of political method and effective action?
MHK: I was talking with Ted Sexauer from the book, who’s a Buddhist practitioner himself, and was complaining, questioning all these ways of nonviolence—do they really work? Look at the Dalai Lama. He practices nonviolence and he loses his country; his people are tortured and killed. The Chinese have totally taken over in a cruel way and are exploiting Tibet—they’ve taken its riches, cut down its forests. What satisfaction is there if you practice nonviolence? Ted looked at me in surprise and said “Yes, but the story isn’t over.” Of course! The story isn’t over. The Dalai Lama gets pressured. There are those who say, “C’mon now, be a leader. We’re going to have a revolution. We’ll fight back.” But he says, “I’m for nonviolence.” The story isn’t over.
TBR: Marshall McLuhan reckoned that words without action are only a cool medium, impractical. What about your simple, and for many, deeply moving strategy in The Fifth Book of Peace? “Children, everybody, here’s what to do during war: In a time of destruction, create something. A poem. A parade. A friendship. A community. A place that is the commons. A school. A vow. A moral principle. One peaceful moment.”
MHK: Right, it doesn’t mean you have to get arrested in front of the White House. Just create one peaceful moment. Amitav Ghosh says we need to find a way of writing in which nonviolence is dramatic. He tells about the riots involving Hindus and Muslims. There’s a group of neighbors who say that the rioters are not going to force them to remain hidden in their houses, so they all set out together to walk on their street. Then they see a group of thugs and we all know what’s about to happen: They get beaten up, right? But silently, the women take their scarves and hold them in a circle around their men. The bad guys don’t move at the sight and the crisis passes. Can that work as a dramatic moment? It’s so brief! How can we write more? As Virginia Woolf said, we leave it to the poets to write these short pieces.
TBR: Is there something here about “the Other”?
MHK: In the writing workshops there’s usually a dislike of officers. Occasionally though, someone of officer material will attend. After meditation and getting to know one another, telling their stories, over time they become less and less officer-like. Another guy in there, Scott Morrison, wanted to be a writer all along. He came to our group because he wanted to play his own mind and thinking against some really hard, right-wing patriots. Wanted to spar with them in putting out his liberal thoughts of peace. He said “I just can’t meet any. They keep disappearing.” They’ve come in, officers, right-wing patriots, then they change. Being quiet with oneself, these ways of meditation … maybe they do change people. But I don’t know if these are the ones we have to change. The people who believe in the [Iraqi] War and romanticize the idea of America coming to the rescue are very difficult to convince otherwise. They are easily led. These are patriots who I think put the religion of the country above their own religion—we’ve become a warrior society and if you simply say “freedom” and “America,” people will react to it.
TBR: When your country becomes your religion that’s nationalism … it’s dangerous.
MHK: Yes, but the real danger is the separation developing between the people and their sense of being able to do anything about it. Support for Iraq is down to around 28 percent. That’s a profound disconnect between the people and their sense of what elected government is. In place of action it all becomes irony, something bitter to laugh at. This is what is dangerous.
TBR: Being an activist is fashionable nowadays, but people can mistake talking about action for actually doing something and really taking action.
MHK: There’s a story from Ted Sexauer in the book. He goes to Fort Benning and makes up his mind to confront a general. It’s such a hard situation. Of course, he tries to meet the general on a human level. But how do we “speak truth to power,” as the Quakers say. Many of us have had a chance to meet these powerful people, at the White House or elsewhere. It’s so easy to be struck speechless. We care about etiquette, about not being rude. If you’re vulgar, you can so easily be dismissed. And if you’re nice you can also be dismissed.
TBR: In the popular media—most of which rolled over like spaniels with their legs in the air during the invasion of Iraq—there’s an assumption that the sixties generation ideals of peace, love, freedom, equality, and happiness were naive and just died out. Do you feel that’s the case, or have these ideas mainstreamed, even percolated underground?
MHK: All of us old sixties people, we’re still here. A lot have been involved with organizations all through the past 40 years. They’re re-emerging: that’s why when the Iraq war started the demonstrations were put together so quickly.
TBR: Growing up, were you exposed to Buddhist teachings?
MHK: When I was a child we had all the rituals and holidays. My parents didn’t call it anything but Confucianism. And even then, we didn’t really call it that. In China they take it all—Taoism, Confucius—and call it “Chinese religion.”
TBR: The missionary mind never quite understood that syncretic “Three-in-One” Tradition—Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism.
MHK: Yes, or they call it “Ancestor Worship,” which is very dismissive. That is so weird. We had the altars, the ancestors, and I feel I had some aspects of Buddhism. So coming across Buddhism as an adult felt natural, familiar. Growing up, we had several buildings—the Confucius Church, the Benevolent Association, also the Chinese Methodist Church. They were the institutions. You also had home. To this day, Chinese people still talk about the “home religion.” So you don’t have to have another place; you can have it wherever you put your altar.
TBR: Have you ever taken the Jukai ceremony, anything like that?
MHK: Yes, several ceremonies. The first was in Hawai’i at the big Honpa Hongwanji Buddhist temple, Japanese. They have a ceremony that they’ve made Hawaiian in which they declare people living treasures of Hawai’i. Out of nowhere, they tapped me and I went there. All the wonderful robes, bells, incense, the drums, chanting … it was really great. I thought everybody was a living treasure, but they recognized me. Another one was being at these retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh and he offered the Five Wonderful Precepts. We took the vows.
TBR: Were there any books or texts that had a major impact on your relationship with peace, dharma, activism? The Spirit of Zen, Alan Watts, and so on?
MHK: I read those, but what really got me was reading the Beats. Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. It just seemed like so much fun to be a Buddhist. Be a dharma bum!
TBR: David Miller, a Honolulu writer, suggests the key in coming successfully to a new country or place is “assimilation and creativity.” How do you feel about multicultural affiliations, Asian American, etc? Elizabeth Bishop, for instance, declined to appear in anthologies of women’s poetry, preferring to be just “a poet.”
MHK: Ethnic Studies is all around now. I would feel badly if I was pigeonholed into one category. I’ve seen my work in Black Studies, Women’s Studies, Asian American History, American and British Literature—I don’t feel bad about it because I’m in so many categories. There’s a linguistic concept known as etcetera where after every noun you put “etcetera.” Then you say, “I am an American, etcetera.” But I like that phrase “assimilation and creativity”: you integrate everything and you make more. You don’t lose yourself; that’s what some are afraid of. Political correctness often seems tied to a lack of humor …
TBR: To conclude with Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, what are the chances of similar encounters coming out of the current Middle Eastern-Asian conflicts?
MHK: The reason I think our first veterans’ workshops worked is that Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist. Most of these veterans were from the Vietnam war where they had seen the temples, the monks, nuns, the Buddhas, and there was curiosity about that. They would meet the Montagnards, the hill people, who would go to war with a small Buddhist statue in their mouths. So they were interested to get together—there was a chance of reconciliation with real Vietnamese. And they’ve been coming together all these years and have worked out their war stuff and their post-traumatic disorders. Now, will there ever come a day when some of the people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan can meet with an imam and clerics together—Muslims and veterans—and come together and have these kinds of ceremonies that we have? Will it work better? We’ve met some of these young veterans at a bookstore in New York and that city seems the perfect place for it.
TBR: Maybe it’ll be necessary.
MHK: What’s amazing to me is that after a war—with Japan, in Korea, Vietnam—we get all kinds of loving things: we have “war brides,” we have families adopting Chinese and Vietnamese orphan girls, we have new family situations. First there’s exotic countries, and then we have the war, then we have marriages … I wonder, “Can’t we just skip the middle part, the war, and get on with the loving family and wonderful new foods and restaurants part? Isn’t that more compassionate?”
TBR: You bet! Maxine, thanks and aloha for all your words.
INTERVIEWER: Trevor Carolan writes from Vancouver. His current novel, The Pillowbook of Dr. Jazz, was published by Ekstasis.