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Warrior for Peace

With 'The Woman Warrior,' leading literary light Maxine Hong Kingston introduced a generation to Chinese American and started a new genre of literature. Now, she tells Zhao Feifei, her mission is peace.

Conventional wisdom, visible all around us, dictates that women over 40 should automatically cut their hair -- and certainly dye it, to keep looking young. But don't tell Maxine Hong Kingston, a youthful 64. The acclaimed Asian-American writer refuses to bow to public opinion about the length and color of her hair, sporting a cloud of stunning long, silver locks.

"I don't like going to hairdressers. I hate sitting there and having people pulling on my hair," says Kingston during her recent trip to the city's first mini international literary festival, held on March 6, 7 and 14. Kingston will also takes part in The Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, which runs through Sunday. Her participation is a celebration of the publication of "The Fifth Book of Peace," her first book in more than a decade. The book has been described as an unusual weave of memoir and fiction resounding with poignant voices that speak to the search for a new lexicon of peace, a mission that she believes in deeply. A bright silk scarf with intricate patterns is elegantly coiled around Kingston's neck, brightening her outfit. Even this simple article of clothing bears a message: It was designed by Mia Kodoni, granddaughter of Japanese artist Chiura Obata, and, Kingston explains, the various patterns symbolize the coming together of different cultures. Kingston's last visit to Shanghai was 12 years ago, and she proclaims herself shocked at the changes.

"From some angles, Shanghai looks like Tokyo," chuckles this diminutive woman. "Whenever I come to China, I feel strange and touched in the land where my ancestors lived. It's a different planet. Everything is so different from what I know. But when I go to my parents' village, the stories my mother told me about growing up in China all materialize before me. It's exactly as I imagined it. That gave me great faith in the power of imagination." Kingston's father, Tom Hong, was a first-generation immigrant from southern China, who owned a laundry in Stockton, California, the United States. In 1976, Kingston wrote "The Woman Warrior: A Memoir of a Girlhood among Ghosts." Although Kingston modestly cites other Chinese American authors as being ahead of her (notably Jade Snow Wong, who wrote "Fifth Chinese Daughter") in the 1950s, "Woman Warrior" was the first book about Chinese Americans for an entire generation, and, with its liberal use of memory and the rhythms of Chinese language, it can be said to have started the genre.

The book won the National Book Critic's Circle Award and catapulted Kingston to the literary stardom. "Woman Warrior" tells of the Chinese myths, family stories and events of Kingston's California childhood that have shaped her identity, things she says she learned from her mother. The book has been taught in high school and college classrooms across America since its publication. Although Kingston is identified as the Chinese American genre of writing, she prefers to call herself a "global writer." "We might have conflicts about identity -- am I Chinese, am I American -- as teenagers. But as we go on, there's a synthesis that takes place. We integrate different cultural heritages. We build a new culture," she says, holding her chin in her hands as she thinks.

At a reading session at M on the Bund in town, where the literary festival took place, Kingston began by reading her first poem created at the age of three. She read it in her own southern dialect, Sayap, which is said to be close to Cantonese. Kingston says her mother actually tried to "squeeze Chinese songs and poems" out of her. "She'd hang me out of the window and say 'sing to your grandfathers and make a poem for them', "she recalls.

"I feel the rhythm of Chinese language, which was my first language, although English is the language I try to perfect. Surprisingly when I read my work again, I see a lot of Chinese sort of peeking through. My subconscious is Chinese, isn't that weird? At night in my dreams I speak to Earl (her husband) in Chinese!"

"China Men," a sequel to "The Woman Warrior," was published in 1980, and also received the National Book Critic's Circle Award. The next year she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and began teaching at University of California, Berkeley, from which she retired this year. In 1989, Kingston published her first novel, "Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book."

"The Fifth Book of Peace" originates from her searches in vain for the lost books of peace of Chinese mythology. Did they really exist? In her eight trips to China and countless queries, Kingston never found them. She finally took the advice from a friend, and wrote them. But then tragedy struck. The 156-page manuscript of "The Fourth Book of Peace" was burned to ashes in a 1991 California wildfire, which killed 24 people in the Oakland hills and destroyed 3,000 houses and apartments. "After the fire, I had a hard time reading or writing again," says Kingston. "And after that, I thought I shouldn't work alone any more. I need a community of writers." Kingston, who at the time was deeply disturbed by the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), decided that she had to understand the loss of all she possessed as a kind of shadow-experience of war. Thus she embarked on a mission to re-create her novel from scratch, to rebuild her life, and to reach out to veterans of war and share with them her views as a lover of peace. She sent out calls to war veterans; 200 people answered. They gathered together as a writing community, meditated and told stories, which eventually gave birth to "The Fifth Book of Peace."

The book is a collage of mythical, real and imaginary worlds. Her real and imagined narratives enrich one another as Kingston has woven together fact, fiction and memory in a powerfully emotional book. In "Fire," the first section of the hybrid book, Kingston describes her harrowing attempt to get through the cordoned-off area to her house -- and her book. She leapt over live electrical lines and plunged under a small cement bridge as hot as a kiln to get close to her home. Finally a bicyclist carried her away to safety. After this memoir-type opening, the author switches to a novella embedded in the middle of the book, set during the Vietnam War (1961-///).

She reconstructs for us her lost novel, the lush and compelling story of the Chinese-American Wittman Ah Sing and his wife. They helped to create an official sanctuary for deserters and GIs who've returned, devastated by their experiences in Vietnam War. Then the book flips back to memoir. Kingston leads writing workshops for war veterans, incorporating meditation. This diary-like section is peppered with outpourings from the vets, trying to come to terms with their traumatic experiences years after the events. The book culminates in a television crew filming Kingston at the village where Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh lived. She writes, "I wanted the BBC to show the world a multicultural, multiracial America. Every time we go to war, we're in schizophrenic agony. Whoever the enemy is, they're related to us." Kingston pauses, and notes that March 8 was International Women's Day.

She adds, with a certain amount of relish, that it is also her one-year anniversary of going to jail. Last year, she joined the women's march, named Code Pink, with "my sister writers" including Alice Walker and 10,000 other women, along with 1,000 men and children, marching down 16th Street in Washington DC to protest the prospect of going to war in Iraq. There were sister demonstrations around the world. They called themselves Code Pink, a take-off on the US government's color-coded terror-alert system. She and Walker were among a group of 23 women arrested in front of the White House; she spent four hours in jail and paid about US$50 to be released. Her next book, Kingston says, will be about the Silk Road which originates in the ancient city of Xi'an, Shaanxi Province.

She has been to the two ends of the legendary road. After a heavy dose of reality, Kingston says she wants the next book to be a change, to go to unknown places and allow her muse to breeze in. "I want to give free rein to my imagination, sometimes taking the risk of letting it all go," she says. Shanghai International Literary Festival Weekend -- "Chinese in America: A Reading by Gish Jen" Time: 4:30pm, March 14 Venue: M on the Bund, 7/F, 20 Guangdong Rd Admission: 50 yuan Tel: 6350-9988

(eastday.com March 15)


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