Maxine Hong Kingston’s work is as wonderful and alive as ever in this collection
Towards the end of his incandescent memoirs of 1976, The female warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston tells the story of a knotter in China who tied a knot so complicated it made him blind. In response, the Emperor banned the knot. “If I had lived in China,” Kingston tells us, “I would have been an outlaw knotter.”
Instead, she’s put her provocative love of complication into knotty books that weave together biography, history, myth, film and fiction to show us an America too often overlooked. Born to Chinese immigrants who ran a laundromat in Stockton, California, 81-year-old Kingston is an Asian-American writer, feminist storyteller, columnist of the immigrant experience, and literary innovator. . One of those rare figures who changed American culture and who continues to be relevant, she belongs on the same shelf as James Baldwin, Jeanne Didion and Kurt Vonnegut.
She is now placed alongside them in the prestigious Library of America, which has just released a volume bringing together, among other beautiful things, her three most famous works: The woman warrior, China Men and Tripmaster Monkey: his fake book. She tells stories about creating your own identity, not just what the world is trying to give you.
It was clear from his first book, The warrior woman: memories of a childhood among ghostswhich begins with one of the first murderous lines in American literature: “‘You must not tell anyone,’ said my mother, ‘what I am about to tell you. “”Naturally, the narrator Is tell us. We learn that Maxine’s father had a sister who became pregnant out of wedlock, killed herself and her baby in disgrace, and her entire family just pretended she never existed.
By telling this story that she is not supposed to tell us, Kingston highlights a cruel truth about traditional Chinese culture: its oppression of women. She also affirms her right, as an act of self-liberation, to scrutinize her mother’s dictates, the ghosts that haunt the Chinese past and the American values that surround it.
Kingston continued this search for freedom in his more expansive and angry second book, China Menwhich focuses on the experience of Chinese men who came to the United States in search of prosperity only to encounter racism as horrific as the misogyny highlighted in The female warrior.
Unlike most writers who tackle such volatile material, Kingston never simplifies. It offers no tearful melodrama, no sentimental cliché about immigrants, no crushing realism. Too original for that, she offers her personal version of storytelling, what the Chinese call “talk-story”. She explores ideas of “Chineseness” and “Americanness” by weaving together far-reaching elements, whether it’s an indelible evocation of her family’s laundry, a haunting, cinematic reverie about her brother going to Vietnam, or the inspiring myth of warrior woman Mulan, whose now-Hollywood story has become well known in the West because Kingston wrote about it.
Writing on her own terms, she followed these brilliant first two books of a novel Tripmaster Monkeywhich is probably too great. Set in a wonderfully evoked early ’60s Bay Area, the book focuses on Wittman Ah Sing, a writer seeking to cobble together a viable Chinese-American identity from a salad of postmodern influences, mixing the Beats, the poet Rilke, Hollywood films, the Chinese epic Travel west, and countless other things. While it proved too hip for the 1989 America Room, Tripmaster Monkey crackles with ever so dazzling ambition and brilliance.
Although Kingston had her detractors, her transgressive drive to ruin herself made her a trailblazing inspiration for the countless wonderful writers who began to map out the territory she first opened up. You can find his fingerprints in, among other things, Amy Tanit is Joy of Luck club, Junot Diazit is The Wonderful Brief Life of Oscar Wao, Charles Youit is Inner Chinatown and The sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyenwho edited this collection.
It also opened up new territory for readers like me. Rereading these books today, I was struck by how much of what I now consider conventional wisdom has become because of his unconventional work. In a way, Maxine Hong Kingston really is an outlaw knotter, but her work doesn’t blind anyone – it helps us see.
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