Maxine Hong Kingston (b. 1940), Chinese-American author, story-teller, poet, educator and activist
“Keep this day. Save this moment;
Save each scrap of moment; write it down.
Save this moment. And this one. And this.”
Randolph College announced last month that Maxine Hong Kingston would be the sixth recipient of the college’s Pearl S. Buck Award. The ceremony will be held on April 20.
Pearl Buck and Ms. Kingston share the distinction of shining a light on Chinese culture. For Pearl Buck it was the Chinese people in their homeland and for Maxine Hong Kingston it is Chinese-Americans. Both are known for their activism and for their memoirs and fictions, Pearl Buck more for the later than the former I think.
What these women also have in common is poetry. Pearl Buck’s slender collection, Words of Love (John Day, Co., 1974), was published posthumously. Ms. Kingston’s I Love a Broad Margin to My Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) was the fruit of coming to terms with turning sixty-five.
As part of the two-week-long celebrations of my own birthday (61st) in 2011, the CitySon Philosopher took me to dinner one night at Cafe Barrone in Menlo Park, California. Afterward we went next door to Kepler’s Books – a favorite among family and friends, the local independent – to hear Maxine Hong Kingston talk about what was then her new book. She is a “neighbor,” living only a few miles away in Stanford.
“Story gives form and pleasure to the chaos that’s life. By the end of the story, we have found understanding, meaning, revelation, resolution, reconciliations.”
The book is a memoir in free verse, a long poem in effect like the old-country tradition of writing a poem on a scroll. Flowing.
“Am I pretty at 65?
What does old look like?”
Ms. Kingston immediately addressed the issues of aging, both in her presentation and in the book itself. She talked about being superstitious and thinking that as long as she has things to write “I keep living…” She told of the origins of the title: Thoreau. It’s a line from Walden that, she says, also hangs framed over her desk.
She explained the Chinese custom of “writing poems back” and told of her dad who would write poems to her in the margins of her books. She was at that time translating these for publication, though that was never her dad’s intention. Or so I would infer. She encouraged us to write our own poems in the margins of her book.
Ms. Kingston stood in front of us, like a fragile little bird, reading excerpts from the book, delightful to hear in her voice. She is ten years older than me but we’ve lived through the same events and movements: civil rights, women’s rights, Vietnam, Iraq … and so on. She too is the child of immigrants. She sounds like a Buddhist, has the Buddhist sensibility: respect for life, for silence, for present moment.
When Ms. Kingston finished her presentation and Q & A, my son excused himself and kindly went to buy two copies for us. We stood in line with other guests, waiting for Ms. Kingston to sign our books. Every moment spent attending to writers of good conscience, talking about books and writing, is precious…even more this one, because I was with my son and the writer happened to be one with whom I share values, gender, and the context of time. She also is a mother with one child, a son.
Finally it was our turn: Ms. Kingston sat tiny and cheerful with pen in hand. She greeted us just as cordially as she had each reader throughout the long night. She wrote my name in bold sprawling black letters followed by “Joy and beauty and delight” and then signed her full name with “Hong” in hanzi (Chinese characters).
I wrote in my journal that night that “as long as we have cherished children, valued friends, conscientious authors and quality books, we have everything. Life is indeed joy and beauty and delight.”
As far as the book goes: The charm of I Love a Broad Margin to My Life is its gentle meandering. It made me think of the way books meandered before the modern preference for brevity and before computers and word processing and the ease technology brings to rewrites, cuts, and tight line-by-line editing … and perhaps needless to say, before life was so tightly packed with activity, rush and noise.
In her promising opening, Ms. Kingston is bemused in her self-awareness as she examines questions of aging, appearance, and vanity. As the book moves on, she blends nonfiction with fiction, a few references and viewpoints from characters that people her novels.
This long poetic memoir is a backward look at a time some might enjoy revisiting and others might want to learn about through the memory of one who was there. One of its strengths is the contemplation of life by a dedicated activist whose creative work helps the reader understand. I enjoyed the book, got value out of it; but I did feel rather like Ms. Kingston was putting on the unaccustomed robes of a poet and didn’t feel quite at home with this form. Unlike other poetry books on my shelves, I suspect I’ll never pull it out for another read.
© 2016, essay and photograph of Ms. Kingston at Kepler’s Books on February 22, 2011, Jamie Dedes; All rights reserved