The renowned novelist Maxine Hong Kingston talks for the first time about the place of Buddhism in her work and life, and about something more elusive she calls simply “the Chinese Religion.”
Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976) is certainly one of the four or five most influential books in postwar American writing. In a creative, genre-bending form, it achieves three kinds of liberation at once: women’s liberation, Asian-American imaginative empowerment, and the insistence that personal utterance has a rightful place in the open world. Kingston’s stream of literary liberation also includes China Men (1980), Tripmaster Monkey (1989), Hawai’i One Summer (1998), To Be the Poet (2002) and her most recent book, The Fifth Book of Peace (2003). These books are all part of a continuous “talk-story,” mixing fact and fiction, and they share an enchanting, spritely voice in which Kingston plays amongst delight and devastation, bringing readers along the abyss but not stopping before locating a true place of rest.
Maxine Hong Kingston was born in 1940 to immigrant parents, Tom Hong and Ying Lan (Chew) Hong, and was raised in Stockton, California. In 1962 Maxine Hong graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and married actor Earll Kingston. Over the next five years she gave birth to a son, earned a teaching certificate and began to teach high school, and moved with her young family to Hawaí’i.
Her bestselling first book, The Woman Warrior, appeared in 1976, just as the women’s movement of the 1970’s was reaching its peak, and it is now one of the most-taught texts in American literature courses around the world. Her second book, China Men, recounts the journey from China to America of her male ancestors. Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book is Kingston’s first “pure” novel. It tells the tale of Wittman Ah Sing, a Chinese-American bohemian playwright who suffers (comically) for his art. Her most recent work, The Fifth Book of Peace, offers a fragment –a “piece”–from the novel about peace that was lost when Kingston’s Oakland, California, house burned to the ground in 1991.
Kingston has almost never been discussed as a “Buddhist author.” In this interview she speaks for the first time about Buddhism in relation to her life and writing, especially in relation to the variety of ideas and practices she absorbed from her mother. Kingston is at times unsure whether these practices are “Buddhism” or something more syncretic: “Chinese religion.”
John Whalen-Bridge: How much did Buddhism influence your early life, spiritually or culturally? When did you first come into contact with Buddhist ideas?
Maxine Hong Kingston: I was born into Confucian rituals and ceremonies that my mother did at holidays: strange offerings and altars, speaking in doorways, speaking in front of ancestors, visits to cemeteries, mysterious rituals and words that had no name. She never discussed them, so I didn’t know what was going on. There were also feasts and special foods. We were surrounded by something, but we were never asked or invited to participate. As I grew up I began to think, “What was this?” When there are no words to things, they are not real. Nothing I understood about Confucianism had anything to do with these rituals. It just seemed like an ethical system.
My first real thinking about Buddhism occurred while reading the Beats; it seemed as if the dharma was imported by these Americans. What I read was very attractive and I felt such connection. It just made sense. But that’s my educated self. It has no connection with the way I was raised. And then, of course, I read D.T. Suzuki and I read Daoist texts.
Do you consider yourself a Buddhist now?
I don’t know. Tricycle used to have this two-page spread that said, “Why I am a Buddhist.” They invited me to say why, but I just couldn’t. To say that one is a Buddhist is like saying, “I am a Catholic” or “I am a Protestant” or “I am a Confucian.” It all seems so narrow, even Buddhism.
Maybe I can’t call myself a Buddhist because I am what my mother and my ancestors are. They were something so big that you couldn’t even call it a religion. I could as easily say I’m a Daoist, or I suppose I could as easily say I’m a Confucian, except that some of the laws are so antiquated. I heard an interesting phrase lately: “the Chinese religion.” It is that religion which is Chinese. Just being Chinese means to practice the Chinese religion. Maybe that’s what it is. The Daoist festivals, the seasons, the rituals, the altars. You know the linguistic concept of “et cetera”? I am Buddhist, et cetera. I am Chinese-American, et cetera. I’m an American, et cetera. I’m a writer, et cetera. [Laughs]
In 1984 I visited China for the first time on a trip with Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder and several other well-known writers. We went all over. At Han Shan we saw people doing rituals, and I saw that after the cultural revolution things were changing. There had been a temple with “Hong” written over it – this was the village temple, the Hong family temple. During the cultural revolution, they changed the temple to a tractor shed, but when we got there they were changing it back into a temple. It had an altar that looked just like the altar that we had in Stockton.
Coming back on the plane, after I’d been to my family village, and after we had visited Daoist temples and Buddhist temples, I asked Gary, “Is it possible that there is a religion that’s practiced by the peasants, a folk religion that integrates Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism?” He said “No.” That’s all he said.
I hadn’t thought it out enough to make my case that we had been living with this always. Even though Gary said no, I can see for myself that a billion people have that – whatever it is that my mother practiced.
Meanwhile, my father has always said that he’s an atheist and that there’s nothing else – there’s just this life. So, I’ve always had their two influences. I think about Hans Christian Anderson, who said, “If your mother and father have completely different life views, then you have a good chance of becoming an interesting person.” And I thought, “Yeah. That’s it. I’m Hans Christian Anderson.”
I see Buddhism as being so free – or at least the vision of Buddhism that I think Shunryu Suzuki Roshi had. He had a vision of a new American Buddhism, and it was so very free. We could arrive at the new place ourselves. This includes: “I think I’ll make up a ceremony right here. I think I will speak out, and I will give myself a title, and I’ll give you a title.” I think he had this idea that we could do this on our own. That means lay people too.
After Tripmaster Monkey you said, “The narrator of Tripmaster Monkey is the voice of Quan Yin”,” whom Buddhists see as the bodhisattva of compassion. What did you mean by that?
I don’t think of Quan Yin as Buddhist. She is a primitive goddess of the sea. My mother had Quan Yin all over the place and never said she was Buddhist. I call Quan Yin the narrator of Tripmaster Monkey for a shortcut because I am thinking about the nineteenth-century male English mission omniscient narrator. If the narrator is feminine, then I just call her Quan Yin because it’s Yin, the feminine.
I want to ask about feminism and representation. Some women who wrote in the 1970’s became radicalized by feminism to the point where men became the enemy.
I haven’t thought about other people’s work, but as for myself being anti-male, I just never thought of that. The way I see it is that the fully developed artist, the fully developed woman, must know and understand and love men. So I must know men’s story and see the world from their points of view. I need the ability to write about the other half of the human race.
In the same way, when I wrote about the Vietnam War, I never thought of it as being against the American soldiers. I wrote about my brothers being in the military during the Vietnam War. While they were in Vietnam, I was in the peace demonstrations here, but when I saw soldiers it was with the same sympathy I had for my brothers. When the veterans came back, it was the same thing: they are my brothers. I want to understand and help them. I see them as being part of myself or my own life.
Your first book is very much about the recovery of identity. Do we sometimes have to recover identity before we let go of it? In this sense, is The Woman Warrior a Buddhist book?
No, I don’t think it’s a Buddhist book. And I think we always have an identity. I think we’re born with identities, but we’re not aware of it. That’s all. For some people, there comes a time when they’re aware of it and then they can tinker with it or try to grow it better, or they can grow up. But it seems to me we always have one, and I don’t think I understand that about letting go of ego. I don’t understand that.
In the sense of being a show-off and selfish – that kind of ego – I feel a struggle with that, with trying to be less selfish. Artistically, I felt I made a breakthrough when I stopped writing in the first person, which I did for about thirty years. All of a sudden, I used third person pronouns and “you.” “You” comes later, too, after the third person. I became less and less egotistical, less selfish and more able to consider other people.
I think of ego like that, which I don’t think is the Buddhist sense of ego. I think in the Buddhist sense, proper selfhood involves the sense that all living beings are connected. I can feel this ring of connection, or I can see it as an electric grid in which we’re all connected to it and we are all life. I guess that is what “no self” is. It’s just’all of us.
How does your most recent book relate to your first book? Is The Fifth Book of Peace your fifth book of peace, and does that mean The Woman Warrior, which you wrote six books ago, was not a book of peace?
No, I never thought about it that way, that the other books were not. The Woman Warrior was already struggling with the question, What good does war do? I put the Woman Warrior story in the middle of The Woman Warrior because I wanted to test that myth. I say something like, Any problems that we have, what good does it do to find this horse and ride off with a sword? I cannot solve any of my problems by using those techniques.
Can you say something about future work? What might happen with your hero, Wittman Ah Sing – where do you think he’s going?
Well, right now I have lots of beautiful blank notebooks, and when I have a thought or an idea or a word or an image, I find a notebook and I put it in. Each notebook has its own category. Right now I have eight of them and none of them has cohered into a story or poem yet. But I do have something about Wittman, who is now sixty years old and has heard of the Hindu idea that when a man reaches sixty, he can leave his wife. So at last he can have his big fantasy. He can leave Tanya and he can do it right because he’s decided that he’s going to follow Hinduism now. In the Hindu idea, when you’re sixty you could either have a new marriage ceremony or go on your way. You can follow your guru. You can follow your vision. So, he’s got to work this out with Tanya.
Tanya’s going to kick his ass.
Yeah. [Laughter] Because she’s just a little bit younger than he is, so how come she doesn’t get to decide? Maybe she gets to leave him.
Is the artifact that the artist creates for the reader a kind of guided meditation?
Well, I have thought of writing itself as a meditation, because one is sitting alone in a posture of receptivity, with instruments of reception right in front of you. You sit in such a posture that the muses can find you and inspire you. I do that. And then I receive something, which it’s up to me to put into form.
If a “Buddha” is a highest-level teacher, and “dharma” is the collection of stories and instructions we may read or hear, what is a ‘sangha,” the community?
I feel that to have a full life, everyone needs to have a community. It could be one’s family or at least one beloved one. Then there have to be friends, lifelong friends, or friends for life. I’ve always thought that, but just recently, meditating with Buddhists, I realized that sangha and community are not exactly synonymous. “Sangha” means a community of spiritual practice, people having spiritual ceremonies together. Friends you socialize with are not what sangha means.
Maybe a dozen years ago I realized this. After our house burned down, we planned our new house. Earll, my husband, designed a meditation room in one of the rooms. We moved into the house about eight years ago, and we started off having friends staying overnight. These were social friends, beloved community, but they were not the sangha.
One day one of them stayed overnight, and I asked her, “Would you like to sit in meditation with me?” It was so embarrassing to say that. It was so hard. I had to think about it and maneuver. It was like proposing to someone. I had known this woman for forty years, and I asked her to sit with me, and she did. Then I said to myself, “Okay. Now I am turning my community into my sangha.”
Then another friend came over. This time it was a little easier. I asked her, “Would you want to sit with me?” and she did. Just lately, two new friends came over. One of them was already practicing Japanese tea ceremony, and so she took over the room. She knew what she was doing and would do tea ceremony in there. So gradually my community and my sangha are becoming one.
Do you come across this sort of embarrassment about “orientalism” with friends? You mentioned the difficulty of proposing meditation to some people when really it’s not such a strange thing to sit and be quiet for a moment. Do you feel ambivalent about certain kinds of practices?
When I was young, it would be very uncomfortable, mostly because I saw myself and my family as being so weird and so different from everybody else. I didn’t have the words for how to explain us. But now that I am old and I have the words for it and I see our practices relating to the rest of humanity, it gets easier.