Maxine Hong Kingston Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Maxine Ting Ting Hong, Stockton, California, 1940. Education: University of California, Berkeley, A.B. 1962, teaching certificate, 1965. Career: Teacher of English and mathmatics, Sunset High School, Hayward, California, 1965-67; teacher of English, Kahuku High School, Hawaii, 1967; teacher, Kahaluu Drop-In School, 1968; teacher of English as a second language, Honolulu Business College, Hawaii, 1969; teacher of language arts, Kailua High School, Hawaii, 1969, and Mid-Pacific Institute, Honolulu, 1970-77. Since 1977 visiting associate professor of English, Univeristy of Hawaii, Honolulu. Awards: National Book Critics Circle award, 1976, for nonfiction; Mademoiselle award, 1977; Anisfiel-Wolf Race Relations award, 1978; National Education Association writing fellowship, 1980; American Book award, 1981, for nonfiction; Arts Commission award, 1981; Hawaii Award for Literature, 1982; California Governor's Award, 1989; Major Book Collection Award, Brandeis University, 1990; Award for Literature, American Academy & Institute for Arts & Letters, 1990; Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writing Award, 1992; Special Achievement, Oakland Business Arts award, 1994; Cyril Magnin Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, 1996; Distinguished Artists Award, the Music Center of L.A. County, 1996; National Humanities Medal, NEH, 1997; Fred Cody Lifetime Achievement Award, 1998; John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, 1998; Ka Palapola Po'okela Award, 1999; Profiles of Courage Honor, Swords to Plowshares, 1999. Honorary doctorate, Eastern Michigan University, 1988; Colby College, 1990; Brandeis University, 1991; University of Massachusetts, 1991. Named Living Treasure Hawaii, 1980; Woman of the Year, Asian Pacific Women's Network, 1981.
Tripmaster Monkey, His Fake Book. New York, Knopf, and London, Pan, 1989.
Hawaii One Summer. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1998.
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. NewYork, Knopf, 1976; London, Allen Lane, 1977.
China Men. New York, Knopf, 1980; London, Pan, 1981.
The Making of More Americans. Honolulu, Hawaii, InterArts, 1980.
Through the Black Curtain. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1987.
Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston, edited by Paul Skenazy and Tera Martin. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
Approaches to Teaching Kingston's 'The Woman Warrior' edited by Shirley Geok-Lim, New York, Modern Language Association of America, 1991; Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa by King-Kok Chueng, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1993; Stories of Resilience in Childhood: The Narratives of Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodrigues, John Edgar Wideman, and Tobias Wolff by Daniel D. Challener, New York, Garland, 1997; The Female Bildungsroman by Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston: A Postmodern Reading by Pin-chia Feng, New York, P. Lang, 1998; Critical Essays on Maxine Hong Kingston edited by Laura E. Skandera-Trombley, New York, G.K. Hall, 1998; In Her Mother's House: the Politics of Asian American Mother-Daughter Writing by Wendy Ho, Walnut Creek, AltaMira Press, 1999; Maxine Hong Kingston by Diane Simmons, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1999; Asian-American Authors by Kathy Ishizuka, Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, Enslow Publishers, 2000; Maxine Hong Kingston: A Critical Companion by E.D. Huntley, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 2000.
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Myth, legend, history, and biography are so seamlessly blended in Maxine Hong Kingston's books that it is often difficult to know how to categorize them. Are The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts and China Men works of non-fiction? Officially, they are cataloged as such, but in the deepest sense of reader's experience they seem more akin to fairy tales, folkloric stories, even epic poems. Based on the history and myth passed on to Kingston by members of her immediate family, as well by "story-talkers" in the Stockton, California, community where she grew up, the result is a species of magical realism, one that continually hovers between fact and the imagination, between what was and what might have been.
Kingston regards The Woman Warrior and China Men as a single large book, despite the fact that they were published separately. Moreover, she often confuses, willfully or no, family members who actually lived with those she invents. This penchant for blurring the distinctions between the actual and the invented has occasioned some criticism, especially among those who feel that Kingston plays fast and loose with history, but most reviewer-critics showered her with praise.
No doubt categories matter when one is handing out literary prizes (both The Woman Warrior and China Men received awards for general excellence in non-fiction), and the confusion of actuality and invention may be worth quarreling about, but what matters finally are the stories themselves—and they are quite good. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to think of books that detail the joys and pains of growing up within a strictly defined ethnic community that could match Kingston's sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph, page for page. She is, quite simply, a marvelous writer.
Moreover, Kingston so experiments with form that the result is a species of algebra: stories that interlock or comment on each other; life lessons that creep inextricably out of mythic depths; and perhaps most of all, an eerie sense of that the burdens of the past rest securely on the shoulders of those in the present. Kingston herself straddles two vibrant worlds, each as menacing as it is mysterious.
The Woman Warrior is dominated by Kingston's mother (Brave Orchid, in the book) and the other women of China—ghosts of the heart, all—who formed her sensibility and willed her strength. By contrast, China Men focuses on the man who labored for fifteen years in a laundry to pay for Brave Orchid's passage. The books beg to be read as a inseparable pair, as yin and yang are seen as opposite sides of a unified principle.
In Kingston's culture, it is the women who use story as a means to understanding and survival. By contrast, Chinese men tend toward silence, which forces Kingston to invent multiple versions of what may have happened in her father's past. No doubt some must have wondered if Kingston could write as penetratingly about men as she clearly did about women, especially given the restricted circumstances under which Chinese women traditionally functioned. The worries, however, were unfounded, for the effect of China Men is as riveting as it is daring.
As for Wittman Ah Sing, the male protagonist of Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, one can hardly get him to shut up. A typical rant has him complaining frenetically about "F.O.B." or "fresh off the boat" immigrants from Asia, and at various places in the book, he jumps around and chatters and generally moves so fast it is hard to follow him. Named—perhaps—after Walt Whitman, Wittman represents an ancient archetype not only of Chinese but of world literature, best known to Western readers through personae such as Loki, the Norse god of mischief. In Kingston's skillful hands, myth is not only a source of refuge and inspiration, but also of power. Thus she works not as a professional Sinologist—one factor that contributes to the antipathy toward her on the part of ethnic stalwarts such as Frank Chin, who insists on calling himself a "Chinaman" rather than Chinese—but as a creative writer operating in a world tradition. The result is the construction of a deeper truth than facts normally allow. Kingston's extraordinary books remind us that what James Joyce, an Irishman on the other side of the world, set out to accomplish when his protagonist set off to forge on the smithy of his soul "the uncreated conscience of my race" can also happen when a young Chinese-American writer sets out to discover who she is amid the rich tapestry of memory and the imagination.