David L. Ulin talks to Maxine Hong Kingston
In Sunday’s Arts & Books, book critic David L. Ulin talks to Maxine Hong Kingston about her poetic memoir “I Love a Broad Margin to My Life.” Kingston has been an iconic figure in California letters since the appearance of her first book, “The Woman Warrior,” in 1976; she is also the author of “China Men,” “Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book,” “To Be the Poet” and “The Fifth Book of Peace.” Here is some more of the conversation.
David L. Ulin: “I Love a Broad Margin in My Life” returns to material you’ve written about previously, particularly in “The Woman Warrior.” Have you ever considered going back and updating any of your earlier works?
Maxine Hong Kingston: I have found things that I could have done better in “The Woman Warrior.” But then I thought: Let the work of one’s youth just stand.
DLU: What would you have done better?
MHK: After I went to China, I saw that the villages there look like pueblos, like any adobe village you could find in Africa or South America. When I wrote the book, I pictured farmhouses the way we have them in the U.S., so there would be a farmhouse surrounded by fields, and then at a distance another farmhouse with its fields. I didn’t realize that all the people lived together in a pueblo and that their common fields were all out there. Everything that one does, in your house, affects the people on the other side of the wall. So I would have written about the villages better. That is a mistake in imagining the setting.
DLU: There’s a fluid sense of time in this book, highlighted by your realization that time is different in China because the Chinese language has no past tense. Was this part of the design, to have language and content mirror one another?
MHK: It was a surprise. Serendipity. I was trying to organize the book. First, I thought, I’ll organize time. Later, I’ll organize space. When I realized that Chinese doesn’t have verb tenses, it explained how easy it is in Buddhism or Chinese mysticism to be in the present moment. And to understand that eternity and the present are one. This is a concept I wrestle with philosophically, and in meditation I work so hard to be in the present moment. Then I learn that they have it in their very language.
DLU: “I Love a Broad Margin to My Life” is a memoir, but it’s written in the form of a book-length poem. What’s your sense of the relationship between poetry and memoir? Why construct the book in this way?
MHK: I think it’s interesting that poetry is nonfiction. I’ve mostly worked with nonfiction. “Tripmaster Monkey” is the only book of fiction, and I could feel the difference as I was working on it. “Tripmaster Monkey” is about people I made up and then put into situations that I also made up. It was so satisfying to do that because I could say at this point I need an exciting scene, at this point I need a climax, and then I will create it. That’s so different from nonfiction, where I am interested in something that’s happened in real life, but it may not have an exciting culmination, so I have to make excitement and drama through language and atmosphere. This is what Aristotle advised: Drama comes through action and conflict. And I can do that in fiction. But in nonfiction and poetry, I have to invent something new, and I think the drama comes from language.
DLU: Were you concerned how readers might react to poetry? As a culture, we seem to be scared of it.
MHK: I know. I think about it. My siblings just received this book in the mail. Some of them picked it up and read it right away, and were pleased at how short the lines are. Others were, "I have to stop and think about this." So, yes, I do worry about it.
DLU: The shortness of the lines here feels inviting, as if the page were open in a way.
MHK: Yes. I also feel that...I don’t think I’m writing difficult poetry. There are complete sentences. I don’t use hard words.
MHK: I set off on this journey, and I didn’t know how to do it alone. I didn’t know how to do it without my powers of fiction. Before he came in, I worried that there wasn’t enough for this poem if I was just to write about me. But what is most interesting about me is that I have an imagination. So I brought in my imaginary life and my alter ego, who is more interesting than I am.
DLU: Powers of fiction? So what you’re saying is that all these genres blur together?
MHK: Oh, I think so. When I say powers of fiction, I think of that as imagination. And it’s conscious. The writer has the ability to send your awareness to many places. You can send your awareness inside yourself so you can feel what your animal body is going through. You can put it into your emotions. But also the awareness can go out into the world. Sometimes, it gets mystical. In “The Woman Warrior,” I imagined armies fighting with arrows that could turn into flutes. Or the barbarians could blow on their flutes and they would turn into arrows. When I was in China, I was in a dusty little museum, and there was an arrow that could be made into a flute. I was sure I’d invented it, and there it was. It was 2,000 years old. I thought: I did it. I made it appear, in time and in real life, by writing it down.
DLU: We live in such a literal culture, especially when it comes to memoir. People have a very narrow definition of the truth. How does something like your discovery of these flute-arrows fit into that?
MHK: A logical way to look at it is that you do your research, you speak to all the right people, you do your reading and then you have to imagine what happened. And the more real knowledge you have, the better your imagination can go to the truth. Of course, I knew about those barbarian tribes. I knew they lived along rivers where there are reeds. If you have a reed, you turn it into an arrow and you can turn it into a flute. So of course, it’s perfectly rational.
DLU: In other words, you’re just paying attention, which is what the practice of writing is all about. How do you balance this with the need to produce, the tension between process and product?
MHK: When I am composing, I try to clear my mind of having to publish, or having to sell a book or find readers. That kind of thinking gets in the way. I’m sure it’s not good for the writing. When I’m teaching, I tell my students: It’s all process. Don’t even think of product.
It’s like those poets who wrote with water. Isn’t that amazing? There’s no ego investment. We don’t care if we get published; this isn’t even going to last. And they took such care and delight in doing it. It’s good for us to know about that.
-- David L. Ulin
Photo: Maxine Hong Kingston on Jan. 31 2011. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times