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Festival of Books: Maxine Hong Kingston's reflection of California

May 2, 2011 |  5:56 am

The concept of margins played a key role in a panel with author Maxine Hong Kingston on Sunday afternoon at the Festival of Books. The obvious touchstone was Kingston's latest book, "I Love a Broad Margin to My Life," a memoir of a writer reassessing her life at age 65 that takes its title from a quote by Walt Whitman. The second and oft-referenced margin is the one lying between the two sides of the immigrant experience, which in Kingston's case consists of the divide between the Chinese and American sides of her identity.

In discussing a recent visit to China with moderator and L.A. Times columnist Patt Morrison, Kingston described how the experience underscored how American she was. At one point in her stay, Kingston was struck by how few girls there were among the many crowds of schoolchildren on the streets of China. In considering the fate of those absent girls, a number of whom had been adopted by families in the United States and Europe in recent years, Kingston was deeply optimistic. "Those girls are going to grow up in well-to-do families; they're going to get the best in education, have the best in values. Those girls are going to grow up and take over America."

Kingston's latest memoir is written as a long-form poem, a decision that had as much to do with her advancing years as with her love of the form. "I can no longer spend a decade per book," she said, explaining it took that long to write her first novel, "Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book." "Poetry is short; poetry is easy. This only took me four years," she said.

Speaking of her recent experience on a commission that helped decide the image on the California quarter, Kingston again turned to Whitman. Though Whitman never visited California, he wrote of staring out at at the Pacific at "venerable Asia," an idea that resonated with Kingston's choice of a setting sun as an ideal symbol of our state. To her mind it was more appropriate than the many pictures of surfers among the contenders, which she felt "didn't represent all of California." (John Muir eventually won out.)

Morrison also asked Kingston about the criticism that her reinterpretation of Chinese myths in books such as "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts" has diminished the "purity" of those traditional stories. "There can't be a pure myth, especially when the myth has been handed down in the oral tradition," Kingston replied. "As the stories are told, they change. If the stories don't change they just die."

-- Chris Barton

Photo: Maxine Hong Kingston at the Festival of Books. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times