All of Us Can Write Beautifully: An Interview with Maxine Hong Kingston

Best known for her 1975 memoir, The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston has made a career of blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, dreams and reality, even the living and the dead. More recently she edited Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, a collection of fiction, nonfiction and poetry written by veterans. The following is a transcript of an interview I conducted with Kingston when she visited Montgomery County Community College for their annual Writers Conference in November of 2009.

Your work tends to blur a lot of boundaries—fact and fiction, for example, as well as the living and the dead. Why does the interplay between these seeming opposites assume such a central role in your work?

It could be because I feel constrained by labels or boundaries—and by stereotypes, which can bind a person in. I am working on freeing myself as an artist, freeing my voice. Maybe it also comes with my upbringing. I come from immigrant parents and am always trying to bring two cultures together, always trying to find where the common ground is.

When you mention that common ground, I’m reminded of a passage toward the end of Tripmaster Monkey in which a character named Yale Younger, playing the part of the famous conjoined twin Chang Bunker, rails against his audience, yelling, “We know damned well what you came for to see… You want to look at the hyphen. You want to look at it bare.” Is it fair to say that looking at the hyphen is one of your own major interests? How do you look at the hyphen without making a freak show out of it?

That is a freak show. Chang Bunker is from Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins. They were actually Chinese twins, and they were freaks during the Civil War. There’s our country being torn apart, and Abraham Lincoln actually invited them to the White House to show that the North and South should get together. And it’s even freakier because one of them got drafted—but you can’t take both twins. So what I’m doing is using the ligament that joined the Siamese twins as a hyphen. When you think of Chinese-American or African-American, so often there’s a hyphen put in there, and I’m trying to say, “Wait a minute—the hyphen should not be something that separates but something that joins. Let’s integrate everybody and everything.”

There’s a sense of ambivalence there, too. There’s so much that Wittman Ah Sing, the protagonist of Tripmaster Monkey, is in some ways both proud of and ashamed of in terms of all of the cultures that are acting upon him. Do you see that as central not to any specific culture but to America in general?

I suppose if we think of Americans in general, there has always been a looking down on new Americans by the ones who’ve been here a long time. Aside from racial terms, we have terms like greenhorn for people who haven’t learned the American ways. There’s a class structure that we all set up, and those who do well have to affirm that anything is possible here. That’s why there’s a looking down on those who don’t make it.

So we have these mythologies built into our culture, and if you’re not living up to those mythologies, somehow you’re a failure. I love the way within your work, the mythologies are living with us so palpably. When you talk about them, especially in Woman Warrior, a lot of them are Chinese mythologies that follow your characters throughout the narrative. But even in America, it’s still very plain for us.

That is a theme that goes through all of my work. Here are mythic ideals and mythic heroes and heroines—and always feeling I don’t live up this. There’s myths of bravery, myths of success, but also myths of some of our great ideals such as being a peacemaker or democracy, democracy being an ideal that we don’t live up to if we assume that some of us are not as good as the others. When I’m teaching, I especially find it important that even talent should be democratic. Writing, like art, does not depend on genius, but we can learn to write the poem or learn to write the big novel.

This reminds me of your recent work with veterans. You’re taking people who really don’t have training in writing, but you’re working with them to produce very moving work. What drew you to this project?

What drew me was that I was trying to write a book of peace. Again, I was thinking of a Chinese myth that inspired me. There were, at one time, three books of peace, and they were all lost—in book burnings, library burnings. I thought I would write one for our time, and that book burned in one of the big California fires. Then I thought I would gather a writing community around me, and they would be veterans of wars because then they could ask the really hard questions about war and about peace. I gathered that group, and together we learned ways of drawing the stories out of one another. We were writing in community, and we listened to one another. It was my faith that everyone has a great human story, and it’s just a matter of finding the ways to bring those stories out.

Did you encounter any resistance as you were working with veterans, especially in the early going with this project?

I don’t think it was resistance. It was more like tantrums and outbursts. The outpouring of anguish. There would be tears, and there would be screaming and acting out. Balling out everyone around, balling out the world. Then my task would be to help someone use this energy and shape it and form it into words, into story, into poetry.

In a lot of cases, I think it’s very much what we do in a composition class. The ideas are all there, so how do we shape those? How do we give you a voice?

Yes. And how do you take all of this chaos that’s in our feelings and in our minds, and find the words for it.

Right—making sense of that chaos so that it becomes sensible, so that you can share your story, which in a sense is sharing your burden, with another human being.

And then the story or poem has the most miraculous arc and shape, because as we put conflicts into this form, it will naturally take you to revelation of meaning. And by the end of the story, there is resolution.

In a way, you’re enacting that positive version of the hyphen that you mentioned. You are becoming that connection, as opposed to the division. That’s where the value of writing is. But when you’re working with veterans, how do you decide what to include or what to leave out?

The whole process of editing is difficult. But, again with my ideal that all of us can write beautifully and that we can process trauma into art—that we can make a piece of beautiful art and that we can transform a war experience into a wonderful war story—with that idea, I made it my goal that everybody who wanted to be published in a book will be published. And we did make that goal. It’s a huge book with eighty people—forty poets, forty prose writers. The way it works is that people have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Constantly, I am editing and shaping. And I’m not the only editor. Some of the veterans themselves are editing. We’re editing each other, giving each other feedback, and after many, many drafts, everybody came up to publishing level.

I love that you say it’s all about revision, always returning to the project, because it’s never really done. That’s what I emphasize with my own students, too. They get so frustrated, especially initially, and they say “What do you mean I have to go back? I’ve said all there is to say.”

But in college, there isn’t time to do multiple rewrites. At most, people have time for one. And that improves it a little bit, but if you can work on a story over many months, many years, and finding the excitement, the drama, the rest of the story, we come to a great work.

To hear the full interview, click the play button below.

Produced by Matt Porter for Montgomery County Community College On the Air. Airdate 12/6/09.

Of Blackguards and Blatherskites: An Interview with Simon Read

Simon Read has a gift for bringing the past to life. His most recent book, War of Words, harkens back to the thrilling—and violent—days of yesteryear. Meticulously researched, this work of narrative nonfiction recounts the murderous late-nineteenth-century conflict between San Francisco Chronicle publisher Charles de Young and the scandal-plagued minister Isaac Kalloch. Poetic at times, humorous at others, and always engaging, War of Words offers a window into a world that time has forgotten and proves the old saw that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

When I finished reading War of Words on Thursday, I couldn’t resist dropping Read a line to pick his brain about how the book came into existence and about writing in general. Barely twelve hours passed before he got back to me with the following…

What drew you to the events depicted in War of Words?
I had long wanted to write a book set in the Wild West.  My previous non-fiction books are set in 1930s New York and 1940s London, so I thought it was time to look at the American west.  Initially, I researched various cowboy outlaws, hoping to find something that would grab my interest.  While researching 1800s San Francisco, I stumbled across a brief story about Charles and Michael de Young and their founding of the San Francisco Chronicle.  I lived in the Bay Area at the time and had no idea just how bloody and violent the paper’s early history was.  We’re talking various murder attempts, gunfights in the street, race riots, public hangings, and the near burning of San Francisco to the ground.  There was a lot of action—and, of course, the larger-than-life characters.  You have Charles de Young, a teetotaling mama’s boy colliding with Isaac Kalloch, a disgraced Baptist minister whose lust for the ladies equaled his desire to be mayor.  The hatred between these two was intense and nearly tore the city apart.

War of Words is meticulously researched.  Can you describe your research process?  How did you know when to stop?
War of Words entailed the greatest amount of research I’ve ever done for a book.  It took more than a year to get the bulk of the research done and another year to write the first draft.  Newspaper articles from the period comprised the primary source material for the book.  In the process, I think I read more than 500 articles.  Researching a book is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.  One piece of research turns you onto another.

All of San Francisco’s old newspapers can be viewed on microfiche at the San Francisco Public Library.  I spent many weekday evenings and weekends there, scrolling through the various publications.  When I found an article in one newspaper detailing some event in the Kalloch-de Young feud, it gave me a point of reference for searching other newspapers from the period.  It was through this method I was able to piece the story together.  Some research was also done at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.  Michael de Young wrote a summarized history of the Chronicle’s early years, which is archived there. The library also has quite a few items relating to Isaac Kalloch, a figure largely forgotten today.

As for knowing when to stop . . . it was simply a matter of determining whether I had enough material to do the story and its participants justice.  Both Kalloch and de Young were very large characters, so I had to be sure that came across in the book.  Failing in that regard would result, I think, in the reader being seriously shortchanged.

 Along similar lines, how did you decide what to include and what to leave out of the narrative?
It came down to deciding whether a piece of information served the story well.  When you write nonfiction, it’s easy to get carried away with research and to slap every bit of information you stumble across into your manuscript.  This, obviously, bogs down the narrative and diverts the reader from the main story.  If I came across something I liked, but didn’t think it would add anything to the reader’s understanding or the narrative flow, I tossed it on the scrap pile.

As you did your research, were you surprised by the similarities between the nineteenth century and today’s world?
One thing that stood out while writing the book is that people in the 1800s were just as hungry for information as we are today.  Modern society, of course, has the benefit of instant gratification. We can get news on our computers, radio, television, and cell phones 24 hours a day.  Back in the 1800s, newspapers were the primary delivery system for news and editorials.  This meant some people out on the hinterlands of civilization had to wait weeks before finding out what was going on in the rest of the country.

The corruption of politicians certainly didn’t come as a surprise—nor did the uncivilized nature of political discourse.  And back then, just as today, political sex scandals were big winners for media outlets. Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  It was surprising to see how San Francisco’s many newspapers savaged one another in print.  The Call and the Chronicle were merciless towards one another.  It kind of reminded me of pundits on MSNBC and Fox News sniping at one another on their various programs.

There are certainly some poetic and descriptive turns of phrase in the book—and there’s also some dry humor. How much of the book would you describe as your voice, and how much is simply the voice of history? How do you strike a balance between the two?
Although War of Words is at times a violent tale, it’s also a darkly comedic one.  There’s almost something absurd in the battle between Kalloch and de Young.  The fact it reached explosive proportions after Kalloch publicly insulted de Young’s mother struck me as particularly funny (though I certainly wouldn’t want my mother referred to in such a way).

The tone and subject matter of the story dictated my writing style.  To present War of Words in a serious manner devoid of any humor would have failed the story, so there was a conscious effort on my part to inject dry humor into the telling.  I’d say most of the book is in my “voice.” The voice of history comes through in the newspaper excerpts I quote, which definitely influenced how I wrote the book.  One reader sent me an email and said they found the writing at times to be “sensational,” but the story by its very nature is a sensational one—and there was nothing modest about nineteenth century journalism.  The writing style has to compliment the overall tone of the subject matter.

When it comes to striking a balance, I think you let the story do that.  There are passages in the book that call for humor, while others—such as the Chinese race riots—require a more serious tone.  When you’re “in the zone” and tuned into the subject matter, you know what emotion to convey on the page.

I love some of the nineteenth century insults that you mention in War of Words. In particular, “blackguard” and “blatherskite.” Have either of these words made their way into your casual vocabulary since you wrote the book?
Yes, the insults in the book are wonderful!  I have dropped both “blackguard” and “blatherskite” into casual conversation on several occasions to good effect.  I also like the word “mountebank,” which is still used today.

 What are you working on now?
In October, Penguin will release Human Game: The True Story of the ‘Great Escape’ Murders and the Hunt for the Gestapo Gunmen.  This details the Allied manhunt for the Gestapo death squads who executed 50 participants of the famed Great Escape, which is depicted in the classic Steve McQueen movie.  The book is scheduled for a UK release early next year.  I’m also in discussions with UK Publisher The History Press to write a book detailing a curious case that happened in 1940s England.  I’m always planning ahead and pondering my next project.