Maxine Hong Kingston, appearing virtually at the American Writers Festival in Chicago on May 15 (in conversation with famed Viet fiction writer Thanh Nguyen), has never done many interviews. But now at 81, with a beautiful new Library of America edition of her early stories for posterity, and a cemented role not only as an Asian American literary pioneer but also as a canonized chronicler of the American experience. , she has less to explain. She is, in a way, everywhere. A 2020 New Yorker profile describes her as, for a time, “one of the most frequently taught living authors” in American schools. But Kingston was almost too influential, her blend of memory and imagination now a failing for generations of young writers. We spoke on the phone from his home in Hawaii:
Q: I was reading your essay “The Coming Book”, about a book not yet written…
A: I don’t even remember! What did I say?
Q: Well, lines like “If I could finish it, I’d never have to write again”… And lines like “the book would exclude me as a first-person narrator and Chinese heroines- that interested me could disappear”…
A: I do not remember! But I always say that’s it — I won’t do any more. I did that with every book. In my last books, I even announced it. I recently wrote (for the New York Times) that at 81 there is no motivation to write, done, and I’m done.
Q: You are really done.
A: Really, nope. I’m working on the next draft of a book, a thousand spaces long, a diary I kept 10 years ago that I had in mind not to publish, so I could write anything. That’s when Mark Twain’s autobiography came out. It was not to be published for 100 years. So posthumous. I thought I could do this! I would call it “Posthumously” and let it sit for 100 years. But then I started reading and I thought, that’s not bad! Maybe I should post. And then I thought about the privacy of the people I was writing about, so I have to contact them. I do not own their stories. I adopted a code of ethics after writing (her first classic book) “The Woman Warrior”. I had written all kinds of private things about real people. It didn’t occur to me until years later, these people owned their stories. I felt like they belonged to me because they were part of my life, so I felt like they belonged to me.
Q: So when you wrote about your parents, who entered the country illegally from China, how careful were you?
A: Careful. They feared being deported. So I changed the form from what I wrote. I would write what happened then I would say This can’t be what happened, let me tell you what really happened. The story of my father being a stowaway is so adventurous that it looks like fiction, so I would write a story like “The Legal Father”, which would make the real story look like fiction. I would imagine someone from immigration reading my books, so I wrote in such a way as to deceive them. At the same time, I got to what really happened.
Q: Were you okay writing a memoir when it was considered fiction?
A: Yes! But publishers, critics, librarians have had a tough time. There’s an edition of “The Woman Warrior” that says “non-fiction” on the front cover, and on the back cover, “fiction”!
There’s a new illuminated festival in town: American Writers Festival: