Maxine Hong Kingston, April 20, 2015, Columbia
I came to New York primarily for two reasons: to see the fabulous exhibit at the New York Historical Society on the Chinese Exclusion/Inclusion Act [next post!] and to hear Maxine Hong Kingston whose books I hold close to my heart and with whom I have a special bond.
Despite pouring rain and encroaching fog, I made my way to the Columbia Univ. campus and finally managed to find the Lecture Hall which was filled with devotees of all ages. Maxine Hong Kingston spoke as part of the Heyman Center Writing Lives Series and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race's Artist at the Center Series. Journalist, anti-war activist and acclaimed author, recipient of many awards, she paved the way for Chinese American writers with the publication of her extraordinary memoir The Warrior Woman: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. It was followed by China Men, equally enthralling, thereby completing what the author considered a larger work. The two deeply personal books were followed by novels stemming from the desire to change genres and speak from a different place with a different voice.
This evening, Maxine read from her major works, sharing parts of her journey and her writing process. Not surprisingly, she began writing at a very early age- her practice years as she calls them- always drafting first in pencil, then moving to a fountain pen, and finally transferring her words to the computer. She considers writing in pen part of the creative process- she owns 15 fountain pens, some extremely valuable.
After losing a finished manuscript [fiction], to a devastating fire that burned all her belongings and razed her house to the ground, Maxine pulled back from fiction, unable and unwilling to express her pain and feelings through invented characters when they were so deeply connected to her personal experience. Nor had she any desire to recreate what she had lost: "Writing is going into the new..."
The audience was mesmerized by the powerful and luminous presence of an author who at age 74 is keenly aware of the passage of time, its effect on her physical appearance [wrinkles, lines, her white hair, all mentioned with great humor], and of how little time may be left for her both as an activist and a writer. Yet I was struck by her youthful spirit, her energy and drive. She has many more gifts to share with her readership and human kind.
After hugging in a spirit of sisterhood, it was hard to pull away and slip out into the misty night that in the space of hours, had transformed the City into an almost ghostly world.
If you haven't read Maxine's work, I encourage you to start with The Woman Warrior and China Men. May they change your lives as they did mine.
Columbia University, shrouded in fog