Maxine Hong Kingston

“And so make peace…”

Talking Story with Maxine Hong Kingston

Interview by Trevor Carolan; Portrait by Rimi Yang

For more than 30 years, National Book-Award-winning author Maxine Hong Kingston has written on the complicated chains of history, nostalgia and spiritual yearning — on the soul of place and home. For many readers her masterworks The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey, Hawaii One Summer and The Fifth Book of Peace, have come to seem like having a wise older sister in the next bunk whispering stories to us late at night. 

Long a committed anti-war activist, since the early 1990s she has led writing-and-meditation workshops for veterans of America’s wars and their families. Her new anthology Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace (Koa Books), harvests their work in presenting a broad view of the power of story to help redeem and heal the wounds of unspeakable history. 

Reading these words of men and women tragically affected by war, we witness how it is possible to rebuild lives, to truly believe that we can be one people again, living in harmony. An edition uniquely for our time, it serves as testament to Hong Kingston’s conviction that community is not built once and for all: it must be imagined, practiced and re-created. 

Trevor Carolan spoke with her recently in Oakland, California.

Maxine, how did you get involved with veterans and the veterans’ writing workshop?

Maxine Hong Kingston: The start of it was Thich Nhat Hanh. I had gone to a couple of retreats that he had led and there came a time when he said he wanted to hold a retreat for veterans of the Vietnam war. He called for veterans of the war to meet Vietnamese people, and also other Americans. So he had a ceremony with all these old soldiers and himself as a veteran of that war, and they had all kinds of ceremonies including hugging meditation. There’s Vietnamese and Americans together, and Thich Nhat Hanh said when you hug one Vietnamese you hug them all. These soldiers who had been in the war were now embracing another person in their arms, and that leads to reconciliation. I was observing all of this and I thought, “They need one more thing; these veterans need to have artistic expression — like, ah, a spiritual life is not enough!” They needed an artistic life. I continued to participate in these retreats, and I brought a writing workshop. Actually, the writing workshop became the centre of what veterans do in these retreats. Thich Nhat Hanh called it a retreat within the retreat. We did our own rituals and our own ceremonies, and the main practice was writing, to get their stories down. Once in a while we would break out into a larger group and listen to a dharma talk and we’d meditate with a larger group. But on the whole we would have our own room, our own separate table. Thich Nhat Hanh only came to America every other year, and Therese Fitzgerald, Arnie Kotler and I were thinking this isn’t enough; so we held these retreats on our own, always emphasizing the writing, some artistic expression. 
Somewhere in this I got a Lila Wallace Award that said that I should use part of the money to do some community social work. I used it to carry on these writing workshops for veterans and their families. We met once a month for three years. 

Are these people working writers themselves?

Most are just really veterans. Once they get in, some do become convinced that writing is the way they are going to come home from the war, to heal their wounds. What I tell them is ‘you went to war, to a terrible place and you lived to tell the story; you need to tell us what you learned when you were out there. This is your gift, this is what you need to give to society and to your life. There’s a sense of urgency; all these things are held in them, and when it just comes out it’s so beautiful because they’ve been cooking it all these years, decades. It’s been working in there. It amazes me how well their first drafts are written. I can’t do that. They can. It often comes out perfect, they don’t need to re-write and I think it’s because they’ve lived it and they’ve ruminated and saved it for 20 years. All I need to do is say, “Here’s a piece of paper, a pencil, let it out…”

Do they all let it out?

There’s another side that was sometimes a tough hump to get over with many of them, because their previous experience in communicating had been in therapeutic situations. A lot of them were repeating what they’d said in therapy groups for a long time. Some of the transition was us insisting that this isn’t that same experience, it’s not reaching an emotional high and then going back and climbing the same mountain again. The difference between shouting out your experience in a group and writing it down is that you can perfect it in writing, reach a kind of end with it. You process it and then it becomes art. You turn war and chaos into art. There was small percentage of dedicated writers who came into the group — they knew that. Their knowledge path was to say, “It’s not screaming out what happened to me in l971, it’s writing it down and perhaps changing it, perfecting it, molding it.”

And turning it into a product?

Well, as a Buddhist we don’t think about a reward or a product. We’re just supposed to appreciate what’s happening right now. I never promised them that they were going to have a book or readings or money or anything. ‘You write this story for its own sake.’ 

How did this book actually come into existence then?

It must have been three or four years ago. People were seeing that we were accumulating a huge body of work — all kinds from everybody. Some people were getting impatient and they began publishing on their own. At a certain point I saw that we had lot of work, and I thought ‘is it possible that we could pull this together?’ It happened that Arnie Kotler who had previously established Parallax Press began Koa Books as a new company, so it all fit. His first book was Cindy Sheehan’s story. Arnie was present at the beginning of the first veterans meditations and now he had a publishing company. The whole universe fit and this book could come out. 

Was there any turning-point that galvanized for you the urgency of working on this project to promote peace?

Not a crucial point. It all seemed like a steady, ongoing project. The longer we worked at it the more we began to feel like a sangha, a community. When the Lila Wallace Award was over I tried to disband the group but they refused to leave! I tried to change it a little bit by suggesting that we disband the big group and begin many little sanghas. But nobody left. Then I simply said, ‘Well, we’re just going to meet for the rest of our lives’ and that’s what we have now.

Perhaps one galvanizing point though was the fire that wept through here in 1991. It burned 3200 houses, including this one where we lived, as well as The Book of Peace that I was working on. Afterwards I was thinking, ‘how do you create again after something has been destroyed, after you have experienced destruction? How do you get going again, and how do I write again because my book has burned?’ I didn’t want to just go by memory. An idea came up that I mustn’t write alone, that I should have a community. All this was happening at the same time as the veterans’ retreats. I thought, ‘Because I want to write a book of peace, the people I want in this community are veterans, people who’ve experienced war and know what that is.’ 

Your writers’ group motto is ‘Tell the Truth.’ Many of their stories reflect how commonly violence in the home begins long before any front-line combat…

Yes, by the time it gets to war, violence is already way down the line. But in the same way love can also start right here, in the home, in each one of us. We need to learn ways of expressing the pure energy of our feelings—anger and hate feelings especially—in a healthier direction that’s beneficial to the world.

Simone Weil says that the purpose of art and words is to testify — the way the trees blossom and the stars come out at night. Do you think Buddhists might conceive of art and literature as works of metta or karuna — kindness or compassion?

Aristotle says pity and terror are what drama brings forward in order for us to get the catharsis of art. Because I have a narrator in there, I did think that I was writing in the way of karuna, compassion, with Tripmaster Monkey. I wanted to be invisible so that everybody else could go about their drama and their plots. I began to see the narrator as Avalokitesvara, Kuan Yin [the Goddess of Mercy]; the narrator is very close to myself and I didn’t want anything bad to happen to any of my characters. I wanted to give them gifts; I wanted to correct them; I had a sense of being their creator and the person who gives them blessings. That attitude of being the kind narrator began in Tripmaster Monkey and when I went on to other works I felt very clearly that I could even manipulate situations and atmospheres, so that we could see what kindness and compassion are like. The idea is “how do we make peace?” 

Peace is actually created and that means creating a good relationship, creating a good sangha, and writing stories. Technically, writing and telling stories is traditional in all cultures: it’s probably built into our DNA that they have rising action that leads to a violent climax. We all love that sense of drama, that frightening climax. Well, I got to thinking ‘can we write a story in which this climax is non-violent and still be exciting?’ That is against everything our culture is teaching us. Television, movies…there’s that violent climax. Can I write counter to this? Will people buy these stories? What will all the critics say?

The Burmese monks and other protesters were recently chanting Metta when confronting the military dictatorship. They want a better social and economic situation for people. Can Gandhian methods prevail in any other context than that of a British-style empire?

You’re talking about a big stage — Burma, India, China. But the ways of peace are constantly taking place on small stages every moment, everywhere, right now, each and every one of us, every single moment. We have the opportunity to make peace all the time. With the root of these small practices I’m sure they result in many scenes of love and being together. This Burma situation is at a stage where it’s too late; it comes after many acts of failing to show compassion. So we end up with this horrible situation and we think, “now let’s practice our compassion.” Well it’s too late. It’s very hard for compassion to win out in such a situation.
Burma, where the democratic movement is struggling and which is Buddhist, is a thrall of China’s military dictatorship. Next door in southern Thailand Buddhist monks are being assassinated by Islamic terrorists who are basically warlords. With all this realpolitik coming at us, what can a non-fiction style encompass if it’s only peace-speak? Can it be a language of political method and effective action? 

I was talking with Ted Sexauer from the book, who’s a Buddhist practitioner himself, and was complaining, questioning all these ways of non-violence — do they really work? Look at the Dalai Lama. He practices non-violence and he loses his country; his people are tortured and killed. The Chinese have totally taken over in a cruel way and are exploiting Tibet — they’ve taken its riches, cut down its forests. What satisfaction is there if you practice non-violence? Ted looked at me in surprise and said ‘Yes, but the story isn’t over.” Of course! The story isn’t over. The Dalai Lama gets pressured. There are those who say, “C’mon now, be a leader. We’re going to have a revolution. We’ll fight back.” But he says, “I’m for non-violence.” The story isn’t over.

Marshall McLuhan reckoned that words without action are only a cool medium, impractical. What about your simple, and for many, deeply moving strategy inThe Fifth Book of Peace? … “Children, everybody, here’s what to do during war: In a time of destruction, create something. A poem. A parade. A community. A school. A vow. A moral principle. One peaceful moment.”

Right, it doesn’t mean you have get arrested in front of the White House. Just create one peaceful moment. Amitav Ghosh says we need to find a way of writing in which non-violence is dramatic. He tells about the riots involving Hindus and Muslims. There’s a group of neighbours who say that the rioters are not going to force them to remain hidden in their houses, so they all set out together to walk on their street. Then they see a group of thugs and we all know what’s about to happen, you get beaten up, right? But silently, the women take their scarves and hold them in a circle around their men. The bad guys don’t move at the sight and the crisis passes—can that work as a dramatic moment? It’s so brief! How can we write more? As Virginia Woolf said, we leave it to the poets to write these short pieces.

Were there any books or texts that had a major impact on your relationship with peace, dharma, activism? The Spirit of Zen, Alan Watts and so on?

I read those, but what really got me was reading the Beats. Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. It just seemed like so much fun to be a Buddhist. Be a dharma bum!

To conclude with Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, what are the chances of similar encounters coming out of the current Middle Eastern-Asian conflicts?

The reason I think our first veterans workshops worked is that Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist. Most of these veterans were from the Vietnam war where they had seen the temples, the monks, nuns, the Buddhas, and there was curiosity about that. They would meet the Montagnards, the hill people, who would go to war with a small Buddhist statue in their mouths. So they were interested to get together — there was a chance of reconciliation with real Vietnamese. And they’ve been coming together all these years and have worked out their war stuff and their Post Traumatic Disorders. Now, will there ever come a day when some of the people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan can meet with an Imam and clerics together — Muslims and veterans, and come together and have these kinds of ceremonies that we have? Will it work better? We’ve met some of these young veterans at a bookstore in New York and that city seems the perfect place for it. 

Maybe it’ll be necessary. 
What’s amazing to me is that after a war — with Japan, in Korea, Vietnam — we get all kinds of loving things: we have “war brides,” we have families adopting Chinese and Vietnamese orphan girls, we have new family situations. First there’s exotic countries, and then we have the war, then we have marriages…I wonder, “Can’t we just skip the middle part, the war, and get on with the loving family and wonderful new foods and restaurants part? Isn’t that more compassionate?”

Trevor Carolan began writing at age 17, filing dispatches from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury music scene. Widely published as journalist, poet and anthologist, his 14 books include Giving Up Poetry, an account of his studies with poet Allen Ginsberg; the award-winning memoir Return To Stillness: Twenty Years With A Tai Chi Master, and The Pillowbook of Dr. Jazz, an autobiographical fiction. Active in Pacific coast watershed issues, he served as elected municipal councilor in North Vancouver, and teaches English nearby at University of the Fraser Valley. His current anthology Another Kind of Paradise: short stories from the New Asia-Pacific is published by Cheng & Tsui.

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