"You must not tell anyone," my mother said, "what I am about to tell you . ..." --"The Woman Warrior"
Usually after lecturing to students, author Maxine Hong Kingston becomes a Dear Abby for would-be Asian-American writers. She said the students, one-by-one, take her into the corner. And they all describe the same predicament and ask the same question.
"They say they are majoring in engineering or premed and what do I think about them dropping out and becoming a writer?" said Kingston, author of "The Woman Warrior" and "China Men."
Kingston spoke twice recently at a multicultural women's writing conference at UC Irvine, where 34% of the freshman class is Asian. Counselors there say many Asian students bow to pressure from immigrant parents to shun the arts and work hard to land jobs in the more lucrative fields of computers and medicine. Kingston encouraged them to lower their standards of living so they don't find themselves working so hard that they can't do what "makes living worthwhile."
Kingston--who says she was "born to write"--does not understand people who do not rebel "against anyone who would try to suppress their artistic spirit."
Indeed, the most exciting stories come from immigrants, according to Kingston, 45, one of eight children of immigrant parents and the first Chinese-American to write a best seller that is also considered modern literature. Ten years ago, she received the National Book Critics Circle Award for "The Woman Warrior," a mix of family secrets, history and sometimes violent myths she heard as a child growing up in Stockton, working in her parents' laundry. She now writes full time from the home in Studio City she shares with her husband, Earll Kingston, an actor.
"I am not a good person," she told an audience of ethnic women writers in her delicate, self-described "pressed duck" voice. She tucked graying shoulder-length hair behind an ear. "I knew people would not like the stories I told. I did it anyway. I just risked it. You tell the truth no matter who it hurts."
A bantam warrior with a sly sense of humor, Kingston blends yin and yang in her autobiographies. In the "The Woman Warrior," Chinese women are sometimes slaves who cower and scurry "like pheasants that have been raised in the dark for soft meat." Or they may be like her "No-Name" aunt who, shamed by an illegitimate birth, drowned herself and her newborn in a well.
But there also are heroines like Fa Mu Lan, the fearless swordswoman of myth who chops off men's heads. And they include Kingston's own mother, Brave Orchid (translated into English), who at 38 obtained a license to practice medicine in China during a 15-year separation from her husband, who was sending her money from his laundry in America.
And they include Kingston herself, who tries to sort it all out. Caught between glorious legend and grubby reality, she yearned to grow up "American normal."
Forged a Path
Considered a milestone in American feminist literature, "The Woman Warrior" also forged a path for other ethnic American writers to follow. Sandra Cisneros, Chicana author of "The House on Mongo Street," said "The Woman Warrior" inspired her because she had never before seen in print anyone directly addressing one's "foreignness" in American culture. "There were no models to say it's OK to write about my otherness. It was greatly reassuring to me."
The book is being adapted for film and stage, Kingston said.
Her work, however, is more appreciated in the general population than in the Chinese-American community, where many believe she has misrepresented the Chinese-American experience, distorted Chinese myths and perpetuated stereotypes of the Chinese, said Kingkok Cheung, assistant professor in the English department at UCLA. "Men say she caters to trendy feminism. I think all these attacks are a bunch of nonsense. Anyone has a right to write about their own experiences."
Many Chinese-American students, however, say they relate to her experiences, said Elaine Kim, assistant professor of Asian-American Studies at UC Berkeley. Terri Quinto, a UCI junior, came to both Kingston's talks. A native of Hong Kong, Quinto said she wants to land a job in computer science but also hopes to write. "One thing for sure," she said of Kingston, "she makes me proud to be Chinese."
Kim said young women students particularly appreciate Kingston's account in "The Woman Warrior" of an imaginary and symbolic attack on a female schoolmate whose quietness infuriated her. Kim said the girl is an alter ego for Kingston, whose own silence had once been mistaken for a low IQ.