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Reclusive and Remarkable Author

April 04, 1993|EMILY ADAMS

To get to know Maxine Hong Kingston, without benefit of a formal introduction, one must be a bit of an archeologist.

The bare facts are here: A highly acclaimed writer, she won the National Book Critics Circle in 1976 for "Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts." This was followed by an American Book Award in 1981 for "China Men." That same year, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

But to really know this woman, who has been described as the most important Asian-American writer in this country's history . . . there lies the problem.

Her telephone at UC Berkeley rings mercilessly, without answer.

A woman in the university's public information office describes Kingston as "our foremost recluse."

As a tenured lecturer at Berkeley, Kingston teaches a course in prose and another with the opaque title, "Special Topics." The public information representative cannot tell you what this course title means.

Kingston is 52 and was, last year, inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a dozen years after being named a "Living Treasure of Hawaii" although she was born in Stockton, Calif.

It seems important to know Kingston, not so much because of her mystery, but because of her work itself.

When "Woman Warrior" first came out, critics were hard-pressed to say exactly what it was. Memories, history, fiction--it was all there, wrapped in ancient myths and stories.

"Woman Warrior" was called an autobiography that tossed aside standard plots to weave myth, her mother's stories and herself into a kaleidoscopic vision of the female character.

"China Men" did the same with characters of immigrant men. Her 1988 novel, "Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book," was less autobiographical but was also said to mirror Kingston's experiences.

If these, her most famous books, are both her and not her, history and fiction, it seems important to know which is which.

Consider this passage from "Woman Warrior:"

"Then screaming a mighty scream and swinging two swords over my head, I charged the leaders; I released my bloodthirsty army and my straining warhorse. I guided the horse with my knees, freeing both hands for sword-work, spinning green and silver circles all around me."

If these words reflect the real Kingston, then we would like to meet her very much indeed.

Success. When we finally did reach Kingston by phone, she told us she is hard at work at her next book. The first version of this book was destroyed in the Oakland Hills fire 18 months ago. Since then the author has moved three times but will still take time out to travel to Cerritos on Monday.

Kingston will read from her newest book, which bears the subtitle "A Book of Peace" but is, as yet, without a name. She also will talk about how she created the book and how it has evolved from the manuscript that burned.

Sponsored by the Cerritos Public Library's Major Author Program, the Kingston lecture is scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. Tickets are $5. For information: (310) 916-8500.

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