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The Writer's Life: Maxine Hong Kingston picks up the story

'I Love a Broad Margin to My Life,' a reflection on aging, has roots in her previous writing. With this writer, the individual installments are less important than the full body of work.

February 06, 2011|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Author Maxine Hong Kingston is seen at offices at Random House in Manhattan, NY. Hong Kingston has written a new book, a memoir, named "I Love A Broad Margin to My Life."
Author Maxine Hong Kingston is seen at offices at Random House in Manhattan,… (Jennifer S. Altman, For…)

Reporting from Oakland — — On a Friday afternoon in early winter, Maxine Hong Kingston sips a cup of green tea at a table in her kitchen and ponders the fluidity of her work. Outside, the light is hazy, white-blue and diffuse. Down the hill there's a stunning bay view, the water choppy and alive. At moments such as this, sea and air, land and sky seem to blend, as if vision alone were insufficient to frame the borders of the world.

Kingston's seventh book, "I Love a Broad Margin to My Life" (Alfred A. Knopf: 232 pp., $24.95), takes shape in a similarly elusive territory, blurring the lines among poetry, fiction and memoir. Constructed as a long narrative in verse — its title is both pun and metaphor — the book is a reflection on aging.

"What does old look like?" Kingston, who turned 70 in October, writes early in the book. "Sometimes I am wrinkled, sometimes not."

But her new book is also a meditation on form and formlessness, on meaning and identity, and how the most essential truths often exist outside the boundaries, in something of an ur-state. "If I were a sculptor," Kingston says, her voice soft yet also somehow forceful, "it would be mud and clay. In a Buddhist sense, I'm working with no-form and form and seeing whether I can give this inchoate mass a shape."

Kingston has occupied a space between genres since her first book, "The Woman Warrior," was published in 1976. In that memoir, the winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, she introduced her own story — recounting, in part, her upbringing and early life in Stockton, Calif. — through the filter of mythology, invoking the legendary Chinese heroine Fa Mu Lan, as well as a variety of family figures, including her mother and an aunt who killed herself in China in the 1920s after giving birth out of wedlock. (Her 1980 followup, "China Men," won a National Book Award.)

Such stories have become the substance of Kingston's narrative universe, and many of them reappear in "I Love a Broad Margin to My Life."

"As a writer," she explains, "this is answering the question that there are mistakes, there are unfinished stories, there's new information, there's even new understanding of what happened earlier, and instead of going back and correcting it and making a new edition, what I'm doing is writing a new story and referring back to the old one and catching it up to date."

For Kingston, then, each of her books is best read as part of a long process of engagement, in which individual installments are less important than the full body of work.

"I Love a Broad Margin to My Life" is a case in point, with antecedents in almost every part of Kingston's career. In addition to "The Woman Warrior" and her 1989 novel "Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book" (the novel's protagonist, Wittman Ah Sing, returns to animate "Broad Margin's" middle section), the new book has deep roots in "To Be the Poet" (2002), a slim volume of poetry-cum-essays that grew out of lectures she delivered at Harvard.

"Let my life as Poet begin," Kingston declares there. "I want the life of the Poet. I have labored for over twelve years, one thousand pages of prose. Now, I want the easiness of poetry. The brevity of the poem." Such an invocation, she admits, has a bit of the trickster to it, for, as poets everywhere like to remind her, the life of a poet is hard. "All my poet friends, they're just appalled," she laughs. "They say a poet's life is tragic."

Yet here, as in her other works, Kingston is after something deeper, a different strategy for thinking about her work. "It's an experiment," she suggests, "to risk saying: I'm just going to let it come, and if it comes, how wonderful, and if nothing comes, there won't be a poem." With "I Love a Broad Margin to My Life," this meant the possibility that there might not be a book, as well. "The beginning of the book," she says, "is like a diary. So whatever happened, I would see whether it could be put into words. I was always ready for it to end and for nothing to happen. I was also ready to see whether it would be a diary forever or whether I would get out of the mundane and the daily and into a larger vision and larger journey."

What Kingston's talking about is patience, which, she acknowledges, has not always been easy for her. "The younger writer," she recalls, "was always pushing and forcing and ambitious and worried. Now I'm at the point where if it comes, it comes, and if it doesn't, it doesn't. If I get published again, OK, and if I don't, it doesn't matter." In some sense, this has to do with the loosening that comes from experience; her son, Joseph, is grown and on his own, a musician living in Hawaii, and after many years as a professor at UC Berkeley, she retired in 2006. Indeed, she hints in the closing pages, this may be her last book:

As far back as I can remember, I

wanted to write.…

Before I had language,

before I had stories, I wanted to write.

That desire is going away.

I've said what I have to say.

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