An Interview with Maxine Hong Kingston
Interview by Jennifer Buckendorff
With the publication of her first book, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston became a literary icon. In her writing, Kingston explores topics with a feminist eye and a humanist sensibility. She cracks open interstitial spaces, revealing their rich interiors: the nebulous line between the past and the present, for example, or the gap between how we think of ourselves and how we are actually seen by others. Each of her books is infused with Chinese culture and Chinese-American references; she captures fleeting comments, pins them down and illuminates their racist centers. She is a hero to many people, and we were thrilled when she agreed to be interviewed for To-Do List magazine to discuss her first book of poetry, To Be the Poet.
Although we don't generally publish poems in To-Do List, when they come from a genius, we make an exception. Here's an excerpt from one of her poems, and the catalyst for this interview:
To-Do List: This poem, from 25 December, seems like a to-do list! Did this start off as a poem--or as a to-do list--for you? Did you think of removing the dates, or altering it in any way to change its form?
Maxine Hong Kingston: The impetus for this "list poem" was me exhorting myself to keep going--staying conscious. I musn't get lost amidst the general uproar. I try to stop time by standing still and writing things down. I didn't remove the date because (1) it is such a significant one, and (2) I'm interested in seeing what form happens spontaneously. It did not occur to me to call this a "poem." I was just having words with myself.
TDL: Later, you write "I know how to turn anything into worry on a to-do list."
MHK: I keep telling myself that there's no use making lists or taking notes. That which is vital cannot be forgotten. But I have made Things to Do lists all my life. Sometimes they take the shape of the Schedule in The Great Gatsby. I've also used the grid that Benjamin Franklin invented to improve his character. I try to shape my days and my life by making blueprints. Surely, I'd write stories and poems anyway, even if I didn't put them on a task list. But I also suspect that maybe I would forget to work, lose my way, do nothing unless I made written vows. I'll follow my list for quite a few weeks, even a season, then--Revolution! I break all my rules. And write an entirely different plan.
TDL: Did the fire that burned your house influence your decision to write poetry?
MHK: After the fire, I made hundreds of pages of lists and descriptions of things that were lost. The insurance company demanded descriptions of things in their recent condition, in their brand-new condition, and in their to-be-acquired condition. I found that doing all that writing satisfied my need for things, and I did not use the insurance money to buy them. Isn't that the way of poetry? Images and words are good enough.
TDL: So your process is now, as you say, to change "from note-taker to Poet"?
MHK: I hope that before claiming that a transmutation takes place, I said that the notes have to be developed and shaped and sculpted and tweaked.
TDL: So you've accomplished your goal of having long days "hardly any of it spent actually writing"?
MHK: Yes, it has worked out like that. Maybe I can have this way of creating because I practiced for over 60 years.
TDL: This may be a bit of a stretch, but it seems like the to-do list--if it even qualifies as a form of writing--has a certain thing that resembles the spontaneous poetry espoused by the Beats. Have you been influenced by that movement or its writers?
MHK: As a teen-ager, I loved Beat writing, and identified with it. My Buddhism got a big boost from the Beats. It was a dream-come-true to tour China with Allen Ginsburg and Gary Snyder. Probably all writers experience that moment when an idea suddenly appears. Then some people seem to be able to find the words for that vision instantaneously. Others work for years, for a lifetime. Both these ways happen to me.
TDL: Your book includes quick drawings, calculations of how long before you'll be done with a book, and writing about a stomach ache the night before. What do you think the relationship is between lists and literary writing?
MHK: The mundane, the day-to-day, the common-ordinary--that's all we have, isn't it? The poet extrapolates the larger picture. A larger perspective is a trick of the imagination.
In an email we received after the interview, Kingston wrote "I've added more to my to-do list." As part of a demonstration for peace, timed to coincide with International Women's Day, she committed civil disobedience and was arrested in front of the White House. "I had to try my best to protect the Iraqi children."
Other writers were arrested at that event, including Alice Walker, Terry Tempest Williams and Susan Griffin. She commented that the worst thing she witnessed "was that the police first arrested the journalists, and [then] took away their camera and audio equipment." In previous demonstrations, and based on past experience, she knew she "didn't want to be in jail without writing materials." At this point, though, she felt differently. "I am between books," she commented, "and can be less selfish with my time."
©2003 To-Do List Magazine