Tuesday, March 1st, 2011
“As long as I have stories to write, surely I won’t die. That’s a superstition that comforts me.”
Maxine Hong Kingston is a Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley and has written three novels as well as several nonfiction works. Her memoir, The Woman Warrior, was hailed as a major contribution to the feminist movement for its meditation on gender and identity. Her novel, China Men, won the National Book Award in 1981 and she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian American Literary Awards in 2006.
The title of her latest book, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, alludes to a Henry David Thoreau poem, and is styled in a loving tribute to Walt Whitman, one of Hong Kingston’s admitted influences. In Broad Margin, she shares an inner monologue scrutinizing her appearance in a not so flattering professional photograph days before her 65th birthday. She reflects on her arrest at a peace march in Washington D.C. before taking her readers abroad with her to China–all in poetic free verse.
Hong Kingston spoke to SMITH Magazine from her home in Berkeley, California.
For this particular book, why did you choose to structure it in such a free style?
Because my two previous books–The Fifth Book of Peace took 12 years and Tripmaster Monkey took 10 years. I wanted a way to use poetry to speed up the piece of creation.
The approach that you took with this book really echoed Kate Millet’s Flying for me.
I haven’t read that! I’ll have to. I would probably enjoy it. To me, Broad Margin is a journey though China and I go to all those villages and in each one there is some adventure that takes place. I see my book as going through geographical space as well as other inner travels.
Broad Margin begins with a meditation on vanity. Why did you decide to begin your book there?
Actually, I feel that the beginning of the book is in a diary form. It’s a diary of the two weeks before my birthday. I decided to write whatever I thought about and whatever happened on those days. It just so happened that I was thinking about my looks but especially since a photographer from a magazine came and took my picture. So I am looking at a picture thinking, Oh my goodness, I don’t look so good in this picture.
Really early in the book, you write, “I have a superstition that as long as I, any writer, have things to write, I keep living.” Can you please say a little more about that?
I guess it has to do, somewhat, with this poem about being afraid that there is not enough time to write everything that one is feeling and thinking–and I have thought that my whole writing life. That there is so much more to say and there isn’t enough time and so it helps me to have those superstitions. As long as I have stories to write, surely I won’t die. That’s a superstition that comforts me. But it doesn’t help to know that I do have writer friends who have died without finishing their work so I have doubts about that superstition.
Is this superstition something that you are conscious of in your own practice of writing?
Yes. I’ve used it all my life and think, I do feel the writing coming and it is so alive that surely I will be alive and awake until that story is over.
Walt Whitman floats in and out of Broad Margin, as a reference, an influence, but also as a character that you move about the prose. What was your intention in including him so literally in your work?
Whitman is a guide through journeys, through crowds, which he adored. He adored crowds. I don’t like crowds that much but he was my ally and guide through the crowds. And another way that he helped was that he guided me in writing the poetic line. What I would do to capture his influence was I would quote his lines and embed his lines in my lines. From there I lead up to his rhythms and then he would influence my voice. My voice would become in harmony with his. I used him as a poetic and musical guide.
I think this would be a helpful process for any poet or writer, but especially a poet. To be able to quote someone else and then you get into his or her rhythms. It’s a very good way of being influenced by another. You also can quote for a short while and then let them go. That way, you go into your own voice.
At what point did you decide, or maybe you didn’t, to have him in your work as more than a reference or a quote? You move him about your prose as if he is character. Did that happen organically?
Yes. I started using him a lot for quite a few books. In Tripmaster Monkey, I actually named my character after him. I spell the name differently, but I use a character that is somewhat like Walt Whitman. He is able to make journeys throughout America and he embodies a spirit of America.
I understand that you also have an affinity for Virginia Woolf.
Oh yes. It’s been helpful to me to think about her writing and her life. I especially loved Orlando. I like the way she is able to capture an entire age or hundreds of years of history in just one paragraph. That book was about a person who lived for 400 years and that was very helpful while I wrote about characters who lived for one hundred years and could show history moving through them.
Orlando is my favorite Virginia Woolf book as well. I love the fluidity of gender.
Yes. I use that a lot too. I have many characters who become men or women. The landscape is just so beautiful.
Finally, Maxine Hong Kingston, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Love a broad margin to life.
BUY I Love a Broad Margin to My Life.
READ an excerpt from Broad Margin.
WATCH Hong Kingston read from Broad Margin.