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Speaking at Stanford, acclaimed author Maxine Hong Kingston offered perspectives on "race myths"

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Maxine Hong Kingston speaking
Acclaimed author Maxine Hong Kingston reads from her book "I Love a Broad Margin in My Life" during the Kieve Distinguished Speaker Lecture at Stanford on May 9, 2014.
Photo Credit: 
John Liau
Acclaimed writer Maxine Hong Kingston blends traditional and trailblazing narrative forms to explore issues of race and ethnicity, peace and war, heritage and new beginnings.
 
Her eclectic and genre-defying tales, including The Woman Warrior and The Fifth Book of Peace, have earned her the National Book Award, the National Book Circle Award for Nonfiction, the National Humanities Award, and numerous other honors and accolades. 
 
In an event organized by the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Kingston visited Stanford campus on May 9th to meet with Stanford students and to present the 9th Annual Anne and Loren Kieve Distinguished Speaker Lecture. 
 
For nearly a decade, the Kieve Lecture series has invited pioneering scholars and intellectuals to address key issues of race and ethnicity at Stanford. Previous speakers have included such luminaries as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz and Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch, III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
 
Kingston established herself as a groundbreaking author by using a unique mix of traditional Chinese and postmodern narrative techniques to explore her family’s Chinese origins as well as her identity as a woman, an American, and a storyteller. 
 
Kingston spoke about how her works represent the ways in which “karma flows down through the generations,” as she and her characters balance the ideals of tradition and individualism while both consciously and unconsciously reckoning with “all kinds of race myths.”
 
Hours before the lecture, Stanford students from a variety of academic and cultural backgrounds had the opportunity to speak with Kingston in a gathering co-sponsored by CCSRE and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts as well as Asian American Studies and the Asian American Activities Center.
 
In that intimate setting, she recounted her resolve as a novice writer to craft new stories that challenged conventions of literary genres, while also breaking the confines of preconceptions based on race and class.
 
“There was a narrative that was expected of me, because I was already in other people’s stories, as a stereotype. This is one reason why I think my writing does not have a form that everyone can agree upon…I wanted to break out of old narratives in order to tell a whole new story,” said Kingston.
 
Associate Professor of English and Director of Modern Thought and Literature Paula Moya introduced Kingston to the packed house in Brest Hall, noting her numerous awards, her ongoing endeavor with war veterans in writer’s workshops, and the fact that in the 1990s her books were the mostly widely taught on college campuses of any living American author.
 
Moya praised her guest for “taking chaotic, tragic, hard-to-deal-with events, and making meaning out of them by putting them through the process of art.”
 
Kingston proceeded to read passages from her books and discuss their significance to her understanding of race and ethnicity across borders and generations. 
 
One such scene came from her fictional novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, featuring her 1960s Bay Area protagonist Wittman Ah-Sing. The descendant of multiple generations of American-born Chinese, Kingston said Wittman aims to be the “first hip Chinese-American,” initially brushing off issues of race and ethnicity as “low-karma problems.”
 

Defying classification

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Maxine Hong Kingston speaks with Stanford undergrads
Author Maxine Hong Kingston encouraged Stanford students including CCSRE undergraduates Thanh Nguyen ('14) (left) and Annie Phan ('16) (center) to find their own voice when writing.
Photo Credit: 
John Liau
Kingston’s works, which combine the folkloric, the fictional, and the nonfictional, have made her the subject of much academic debate and an elusive target for genre classification.
 
Speaking with the students at Harmony House, she discussed a parallel struggle with identifiers like “Asian American writer” or “feminist author” because of the pigeonholing that can be associated with such categories.
 
In describing her conflict with categorization beginning early in her career, Kingston said she wanted her work “to be critiqued as any other literature.” 
 
However, given that by the present day bookstores and libraries house her works within “California History,” “Feminist Studies,” “Asian Studies,” “Anthropology,” and still others, she’s gained a new outlook. “I’m in all of those categories – and now, it feels okay, because when you’re in so many categories, you’re really not even categorized at all,” she remarked.
 
Kingston connected the challenges she faced as a rising author in the 1970s to those facing the assembled students. 
 
“You are a younger generation. Here I come, and here comes Amy Tan, here comes David Henry Hwang…we [three writers] have made a narrative [distinct from others]. But you don’t want to get caught up in ours, either, you want to break out of that. You have to find your own voice, shape and form,” said Kingston.
 
CCSRE major and Creative Writing minor Annie Phan, ’16, asked Kingston how to project her individual voice while maintaining a sense of solidarity with the Asian American women writers who inspired her.
 
 “I write in a very heroic way about the people who came before me – they’re not artists or writers – they could be working the laundry, or gambling, or building the railroads. I write strongly about them and the way that they came before us,” replied Kingston.
 
A writer, she noted, could pay similar tribute to authors that helped pave a way for them – “You know, without direct quotes and all that,” said Kingston with a roguish smile.
 
In the same meeting with students, Thanh Nguyen, ’14, a CCSRE major and Modern Thought and Literature master’s candidate, shared Maxine’s apprehension over being called ‘an artist’ “because it’s very lofty.” 
 
“I think that whether I write an opinion piece or make an illustration, I’m making meaning and also trying avoid the notion of ‘high art’ and ‘low art,” Nguyen added.
 

Exalting family, considering karma

Revealing a timely coincidence, Kingston told the audience that her visit to Stanford matched the Department of Labor’s induction of the Chinese railroad workers into the department’s Hall of Honor.
 
While much of the official press sought to obscure the fact that thousands of Chinese laborers did much of the work to complete the railroad that first connected America’s East and West coasts 145 years ago, their immigrant stories survived to be cultivated and made better known by authors like Kingston.
 
She discussed how in her book China Men she strove to depict her grandfather and his fellow laborers’ drive to at once claim and belong to the new America they were helping to create. 
 
As she concluded her lecture, Kingston drew on the principles of karma to emphasize the importance of consciously connecting the past to the present while gently drawing a line between healing and writing.
 
“When I work with the veterans [in her writing workshops], I never mention the word healing. What we want to work on is what’s right here. I feel that all of us need to know what happened in history – all the factual history, the mythic history, because we inherit all of that and we are living it out. And that is the karma that we are here to live out, and to continue it, or to reconcile it, to learn from it.”
 
“Of course,” Kingston added on a picaresque note, “all of it goes into making a really good story, too.”
 
Fabrice Palumbo-Liu writes about the humanities at Stanford.
 
Media Contact
Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu