Since the publication of The Woman Warrior in 1976, Maxine Hong Kingston has gained a reputation as one of the most popular—and controversial—writers in the Asian American literary tradition. This book traces her development as a writer and cultural activist through both ethnic and feminist discourses, investigating her novels, occasional writings, and her two-book ‘life-writing project’. The publication of The Woman Warrior not only propelled Kingston into the mainstream literary limelight, but also precipitated a vicious and ongoing controversy in Asian American letters over the authenticity—or fakery—of her cultural references. This book traces the debates through the appearance of China Men (1981), as well as the novel Tripmaster Monkey (1989) and her most recent work The Fifth Book of Peace.
This chapter suggests that the debates over the veracity, or otherwise, of Maxine Hong Kingston's cultural sources, and the vast body of critical material on the feminism-mother/daughter nexus in The Woman Warrior, has simultaneously obscured other, perhaps more pertinent and abiding, preoccupations in Kingston's work. This book locates Kingston within two interconnected, specific cultural contexts: Chinese American history and politics; and the emergence of ethnic feminism in a post-civil rights era. It contends that Kingston's body of work not only raises important questions concerning cultural authenticity, the role of different interpretive communities and canon formation, but that increasingly her oeuvre offers her readers a manifesto of pacifism for a contemporary era.
Much of the critical debate surrounding The Woman Warrior has centred upon the book's troubling generic status. Ostensibly a memoir—the subtitle is ‘Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts’—the book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, but it blends together elements of several genres, including fiction, myth, auto/biography and memoir, in a manner that is not easily categorised. Ultimately, for Maxine Hong Kingston, the talk-story form becomes a new kind of genre, one malleable to her own purposes.
The original title of Maxine Hong Kingston's second book was not ‘China Men’ but ‘Gold Mountain Heroes’. In Kingston's rendition of the gamut of Chinese American men's experiences on Gold Mountain, literature, history, biography, cartography and law all figure as discourses producing ideas of nationhood. Although Kingston was to discard the title ‘Gold Mountain Heroes’ in a later draft, her original use signals her intention to create a history of her Chinese American male ancestors that both mythologised and celebrated their arrival in America, a place Chinese immigrants named ‘Gold Mountain’; and to commemorate their efforts to bond with their new land and country, and the hard labour they undertook in these endeavours.
After Kingston's first two books, the quiet bemusement of critics which was the predominant response to Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book came as quite a change. Tripmaster Monkey actually only covers a two-month period in 1963 in the life of young would-be beatnik, Chinese American graduate Wittman Ah Sing, but through a series of nine relatively unconnected episodes, Kingston manages to capture the mood and tone of the whole era. The nine episodes or chapters which comprise Tripmaster Monkey track Wittman's literal journey through Berkeley and its environs, and his metaphorical journey in search of his identity. Along the way, he encounters a series of characters, including would-be sexual partners, his future wife Taña, soul-mates, friends and relatives, all of whom ultimately all come together to help Wittman stage a play at the culmination of the novel.
Published in the wake of her first literary success, but reissued in 1988, Hawai'i One Summer reminds us of Kingston's strong attachment to place: here the Hawai'i of her early married years, where she worked as a teacher, raised her son and wrote her first fiction. As an extensive meditation upon place and environment in Hawai'i, the pieces here together represent Kingston's imbrication in a politics of ecology, and specifically a form of ecological feminism as well. This chapter argues that Hawai'i One Summer warrants critical attention as providing an additional, previously unconsidered, perspective upon this renowned writer.
This chapter examines Maxine Hong Kingston's latest novel, The Fifth Book of Peace (2003), and suggests that in addition to her popularity as a feminist writer, she deserves recognition as a pacifist writer and activist, and that we need to reconceive of her work as part of an on-going pacifist project. It also claims that Kingston can be considered alongside other Asian American authors, notably Le-Ly Hayslip, as contributing towards the evolution of an Asian American women's peace literature.
Asian American literature by women is increasingly attracting critical attention as an important sub genre of American literature. Current debates over the literary canon, the changing profile of literary and cultural studies, the increasing presence of women's and ethnic writing both within and beyond the canon may all explain the increasing popularity of Asian American women's writing both within the US and beyond its geographical borders. In the context of the canon of Asian American writing by women, the publication of The Woman Warrior, in 1976, precipitated an intense period of growth. Critical work on Kingston has been heavily dominated by a focus upon The Woman Warrior, and to a lesser degree, China Men. Many analyses viewed Kingston's texts as coinciding with a moment in feminist studies and feminist literary production when the mother/daughter dyad became a focus of particular interest.