Maxine Hong Kingston

She celebrates being a human

By Jenn D. Knudsen

Maxine Hong Kingston won the 1997 National Humanities Medal,

but at first she didn't know it.

The Oakland resident received a telephone call from an English-department secretary but didn't bother to return it for two days. "I figured they were going to ask me to serve on a panel or something," she said in an interview last week.

Kingston, who stands about 5 feet tall, is an Asian-American writer most well known for her 1976 book "The Woman Warrior: A Girlhood Among Ghosts."

She received the National Humanities Medal from President and Mrs. Clinton on Sept. 29, in Washington, D.C. The next day, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a photograph of Kingston, donning her new medallion and flanked by the Clinton's. Kingston remembers with a laugh that a friend who saw the photo said: "It looks like you're herding two white elephants."

Kingston, 57, was born in Stockton, Calif. and moved to the Bay Area at the age of 17 to enter UC-Berkeley's engineering program. But, "I felt like I was in prison," she said of her first major that required a "rigid" curriculum and many lab hours. "And I got a D or an F in calculus." So during her sophomore year, she transferred into the English department to pursue her passion. "To be an English major was fun. All we did was read and talk about reading. ... Just the whole process of learning in the English department is so free," she said in her breathy, slightly sing-song voice.

Her first spoken language was "a very small dialect of Cantonese," she said, called Sayyup. Though she attended Chinese school in Stockton, she never wrote Chinese. However, she was always drawn to English "because it's fun," she said. "I feel that English is easy in the sense that it has a phonetic alphabet. That was the most amazing discovery when I was a kid," she said, wide-eyed.

Kingston is one of five children. "When we were children," she said looking out of her fourth-floor office window, "I think we were all good writers, and we made up stories,...towns and people. Sort of like the Bronte's. We were like that when we were kids." Two of her siblings were also English majors and four of them used to teach at one time. Some of them used to write, too, but "I'm the only one who writes now," said Kingston, who has been married for 35 years to actor Earll Kingston and has one son.

Since 1990, Kingston has served as a senior lecturer in UC-Berkeley's Department of English. Professor Anne Middleton, then-English department chair, was instrumental in appointing Kingston. "The circumstance was that we were asked to make an appointment or two in creative writing," and wanted to name someone in the stature of U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, said Middleton. "I think [Kingston's] a wonderful member of the faculty," she said. "She has a real energetic commitment to the enterprise."

"It is the most wonderful feeling to have a lifetime alma mater," Kingston said of her return to Berkeley as a teacher. "I wouldn't teach at any other school." This semester she is teaching two undergraduate courses: Non-fiction Prose and Reading for Writers.

Don Lattin, the religion writer for The Chronicle, is a student in Kingston's Non-fiction Prose class. He is auditing her course as part of his semester-long Chronicle fellowship. "I wanted to take a writing course," he said, to improve as a journalist. "One of the problems with being a reporter for 20 years is that you develop a survival mechanism of always needing to write fast and on deadline," he said. "As journalists, we focus too much on quotation and not as much on detail." But Kingston likes to focus on detail in description, he said, so he's trying to integrate her techniques into his own writing.

Lilly Sun is also in Kingston's Non-fiction Prose course. "She's very generous with her space and time," said Sun, and she fosters a "trusting and sharing atmosphere" both in class and during office hours.

Kingston holds office hours an hour and a half before her Non-fiction Prose class. She sits at her immaculate desk among three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with works on them like "Candide," "Moby Dick," "The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women" and "The Tripmaster Monkey," one of her own books. A framed "Excellence in Achievement Award" from the California Alumni Association leans propped up on a high shelf, against the wall.

Students use the time to tap into the author's literary talent.

English major Sylvia La attended office hours to ask how to integrate dialogue in two different languages into her stories, a literary device Kingston uses in her own writing. Another student, Leatha Jones, who works with remedial English students, sought Kingston's advice about how to teach better writing techniques.

When does she find the time to write? Kingston said she's disciplined herself to write four to five hours daily. "I need to set these hours," she said. "Five hours or six pages. I have to give myself these limits because otherwise, I feel guilty for the rest of the evening."

Each time she sits down to write, however, it's not necessarily with a book in mind. Many writers may profess to have a book - or two or three - in them, but not Kingston. "Writing a book is such an amorphous task. I don't even know that I have anything until years have gone by; I don't know if I have anything substantial or if all this work will lead to anything. So if I work like a horse - if I just persevere - that's the best I can do."

When she is at home and not writing, she has a hard time just sitting. "I'm trying to learn to sit and not do anything," she laughed. "If I'm watching TV, I'm ironing, or I'm doing the taxes."

Kingston's 30-year practice of meditation has helped in her pursuit to sit still. "Now I think I'm doing very well. I'm very aware that during the time I'm doing meditation, I'm not doing something else," she said. Then quickly, "But of course the mind goes on," she chuckled, admitting some defeat.

Kingston left for Hawaii in 1967 during the Vietnam War and stayed there for 17 years. "When I was in Hawaii, I used to write on the beach a lot," she said. Today, she sits down to write in her home studio that she and her husband built after the 1991 East Bay Hills fire destroyed some of their property.

She selects her writing implement depending on her mood. "I have two computers, a lot of beautiful fountain pens, and a nibbed pen," she said. "When my father died, he left about a dozen bottles of ink that he made himself, so I realized that I have a lifetime supply of ink that I can use with a dip pen."

"Usually when I'm just getting an idea and it's very vague," she whispered, "and I'm just trying to grab it, I'll use pencil because a pencil has so many dimensions to it."

Writing didn't always come easily or quickly to Kingston. "For 30 years of my life, I could only write in the first person," she told another advice-seeking student. She spent years practicing and perfecting her craft. Today, she puts her voice into her characters to sidestep the "I" and segue into the third person. She also relies on literary techniques such as dream imagery, memory and autobiography in her writing.

Her signature style is sometimes criticized. "Clearly [Kingston's] work has been incredibly important and debated," said Tina Chen, an advanced doctoral candidate in English at Berkeley and a scholar in Asian-American literature. According to the literary critics, said Chen, the authenticity of Kingston's works, such as "Woman Warrior," have been questioned because of her emphasis on reality-distorting dream imagery. Critics also contend that she caters too heavily to a white audience. Kingston doesn't agree with her critics. "A lot of misreadings - and deliberate misreadings - occur, I think, in order to back up somebody's political agenda," she said.

The self-described "born-writer" doesn't let others' comments distract her from her work. Fresh from the National Humanities Medal awards ceremony and expecting her latest book, "Hawaii One Summer," to be on bookshelves by December, Kingston said, "I feel very happy. Very good."

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