Chinese-American novelist to speak at UM

Maxine Hong Kingston's most recent book, "I Love a Broad Margin to My Life" — possibly the last from this pioneering Chinese-American novelist, memoirist, poet and activist — includes a glossary to help readers with all the loan words.

"I have words commonly in use in American English that come from 12 different countries," Kingston says by phone from her home in Oakland, Calif. "I thought it would be much easier on the reader if I had a glossary instead of stopping to define each one."

Language will be the subject of Kingston's talk at the University of Miami in Coral Gables on Friday. She plans to discuss the ways in which words from other countries "change our language and our culture."

The title of the talk plays off the title of the book, a quote from Henry David Thoreau's classic, "Walden," Kingston says. "He's talking about the space he wants between himself and his community, but it can refer to international borders, too."


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After the lecture, Kingston, 71, will sit down for an onstage Q&A with M. Evelina Galang, director of the university's creative writing program. The evening is part of UM's "Year of the Humanities and the Arts," which will bring other artists and writers to South Florida, including Chris Abani, Temple Grandin, Richard Dawkins and Amitav Ghosh.

"She does what all great writers from the margins do," says Galang, a Filipina-American novelist who grew up in Milwaukee. "She tells a story that's not been told, and gives other writers permission to write from their experience."

Kingston accepts her role as a pioneering immigrant author, and an example for younger minority writers. In turn she credits older generations of African-American writers, naming James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright as her own avatars.

"They were the ones, the first ones, who made minority writing possible," Kingston says. "They insisted we are American and that what we are writing is American literature. I've carried that forward."

Kingston's stature in modern American literature goes beyond example, however. Among many prizes, she won the 1976 National Book Critics Circle Award for "The Woman Warrior." Her second book, "China Men," took the 1981 National Book Award. She earned a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 from the National Book Foundation. And her books are widely taught in colleges and universities.

And yet, her career has not been without controversy. Frank Chin, an important Chinese-American playwright and a novelist, has criticized her (and others, including Amy Tan and playwright David Henry Hwang) since 1991 for misappropriating Chinese stories and playing to Western stereotypes.

"I understand his argument," Kingston says. "He saw stereotypes of the effete Chinese man in movies and on TV. Any Chinese women complaining about sexism in Chinese culture he thought of as an attack on men."

Pointing to the recent Taliban assassination attempt on an outspoken teenaged Pakistani girl in Afghanistan, Kingston says sexism still exists in traditional cultures. "We still see how directly sexism affects women all over the world," she says.

"I Love a Broad Margin to My Life," Kingston's seventh book, is characteristically hard to pin down. Mixing memoir and fiction, it's written in verse. So is it poetry? Creative nonfiction? A novel?

"It is hard to categorize my work in so few categories," Kingston says. "What I really enjoy is writing about real people and what their dreams are. The reality of people is not just what they do, but how they think, how they imagine, how they dream. If I write all that down you could call it nonfiction, but…"

It's also characteristically hard to put down. Some readers, doubtless, are grateful for that glossary, while others, carried along by the narrative, will refer to it only later.

Kingston, who retired from teaching in 2006, says this may be her last book.

"I wrote this book with the idea of myself as growing old," she says. "I wanted to tell everything I know. I wanted to sum up my whole life, including the end of life. Is it possible to retire from writing? I'm not ready to answer yet."

 

Maxine Hong Kingston will speak 6:15 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26, at Storer Auditorium, 5250 University Drive, on UM's Coral Gables campus. This will be followed by an onstage Q&A with M. Evelina Galang, director of the university's creative writing program. The event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. For reservations, go to as.miami.edu/kingston.