Telling your story brings you home … Babel’s Maxine Hong Kingston

With Ed Cardoni back to open the festivities of the second installment of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s fourth Babel season, one could catch a quick glimpse of Maxine Hong Kingston trying to get on stage. During his tales of art funds and legislature votes and veto prevention, Kingston walked through the door before being asked to return backstage until after Michael Kelleher’s introduction of the series’ first American-born author. It was a sign of her enthusiasm and joy in talking to her fans and speaking about her work—each novel a personal telling of life experiences mixed with mythology and legend told to her through the years.

The tiny, long white-haired, 70-year old woman, before indulging us with three humorous readings about strong feminine characters and talk about The Woman Warrior and her new unpublished book I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, she spoke about how much she’s always wanted to fix everything she’s put to page. It’s been thirty-five years since her first novel, (and coincidentally the same period of time since Just Buffalo was born), and the more she looks at it, the more she sees errors. Crediting the mistakes to a youthful feminism that made her express strength over peace, her gradual evolution to pacifism has shone the light on wrongdoings. Writing of Fa Mu Lan as a militant fighter was integral to her mindset at the time, but even by the end of the book—describing the artistic librarian Ts’ai Yen—she found the need to show ‘warriors’ in a different light. It was our culture revering the word as militaristic rather than artistic that found its way into her process, not her definition.

Looking back, however, she sees that while telling of Yen’s ransoming to become a mother and start a family, she forgot to mention the reason her father did so, to build a new library together. And she talks of Mu Lan’s fight and strength, but not the fact she was a weaver—a detail that seemed to subvert her power at the time. Only with the passing of years has Hong Kingston realized how important this fact, in particular, was. The folk tale is told in chant to the rhythm of a loom’s shuttle; the artistic process is what brought her home, making this woman a mix of both Odysseus and Penelope from Homer’s tale of warrior returning home. And it took even longer for her to realize it wasn’t a chant of war, but a chant of that return from war.

It was the telling that allowed Mu Lan to arrive back with it all behind her, a concept this author has put into practice with her workshops helping Vietnam, WWII, Iraq, and even gang war vets ‘come home’. It’s a cathartic, communal experience of art directly causing reconciliation, a concept very close to her heart. Not the only viewpoint she holds dear, though, Hong Kingston also wants to hope art has the power to stop wars. Both times America went into the Middle East, she was involved in peaceful demonstrations in Washington DC that would later get her arrested. Both times, the first taking 20 days and the second 12, Shock and Awe began despite her and many artists’ attempts of prevention. But she is ever the optimist, thinking all hope is not lost, and thus will continue her fight through language and literature.

China considers her work ‘magical realism’ in its melding of folklore and autobiography and she embraces that, along with the culture of her heritage, seeing herself as living in the vast overlapping middle of American and Chinese—not as stuck in the void between. You can’t help but feel as though she is saintly in her ideals and actions when listening to her speak, her smile never fading. Through poetry and prose she is telling her story in hopes it will inspire others, but above all else, she is having fun in the process.

Babel 2010/2011 Season:
Edwidge Danticat (Haiti) – March 25
Chris Abani (Nigeria) – April 15
Buy your tickets today by clicking here.

photography:
Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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