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The Dartmouth
June 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Kingston: Poet shares details of work

The Dartmouth sat down with author Maxine Hong Kingston yesterday afternoon.

The Dartmouth: Is this your first visit to Dartmouth? What were your expectations?

Kingston: Yes, this is my first visit to Dartmouth. I came up from Louisiana. It's very interesting -- All the different states. Last Saturday, I was at the L.A. BookFest. It was entirely commercial. All correspondence from [Dartmouth] is academic and intellectual.

The D: Other than your reading tonight, what other activities do you have planned?

Kingston: I'm going to classes. I have one unit in Buddhism. I'm also going to Gender and Sexuality in Asian American Literature.

The D: You grew up surrounded by other immigrants from your father's village, and the storytelling you heard as a child influenced your later writing. Why do you prefer the solitary task of writing to verbal storytelling?

Kingston: Partially, it's not the solitude so much as the secrecy. It's what James Joyce talked about, too. With writing, I'm able to hide from family, friends, people who would pry. I could say things that were taboo to say. In oral storytelling, it's all public. It's social communication. In writing, you can find out what your own secrets are. The transition between talk story and written story is in English. When something is written, you can mold it and shape it constantly until it becomes a work of art. Spoken story is so ephemeral. What's written is immortal.

The D: Your father worked in a gambling house and you were named after a lucky blond gambler he knew. Is there any more to the story?

Kingston: She was not a gambler. She would win all the time. My mother always told us that my father was a bookkeeper at the gambling house. He made half his money from gambling. He was a bigger gambler than we thought. Not just that he went to the gambling table, but he ran it. He played at the table, too, and that's how he won a visa for my mother to come to America 15 years later.

The D: Which people, books, etcetera, are the biggest influences on your work?

Kingston: Grace Paley, who was a professor at Dartmouth. She is a really important influence to me. She's politically active. Having done all these things for a lifetime, we now see volumes of her complete work are so big. I picked up a good role model.

The D: What is your favorite book? Which novels do you consider the most important?

Kingston: I don't have a favorite book. The book I am reading now has always been important to me. It's Henry David Thoreau's Walden. It gets me through the war. It is a great inspiration. It tells you how to live, be and relate to other creatures in this world.

The D: Do your books have a larger Asian or non-Asian audience?

Kingston: There are more non-Asians than Asians in America, but my book reaches all audiences. My book has been translated into Chinese, so it has an audience there, too.

The D: Have you experienced any racism? In general? In publishing world?

Kingston: In publishing, I don't think so. If Asian works do well, then they publish it. A serious case of racism, not just one case. When Woman Warrior first came out, most of the reviewers reviewed it as a Chinese book, never mind that it's in English. Standards of English and criticism were thrown out the window. They would praise it for exoticism. I thought it was a denial of the way I was writing about America.

The D: Were you surprised when you won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and your book became a best-seller?

Kingston: No, it's not like you're surprised. Success, fame -- it's always part of the fantasy.

The D: You have been quoted saying, "and majoring in English interfered with my writing." Can you elaborate?

Kingston: When in college, you have critical academic papers to do. There is no time or room for my own writing of stories. When in college, you're trained to be a critical thinker. You need time for imagination and you don't get that in school.

The D: Where do you find the most inspiration? Ever have writer's block? Where do you find your solutions?

Kingston: It comes from people. For every person out there, there is at least one story. There are billions of people. I see their interactions and their antics.

The D: Do you have any advice for writers?

Kingston: Write every day. Write something every day, even if it's just one sentence. Spend some minutes as a writer.

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