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Kingston speaks words of peace at Saint Mary’s

Megan O'Neil | Thursday, October 14, 2004

Keeping with the College’s yearlong theme of peace, feminist author and activist Maxine Hong Kingston spoke about her efforts to build peace through writing and read excerpts of her books Wednesday at Saint Mary’s.

Kingston, a first-generation Chinese -American and creative writing professor at Berkley, followed in the footsteps of her writer-scholar father and began composing poetry orally as a child.

Using a mix of Chinese and English, Kingston recounted to the audience memories of her mother leaning her out of the window and encouraging her to recite poems to her grandfathers as they passed below on their way to work.

Many of earliest literary influences, however, were not so tranquil, Kingston said.

“The first stories that ever came to me were war stories,” Kingston said. “My mom had been in the bombings in Canton just nine months before I was born in Stockton, California.”

Later, when the author was searching for a strong female role model she chose the Chinese heroine Fa Mook Lan and began writing “Woman Warrior.”

“When I wrote the Fa Mook Lan story I did it in the first person,” Kingston said. “Maybe if I spoke as if I was a the women warriors maybe I could be as strong as she was.”

The story of a Chinese woman who disguises herself as a man and becomes a celebrated military general, “Woman Warrior” was, according to Kingston, her “youthful” view of war. She later learned the book was being taught at the United States Air Force Academy and asked an academy professor why.

“He said that there are so many women now in the armed service and they need an ethos and a mythos,” Kingston said. “I thought to myself well, I better get to writing a book of peace.”

Kingston said her desire to write peace continued to grow through the years of the Vietnam War, a war her two brothers were drafted to serve in. Despite her willingness to contribute her talents to peace propaganda, Kingston said inner conflict left her unable to do so at the time.

“I had problems even writing them [brothers] letters,” Kingston said. “On the one hand I wanted to express my concerns for peace, and yet I didn’t want them to let down their guard and get hurt.”

During the war, Kingston said she wrote very few letters and one short story that were rejected for publication. Her writing hit a wall when she could no longer write about working for peace.

But 20 years later, and with the help of her brother, she was able to rewrite the story successfully.

It was Kingston’s belief in the existence of three ancient Books of Peace written in China that eventually inspired her to undertake peace writing. The books, Kingston said contained instructions on how to combat violence and war and she spent many years searching for them.

“Every time I went to China and every time I met anyone who was going to Asia I asked them to look for these books of peace,” Kingston said.

No one knew anything about the books, however. With her research and inquiries resulting in nothing, Kingston set about to write her own chapter in peace literature. In October 1991 Kingston was 156 pages into her Fourth Book of Peace when a wild fire destroyed her Oakland, Calif. neighborhood and all of her work.

The effect, Kingston said, was traumatizing but also inspired change in her life. While once a solitary writer, Kingston began a writing workshop for war veterans.

“I gathered veterans of all wars to come write with me,” she said. “If we were all together maybe we could gather the war energy and figure out how to build peace.”

The communal writing atmosphere renewed Kingston’s belief in peace writing and inspired her to write her most recent work, The Fifth Book of Peace.

“Maybe we can use the promises of art to prevent a war,” Kingston said.