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Spring 2003

LIFE OF THE MIND

Becoming a poet and a peacemaker: Maxine Hong Kingston comes to PLU

by Drew Brown

Acclaimed author Maxine Hong Kingston talked about her search for poetry and peace during a visit to PLU.

Kingston is best known for her novel "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts," which chronicles Chinese myths, family stories and events from her California childhood that have shaped her identity as a first generation Chinese American. Kingston finds herself creating her own stories by filling in the blanks her mother left. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of Time Magazine’s top nonfiction books of the 1970s. Kingston, also wrote the award-winning novels "China Men" and "Tripmaster Monkey."


Maxine Hong Kingston talks after a reading of her latest work, "To Be The Poet"
PLU English professor Lisa Marcus is one of several professors who teach Kingston in the classroom, and considers her "one of the most important writers of the last three decades."

While at PLU, Kingston discussed everything from Chinese-American culture to creative writing to making peace.

Kingston said she is excited by PLU’s Wang Center for International Programs, especially PLU’s Peace Studies classes and the Peace Studies Working Group. "I think it is absolutely wonderful," she said. "Learning about peace in the classroom is the first step. I hope the process will create PLU students who will write the peace works of the future."

Kingston’s latest work, "The Fifth Book of Peace," has taken an extraordinary journey. Traced all the way back to the late 1980s, it all began with a rumor she heard regarding three lost books of peace in China. She hoped to track them down to "balance the damage" done by Sun-Tzu’s famous book "The Art of War."

After years of research in China, she wrote her fictional book of peace, only to see it destroyed in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. After that, she wrote an entirely new book—this time nonfiction and personal—reflecting on her ideas on ending conflict and her coming to terms with the Vietnam War.

Writing an almost 800-page peace work of her own revealed changes about her future as a writer.

"At that point, I wanted to be socially irresponsible," she said with a smile. "I wanted to write as I did as a child, about my feelings, my inside." To do that, Kingston turned to poetry.

The result was the recently released "To Be the Poet," in which Kingston chronicles her attempts to adopt "the life of the poet," and in later sections shares her poems.

Kingston, who is also a creative writing professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wants to continue shaking up how college students are taught creative writing. Kingston doesn’t back away from her 1970s statement that college interfered with her creativity. "Creative writing is a seed, it must not be criticized right away," Kingston said. "College writing has to be about building a supportive community of writers." In her own Berkeley classroom, she takes time out for activities like meditation, which helps her students move from a "rational to an imaginative state."

At a campus reading and discussion, she encouraged all to participate in her favorite form, the short poem. Kingston, PLU students and faculty shared their immediate responses, with everything from the inspirational, ("Desire never says enough,") to the political, ("Inspections, Not War.")

"That is what I love about poetry, both the discovery and response are immediate," Kingston said. "It is a gift."

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