Magical. mystical tour
WITH her flowing white hair, Maxine Hong Kingston appears like the female version of a mystical Chinese sage or a fiftysomething activist left over from the heady days of America's anti-Vietnam War campus rebellion.
Maybe she is both. The author of Woman Warrior and China Men has an imagination which soars far beyond normal reality, feeding off her Chinese heritage but let loose by her Californian background and her own genius.
Ms Kingston, who is in Hong Kong this week, is one of the world's most celebrated writers of Chinese origin. Among many accolades, Woman Warrior , won the US National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976 and her following work, China Men, the American Book Award in 1981.
Those books defined what it was to be Chinese-American. They spanned the two continents and several generations as well as the persecution, endurance and change of the migrant community. They drew on the extraordinary imagery of her ancestral peasant culture and mythology as handed down in childhood stories by her mother and her community.
Sixteen years after finishing Woman Warrior, Ms Kingston has moved on from the wounds of emigration, and further from her family's roots in Guangdong. She arrived in Hong Kong bearing a message of peace from Berkeley, California.
The book she is currently writing sounds distinctly New Age Californian. It is subtitled A Book of Peace. She told an audience at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) on Thursday how it was being written with the help of a community of war veterans, most still bombed out with PTS - post traumatic stress.
Together they gain inspiration from ''days of mindfulness'' and meditation.
And yet the source of this book is Chinese. ''I have heard a Chinese legend that at one time there were three books of peace,'' she said. These contained tactics to end wars and conflict but had probably been burnt during changes of dynasty when old libraries were destroyed to wipe out the history that went before.
Ms Kingston had the simple solution to the loss of such vital books. ''I thought the way to find those books would be to imagine what would be in them and write them myself,'' she said.
But maybe Fate really did mean them to remain lost. After nearly two years of work on ''the fourth book of peace'', not including time spent ''thinking and imagining'', she lost the manuscript in a firestorm that ravaged around 3,000 houses in Berkeley in 1991.
''My house was burnt down and my manuscript was burnt,'' she said.
As a result of that fire, Ms Kingston is now writing what she called the fifth book of peace. ''It is a completely different book that is coming to me. The nature of creativity is that you can't write the same book twice. That would not be fun. Writing is a constant discovery. '' She has no idea when the book will be finished. Her last book, The Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, took eight years to complete.
She read the first 10 pages for HKUST's first literary reading. The pages are devoted to describing the drive home after performing her father's funeral rites, the fire and the thoughts and visions that rushed to her head at the time.
Ms Kingston, who has a strong interest in Buddhism, must be well-versed in its doctrine of detachment. As such, she was unfazed by the disaster.
''My book of peace was gone, my father was gone, my material possessions gone. But suddenly I had a sense that a lot remained, but it was invisible: visions, values and ideas,'' she told her audience. ''They were palpably there, all around me. I felt those ideas, spirits, are not visible to most people because they are encumbered by things.'' Her first idea at the time was that the fire was the work of God. ''God is showing us Iraq,'' she said. The fire happened during the Gulf War, when Ms Kingston hung flags of peace from her house while her neighbours strew theirs with yellow ribbons andraised the Stars and Stripes.
Her second idea was that her father had done it, the family having cut short the one-month period of mourning after his death by two days before performing the final funeral rites. ''We did not give him enough gifts,'' she said. ''He does not know how toaim his death powers. He is carpet bombing.'' She also saw the fire as a sign that she was approaching the book in the wrong way. ''I was trying to write a book about community all by myself. I had been working in a little attic at the top of the house just my size. No one else could fit in that room except me. That attic burnt in the fire.'' Ms Kingston has since embarked on a most unusual experiment for such a well-respected author. ''I wanted to invent a new way of writing,'' she said. ''I advertised for war veterans to join me in all-day sessions of meditation and writing.'' Together the group of 25 perform walking meditation, walking into nature and classic Buddhist meditation - all ways of creating peace. ''I think of it as harnessing collective energy,'' she said. ''I find this method works wonderfully for me. I work faster, from very powerful stories.'' Her veterans have fought in wars round the world from the Spanish Civil War to the Gulf War. ''They are processing post traumatic stress through art. . . surely people who have experience of war can help me write a book of peace.'' Sixteen years ago critics had enough trouble trying to define the genre of Woman Warrior, whether it was fiction, autobiography or poetry. They are likely to have more difficulties with her current work. ''I plan the next one to be of a genre I have never heard of,'' she said.
While the book began as non-fiction, it would progress with her imaginings and fictional characters who would go to Hawaii to form a commune of draft dodgers and soldiers absent without leave.
''We have hardly begun to imagine what peace is. Peace has to be invented,'' she said.
I want to work on the idea of community, people working together in harmony. One reason I gathered these veterans was to see what could be done with that war energy. One way you practise peace is by practising art,'' she said.
Her inspiration comes from listening to people. ''I do very little research. If you listen the stories are right there. In America talk-story is very alive.'' ''I don't plan my work. I just let it happen,'' she said. ''But usually I have a sense of the people, real or imagined. I can see them very clearly, I can hear them. I am very interested in their lives.
Ms Kingston was born in Stockton, California, in 1940, her parents having migrated to ''The Golden Mountain'' of America from their native Guangdong. Her father, Tom Hong, had been a scholar in his homeland but in the US he became the manager of a gambling house and a laundry worker. Her mother Ying Lan, the Brave Orchid of Woman Warrior, was a doctor and midwife in China before she joined her husband to work in the laundry and as a field hand.
Maxine was the first of their six American-born children and was named after a lucky blonde American gamester in the gambling house.
Ms Kingston's identity as a Chinese American has never been a problem. She sees herself as a prodigy of the American 60s as well as of her immigrant family. She does not consider China as her homeland, though the unusual Szeyup dialect was her first language.
Like many women from that area of Guangdong, she started going grey while still in her teens. But while most Chinese women would dye their grey hair black, she unashamedly keeps hers as it is. ''I grew up in the 60s, when natural was beautiful. I think it is important to define the beauty of the older person.'' She is also unashamed at how she has developed Chinese myths. During their transition to America they had changed. ''Many myths die. When you think of the Cultural Revolution most myths were wiped out. When they are revived they are different.
''Our identity is made up of everything we do, stories we hear, reading we do. Each person takes myths and transforms them for their personal identity.'' The Three Books of Peace may, she admitted, never have existed. She is still hunting for clues.