War and peace were the themes of Maxine Hong Kingston’s visit to Santa Barbara City College last week. “Nothing,” she said, “is more important than peace.” Throughout the reading, the diminutive septuagenarian with flowing white hair strode the stage of the Garvin Theatre, which was bare but for a table on which rested a bottle of water and a small stack of books.
Hong Kingston began by reading a selection from “White Tiger,” a chapter in a book that is far from peaceful: The Woman Warrior. The book is an explosive mixture of memoir and fiction, and its exploration of the real and fantasy life of a young Chinese-American woman has inspired several generations of creative writers, as well as scholars in ethnic and gender studies.
Though it was first published in 1975, The Woman Warrior continues to be widely read, especially in colleges and universities. Before her reading, Hong Kingston mused about why the book has resonated with so many readers for so many years. “The letters I get from readers tell me that I am writing the story of their own lives,” she said, “and that my books have changed their lives. I suppose this means that I have written stories that are universally human and true. And can it be that reading a good book can transform the reader?”
Hong Kingston continued the theme of war in her Garvin lecture by reading from her National Book Award winning collection China Me. She chose a story about her brother’s experience in a bomber above Vietnam, which emphasized the great distance between those killing and those being killed.
By this time, the tone in the theater had become somber, the audience silent and still. Fortunately, Hong Kingston shifted the mood by speaking about her work as facilitator for a Bay Area writing group called Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, “a community of writers working together to heal the trauma of war through art.”
The longest reading came from Hong Kingston’s most recent book I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, a 240-page autobiographical poem. She focused on a long passage describing Code Pink’s 2003 protest against the Iraq War. A number of prominent woman writers — the speaker included — participated and ultimately went to jail. Hong Kingston received probably her biggest laugh of the night when she read the lines, “‘My wife is gonna kill me,’ said a black cop; ‘I’m arresting Alice Walker.’”
After the reading, several audience members asked Hong Kingston whether or not, considering the undeniable barbarity of the human race, achieving peace was realistic. She paused, then began explaining how, as a Buddhist, she believes all our lives are connected, that one good and peaceful deed may resonate through the ages. “An act of love I do this morning,” she said, “saves a life on a future battlefield.”