Most memoirists—and there seem to be an ever-increasing number these days—write straightforward accounts, recalling past to present as they remember it. But National Book Award Winner Maxine Hong Kingston long shattered this mold with her 1976 multi-narrational memoir The Woman Warrior, in which she fictionally inhabits her ancestral history and childhood.
Though Hong Kingston’s new memoir explores aging and the end of life, it again delights as an unconventional, intimate and intensely personal life story. Composed entirely in free verse, the book is unusual from the outset, forcing a slower, calmer contemplation of Hong Kingston’s words. It also springboards off another author’s words : “A line from Walden hangs over one / of my desks: / I love a broad margin to my life.” These words compel her to expand her view of her past 65 years, lived as a daughter, wife, mother, writer and activist complete with regrets and dreams.
Composed entirely in free verse, the book is unusual from the outset, forcing a slower, calmer contemplation of Hong Kingston’s words.
Her age and image are touched on throughout. “I am homely; I am old / ,” she writes. “I look like a tortoise in a curly white wig.” There are other frank admissions, explorations of purpose and even regrets for elevating writing above personal interaction. Sprinkled through the book are pointed remembrances, from her son’s birth to unspecified yet lasting events: “The older I get, the more tripping out / and flashbacks. I live again feelings / I’ve already gone through. Pink / embarrassments, red guilts, purple guilts.”
Such language is characteristic Hong Kingston, at once personal and poetic (beautiful descriptions of meditation and chi kung) and informal (the inclusion of “Omigod!”). Description alone allows us to bore more intimately into her everyday life, understanding her more, from her Buddhist and Quaker silence practice to small ways she occupies time: “I take refuge in numbers. I / waste my time with sudoku.” The narration also jumps back and forth between Vietnam and Iraq wars, peace demonstrations and contemporary causes, casualty counts and her arrest for protesting the so-called “shock and awe” campaign at the White House. And in recounting her arrest, during which she shared a cell with Alice Walker, she also relives her father’s past, blending reimagined history and present as she does best.
And as she did in The Woman Warrior, she directly inhabits fictional characters from her previous books, melting into her past, present and future sense of identity. She merges with them, as if they are alter egos, then separates, with conscious, direct narration. “Now, I, Maxine, could let Wittman die, / let him die in the China of his dreams, /” she writes of her hip Chinese-American character, “and proceed on this journey alone. … But I don’t like / traveling by myself.”
In the end, the book encircles life’s journey and its ultimate death from multiple, powerful perspectives. She admits a pull to join lost friends and colleagues and lists reasons why she should keep living. She also weighs in on the future of her writing. But what remains is that Hong Kingston will continue to “look at things I see / from the corner of my eye.” For now, we are better for being able to share this perspective, if only for a few more pages.
Read more here LL