Making Room For A 'Broad Margin' To Life, In Verse Maxine Hong Kingston's free-verse memoir contemplates her 70 years of "always writing, writing" and the conflicting impulses to catalog each instance or to "[take] my sweet time to love the moment-/to-moment beauty of everything."
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Making Room For A 'Broad Margin' To Life, In Verse

I Love A Broad Margin To My Life by Maxine Hong Kingston
I Love A Broad Margin To My Life
By Maxine Hong Kingston
Hardcover, 240 pages
List price: $24.95
Read An Excerpt

Maxine Hong Kingston revisits her life, ancestors, characters and passionate concern for peace and women's equality in this unconventional, somewhat rambling, intermittently arresting memoir in verse, which she began writing in 2005 — on the cusp of her 65th birthday. I Love a Broad Margin to My Life takes its evocative title from a quote from Thoreau that hangs over her desk, while its free verse form owes much to Walt Whitman, after whom Hong Kingston named Wittman Ah Sing, the hero of her first novel, Tripmaster Monkey (1989).

Hong Kingston contemplates aging, writing and Chinese-American culture: "standing on top of a hill;/I can see everywhichway—/the long way that I came, and the few places I have yet to go. Treat/my whole life as if it were a day." She examines herself critically — "Am I pretty at 65?/What does old look like?" — and notes the impulse to "save each scrap of moment" along with the desire for "poetry as it came to my young self/humming and rushing, no patience for chapter book."

No patience, either, for "the stupid, the greedy, the cruel, the unfair [who] have taken/over the world." The author of The Woman Warrior (1976) and China Men (1980) is still fiercely outspoken. One of the more engaging sections of Broad Margin recounts being arrested for demonstrating in a forbidden zone on the White House sidewalk in March 2003 in an anti-war protest coordinated by the Code Pink organization to coincide with International Women's Day. Her cellmate was Alice Walker.

In contrast, reflections on several of her dozen visits to China meander like a traveler without an itinerary. She regrets never bringing her father along, afraid to try because he was an illegal alien. Wondering what it would be like "to leave you who love me," she has her old character Wittman leave his wife on his "5-times-12 birthday" and contemplate becoming a rice farmer in China, where "so-so/security will send a check every/month to wherever I'll be living." His travels blur with hers, no doubt in part because, "For the writer,/doing something in fiction is the same as doing/it in life."

Maxine Hong Kingston also wrote The Woman Warrior, a creative nonfiction memoir about women at the intersection of Chinese and Western culture. She is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Michael Lionstar hide caption

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Michael Lionstar

Maxine Hong Kingston also wrote The Woman Warrior, a creative nonfiction memoir about women at the intersection of Chinese and Western culture. She is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Michael Lionstar

Hong Kingston notes that in the four years she spent writing Broad Margin, "Poetry, which makes immortality and eternity,/did not stop time." She names more than 50 of her dead, commenting, "Each one who dies, I want to go with you ... Why continue to live?" Among the reasons she lists is her desire to translate her father's poems.

Ever matrilineal, Hong Kingston marks generations in grandmothers ("3 grandmothers ago"), and notes that, assuming she lives to 100 like her mother, at her current rate of a book a decade, she has time to write three more books. But in her startling final lines, she confesses that she regrets "always writing, writing" and asserts that her lifelong desire to write "is going away./I've said what I have to say ... When I/complete this sentence, I shall begin/taking my sweet time to love the moment-/to-moment beauty of everything. Every one. Enow." Last words? Time, as they say, will tell.

Excerpt: 'I Love A Broad Margin To My Life'

Cover of 'I Love A Broad Margin To My Life'


I am turning 65 years of age.
In 2 weeks I will be 65 years old.
I can accumulate time and lose
time? I sit here writing in the dark —
can't see to change these penciled words —
just like my mother, alone, bent over her writing,
just like my father bent over his writing, alone
but for me watching. She got out of bed,
wrapped herself in a blanket, and wrote down
the strange sounds Father, who was dead,
was intoning to her. He was reading aloud
calligraphy that he'd written — carved with inkbrush —
on his tombstone. She wasn't writing in answer.
She wasn't writing a letter. Who was she writing to?

I Love A Broad Margin To My Life
By Maxine Hong Kingston
Hardcover, 240 pages
List price: $24.95

This well-deep outpouring is not for
anything. Yet we have to put into exact words
what we are given to see, hear, know.
Mother's eyesight blurred; she saw trash
as flowers. "Oh. How very beautiful."
She was lucky, seeing beauty, living
in beauty, whether or not it was there.

I am often looking in mirrors, and singling
out my face in group photographs.
Am I pretty at 65?
What does old look like?
Sometimes I am wrinkled, sometimes not.
So much depends upon lighting.
A camera crew shot pictures of me — one of
"5 most influential people over 60
in the East Bay." I am homely; I am old.
I look like a tortoise in a curly white wig.
I am stretching head and neck toward
the light, such effort to lift the head, to open
the eyes. Black, shiny, lashless eyes.
Talking mouth. I must utter you
something. My wrists are crossed in my lap;
wrinkles run up the left forearm.
(It's my right shoulder that hurts — Rollerblading
accident — does the pain show, does my hiding it?)
I should've spoken up, Don't take
my picture, not in that glare. One side
of my neck and one cheek are gone in black
shadow. Nobody looks good in hard focus,
high contrast — black sweater and skirt,
white hair, white sofa, white
curtains. My colors and my home, but rearranged.
The crew had pushed the reds and blues and greens aside.
The photographer, a young woman, said, "Great. Great."
From within my body, I can't sense that crease
on my left cheek. I have to get — win —
compliments. "You are beautiful." "So cute."
"Such a kind face." "You are simple."
"You move fast." "Chocolate Chip."
A student I taught long ago
called me Chocolate Chip. And only yesterday
a lifelong friend told Earll, my husband,
he's lucky, he's got me — the Chocolate Chip.
They mean, I think, my round face
and brown-bead eyes. I keep
count. I mind that I be good-looking.
I don't want to look like Grandmother,
Ah Po. Her likeness is the mask of tragedy.
"An ape weeps when another ape weeps."
She is Ancestress; she is prayed to. She
sits, the queen, center of the family in China,
center of the family portrait (my mother in it too,
generations of in-laws around her) — all
is black and white but for a dot of jade-green
at Po's ears, and a curve of jade-green
at her wrist. Lotus lily feet show
from the hem of her gown. She wanted to be
a beauty. She lived to be 100.
My mother lived to be 100. "One
hundred and three," she said. Chinese
lie about their age, making themselves older.
Or maybe she was 97 when the lady official
from Social Security visited her, as the government visits
everyone who claims a 100th birthday.
MaMa showed off; she pedaled her exercise
bike, hammer-curled hot pink barbells.
Suddenly stopped — what if So-so Security
won't believe she's a century old?
Here's a way for calculating age: Subtract
from her age of death my age now.
100 - 65 = 35
I am 35 years-to-go.

Hear Kingston on Talk of the Nation

Lately, I've been
writing a book a decade; I have time
to write 3 more books. Jane Austen
wrote 6 books. I've written 6 books.
Hers are 6 big ones, mine
4 big ones and 2 small ones.
I take refuge in numbers. I
waste my time with sudoku.
Day dawns, I am greedy, helpless
to begin 6-star difficulty
sudoku. Sun goes
down; I'm still stuck for that square
that will let the numbers fly into place.
What good am I getting out
of this? I'm not stopping time. Nothing
to show for my expenditures. Pure nothing.

8 days before my birthday, I went
to John Mulligan's funeral. He was 10
years younger than me. He died without
finishing his book, MIAmerica.
(I have a superstition that as long as I,
any writer, have things to write, I keep living.)
I joined in singing again and again
a refrain, "Send thou his soul to God." Earll,
though, did not sing, did not
say any of the Latin, any of the prayers.
He muttered that the Catholic Church divides you
against yourself, against your sexy body.
"The Church is a gyp." John Mulligan should've
been given a pagan ceremony; Woman Warrior,
Robert Louis Stevenson, and Cuchulain
had come to him in Viet Nam. John
carried them, tied to him by silver cords,
to the U.S. The priest, who came from the Philippines,
kept reminding one and all that the benefits
he was offering were for "Christians" only. But
he did memorialize John being born and raised
in Scotland, and coming to America at 17.
Summarily drafted to Viet Nam. You
didn't have to be a citizen to be drafted.

. . .

The war count, as of today:

Almost 2,000 killed in Iraq. G.I.s.
Not counting Afghanis,
children, babies,

7 days before my birthday, I had breakfast with
Mary Gordon, who's always saying things
I never thought before: "It's capitalistic
of us to expect any good from peace demonstrations,
as if ritual has to have use, gain, profit."
I agreed, "Yes, it's Buddhist to go parading
for the sake of parading." "Can you think of a writer
(besides Chekhov) who is holy and an artist?"
"Grace Paley." She smiled. "Well, yes."
Obviously. "Thoreau." "Oh, no. Thoreau's
too Protestant, tidy, nonsexual. He goes
home to Mom for hot chocolate. No
sex, no tragedy, no humor."
Come to think of it, Thoreau doesn't make
me laugh. A line from Walden hangs over one
of my desks:

I love a broad margin to my life.

Sitting here at this sidewalk café with Mary,
deliberately taking time off from writing
and teaching duties, I am making a broad margin
to my life. The margin will be broader when we part,
and I am alone. Thoreau swam, then sat in the doorway
of his "Shelter," "large box," "dwelling-house,"
alone all the summer morning, rapt
in the sunlight and the trees and the stillness.
Birds flitted through the house. ". . . Until
by the sun falling in at my west window,
or the noise of some traveller's wagon on the distant
highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time."
I have a casita of my own, built instead of
a garage after the Big Fire. Its width
is the same as Thoreau's (10 feet), its length
a yard longer. He had a loft; I have
a skylight. I want to be a painter.
Sometimes, I hear the freeway, now and again
the train, and the campanile. Thoreau heard
the band playing military music; his neighbors
were going to war against Mexico. He made up his mind
not to pay taxes.
Trying broad-
margin meditation, I sit in
the sunny doorway of my casita, amidst the yucca
and loquats and purple rain birches. Some I
planted, some volunteered. Birds —
chickadees, finches, sparrows, pairs of doves,
a pair of towhees, and their enemy, the jay. Hawk
overhead. Barn swallows at twilight.
I know: Thoreau sat with notebook
and pencil in hand. Days full of writing.

Days full of wanting.
Let them go by without worrying
that they do. Stay where you are
inside such a pure hollow note.


Evening, at an Oxfam Relief benefit
for Hurricane Katrina refugees, I read aloud
what Gilgamesh of Uruk (Iraq!) heard about a flood.
The Euphrates flattened a city ". . . bringing calamity
down on those whom now the sea engulfs
and overwhelms, my children who are now the children
of fishes." Earll auctioned away a 100th
anniversary Mardi Gras doubloon handed down
from his family. A bakery donated an immense cake
with candles, and people sang Happy Birthday to me.

Excerpted from I Love A Broad Margin To My Life by Maxine Hong Kingston. Copyright 2011 by Maxine Hong Kingston. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

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