Near the end of her incandescent 1976 memoir, The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston tells the story of a knot-maker in China who tied a knot so complicated that it made him blind. In response, the emperor outlawed the knot. "If I had lived in China," Kingston tells us, "I would have been an outlaw knot-maker."
Instead, she put her defiant love of complication into knotty books that tie together biography, history, myth, movies and fiction to show us an America that is too often overlooked. Born to Chinese immigrants who ran a laundromat in Stockton, Calif., the 81-year-old Kingston is at once an Asian American writer, a feminist storyteller, a chronicler of immigrant experience and a literary innovator. One of those rare figures who shifted American culture, and who keeps on being relevant, she belongs on the same shelf as James Baldwin, Joan Didion and Kurt Vonnegut.
She's now been placed alongside them in the prestigious Library of America, which has just released a volume that collects, among other great things, her three most famous works: The Woman Warrior, China Men and Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. She tells stories about creating your own identity, not settling for the one the world tries to give you.
This was clear from her first book, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, which begins with one of the killer opening lines in American literature: "'You must not tell anyone,' my mother said, 'what I'm about to tell you.'" Naturally, the narrator does tell us. We learn that Maxine's father had a sister who got pregnant out of wedlock, killed herself and her baby in disgrace, and her whole family simply pretended she never existed.
In telling this story she's not supposed to tell us, Kingston underscores a cruel truth about traditional Chinese culture — its oppression of women. She also asserts her right, as an act of self-liberation, to scrutinize her mother's dictates, the ghosts that haunt the Chinese past, and the American values that surround her.
Kingston continued that search for freedom in her more expansive and angrier second book, China Men, which focuses on the experience of the Chinese men who came to the U.S. in search of prosperity only to encounter a racism as ghastly as the misogyny highlighted in The Woman Warrior.
Unlike most writers who tackle such volatile material, Kingston never simplifies. She offers no tear-jerking melodrama, no sentimental clichés about immigrants, no grind-you-down realism. Too original for that, she offers her personal version of storytelling — what the Chinese call "talk-story." She explores the ideas of "Chineseness" and "Americanness" by weaving together far-ranging elements, be it an indelible evocation of her family's laundry, a haunting, movie-laced reverie on her brother heading off to Vietnam, or the inspirational myth of the woman warrior Mulan, whose now-Hollywoodized story first became well known in the West because Kingston wrote about it.
Writing as she damn well pleased, she followed these first two brilliant books with a novel Tripmaster Monkey, which is probably too brilliant. Set in a marvelously evoked early-'60s Bay Area, the book focuses on Wittman Ah Sing, a writer seeking to cook up a workable Chinese American identity from a postmodern salad of influences, tossing together the Beats, the poet Rilke, Hollywood movies, the Chinese epic Journey to the West, and countless other things. While it proved too hip for the room of 1989 America, Tripmaster Monkey crackles with an ambition and brio that's still dazzling.
Although Kingston had her detractors, her transgressive willingness to go for broke made her a pioneering inspiration for the scads of wonderful writers who began mapping the territory she first opened. You can find her footprints in, among others, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Charles Yu's Interior Chinatown and The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who edited this collection.
She opened up new territory for readers like me, too. Re-reading these books today, I've been struck by how much of what I now think of as conventional wisdom became so because of her unconventional work. In a way, Maxine Hong Kingston truly is an outlaw knot-maker, but her work doesn't make anyone go blind — it helps us to see.