Maxine Hong Kingston Takes Pride in Mixed Heritage Award-winning Author Maxine Hong Kingston is the daughter of two illegal immigrants from China. She grew up listening to her parents' stories about their native country. Kingston shares her thoughts on patriotism, and offers listeners a glimpse into her next piece of work.
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Maxine Hong Kingston Takes Pride in Mixed Heritage

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Maxine Hong Kingston Takes Pride in Mixed Heritage

Maxine Hong Kingston Takes Pride in Mixed Heritage

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On this special July 4th broadcast - what it means to be an American. We'll hear from a number of voices on today's program, voices from around the country and many walks of life. Plus a very special wisdom watch with acclaimed author Dr. Maya Angelou.

But first, we all know this is a nation of immigrants but we sometimes forget what it's like to be caught between two worlds - the one we've come from and the one where we live today.

Perhaps no one has captured this dilemma better than another acclaimed author, Maxine Hong Kingston. The daughter of two illegal immigrants from China, Maxine Hong Kingston grew up listening to stories about her parents' native country. Her groundbreaking 1970 - sorry - 1976 book, "The Woman Warrior," blends fact and fiction in a bittersweet memoir of growing up Chinese-American in Stockton, California. She is the recipient of many awards, a National Humanities Medal among them. Maxine Hong Kingston joins us now from Berkley, California. Welcome.

Ms. MAXINE HONG KINGSTON (Award-winning Author): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Your work is infused with the struggle to reconcile your cultural heritage with your emerging sense of yourself as an American. So I'd like to ask, what does a day like today mean to you now?

Ms. KINGSTON: Well, it means opportunity for all of us to celebrate the values that are in the Bill of Rights. And I think of the Fourth of July as a time when we can all stop and really appreciate that we have the right to speak, and to write, and to assemble, and to practice our beliefs.

MARTIN: Do you remember growing up when you first came to that consciousness of being an American? Many people it happens only after they leave the country and are on their way back.

Ms. KINGSTON: I was about 15 years old when I wrote an essay for The American Girl magazine, and the name of my essay was "I Am An American." And I worked out the idea that you don't have to be white to be an American. But all the time I was aware that both my parents were illegals and I had to be very careful to write in such a way that I can insist on our being American without giving away their illegal status.

MARTIN: Do you remember what made you want to do that essay?

Ms. KINGSTON: I wanted to assert myself as an American, and it was a matter of existentially growing myself as an American person. And it was also in reaction to the prejudice and racism that was all around me. And the only way that I could defend myself was to positively set out the really good American values.

MARTIN: Some artists, particularly, I think, artists, writers, intellectuals, are confronting that existential crisis, as you described it, go the other way. They kind of renounce they're Americanness. They prefer to see themselves as kind of a citizen of the world, if you will. Which, you know, for many people was certainly sort of a choice. And I'm just wondering why you think perhaps you wanted to claim you're Americanness as opposed to - you know, renounce is such a strong word. But there have been many people who felt that way. They have felt that they have not - this country has not loved them as they have wanted to love it.

Ms. KINGSTON: Well, I fell that it's part of my work as an artist, a creator, a human being, is to integrate and to be more inclusive and to define American as large and not as exclusive.

MARTIN: You're listening to TELL ME MORE. And I'm joined by writer Maxine Hong Kingston, who's talking to us about identity and being an American. Ms. Kingston, you recently edited a book of veteran stories called "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace." And I'm just - I understand that part of this work, you've been doing this work for years…

Ms. KINGSTON: Yes, I have.

MARTIN: …working with veterans to help them tell their stories. I was wondering whether - have these veterans caused you to reflect in any way differently? Or what have you learned about what their sense of patriotism or what their service has meant to their sense of self as Americans?

Ms. KINGSTON: They have given so much and they have struggled. And I see these soldiers, people coming back from the wars, and they are so wounded. They are so hurt from what they have experienced and the actions which they have made in the world. And now there is work to be done in pulling our country together and the world together. That's the work that comes after a war. It's how to make peace and how to make the world whole again.

MARTIN: Do you take pride in being an American?

Ms. KINGSTON: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, it's something that I need to work with. I need to make American actions that would make me proud.

MARTIN: It's such an interesting term, sort of pride and…

Ms. KINGSTON: You know, pride is a funny word.

MARTIN: …I think it's a funny word…

Ms. KINGSTON: Yes.

MARTIN: …because it got such a mixed meaning. On one hand it's one of the seven deadly sins.

Ms. KINGSTON: That word is so close to patriotism, isn't it? I worry about patriotism. And I try to redefine patriotism for myself. I think that if we take the Bill of Rights and look at it as a to-do list and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KINGSTON: …you know, then we can speak and write and assemble and practice our beliefs. And then we become - then, in doing those things, I become an American or I make America a place that I can be proud of.

MARTIN: Will you celebrate the Fourth today?

Ms. KINGSTON: Well, you know, I'll celebrate in the way that I always celebrate, by writing and working in my garden. And if you mean celebrating in the sense of having a barbeque, no, because I've become a vegetarian.

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You can grill some eggplant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KINGSTON: Yes. Yes, that's true. Grilled eggplant is very good.

MARTIN: And I understand you're working on a poem about culminating life, an elder's poem. Will you tell me about that before we let you go?

Ms. KINGSTON: Well, yes. The poem begins: I am turning 65 years of age. And so I am thinking about how am I growing old. How am I becoming an elder? How am I becoming an elder? I would love to go back to China and be old because there we hear that older people are loved and appreciated. I can't grow old in America. America is a country for young people. So I can't grow old here. Should I go back to China and grow old there? So those are the questions that I'm asking.

MARTIN: Well, I don't want you to go. I want you to stay here with us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KINGSTON: Actually, I don't want to go either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Writer Maxine Hong Kingston spoke to us from Berkley, California. Her 1976 book, "The Woman Warrior," was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. Happy Fourth to you, and thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. KINGSTON: Well, thank you, too, Michel.

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