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Award-winning Maxine Kingston tells the story of her family history, immigration

Maxine Hong Kingston, award-winning author and senior lecturer for creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke at Stanford on Friday as the ninth annual Kieve Distinguished Speaker, a lecture held by the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE).

Kingston’s books have covered topics from anthropology to education to women’s studies. She is considered one of the founding writers of Asian-American literature and won the 1980 National Book Award for her book “China Men” and the 1976 National Book Critics Circle Award for “The Woman Warrior.”

According to the Modern Literature Association, “The Woman Warrior” is the most commonly taught text at universities.

“Maxine defined for a lot of our generation what it meant to be Asian American,” said Jeff Chang, executive director for the Institute for Diversity in the Arts + Committee on Black Performing Arts at Stanford. “She’s left a lasting legacy by writing us into history.”

He also emphasized that Kingston is gifted in humanizing the stories of immigrants and human struggles in general.

“She’s a brilliant writer and doesn’t shy away from hard issues,” he added.

Close to 100 audience members came to listen to Kingston read three excerpts from her books. One of the excerpts from “China Men” told of her Chinese immigrant grandfather who was sent to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. The story described how he had never seen snow or the immovable mountains before coming to the United States and how he would also soon appraise how hard it was to move earth.

She also spoke about her family history, including the inspiring story of how her father, an illegal immigrant, tried to enter the New York harbor and was deported on three attempts before he finally entered the country with his wife.

“We’d always thought we’d be deported!” Kingston said with a laugh.

When asked her biggest literary inspirations, Kingston cited Virginia Woolf and the traditions of African-American writers before her.

Director of the CCSRE and Professor of Comparative Literature José David Saldivar spoke about what makes Kingston’s work so distinctive and why the department chose her as a speaker.

“All of Kingston’s texts are radical experiments in genre — both ‘The Woman Warrior’ and ‘China Men’ are autobiographies that cross freely into the imaginative worlds of extravagance, myth and fiction,” he said in a statement to The Daily.

“Kingston offered readers an alternate radical vision of the founding fathers of America … [by making] founding fathers of the Chinese men whose labor cleared jungles to create sugar plantations and who hammered through mountains to make way for the Transcontinental Railroad,” he added.

MarYam Hamedami Ph.D. ‘08, associate director of the CCSRE, spoke about her first experiences reading Kingston.

“Like many, I first read ‘The Woman Warrior’ in college and — like many Americans who are children of immigrants and who come from non-white racial and ethnic backgrounds — I was blown away by this amazing artist who told stories that were more like my stories than most authors in the ‘Western canon’ that I had read up until that point,” Hamedani said.

In addition to the event organizers, audience members also had positive comments about Kingston’s lecture.

“[Kingston’s work] gave me a lot of words to describe attitudes I had felt but have never been able to articulate,” said Xiaoxia Zhuang M.A. ‘15. “It was very inspiring to read a narrative by a fellow woman of color. Her work was really a gateway for me into the Asian-American literature.”

Aspiring writer Mirae Lee ‘17 appreciated Kingston’s memorable depiction of racial barriers.

“She really expressed well that block that was there when you’re a person of color, especially in that day,” Lee said. “It was an image that particularly struck me because I could imagine [Kingston’s grandfather] with a pickaxe trying to break through that block of granite.”

Lee also said that the event gave her the opportunity to meet a fellow Asian-American female author.

“Walking out of the event, I felt like I had a long way to go, but I also felt that energy to go that distance,” Lee said. “It was mixed feelings, but in a good way.”

 

Contact Zheng Yuan Ma at zhengm ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.