“Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on. She tested our strength to establish realities. Those in the emigrant generations who could not reassert brute survival died young and far from home. Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America. . . . Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?”
‘”The Woman Warrior” and Kingston’s second memoir, “China Men” (1980), are the most widely taught books by a living American author on college campuses today … This rather astonishing information no doubt reflects the various categories of political and cultural opinion to which Kingston’s work appeals, but it also means that “The Woman Warrior” is probably one of the most influential books now in print in this country — and certainly one of the most influential books with a valid claim to literary recognition.
What was the state of the memoir when you were writing The Woman Warrior?
My publisher decided to call it a memoir. At the time, that was not a very common word. There weren’t people writing memoirs; there were people writing autobiographies. Autobiography being, you had to be an important person, an important enough person to write about. I’m not an important person; I’m just anybody. And anybody’s life, a nobody’s life, could be a wonderful piece of art. I also feel that I changed the writing of biography because China Men (1980) and The Women Warrior are stories about my mother and father and again, I felt that to write truly about somebody you have to know what they were dreaming about, and a dream is fiction. Also, all of the things they did when I wasn’t there and couldn’t witness, I had to make up — and that’s fiction. I wrote a new way of biography using the techniques of fiction and nonfiction. After The Woman Warrior was published, there was a whole new genre which they’re calling “creative nonfiction” now.
So when I started writing again, I wanted to express myself, my own self. I didn’t want to do public writing. I just wanted to crawl into a corner and cry. It didn’t have to make sense. So I put into writing my private feelings and thoughts so then I went back to more diary-like writing, which is what children do. That was The Fifth Book of Peace (2003), which I think is a combination of fiction and nonfiction, all mixed together, and that’s all in prose. In I Love a Broad Margin to My Life (2011), I go back to what I started with, which is poetry. I feel that I was born a poet. I turned to prose because there was so much reasoning and history I wanted to do, which is done with prose. My latest book I just returned to poetry, which is my original self. In poetry, I am able to fly and skip things. When I write something historical, I have to fill in what happened in time and I have to put in all these facts. But in poetry I can just elide over all of that; now I can just write poetry without so many references and footnotes.
What’s a question you wish someone would ask you? Or one that you’re tired of answering?
This happened at the beginning when The Woman Warrior was published, but all the reviews were like “What is this? Is this fiction or nonfiction?” But I like that question. I really enjoy answering it because the latest edition of The Woman Warrior, on the front cover it says, “Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction,” and then you turn the book over and on the back it says “Fiction.” It shows that there isn’t a wall between fiction and nonfiction — that the borders and the margins are very wide — and that we could live in that wide border, that wide margin. I’m for making the borders very wide in art. I hope it could happen politically, thinking about immigration and building the wall, too.
In another interview you said, “the artist’s memory winnows out, it edits for what is important and significant. Memory, my own memory, shows me what is unforgettable and helps me get to an essence that will not die and that haunts me until I can put it into a form which is the writing.