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A ‘transformative’ literary mind

Maxine Hong Kingston speaks at inaugural Encountering the Humanities lecture series
October 21st, 2011

In explaining her deci­sion to write her recently com­pleted 230-​​page memoir, “I Love a Broad Margin to My Life,” in free verse, Maxine Hong Kingston said, “I returned to my way of writing as a child.”

Speaking before more than 50 fac­ulty and stu­dents in the Cabral Center last Thursday for the inau­gural address in the Encoun­tering the Human­i­ties lec­ture series, the acclaimed author added, “I was born speaking poems and with talk sto­ries.“

Kingston spent the majority of the evening reading pas­sages from “Broad Margin” and “The Woman War­rior: Mem­oirs of a Girl­hood Among Ghosts,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976.

“Broad Margin” was filled with post-​​it notes anno­tating changes that Kingston intends to make to the memoir’s paper­back edi­tion. “Don’t worry,” she joked. “I’m not going to read to you from all these notes.”

The North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Human­i­ties Center spon­sored the event. Georges Van Den Abbeele, dean of the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, praised Kingston’s body of work. “She is the author of an entire series of trans­for­ma­tive books and has won almost every lit­erary award that I can think of,” he said.

Kingston, who turns 71 on Thursday, was born in Stockton, Calif., to first-​​generation Chi­nese immi­grants. Her mother, who lived to be 100, is a pop­ular figure in her writing.

The author gave the audi­ence a window into her mother’s longevity: As she put it, “She ped­aled a bike and hammer-​​curled pink bar­bells.”

Kingston won’t hes­i­tate to pon­tif­i­cate on the mundane—or the mon­u­mental.  “I am given to writing what­ever hap­pens that day,” she said. “It could be a small event or a large event, but both are impor­tant.”

Kingston owes her writing style to her favorite authors, including Walt Whitman, Vir­ginia Wolf and Norman Mailer, of whom she remarked, “He is really tough, but he gets very lyrical.”

Her writing is sprin­kled with philo­soph­ical insight. Our actions, Kingston noted in “Broad Margin,” have unfore­seen con­se­quences that may play out 1,000 years down the road.

“An act of love I do this morning,” she told to the audi­ence, “saves a life on a future bat­tle­field.”

Kingston’s tales of living as a Chi­nese Amer­ican in the United States, which she chron­i­cled in the 1981 National Book Award-​​winning novel “China Men,” are often viewed as deeply per­sonal accounts.

But the author doesn’t nec­es­sarily feel the same way. “If I can write deep down about myself,” Kingston explained, “then that is every­body else.”

by Jason Kornwitz


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