When she was arrested for protesting outside the White House in 2003, Maxine Hong Kingston had to consider the irony.
Five years earlier, she had chatted amicably with President Clinton, who awarded her the National Humanities Medal just a few yards away.
"I thought: ‘Just a few years ago I was inside the White House, and I was being honored,’ " Kingston recalled. " ‘And here I was on the outside being taken away in a paddy wagon, and Bush was not listening to me.’ "
Kingston, a two-time winner of the coveted National Book Award, has participated in anti-war protests for more than three decades. But her most powerful statement about war may be her latest book – "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace."
In compiling the book, Kingston brought together hundreds of writers — including veterans of multiple wars — who have been impacted by war and encouraged them to write truthfully about what they experienced.
"When people come home from a war, they are so traumatized, most of them don’t talk about it," she said in a recent telephone interview from her home in the Bay Area. "But through writing there’s a way of organizing the material, of bringing order to the chaos."
Kingston will discuss the book in San Luis Obispo on Wednesday during an appearance sponsored by Cal Poly Women’s Studies and Cuesta College. Three of the writers who contributed to the book, including Cuesta College English professor Tom Patchell, will also speak.
Strong sense of heritage
Kingston is a first-generation Chinese-American,who now lives in Oakland. Her father came to America, via Cuba, in 1927. Fifteen years later, he won his wife’s visa at a gambling table.
The couple ran a gambling house in Stockton (Maxine was named after a lucky blonde gambler there) and a laundry. But traditional Chinese storytelling remained important to them.
"My father was very educated, and he had Confucius and classical Chinese poetry memorized," Kingston said, "So he would go around singing those poems."
Kingston was born in America but with a strong sense of her heritage. Kingston eventually married a stage actor and became a college instructor and writer whose work combined nonfiction with Chinese myth and folklore.
Her first book, "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts" (1976), won the National Book Critics Award. The follow-up to that book, "China Men," won the National Book Award four years later. Both weave stories of Kingston’s family, personal life and China into traditional Chinese folk tales, blurring the line between myth and reality.
Kingston admits to being very particular about her works, often writing 20 drafts for each project. Even then, her work might not be done.
"If there’s something that I feel I really didn’t get right, if I see my book in a bookstore, I can change it," she said.
So if she sees a typo in a first printing, she’ll take her pen and correct it. Then she’ll initial the modification.
"I like to think it makes the book even more valuable," she joked.
Working with warriors
Kingston started conducting workshops with veterans 15 years ago, starting first at a Buddhist retreat. When a well-publicized forest fire destroyed her home —and an unfinished novel — in 1991, she decided to step up her efforts.
She started recruiting more veterans, posting notices in veterans’ halls, VA hospitals and rehabilitation groups. Invitations were also put up at Buddhist organizations, emphasizing that the group would entail writing and meditation exercises.
Because she wasn’t a veteran, Kingston invited writers who had served in war to help teach.
"They were eyewitnesses," she said. "They are examples — role models — of people who had been through the worst and they had come out of it alive and healthy and successful."
Veterans like Larry Heinemann, she said, told the writers to tell the truth about their experiences in detail — not to make their stories palatable for the public.
The group eventually expanded to include not just American war veterans, but also family members impacted by war, former enemies of U.S. troops and protesters.
That variety sparked interesting interactions with war veterans.
"When they met the former enemy, like the Viet Cong, they seemed to like one another right away," she said. "There was a lot of relief that they didn’t kill one another. But the peace activists, though, they accused them of being betrayers. It took more to understand one another."
Once it came to writing, not only did Kingston have to help draw the stories out, but she also had to instruct participants on how to write succinctly and well. Then she had to choose and edit final drafts for the book.
The end result is a critically acclaimed collection of honest stories from several unique vantage points.
Today, Kingston tours the country to give lectures and readings. She also visits the elementary school in Stockton that bears her name. Ironically, Hong Kingston Elementary is not far from George W. Bush Elementary in Stockton.
"I hope there are good values that are going on at that George W. Bush school," Kingston said. "In spite of its name."
IF YOU GO
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON
Wednesday, 8-10 p.m.
Philips Hall, Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center, Cal Poly