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Maxine Hong Kingston's work is as wondrous and alive as ever in this collection

Critic at large JOHN POWERS reviews the Library of America’s new collection of Maxine Hong Kingston’s major works.

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Other segments from the episode on June 7, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 7, 2022: Interview with Sam Jay; Review of Maxine Hong Kingston's work

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The writer Maxine Hong Kingston first burst onto the scene with her 1976 book, "The Woman Warrior." It launched a major career that is being acknowledged in a new collection of her major work from the Library of America, which was created to celebrate and preserve our literary heritage. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has been rereading Kingston's work and says it's every bit as wondrous and alive today as it ever was.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Near the end of her incandescent 1976 memoir, "The Woman Warrior," Maxine Hong Kingston tells the story of a knot-maker in China who tied a knot so complicated that it made him blind. In response, the emperor outlawed the knot.

If I had lived in China, Kingston tells us, I would have been an outlaw knot-maker. Instead, she put her defiant love of complication into knotty books that tied together biography, history, myth, movies and fiction to show us an America that is too often overlooked. Born of Chinese immigrants who ran a laundry in Stockton, Calif., the 81-year-old Kingston is at once an Asian American writer, a feminist storyteller, a chronicler of immigrant experience and a literary innovator. One of those rare figures who shifted American culture and who keeps on being relevant, she belongs on the same shelf as James Baldwin, Joan Didion and Kurt Vonnegut.

She's now been placed alongside them in the prestigious Library of America, which has just released a volume that collects, among other great things, her three most famous works - "The Woman Warrior," "China Men" and "Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book." Kingston has lived her life on the hyphen that connects the term Chinese and American. She tells stories about creating your own identity, not settling for the one the world tries to give you. This was clear from her first book, "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs Of A Girlhood Among Ghosts," which begins with one of the killer opening lines in American literature - you must not tell anyone, my mother said, what I'm about to tell you. Naturally, the narrator does tell us. We learn that Maxine's father had a sister who got pregnant out of wedlock, killed herself and her baby in disgrace, and her whole family simply pretended she never existed.

In telling this story she's not supposed to tell us, Kingston underscores a cruel truth about traditional Chinese culture, its serflike oppression of women. She also asserts her right, as an act of self-liberation, to scrutinize her mother's dictates, the ghosts that haunt the Chinese past and the American values that surround her. Kingston continued that search for freedom in her more expansive and angrier second book, "China Men," which focuses on the experience of the Chinese men who came to the U.S. in search of prosperity only to encounter racism as ghastly as the misogyny highlighted in "The Woman Warrior."

Now, unlike most writers who tackle such volatile material, Kingston never simplifies. She offers no tearjerking melodrama, no sentimental cliches about immigrants, no grind-you-down realism. Too original for that, she offers her personal version of storytelling, what the Chinese call talk-story. She explores the ideas of Chineseness and Americanness by weaving together far-ranging elements - be it an indelible evocation of her family's laundry, a haunting, movie-laced reverie on her brother heading off to Vietnam or the inspirational myth of the woman warrior Mulan, whose now-Hollywood-ized story first became well known in the West because Kingston wrote about it.

Writing as she damn well pleased, she followed these first two brilliant books with a novel, "Tripmaster Monkey," which is probably too brilliant. Set in a marvelously evoked early '60s Bay Area, the book focuses on Wittman Ah Sing, a writer seeking to cook up a workable Chinese American identity from a postmodern salad of influences, tossing together the beats, the poet Rilke, Hollywood movies, the Chinese epic "Journey To The West" and countless other things. While it proved too hip for the room of 1989 America, "Tripmaster Monkey" crackles with an ambition and brio that's still dazzling.

Although Kingston had her detractors, her transgressive willingness to go for broke made her a pioneering inspiration for the scads of wonderful writers who began mapping the territory she first opened. You can find her footprints in, among others, Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club," Junot Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao," Charles Yu's "Interior Chinatown" and "The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who edited this collection. She opened up new territory for readers like me, too. Re-reading these books today, I've been struck by how much of what I now think of as conventional wisdom became so because of her unconventional work. In a way, Maxine Hong Kingston truly is an outlaw knot-maker, but her work doesn't make anyone go blind; it helps us to see.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new Library of America collection of the work of Maxine Hong Kingston.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS SONG, "STIR IT UP")

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, which recorded Bob Marley and The Wailers, including the album "Catch A Fire," which helped introduce reggae to the U.S. Blackwell grew up in Jamaica. He also recorded Jimmy Cliff, U2, Grace Jones, Roxy Music, Tom Waits, The B-52s and more. He's written a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STIR IT UP")

BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS: (Singing) Stir it up. Little darling, stir it up.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Schrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STIR IT UP")

BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS: (Singing) And now you are here. I say it's so clear to see what we could do, baby, just me and you. Come on and stir it up. Little darling, stir it up. Come on, baby. Come on and stir it up. Yeah. Little darling, stir it up. Oh. Stir it, stir it, stir it together. Yeah. Then I satisfy your... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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