Maxine Hong Kingston is only 4-feet-9, and she is blinking and pressing her lips with anxiety, worrying about time, about taxicabs, about where to sit in this hotel lobby and talk about her new book, "China Men." But something about her suggests that she is one tough cookie.
"I think so too," she says. She doesn't smile, she doesn't frown, she doesn't look surprised. She's as matter-of-fact as a bank teller.
She is not -- it would appear -- any kind of a victim.
"No, I never meant to sound like that," she says. Her voice is hard and flutey at the same time.
She refers to the review in The New York Times touting her as a women writing a book about being a "victim," the book being a "victory . . . of forgiveness."
"That reviewer was doing a feminist thing. I don't think I'm only a feminist writer, or an ethnic writer, but I'm writing at a time when feminism and ethnic studies are popular, so people find that in my writing. There is no easy moral to draw in my writing. I liked what another reviewer said: 'She never stoops to commiserate.'"
Nor would she seem to require any, herself, these days.
With "China Men" she shares a dual main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club with Graham Greene. She was recently declared, at 39, a "living treasure" by a Buddhist group at a ceremony in Hawaii, where she lives with her husband, Earll Kingston, and their 17-year-old son.
Her first book, "The Woman Warrior," won The National Book Critics Circle award in 1978. In a wild mix of myth, memory, history and a lucidity which verges on the eerie, it described the women in her family, their experiences as women, as Chinese coming to America and as Americans.
The new book describes the men slaving for a dollar a week building sugar plantations; smuggling themselves into America in packing crates; building the railroads; adopting new names, such as Edison, Roosevelt and Worldster.
Unlike the recent run of women limning their lives and worlds, she grew up deprived of the perspectives of the upper-middle class. She didn't have its time or money, being the daughter of a Cantonese scholar whose expertise in poetry and calligraphy were worthles worthless in Stockton, Calif., for more than jobs in a gambling house and a laundry.
"I'm street-wise," she says. "I grew up with blacks. We were always fighting the Japanese. I'm pretty good at handling emergencies, I take pride in that. I write about women who are tough.
The end up defeating the women who are weak."
As she writes in "The Woman Warrior," her mother "said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman . . . We could be heroines, swordswomen . . ." It's a dream no less -- or more -- realistic than the idylls of all the Napoleons and Daniel Boones and Bruce Lees catching the subway down at Federal Triangle every night.
She finds no license to complain in the fact that her dreams have not come true.
"When people think about my mother they say, 'Oh she was a doctor in China, then she had to be a field hand in America.' They say: 'Poor thing.' But she doesn't feel sorry for herself. She complains sometimes, but she doesn't feel sorry for herself. It's the way the world is. When the men my grandfather worked with building the railroad finally broke through the granite mountain after all that pounding, they cheered. Those people weren't victims."
She is lethally matter-of-fact. Or is it that she is disturbingly at ease with apparent contradition: heroes and massacres; a woman warrior who rejects the doctrine of victimization? She wears a blouse with tigers on it. When she sits, her heels barely reach the floor.
The Chinese men she writes about were coming to an America they called "the Gold Mountain." They were coming not to cluster in Chinatowns and send money home, as the stereotype would have it, but to become Americans, she points out. The wanted to live in a country where no one criticized you for not celebrating the holidays; to go to dime-a-dance joints; build railroads; send daughters such as Maxine Hong Kingston to Berkeley. (At Berkeley she would take assimilation as far as possible: She met her future husband, a part Jewish, part Irish Catholic, actor.)
She writes: "The second day the China Men cheered was when the engine from the West and the one from the East rolled toward one another and touched. The transcontinental railroad was finished . . . The white demon officials gave speeches . . . 'Only Americans could have done it, they said." o
Here, of course, a reader is tempted to writhe at the irony. But the sentence continues:". . . which is true. Even if Ah Goong had not spent half his gold on Citizenship Papers, he was an American for having built the railroad."
Conservative and unsentimental as she might sound, she claims to be a liberal, and she rejects the notion that Me-Generation self-pity has made the country soft, flabby, bleeding-heart liberals and all that rant. "Whining is just a style. It doesn't have anything to do with basic toughness."
Then again: "Maybe it's good to bring in immigrants, as no-whiners."
"We set up incredible tests for immigrants," she says. "It's so hard to get here. You have to be so tough, whether you're Chinese or Cuban or whatever. It makes us tough, as a country."
But haven't those same policies been exclusionary and racist?
"We're that, too," she says cheerfully, free of the pet vice of American intellectuals both right and left -- anguish over contradiction and ironies.
"The whole analytic process is separate anyway," she says. "Feelings and situations may be very simple. It's analysis which makes them complicated. What I'm writing about is showing the exact way in which the mind works. I want to write according to our brain patterns."
Which, like it or not, are happy to accomodate contradictions, myths, history, women persecuted. (A Chinese saying is "When fishing for treasure in the flood, be careful not to pull in girls.") And women warriors. China and the Gold Mountain, poverty days in Stockton and literary triumph.
She describes it all with contact-print clarity, no analytical distancing at all, few morals to be drawn. She doesn't want her readers to draw them easily, if at all.
"All of us make moral judgements every moment, but the only basis I can find for them is the idea: Don't inflict pain on others."
It's pointed out that she condemns the Communist Chinese for killing what she puts a 60 million people, and only a few pages later, condemns the American government of the Vietnam era for seeing the Chinese as a threat.
"Okay, so people were killed, but some people think that the means was worth the end."
Sixty million? Does she really believe it could have been worth it?
"Dostoevski talks about whether it would be worth the life of a child to save the entire world, and he concludes no, that it wouldn't be. And I agree with that. But I go back and forth, I can't decide. I'm an existentialist. The only way I can talk about it is to put it in a dramatic situation."
She also puts it in observations so concrete that fact and meaning become the same: the postures of men coming back from the military; how her mother not only couldn't read alphabetic writing, but couldn't see the ducks, cats and mice in American cartoons; a well in the cellar "like a wobble of black jello."
It is very immediate.
"It takes me nine rewrites to get to that immediacy," she says, a contradiction large enough to inspire a smile even in her.
She is a pro -- she has wanted to write ever since she was 8. She supported herself as a typist and a teacher in both poverty programs and high school until "The Woman Warrior" appeared.
A tough cookie. Though she's a bit flustered as she rushes from the hotel lobby for a taxi, leaving her gold watch on a table. She comes back.
"Sometimes I'm off somewhere," she says, fluttering her hand by her head.
She doesn't know what she'll write next. For fun, she says, she takes walks in the forest by her home and she goes to the beach.
It's surprising, somehow, that she has an ordinary life.
"Everybody has an ordinary life," she says, getting into her taxi. "It's funny."