ON MAXINE HONG KINGSTON’S THE FIFTH BOOK OF PEACE



filipinos-dead1DIALECTICS OF WAR AND PEACE IN Maxine Hong Kingston’s THE FIFTH BOOK OF PEACE

By E. San Juan, Jr.

Fellow, W.E. B. Du Bois Institute

Harvard University

In 1992, a postmodernist critic pontificated on the dispersed and disjunctive text of Kingston’s 1989 novel Tripmaster Monkey, postulating the axiom that henceforth the author’s authority is now fragmented, disavowed, erased. [1]Tfilipinos-dead-in-trench1his model of decentered ethnographic writing would now refuse any finality or permanence in text, truth or representation—a refusal that the burning of Kingston’s 156-pages sequel to her novel in the Oakland fire of October 1991 may have uncannily fulfilled. The page proofs of Tripmaster Monkey also went up in flames, spurring the author to center herself and compose the third chapter of The Fifth Book of Peace which recreates the gutted “fourth book of peace.” That 156-pages manuscript described how Wittman Ah Sing (a fifth-generation Chinese-American playwright) and his family sought sanctuary in Hawaii during the Vietnam War. In trying to gather the damaged fragments of her life after the loss of her house and writing, Kingston seems to repudiate the notion of the author having sacrificed her authority (as alleged by James Clifford, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida) in favor of a trickster persona, for she now strives to demonstrate self-mastery in continuing what was interrupted by chance and accident.

This new book is less post-al or ludic ethnography than an experimental meditation on the fraught interface between the real and what is possible. It disturbs our habitual expectations, hence reviewers feel bewildered and disappointed. Kingston intends here to re-write or re-create her burned manuscript—which she accomplishes in the fictional part entitled “Water.” But in the process she reconstructs the whole panorama and context of the events surrounding her life before and after the Oakland fire. In effect, she fashions five chapters of this hybrid, collage-like artifice consisting of her desperate attempt to rescue her work during the fire (labeled “a true story”), a recounting of the history of the lost Books of Peace” and her quest to find them, with speculative excurses on the craft of story-telling. This is followed by her attempt to help war veterans to regain psychic health through participation in a Community for Mindful Living (begun in 1993) comprised of writers groping their way to peace. The long middle chapter entitled “Water” holds the quasi-picaresque narrative of Wittman Ah Sing and his wife Tania trying to make a home in Hawaii; these episodes seem pointless until we sense the impact of the local anti-war resistance to which they contribute and the effect of the native mores on their son Mario Ehukai.[2]

The next bulky chapter, “Earth,” details Kingston’s efforts to establish a basis of solidarity for Vietnam War veterans through writing workshops, culminating in their reunion with the Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France, all captured in film by a BBC crew. Synthesis is sought through suturing diverse life-experiences of war veterans (of Vietnam, Korea, and Gulf Wars) suffused with feelings of doubt, remorse, and recrimination. This section ends with Kingston celebrating her mother’s death, supplying a closing parenthesis to the funeral of her father which opens the book, together with Kingston’s recursive fantasy of emulating Fa Mook Lan, the legendary “woman warrior,” who inspired Kingston’s historic first novel, Woman Warrior. Fire, death, birth and community—these themes bind what to some appear a hodge-podge of heterogeneous raw materials for imaginative alchemy.

What is revealing is the 5-pages Epilogue that occurs after 9/11: on the tenth anniversary of the Oakland fire, Kingston describes a meeting between Barbara Lee, the only Congressperson who voted against giving the President unlimited war powers, and a sister-in-law of a victim of the Pentagon bombing. After alluding to Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization formed by families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks who had urged Congress and the President to make financial restitution to Afghanis who lost relatives and homes to American bombing, Kingston concludes with the report of her arrest, together with two dozen protesters, in front of the White House during International Women’s Day, March 7, 2003, in sympathy with massive spontaneous demonstrations around the world against U.S. aggression in Iraq. War is considered an interruption of peace, hence the book ends with the beginning of a period of wholesale “devastation” even as she exhorts us, the readers, to collude with her in unremitting acts of creation.

The final two paragraphs may be read as an affirmation of Kingston’s reinstated authority in the mode of aphorism and pedagogical advice:

The images of peace are ephemeral. The language of peace is subtle. The reasons for peace, the definitions of peace, the very idea of peace have to be invented, and invented again.

Children, everybody, here’s what to do during war: In a time of destruction, create something. A poem. A parade. A community. A school. A vow. A moral principle. One peaceful moment (492).

Because of the frequency of comments like this that would be deemed inappropriate editorial intrusions if the book positioned itself entirely within a fictional domain, reviewers like Polly Shulman of the New York Times (Sept. 28, 2003) faults Kingston for “unreal utopianism” compounded by “the need to sanitize and happify.” Confusion about what kind of text we have prevails. Quotations about the horrors of war and the urgent need to restore harmony through meditation in a Buddhist sangha in the making, are lifted out of context to prove that Kingston can no longer offer coherent talk-stories as in her previous performances.

Can we expect more from reviewers who are creatures of habit? The failure to apprehend correctly the architectonic shape of this work and the inability to appreciate the novelty of Kingston’s achievement can easily be explained. Kingston’s first book Woman Warrior puzzled readers unfamiliar with exploratory ethnic fabulation. Deploying the method of “talk-story,” Kingston blended anecdotes of her youthful growing up with historical accounts, folklore, testimonies, diary impressions, official records, etc. to produce a new wayward genre of narrative that easily lends itself to orthodox academic categorizing. Indeed, like Tripmaster Monkey, Woman Warrior is a postmodern text that supposedly destabilizes identity discourses instanced in autobiographies, memoirs, etc.[3]

In order to escape the task of analytically configuring the new generic pattern invented by this Chinese-American author grappling with unprecedented historical predicaments, the critics fall lazily into the habit of following what’s in vogue. When a literary text challenges the standards of conventional literary typology, it is considered a mixed or indeterminate specimen, ignoring the fact that it is the historicity of the writer’s situation, together with Kingston’s response to new altered conditions for Chinese Americans, that have posed new questions and doubts about the efficacy of the old canonical grids of articulating the experience of communities of color that have been excluded, marginalized, or inferiorized.[4] In short, it is both a crisis of literary convention (aesthetic form) and the hermeneutic process of interpretation (audience reception) that we find crystallized in the phenomenal appearance of Woman Warrior or China Men and, again, in this politically astute, antiformalistic rendering of a Chinese American woman’s critique of U.S. imperial power in this new book. This is what constitutes Kingston’s singular achievement here.

A clue to the radical historicizing, anti-mythical motive of the book may be gleaned from the second chapter, “Paper, which reflects on the nature of writing. After the knowledge of “devastation” gained from her painful effort to save her manuscript from the firestorm, Kingston recovers from the trauma when she reflects on a recurring dream: “I can prevent the bombing by finding the Three Lost Books of Peace.” She was writing this during the U.S. siege of Iraq, the constant bombing and killing of women, children, and their accompanying ideological mystifications. A friend encourages Kingston to replace the burnt “Fourth Book of Peace” with this new fifth one: “And the fire’s aftermath also gave me the method of how to write it—with others, in community.” What every reader will remember as she pores over every line in the first chapter, “Fire,” is the frenziedly agonized solitary individual trying to find a way back to her house amid the destruction and the firefighters’ campaign to save houses. This is what she would seek to avoid, to exorcise, in the rest of the work.

Shocked and traumatized, the berserk property-owner is saved by Oakland Fire Captain Ray Gatchalian’s suggestion that the landscape of horror in Vietnam (and, by extension, the ongoing Gulf War) resembled that of Oakland. Kingston is impressed by this witnessing testimony: Gatchalian would tell everyone that when we (the U.S.) “decide to send our military and our bombs into a country, this is what we’re deciding to do.” This decision to link local catastrophe with imperial havoc underlies the search for the lost books of peace in chapter two, “Paper” (the element of regeneration). Kingston allegorizes her individual plight by invoking the Chinese Books of Peace “lost in deliberate fires.” Her visit to China intimates that the fabled books are integrally bound with oracle bones, the origin of writing and civilization, with the I Ching, Gwan Goong, god of war and literature, the Buddhist Heart Sutra, and the lore of the untutored masses. “Peace begins in thought…Thought becomes body. Sudden fast change is a method of war. The logic of peace has to be spoken out at length.”

Personal calamity awakens the bourgeois self to the prior claims of the community. Before she concludes on thoughts about the art and craft of writing, Kingston confesses to having stolen her mother’s immigration scroll and genealogy book—both gutted by the fire. The fetishism of writing is exposed and the cult of the individual negated as Kingston discovers the dialectic of the monadic ego and the community:

After the fire, I could not re-enter fiction. Writing had become a treat for my own personal self…. Say any manner of thing. For my own benefit. Retreat into the Yin mother darkness. Oh, the necessity and comfort of writing. “I…I….I….I….,” the selfish first person, author, narrator, protagonist, one. Freedom, to write diarylike, okay to be formless, no art, no good English.

Fiction cares for others; it is compassion, and gives others voice. It time-travels the past and the future, and pulls the not-now, not-yet into existence.

The garret where I wrote, which was just my height, burned. A sign. I do not want the aloneness of the writer’s life. No more solitary. I need a community of like minds. The Book of Peace, to be reconstructed, needs community (61-62)

Writing, then, is the discovery of the dialogic self, the Other as a necessary identifier. I submit that this is the pivotal point where Kingston articulates the ethico-political matrix of this book, a summing-up of her task and responsibility as an ethnic writer in the U.S.: the existential suffering of loss (burned house, death of her father and mother) intertwines with the suffering of millions (both Americans and their victims) during the Vietnam War and, subsequently, the Gulf War, the 9/11 attacks, and the Iraq/Afghanistan wars. Confronting this carnage, the personal injury and social damage wrought by imperialist wars, the Chinese-American writer begins to understand that individualist aestheticism is bankrupt. Only a militant, self-critical sensibility, a committed artist conscious of one’s responsibility to people, can connect the fragmented and alienated experiences of life in late-capitalist society with the struggles, hopes and torments of peoples and nations around the world. This is the vision that empowers Kingston to proceed with re-constituting Wittman Ah Sing’s sojourn in Hawaii—the total impression one gets here is how Hawaiian history, indigenous rituals, and natural surroundings reveal how insignificant, and somewhat tragic-comic the lives of self-centered individuals are against the geopolitics of collective life and the continuity of ecological existence. She proceeds to dramatize the tensions, paradoxes, and conflicts among veterans and peace activists when they gather in the writing workshops and in the spiritual community guided by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hang, Zen master in exile from Vietnam.

After the harrowing ordeals of “Fire” and “Water,” readers expect some kind of resolution and equilibrium when we arrive at this chapter with the telling title, “Earth.” Earlier, the philosophical stance was still metaphysically egotist or mind-centered, as when Wittman Ah Sing believes that “Only change onself, and the world will change” (143) or when he instructs his son: “Create one good human being—yourself. And you don’t have to love everybody” (235). This idealism is battered by Wittman’s own concrete experiences in Hawaii, particularly the internal ruptures in the Crossroads Sanctuary and the overwhelming institutional power of the military Establishment. A materialist outlook overshadows the tendency to idealist and intuitive aestheticism. So that when “Earth” opens, Kingston is reminded by her mother in her dreams to address the imperative for social transformation: “What have you been doing to educate America?”

Contrary to the hegemonic practice of individualist self-help, the pedagogical process for Kingston is defined by participatory and collective sharing of stories. The accounts of Jimmy Janko, Roman “Hopper” Martinez, several woman Vets, Bob Golling, Robert Landman, Clarence Mitchell, John Wike, John Mulligan, and many others, serve as examples of variegated modes of engaging with the past. Kingston insists on meditation, a practice of silence, an attempt to control time and self-serving sentiments. Kingston finally has to bring in Thich Nhat Hanh for the healing act—but he disappoints by giving soporific lectures on “Fifty Verses on the Manifestation of Consciousness.” Kingston is probably reminded of how, in Hawaii, the AWOL GIs united in the spirit of ho’oponopono (meaning “to put to rights,” spiritual balance among self, family and community)–the ethos of an egalitarian community, “one in relation to the others” (204). But Kingston could not do it despite her heroic effort at safeguarding the Bell of Mindfulness. The problem, I think, lies in Kingston’s liberalism and inclination to let-go, evinced in her effort at allowing each individual to heal or cure herself. What then is her function in this writing conferences?

No one is questioning Kingston’s sincerity, her generous and compassionate attention to the veterans. She becomes a compassionate boddhisatva, a disciple of Kuan Yin. Her view of writing as therapy fits in with her understanding of her role as educator. At one of their first meetings, Kingston expounds on the value of writing: “Write things out, and you won’t need to carry memories in your body as pain. The paper will carry your stories. We, your readers, will help you carry your stories. See how light paper is?” (266). But this sounds more like a Zen koan than a logical inference from the therapeutic exercise of sublimating feelings into words. One evidence of Kingston’s let-be attitude, a kind of buddhist nonchalance as it were, may be seen in her reponse to veteran Sherdyl’s written confession: “I only personally killed one man.” Kingston wryly remarks: “How few words it takes to say it, the fact—I killed a human being. One sentence gets it out. The telling is as short as the doing” (341). Here is Kingston’s rationale for this writing session: “This communication is what I live for. I am accomplishing the purpose of my life: to get each to communicate with each, and all with all. If nothing more happens, today is culmination enough” (340). The problem is that this desire is not entirely fulfilled, as evidenced by some women veterans being unable to forgive the draft resisters. In spite of the gaps and silences, Kingston struggles to bring back Thay Nhat Hanh and Sister Khan Chong to kindle the spirit of reconciliation and the practice of mindfulness. Thay’s lecture on America as an “open society” and the importance of learning from suffering may be Kingston’s way of signalling that her authority as educator has yielded to the Vietnamese sage and his pacifist liberalism: “Plum Village is a product of the Viet Nam-American War. Vietnamese in diaspora settled here. A city of peace has resulted from war” (390). Yin and yang, war and peace—they comprise the polarities of life and thus cannot be separated, so each one needs to make peace with this ineluctable dualism and ambivalence. If this is the lesson learned by the community, why protest wars?

Questions linger as we reach the ending. If communication is not completely achieved, what is gained? While it is clear that Kingston chose to end this “book of peace” with her anti-war protest against the imperial state, we are left with the impression that the veterans will not so easily settle accounts with the past by means of the “hugging meditation.” Some continue to accuse the peace activists with “betrayal.” And Kingston’s reiteration of the Fa Mook Lan story of the woman warrior returning to civil society and her judgment that “Viet Nam” is “a war, a state of mind, now just another place” may not so easily appease her mother’s ghost. Finally, what can we make of this somewhat wish-fulfilling if ambivalent statement that closes the rich compilation of Vietnam veterans’ stories and the reference to the start of the second Iraq war?

If the world, time and space, and cause-and-effect accord with my mother’s teachings—her Tao—then we have stopped wars years hence. We made myriads of nonwars. We have ended wars a hundred years from now. The war against Iraq, which began the same year as the Oakland-Berkeley fire, is still occurring. But peace we make also continues, and fans, and lives on and on (397-98).

The publisher’s blurb can serve as a point of departure: it calls this “stream-of-consciousness memoir” a convoluted quest to elevate “a personal search to a cosmic quest for truth.” It portrays Kingston as agent provocateur with “Buddhist-inflected wisdom and humorous self-doubts” as she tries to reorient herself after the fire and her father’s death, interpreting her loss as a “kind of shadow-experience” of the Gulf War and her project of re-creating what was lost as a demonstration of the regenerative virtue of peace. In effect, art functions as the most effective healer, reconciling personal pain with the critical distance engendered by a historical imagination. Kingston validates this when she replies to an interview in Sept. 24, 2003 on how she was able to recover from the personal disaster: “I thought that ‘I can’t do this alone, I need a community of writers.’ And I decided that those writers would be war veterans. And I had this theory and my hope that, through writing, that we could all get over the trauma of fires and wars and losses…I learned and affirmed my ideas and hopes about art. And I know that through putting our experiences into words, it is possible for people to come out of war and learn peace.”[5] Mediated through the community of veterans, Kingston the artist strives to transform war into an instrument of peace: she tells the veterans to “put that war into words, and through language make sense, meaning, art of it.” This then leads us to defining the genre of this book as an ars poetica analogous to Aristotle’s Poetics, Longinus’ On the Sublime, Horace’s Art of Poetry, or Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria—all of them formulating the social significance of art in specific historical situations. In terms of Asian treatises, it resembles Lu Ki’s Wen Fu, the rhymeprose on literature; or, more precisely, Brecht’s organon for the theater drawn up as Hitler’s army successfully ravages European civilization.

This discourse on art and its contingent situation is in itself a unique type of exploring reality and its possibilities. While the focus is on the process of creating art and achieving the proper aesthetic effects, this type of reflection on writing extends to an analysis of the social, political and ethical contexts of the imaginative process, including prescriptions and proposals on the formation of the character or sensibility of the artist and the attendant audience. In the process of inferring the “recipe” for the production of art-works that would manifest not only beauty but also truth, not only the psychological effects but also the philosophical insight or knowledge necessary for a virtuous life relative to the consensus of the community, the artist may shift emphasis on themes such as “war” or “peace” as a point of departure for elaborating on art. Kingston’s The FifthBook of Peace is a lively, idiosyncratic medley of various techniques and materials that deals with the problems of loss, destruction and war, and the need for peace, acceptance of fate, recovery. Peace is the trope for sublimation, for dialectical transformatioin. Underneath this, the subtext and the genuine concern of Kingston is how art, writing, may serve as the means of comprehending the problems and satisfying the need; the form derives from the substance of writing as the creative life-process that informs the experiences derived from war, exile, etc. By construing Kingston’s book as a treatise on the social function of literature and art in general, we can avoid the antic malice of bewailing its failure to approximate the qualities that we found pleasurable and meaningful in Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey, and the exuberant delights one can may sample in her essays in Hawai’i One Summer and To Be A Poet. A rectification of names or labels is the first step in an intelligent if not correct judgment of this book’s worth and import.–###


[1] Patricia Lin, “Clashing Constructs of Reality: Reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book as Indigenous Ethnography,” Reading the Literatures of Asian America, ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling (Philaldelphia, PA:Temple University Press, 1992), pp. 333-348.

[2] It would be instructive to compare the recollection of Kingston’s stay in Hawaii during this time, included in Hawai’i One Summer (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998), pp. 15-19.

[3] Shirley Geok-lin Lim, “’Growing with Stories’: Chinese Americann Identities: Textual Identities,” Teaching American Ethnic Literatures, ed. John Maitino and David Peck (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), pp. 273-292.

[4] I discuss Kingston’s various novelistic strategies in dealing with the U.S. racial polity in my chapter on “Symbolic Trajectories of the Asian Diaspora” in After Postcolonialism: Remapping Philippines-United States Confrontations (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), pp. 23-34.

[5] Mike Shuster, “Interview with Maxine Hong Kingston” in the public broadcast ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, National Public Radio, Sept. 24, 2003.

About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
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