Our newest Top Ten list comes from one of America’s most celebrated writers, Maxine Hong Kingston, who has used Chinese-American experiences to depict the human condition through several works of nonfiction and one novel.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants who operated a California gambling house in the 1940s and later a laundry, Kingston often blends autobiography and mythology in her work. Her first book – “The Woman Warrior” (1976) which won the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction – created an innovative portrayal of multiple and intersecting identities: immigrant, female, Chinese, American. Her next book, “China Men” (1980), was awarded the National Book Award for nonfiction for its powerful and poignant weaving together of memory, myth and fact to chronicle the lives of three generations of Chinese men in America.
Kingston reimagines this theme of double-consciousness and alienation her novel, “Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book” (1989). It tells the story of the irrepressible and boundlessly energetic Wittman Ah Sing, an unstoppable hipster poet and playwright on the streets of San Francisco in the early 1960s, who does not feel at home in Chinese or American culture. He falls in love with Nancy the Beautiful, marries Tana, and chases his dream to write and stage an epic drama – starring his swashbuckling “master of change” alter ego, the Monkey King. Her most recent works are a memoir that contemplates her art, war and spirituality, “The Fifth Book of Peace” (1999), and a memoir in verse, “I Love a Broad Margin to My Life” (2011).
A longtime anti-war activist; Kingston shared a jail cell in 2003 with Alice Walker and Terry Tempest Williams who were also protesting the Iraq War. Her many honors include the National Humanities Medal, conferred by President Bill Clinton in 1997, and the National Medal of Arts, conferred by President Barack Obama in 2014.
Kingston’s list suggests her reading aligns with her writing, as it is marked by many works that wrestle with humanity’s violent impulses and the individual’s search for identity. When she sent us the list she added this brief headline: “10 books that hearten my nonviolence":
Maxine Hong Kingston’s Top Ten List
1. Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer (1968).
2. Begin Again by Grace Paley (2000)
3. Duty of Delight by Dorothy Day (2008)
4. Every War Has Two Losers by William Stafford (2003)
5. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Nguyen (2016).
6. Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh (1992)
7. A Primer for Forgetting by Lewis Hyde (2019)
8. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
9. Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston
10. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges (2002)