By Nancy Powell
I admit that Maxine Hong Kingston’s newest memoir touched a nerve or two, and perhaps not in the kindest of ways. Kingston turning 60 has transformed herself into the know-it-all matriarch and grand dame of flower child political correctness, interlocutor of philosophical wisdom that I’ve come mock within my own family as the “ancient Chinese secret” (a.k.a., mom). However, it was this meandering reflection on past and present that makes I Love a Broad Margin To My Life a worthwhile and reflective read, and it that regard, Kingston earns her generational peers their reverential due.
I Love a Broad Margin is both a riff on and inspiration from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, a quote Kingston keeps pegged on the wall over her desk. It describes in stark perfection the multi-faceted roles her life has taken, as writer, teacher, outspoken activist and self-appointed guardian of Chinese culture, the recurring themes told in stream-of-consciousness verse that Kingston employs in her latest venture. She reflects on age and the physical changes it has wrought:
“Now the way I look/appears to me, here, there, in windows, on chrome,/in mirrors in markets and bathrooms. I have changed./I am a dandelion puffball blur…/Wind and time are blowing me out.”
Kingston intersperses her reminiscences with Wittman Ah Sing, her fictional alter-ego of Tripmaster Monkey who seeks to re-establish his cultural identity while traipsing through mainland China, waiting for “so so” security. The narrative segues into her own search for cultural identity in her parent’s homeland with the same sense of loss and yearning that calls beyond the generational divide:
“All over China,/and places where Chinese are, populations/are on the move, going home. That home/where Mother and Father are buried. Doors/between heaven and earth open wide.”
In an aside, Kingston retells of her participation and arrest in a March 2003 anti-war protest alongside co-conspirator Alice Walker. It is a moment of immense pride for Kingston; a day that makes her as much an American as she is the ABC (American-born Chinese) ambassador. While not my favorite part, it nevertheless plays into the mystique of Kingston as the wise old mother that she aspires to be in other parts of the book.
Kingston’s importance to Asian American literature and feminism cannot be underscored, despite the mixed feelings this book generates. Without Kingston, there would be no Amy Tan, no Jumpha Lahiri, and no Lisa See, none of the current wave of writers who have made matronly journeys abroad their bread and butter. Without Kingston, I, too, would continue to choose blissful disregard rather than face what my forebears have endured. For this opening of the door, I can offer heartfelt thanks to Kingston. The Woman Warrior, China Men and Tripmaster Monkey put Kingston on the literary landscape and secured her legacy—the cultural poet whose wisdom crosses ethnic boundaries.
“That my writing gives life,/to whomever I write about, as Shakespeare/promised. Chinese are mad for long life./Quest and wish for time, more time,/more, yet more.”
I Love a Broad Margin To My Life by Maxine Hong Kingston. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 240 pages. List price $24.95.