Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Heard about a Book...

I heard on NPR about an interesting memoir, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life by Maxine Hong Kingston, which takes its evocative title from a quote from Thoreau that hangs over Hong Kingston's desk. Some of the quotes from the book struck a cord: "Standing on top of a hill;/I can see everywhichway—/the long way that I came, and the few places I have yet to go." As she grows old, she notes the impulse to "save each scrap of moment" along with the desire for "poetry as it came to my young self/humming and rushing, no patience for chapter book," nor patience, either, for "the stupid, the greedy, the cruel, the unfair [who] have taken/over the world."


In her singular voice—humble, elegiac, practical—Maxine Hong Kingston sets out to reflect on aging as she turns sixty-five.

Kingston’s swift, effortlessly flowing verse lines feel instantly natural in this fresh approach to the art of memoir, as she circles from present to past and back, from lunch with a writer friend to the funeral of a Vietnam veteran, from her long marriage (“can’t divorce until we get it right. / Love, that is. Get love right”) to her arrest at a peace march in Washington, where she and her "sisters" protested the Iraq war in the George W. Bush years. Kingston embraces Thoreau’s notion of a “broad margin,” hoping to expand her vista: “I’m standing on top of a hill; / I can see everywhichway— / the long way that I came, and the few / places I have yet to go. Treat / my whole life as if it were a day.”

On her journeys as writer, peace activist, teacher, and mother, Kingston revisits her most beloved characters: she learns the final fate of her Woman Warrior, and she takes her Tripmaster Monkey, a hip Chinese American, on a journey through China, where he has never been—a trip that becomes a beautiful meditation on the country then and now, on a culture where rice farmers still work in the age-old way, even as a new era is dawning. “All over China,” she writes, “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.”

Such is the spirit of this wonderful book—a sense of doors opening wide onto an American life of great purpose and joy, and the tonic wisdom of a writer we have come to cherish.