Monday, August 18, 2014

National Medal of Arts for Maxine Hong Kingston

How wonderful it is that Maxine Hong Kingston was just awarded the National Medal of Arts! It was presented to her by President Obama in a ceremony at the White House on July 28, 2014. I can still remember what a tremendous, exhilarating breakthrough the publication of her first novel, “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts,” was. It was one of the first novels by a Chinese American writer, and one of an even smaller number of novels by Chinese American women writers. But it was a true first in being a huge success with critics and with the public. Nowadays we are very accustomed to reading fiction by authors of a wide variety of ethnicities, so it is hard to cast our minds back to when this was not so, but when “The Woman Warrior” was published in 1976, fiction by minority writers was rarely published, and certainly not to wide acclaim. Hong Kingston’s work paved the way for that of Amy Tan and many other writers of other-than-Caucasian ethnicities, and especially for women of these ethnicities. Reading “The Woman Warrior” was a heady and illuminating experience for readers; I still remember the shock and excitement of learning about Chinese and Chinese American culture, portrayed with a combination of realistic and magic/mythic stories that were captivating, frightening, and inspiring in turn. And these stories were feminist: they focused on women’s lives. They portrayed the strict limitations under which women lived their lives, as well as the creativity and life force that helped women to survive, and occasionally thrive. Maxine Hong Kingston has also written other novels and nonfiction works, as well as being a longtime (now retired) professor at Berkeley and a frequent speaker. Her writing has made a difference, and she truly deserves the National Medal she has just received.
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