Biography of Maxine Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston was born Maxine Hong in 1940 in Stockton, California. Her parents were Chinese immigrants who came to the United States fifteen years apart, just as Hong Kingston recounts in The Woman Warrior. Her father, Tom Hong, arrived in New York City in 1924. He was a poet and scholar in China, but in the United States he managed a gambling house before leaving that business to open a laundry. Her mother, Ying Lan Hong, was a doctor in China. In the United States, she worked alongside her husband and worked as a fieldhand. Hong Kingston is the eldest of her parents’ six surviving children. Their first two children, born in China, died before they left. Like her siblings, Hong worked in the laundry while attending public school. She excelled so much that she received numerous scholarships to attend the University of California at Berkeley, where she is a renowned professor today.

In 1962, Hong graduated from Berkeley with a B.A. in English. The same year, she married fellow student Earl Kingston. Their son, Joseph, was born two years later. Hong Kingston’s writing career did not take off immediately. After college, she earned her teaching certificate and taught high school in California and Hawaii.

Storytelling and writing captured Hong Kingston’s interest from a young age. Her mother’s stories fascinated her, in particular miraculous or tragic stories about women. Eventually, Hong Kingston was inspired to write about her experiences growing up and translate her mother’s stories from the oral tradition to the written tradition. The result was her first book, The Woman Warrior, published in 1976 to great critical acclaim. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction that year. The book, consisting of memoirs, is considered a landmark in Asian-American literature and was quickly canonized.

After the success of The Woman Warrior and its exploration of the women in her family, Hong Kingston decided to give greater voice to the men. She published China Men in 1980, which not only won the 1981 American Book Award but was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. The author gave voice to her father in more ways than one with China Men; she asked him to write comments in the margins of the Chinese edition, a traditional gesture of respect for a scholar. Both The Woman Warrior and China Men are classified as nonfiction, but they are known for their unique blend of fantasy and reality. Also in 1980, Hong Kingston was given the special title, “Living Treasure of Hawai’i.”

In 1987, Hong Kingston published a collection of essays called Hawai’i One Summer. She went on to publish her only novel, Tripmaster Monkey, in 1989. The work was well received by many, but it generated criticism over its main character, who irritated many readers. After Tripmaster Monkey, Hong Kingston published many shorter works, such as stories and articles. She continued to write about social issues, especially Vietnamese people and veterans of the Vietnam War.

In 1991, tragedy struck. Hong Kingston’s home burned to the ground in a wildfire, the only copy of her fiction manuscript, The Fourth Book of Peace, burning with it. Though horrible, the fire certainly did not damper Hong Kingston’s accomplishments.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded her a National Humanities Medal for her work as a writer and supporter of the humanities. Eventually, in 2003, Hong Kingston published The Fifth Book of Peace. It partially is a reconstruction of her lost manuscript and partially consists of memoirs of her experiences talking with war veterans after enduring the tragedy of the fire.

Today, Hong Kingston is known as an exceptionally accomplished writer and academic. Until 2006, she was Senior Lecturer for Creative Writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Even at such a large university, Hong Kingston dedicated herself to giving budding writers personal attention and a sense of worth. Though now retired from her professorship, Hong Kingston has said that she still writes every day and plans to publish at least one more large work.

Hong Kingston is also known for her activism, which began while she attended Berkeley during the Civil Rights Movement. In 2003, Hong Kingston was arrested for crossing a police line while in Washington, D.C., protesting the war in Iraq. Most recently, in 2006 she published Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, a compilation of stories gathered from fifteen years of talking with war veterans. Maxine Hong Kingston lives with her husband in Oakland, California.

Study Guides on Works by Maxine Kingston