Written by Nina Lesowitz, SF Chapter Vice President
“In a time of destruction, create something.”– Maxine Hong Kingston
On January 7, a day that weather forecasters warned locals to stay indoors, the San Francisco Chapter’s Bookwomen Speak: Centennial Visionary Series event at the Andre Lorde room in the historic Women’s Building was filled to capacity.
Over 75 attendees listened, enraptured, as Maxine Hong Kingston, in conversation with Vanessa Hua, read from her seminal novel The Woman Warrior – published 40 years ago – and provided insight into what influenced the story, and what she might have changed if she were to rewrite parts of it today.
Interviewer Vanessa Hua, author, and former Steinbeck Fellow, wrote in her San Francisco Chronicle column the day before our event: “Kingston, who taught for many years at UC Berkeley before retiring, has inspired a generation of writers and will inspire generations more. Though her award-winning books are rooted in the Chinese American experience, they are universal in appeal. Immigrants from all over the world have told her, ‘This is my story’. People who have been bullied, or bullied someone, or been in wars, have also told her, ‘This is my story’.”
Hua asked Kingston what she looks to for hope in this precarious political climate and Kingston buried her face in her hands. Kingston, a noted peace activist, talked about the actions she was involved in prior to the United States’ involvement in the Iraq war. Another highlight: When Kingston described being awarded the National Medal of Arts by her friend “Barack.” At the White House ceremony, President Obama said, “When I was writing my first book and trying to teach myself how to write, Woman Warrior was one of the books I read.”
A national treasure, Maxine Hong Kingston has also earned the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the PEN West Award for Fiction, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and a National Humanities Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The event opened with an introduction from Brenda Knight, president of the San Francisco Chapter, who saluted the 100th year of the Women’s National Book Association and announced our chapter’s many other events planned for 2017. Volunteers staffed the registration table, a refreshment table, and our information table where we sold colorful Centennial mugs. Green Apple Books, a beloved independent bookstore in San Francisco, reported excellent sales of Kingston’s books and Hua’s Deceit and Other Possibilities – in fact, there was a long line afterward of people waiting to get their books autographed by both authors.
Though the room was packed, there was a air of intimacy in the diverse audience that led to personal questions. A memorable exchange occurred with a woman from Afghanistan now living in San Francisco who is writing a novel about Americans; she asked if she could do so, since she’s not a native. In a passionate response, Kingston replied, “I’m giving you the permission to do so, right now,” and she went on to discuss the value of writing through another’s eyes, cross cultures.
Attendees expressed their appreciation with a standing ovation at the conclusion of the event, and later, in blogs and on Twitter. A wonderful blog post here: http://hapamama.com/maxine-hong-kingston-40th-anniversary-the-woman-warrior/. The event was also written about in online publications including AsAMNews.
Long time-member and Development Chair of the Women’s National Book Association Joan Gelfand reported that this was the best SF-chapter event in its history. Former chapter president Kate Farrell had this to say: “Out of hundreds of events, it was one of the most meaningful and special events I have ever attended.”
It was a fitting way to kick off the 100th birthday of the WNBA, and to help us get in touch with our inner Women Warrior to face the challenges ahead. Maxine gave us the courage and wisdom to play the “long game,” knowing that our words and actions have far-reaching effects. As the Chinese poets say: They write even if for only one reader who may read their poem one thousand years from now.