Kingston's book is mixed-genre: one part is fiction and three parts are nonfictional memoir. Some have criticized the book for having a fragmented quality as a result of the mix of genres, while others have praised it.
Part 1, called "Fire," is memoir. In it, Kingston recounts her experience of the 1991 Berkeley-Oakland fire that destroyed the only manuscript of the novel she was working on, called The Fourth Book of Peace. In part 2, called "Paper," Kingston discusses what she had hoped to accomplish by writing The Fourth Book of Peace. Part 3 is fictional; in it, Kingston attempts to rewrite part of her lost manuscript, telling the story of draft dodger Wittman Ah Sing, who works to build a peaceful community of Vietnam War veterans in Hawaii. Finally, in part 4, called "Earth," Kingston focuses on her decade of running writing workshops for veterans, primarily of the Vietnam War, in her area.
The two genres—fiction and memoir—intersect by both focusing on loss and trauma. Both, too, show an evident hope for building peace and teaching moral lessons that tie personal tragedy to a larger picture. Within the two genres, Kingston uses both Chinese and English, and she introduces fragments of other genres, such as song, history, myth, and tragedy, to help illuminate her questioning of why we wage war rather than building a world of peace.