In 1991, Kingston had written more than 150 manuscript pages of a new novel that she called The Fourth Book of Peace. Her one and only version of this book was destroyed in a fire that ripped through Berkeley, California, where she lived. This, coupled with the death of her father—she was, in fact, burning mementoes in his honor when she rushed home, too late, to save her manuscript—were traumatic experiences for her, akin to the losses one might experience in war.
Kingston started a new book, calling it The Fifth Book of Peace. It is comprised of four sections: the third part, "Water," is fictional, but the other parts—"Fire," "Paper," and "Earth"—are nonfiction.
The purpose of the book is to explore scars from the Vietnam War and to envision peace. Part of the book is Kingston's memoir of her decade working with Vietnam War veterans in writing groups after they reached out to her in response to the devastating loss of her book. Through these writing workshops, the veterans explore putting a better ending on their experiences of war.
This becomes a counterpart to Kingston's fictionalized section on Wittman Ah Sing, who, with his wife and son, builds a peaceful haven in Hawaii for Vietnam veterans.
The book, though fragmented, emphasizes the importance of peace, healing, and community-building. It was a way for Kingston to come to terms with both personal loss and the war in Vietnam.