Ahighly acclaimed memoirist, Kingston integrates autobiographical elements with Asian legend and fictionalized history to delineate cultural conflicts confronting Americans of Chinese descent, particularly issues of female identity. Frequently studied in a variety of academic disciplines, her works bridge two civilizations in their examination of social and familial bonds from ancient China to contemporary California. Kingston often focuses on issues of cultural and institutional sexism and misogyny as well as female autonomy and identity. Writers such as Amy Tan, David Henry Hwang, Gish Jen, and Fae Myenne Ng have been strongly influenced by Kingston's portrayal of the history of Chinese American women.
Born in Stockton, California, to parents who were Chinese immigrants, Kingston experienced first-hand the often painful results of clashes between American and Chinese cultures. Her mother, who was a strong influence on Kingston, wanted her to remain essentially Chinese and instilled in her the beliefs, traditions, and customs of her native country. As a young woman, Kingston struggled academically, primarily because she refused to talk in class. Scholastically, her performance improved to the point where she was awarded a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley. In 1965, she received her teaching certificate. She taught English and mathematics at the high school level in California and Hawaii for several years. The tension between her Chinese background and her immersion in American culture became a recurring theme in her later work. In 1976, her first book, The Woman Warrior, was published to critical and popular acclaim. She was appointed professor at the University of California, Berkeley in 1990. She has received several awards for her work, including two National Book Awards, for The Woman Warrior and China Men (1980), and other national and local recognitions for her writing. In 1992, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She and her husband live in Oakland, California.
As an American-born daughter of stern immigrant parents, Kingston explores in her work the anxiety that often results from clashes between radically different cultural sensibilities. Her exotic, myth-laden narratives are informed by several sources: the ordeals of immigrant forebears who endured brutal exploitation as they labored on American railroads and cane plantations; the "talk-stories," or cautionary tales of ancient heroes and family secrets told by her mother; and her own experiences as a first-generation American with confused cultural allegiances. From these foundations, Kingston forms epic chronicles of the Chinese immigrant experience that are esteemed for their accurate and disturbing illumination of such social patterns as Asian cultural misogyny and American institutional racism. Her first autobiographical volume, The Woman Warrior, has been deemed an innovative and important feminist work. It is viewed as a personal, unconventional memoir that seeks to reconcile Eastern and Western conceptions of female identity. Kingston eschews chronological plot and standard nonfiction techniques in her memoir, synthesizing ancient myth and imaginative biography to present a kaleidoscopic vision of female character. The narrative begins with Kingston's mother's brief caveat concerning No Name Woman, young Maxine's paternal aunt, whose disrepute has rendered her unmentionable. Left in their village by her émigré husband, No Name Woman became pregnant—perhaps by rape—and was forced by the villagers to drown herself and her baby. Affirming traditional attitudes, Maxine's mother, Brave Orchid, describes such practices as foot-binding and the sale of girls as slaves, and she threatens Maxine with servitude and an arranged marriage to a retarded neighborhood boy. Subsequent chapters, however, provide sharp contrast to these bleak visions, for Brave Orchid also recites the colorful legend of Fa Mu Lan, the woman who wielded a sword to defend her hamlet. Kingston then describes Brave Orchid's own incongruent character; independent enough to become one of rural China's few female doctors, she returned to her customary submissive role upon joining her husband in America. In China Men Kingston examines the lives and experiences of her mythological father, grandfather, great-grandfather, uncles, and brothers. In these narratives, BaBa serves as the father figure, Ah Goong as grandfather, and Bak Goong as great-grandfather. The concept of the father embodies a significant theme of the book: the importance of personal history as a means to self-awareness and self-confidence. Ah Goong works for the railroads planting dynamite charges in mountains and hillsides and digging holes for bridge supports. Several critics have noted that Ah Goong's coarse description of his onanistic acts functions as a way of feminizing the land and describing it in terms of possession, elements typical of much Western writing. In this respect, Ah Goong's language raises questions about universal masculine responses to the environment while at the same time highlighting a search for female identity in the male-dominated Chinese-American myth of westward expansion.
Tripmaster Monkey (1989) is an experimental novel narrated by Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy, and is loosely based on the "monkey tales" of Chinese folklore which feature a trickster hero who is also an artist and a magician. The protagonist is Wittman Ah Sing, a young Chinese playwright in San Francisco who reaches maturity during the hippie era of the late 1960s. Wittman, an Asian American wanting to become an important American playwright, is not only a monkey figure, or someone who must rely upon cunning and metaphorical sleight-of-hand to reach his goals, but also a jazz musician: he must improvise his life, attitudes, and behavior from moment to moment if he is to survive in the urban wilderness. To Be the Poet (2002) is a collection of prose and poetry based on Kingston's 2000 William E. Massey lectures at Harvard. The book provides readers with a glimpse of a poet at work during the creative process. The Fifth Book of Peace (2003) is a complex, stream of consciousness memoir that relates the destruction of a novel-in-progress that occurred when Kingston's Oakland, California, home burned to the ground in 1991. The Fifth Book of Peace incorporates a retelling of the narrative of the destroyed novel combined with several other elements: Kingston's memories about her attempts to rescue the manuscript from her burning house, her quest to understand myths surrounding the Chinese Three Lost Books of Peace, and her plea to veterans of all wars to help her proclaim a message of peace.
Critics view Kingston as one of the most prominent and influential Asian American authors of the twentieth century. The Woman Warrior is considered her best-known work. Since its first printing, it has been translated into more than three dozen languages and has become an extremely popular university text, widely read in courses in education, sociology, psychology, anthropology, women's studies, Asian studies, and American literature. Feminist critics applaud the memoir for its insightful and poignant exploration of female identity. A few reviewers, however, have asserted that the emphasis on female character development has come at the expense of the male characters in the book. Some critics have viewed The Woman Warrior as a distortion of Asian mythology and culture. Asian American male writers, particularly Frank Chin, have accused Kingston of selling out by misrepresenting Chinese mythology and culture and utilizing a Western literary form—the memoir—to pander to Western audiences. Kingston, along with other critics and writers, has responded by asserting that her creative reworkings and personalization of Chinese mythology is a legitimate postmodern strategy. Moreover, Kingston contends that she will not allow her work to be influenced by narrow and questionable definitions of Asian American literature. Some allege that negative criticisms of Kingston's work—particularly of The Woman Warrior—are based on the male chauvinism and ethnocentricism of the critics themselves. With this ongoing debate, as well as her considerable literary accomplishments, Kingston is viewed as a controversial and vital American author.