In these eleven thought-provoking pieces, acclaimed writer and feminist Maxine Hong Kingston tells stories of Hawai’i filled with both personal experience and wider perspective.
From a recipient of the National Medal of Arts and numerous other honors, the essays in this collection provide readers with a generous sampling of Kingston’s exquisite angle of vision, her balanced and clear-sighted prose, and her stunning insight that awakens one to a wealth of knowledge.
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Our First House
It has been a month now since we moved into our own bought house. So far, we've been renters. I have liked saying, "Gotta make the rent" and "This much set aside for rent" and "rent party."
A renter can move quickly, no leases, forego the cleaning deposit and go. Plumbing, wiring, walls, roof, floors keep to their proper neutral places under the sun among the stars. If we looked at each other one day and decided that we really shouldn't have gotten married after all, we could dismantle the brick-and-plank bookshelf or leave it, no petty talk about material things. The householder is only one incarnation away from snail or turtle or kangaroo. In religions, the householder doesn't levitate like the monk. In politics, the householder doesn't say, "Burn it down to the ground." I had never become a housewife. I didn't need to own land to belong on this planet.
But as soon as we drove up to this house in M?noa, we liked everything — the cascades of rosewood vines, lichen and moss on lava rock boulders, moss-color finches, two murky ponds thick with water hyacinth, an iridescent green toad — poisonous — hopping into the blue ginger, a gigantic monkey pod tree with a stone bench beneath it, three trees like Van Gogh's cypresses in the front yard, pines in back, an archway like an ear or an elbow with no purpose but to be walked through, a New England-type vestibule for taking off snowy coats and boots, a dining room with glass doors, only one bedroom but two makeshifts, a bathroom like a chapel, a kitchen with a cooler — through the slats you can look down at the earth and smell it. And — the clincher — a writer's garret, the very writer's garret of your imagination, bookshelves along an entire wall and a window overlooking plumeria in bloom and the ponds. If I could see through the foliage, I could look downhill and see the (restored) hut where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his Hawai'i works.
What thick novels I could brood up here with no interrupting chapter breaks but one long thought from front to back cover.
We found two concealed cupboards, one of them with seven pigeonholes; the artist who painted in the garret must have stored brushes in them, or perhaps, here, a sea captain or his widow kept his rolled-up maps. The person who once sat at the built-in desk (with a formica top) had written in pencil on the wall:
eros agape philos
But when we talked about house-buying, both of us thought about dying. The brain automatically adds 20 years of mortgage on to one's age. And mortgage derives from mors, mortis, as in mortal. Move was one of the first English words my parents ever used, such an early word I thought it was Chinese — moo-fu, a Chinese American word that connotes "pick up your pants and go."
Renting had begun to feel irresponsible. Our friend who teaches university students how to calculate how many grams are gained or lost on a protein exchange, how much alfalfa turns into how much hamburger, for example, told us about the time when each earthling will have one square foot of room. This friend quit the city and bought five acres in the mountains; a stream runs through his land. He will install solar energy panels and grow food, raise a goat, make the five acres a self-sufficient system.
We heard about a family who had all their teeth pulled, bought their own boat, and sailed for an island that's not on maps. If we owned a vacant lot somewhere, when the world ends, we can go there to sleep or sit.
Coincidentally, strange ads were appearing in the real estate section of newspapers: "Ideal place for you and your family in the event of war, famine, strike, or natural disaster."
The advantages — to have a place for meeting when the bombs fall and to write in a garret — outweighed the dread of ownership, and we bought the house.
The writer's garret is a myth about cheap housing. In real life, to have a garret, the writer has to own the house under the garret and the land under the house and the trees on the land for an inspiring view.
On the day we moved in, I tried walking about and thinking: "This is my tree. This flower is mine. This grass and dirt are mine." And they did partly belong to me.
Our son, Joseph, looked up at Tantalus, the mountain which rises straight up in back of the house, and said, "Do we have to rake up all the leaves that fall from there?"
At the escrow office (new word, escrow), we signed whatever papers they told us to. Earll read them after we got home, and so found out that this land had been given to E. H. Rogers by a Royal Hawaiian Land Grant. "We don't belong on it," he said. But, I rationalized, isn't all land Israel? No matter what year you claim it, the property belongs to a former owner who has good moral reason for a claim. Do we, for example, have a right to go to China, and say we own our farm, which has belonged to our family since 1100 A.D.? Ridiculous, isn't it? Also, doesn't the average American move every five years? We just keep exchanging with one another.
The way to deal with moving in was to establish a headquarters, which I decided would be in the dining room, a small powerful spot, surprisingly not the garret, which is secretive. The Headquarters would consist of a card table and a lawn chair, a typewriter, papers, and pencils. It takes about ten minutes to set up, and I feel moved in, capable; from the Headquarters, I will venture into the rest of the house.
Earll assembles and talks about a Basic Kit, by which I think he means a toothbrush and toothpaste. "The Basic Kit is all I really need," he keeps saying, at which I take offense. I retaliate that all I need is my Headquarters.
Joseph's method of moving in is to decide that his bedroom will be the one in the attic, next to the writer's garret, and he spreads everything he owns over its strangeness.
As at every place we have ever moved to, we throw mattresses on the living room floor and sleep there for several nights — to establish ourselves in the middle of the house, to weight it down. The night comes black into the uncurtained windows.
I attack the house from my Headquarters, and again appreciate being married to a person whose sense of geometry is not much different from mine. How do people stay together whose eyes can't agree on how much space there should be between pictures?
The final thing that makes it possible to live in the house is our promise to each other that if we cannot bear the weight of ownership, we can always sell, though we know from fifteen years of marriage that this is like saying, "Well, if this marriage doesn't work out, we can always get a divorce." You don't know how you change in the interim.
My High School Reunion
I just opened an envelope in the mail and found a mimeographed sheet smelling like a school test and announcing the twentieth year reunion of my high school class. No Host Cocktail Party. Buffet Dinner. Family Picnic. Dancing. In August. Class of '58. Edison High. Stockton. My stomach is lurching. My dignity feels wobbly. I don't want to go if I'm going to be one of those without the strength to stay grown up and transcendent.
I hadn't gone to the tenth year reunion. The friends I really wanted to see, I was seeing, right? But I've been having dreams about the people in high school, and wake up with an urge to talk to them, find out how they turned out. "Did you grow up? I grew up." There are parts of myself that those people have in their keeping — they're holding things for me — different from what my new friends hold.
"When I think of you, I remember the hateful look you gave me on the day we signed yearbooks. That face has popped into my mind a few times a year for twenty years. Why did you look at me that way?" I'd like to be able to say that at the No Host Cocktail Party. And to someone else: "I remember you winking at me across the physics lab."
I dreamed that the girl who never talked in all the years of school spoke to me: "Your house has moles living in it." Then my cat said, "I am a cat and not a car. Quit driving me around." Are there truths to be found?
Another reason I hadn't gone to my tenth was an item in the registration form: "List your publications." Who's on the reunion committee anyway? Somebody must have grown up to become a personnel officer at a university. To make a list, it takes more than an article and one poem. Cutthroat competitors. With no snooty questions asked, maybe the classmates with interesting jail records would show up. We are not the class to be jailed for political activities or white collar crimes but for burglary, armed robbery, and crimes of passion. "Reunions are planned by the people who were popular. They want the chance to put us down again," says a friend (Punahou Academy '68), preparing for her tenth.
But surely, I am not going to show up this year just because I now have a "list." And there is more to the questionnaire: "What's the greatest happiness you've had in the last twenty years? What do you regret the most?" I should write across the paper, "These questions are too hard. Can I come anyway?" No, you can't answer, "None of your business." It is their business; these are the people who formed your growing up.
I have a friend (Roosevelt High '62) who refused to go to his tenth because he had to check "married," "separated," "divorced," or "single." He could not bear to mark "divorced." Family Picnic.
But another divorced friend's reunion (Roosevelt '57) turned out to be so much fun that the class decided to meet again the very next weekend — without the spouses, a come-without-the-spouse party. And when my brother (Edison '60) and sister-in-law (Edison '62) went to her reunion, there was an Old Flames Dance; you asked a Secret Love to dance. Working out the regrets, people went home with other people's spouses. Fifteen divorces and remarriages by summer's end.
At my husband Earll's (Bishop O'Dowd '56) reunion, there was an uncomfortableness as to whether to call the married priests Father or Mister or what.
What if you can't explain yourself over the loud music? Twenty years of transcendence blown away at the No Host Cocktail. Cocktails — another skill I haven't learned, like the dude in the old cowboy movies who ordered milk or lemonade or sarsaparilla. They'll have disco dancing. Never been to a disco either. Not cool after all these years.
In high school, we did not choose our friends. I sort of ended up with certain people, and then wondered why we went together. If she's the pretty one, then I must be the homely one. (When I asked my sister [Edison '59] about my "image," she said, "Well, when I think of the way you look in the halls, I picture you with your slip hanging." Not well-groomed.) We were incomplete, and made complementary friendships, like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Or more like the Cisco Kid and Pancho. Friendships among equals is a possibility I have found as an adult.
No, my motive for going would not be because of my "list." I was writing in high school. Writing did not protect me then, and it won't protect me now. I came from a school — no, it's not the school — it's the times; we are of a time when people don't read.
There's a race thing too. Suddenly the colored girls would walk up, and my colored girlfriend would talk and move differently. Well, they're athletes, I thought; they go to the same parties. Some years, the only place I ever considered sitting for lunch was the Chinese table. There were more of us than places at that table. Hurry and get to the cafeteria early, or go late when somebody may have finished and left a seat. Or skip lunch. We will eat with whom at the Buffet Dinner?
Earll says that he may have to work in August, and not be able to escort me. Alone at the Dance. Again.
One day, in high school, I was walking home with a popular girl. (It was poor to be seen walking to or from school by oneself.) And another popular girl, who had her own car, asked my friend to ride with her. "No, thanks," said my friend. "We'll walk." And the girl with the car stamped her foot, and said, "Come here! We ride home with one another." Meaning the members of their gang, I guess. The popular-girl gang. "I remember you shouting her away from me," I could say at the reunion, not, I swear, to accuse so much as to get the facts straight. Nobody had come right out and said that there were very exclusive groups of friends. They were not called "groups" or "crowds" or "gangs" or "cliques" or anything. ("Clicks," the kids today say.) "Were you in a group? Which one was I in?"
My son, who is a freshman (Roosevelt, Class of '81), says he can't make friends outside of his group. "My old friends feel left out, and then they ice me out."
What a test of character the reunion will be. I'm not worried about looks. My woman friends and I are sure that we look physically better at thirty-eight than at eighteen. By going to the reunion, I'll be able to update the looks of those people who are always eighteen in my dreams.
John Gregory Dunne (Portsmouth Priory '50) said to his wife, Joan Didion (McClatchy High '52), "It is your obligation as an American writer to go to your high school reunion." And she went. She said she dreamed about the people for a long time afterward.
I have improved: I don't wear slips anymore. I got tired of hanging around homely people. It would be nice to go to a reunion where we look at one another and know without explanations how much we improved in twenty years of life. And know that we had something to do with one another's outcomes, companions in time for a while, lucky to meet again. I wouldn't miss such a get-together for anything.
Trying to define exactly how Hawai'i is different from California, I keep coming up with the weather, though during certain seasons the weather isn't all that different. In 1967, Earll and I, with our son, left Berkeley in despair over the war. Our friends, retreating from the barricades, too, were starting communes in the northern California woods. They planned to live — to build and to plant, to marry and to have babies — as if the United States were out of Vietnam.
"Look," Lew Welch was saying, "if nobody tried to live this way, all the work of the world would be in vain." He also wrote about Chicago: "I'm just going to walk away from it. Maybe / A small part of it will die if I'm not around / feeding it anymore." That was what we felt about America.
We did not look for new jobs in Hawai'i. It was the duty of the pacifist in a war economy not to work. When you used plastic wrap or made a phone call or drank grape juice or washed your clothes or drove a car, you ran the assembly lines that delivered bombs to Vietnam.
Gary Snyder said that at the docks the forklifts make holes in sacks, and you can pick up fifteen or twenty-five pounds of rice for free once a week. We discovered that a human being could live out of the dumpsters behind the supermarkets. Blocks of cheese had only a little extra mold on them. Tear off the outer leaves, and the lettuce and cabbage heads were perfectly fresh. It wasn't until about three years ago that the supermarkets started locking their garbage bins at night.
At least the weather in Hawai'i was good for sleeping outdoors if necessary. So it really did come down to the weather. I remembered Defoe writing in A Journal of the Plague Year that during the plague, moods were greatly affected by the weather. Also, we had our passports ready, and if the United States committed one more unbearable atrocity, we would already be halfway to Japan.
We discovered that O'ahu is a rim that we could drive in less than a day. Shoes, clothes, tables, chairs washed up on the shores. We found a ninety-dollar-a-month apartment above a grocery store on the rim. We cadged a bunk bed from an abandoned house, a broken park bench for a sofa, fruit and nuts but not pineapples because of the fifty-dollar fine. If only the war would end before our life savings did, we would be all right. The greenery was so lush that we did not notice for a long time that the people were poor, that we were living in a slum by the sea.
We had not, of course, escaped from the war, but had put ourselves in the very midst of it, as close as you could get and remain in the United States.
We should have thought of it — hardware and soldiers were sent to Hawai'i, which funneled everything to Vietnam. Tanks and jeeps in convoys maneuvered around the rim. Khaki soldiers drove khaki vehicles, camouflage that did not match the bright foliage. Like conquered natives standing on the roadside, we were surprised when soldiers gave us the peace sign. (In Berkeley, we hardly saw any soldiers.) We heard the target practice — with missiles — in the mountains, where we hiked, and looked at the jagged red dirt like wounds in the earth's green skin.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hawai'i One Summer"
Copyright © 1998 Maxine hong Kingston.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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Table of Contents
Preface to the Paperback Edition,
Our First House,
My High School Reunion,
A City Person Encountering Nature,
Talk Story: A Writers' Conference,
Lew Welch: An Appreciation,
A Sea Worry,