The Fifth Book of Peace opens as Maxine Hong Kingston, driving home from her father’s funeral in the early 1990s, discovers that her neighborhood in the Oakland-Berkeley hills is engulfed in flames. Her home burns to the ground, and with it, all her earthly possessions, including her novel-in-progress. Kingston, who at the time was deeply disturbed by the Persian Gulf War, decides that she must understand her own loss of all she possessed as a kind of shadow-experience of war: a lesson about what it would be like to experience up close its utter devastation. Thus she embarks on a mission to re-create her novel from scratch, to rebuild her life, and to reach out to veterans of war and share with them her views as a lover of peace.
In the middle section of this remarkable book, Kingston reconstructs for us her lost novel, the lush and compelling story of the Chinese-American Wittman Ah Sing and his wife, Taña–California artists who flee to Hawaii to evade the draft during the Vietnam War. Wittman and Taña help to create an official Sanctuary for deserters and GIs who’ve returned devastated by their experiences in Vietnam–not unlike, as it turns out, the metaphorical sanctuary Maxine creates, back in her real world, by inviting war veterans to participate in writing workshops. As the vets share their stories, she teaches them both the value of writing–the accurate transcription of what is in the heart–and the value of community.
Paradoxically, the stories of war and its terrors become for her and the vets a literature of peace–words that enable them to achieve peace, at least within themselves. Moving among the vets with her Buddhist-inflected wisdom and at times humorous self-doubts, weaving their stories together with her own struggle to reorient herself after the fire, Maxine Hong Kingston is at times a kind of sprite, an almost weightless spirit, who guides others toward a better place, and at times a challenging teacher, who will not let us turn from the spectacle of a world so often at war.
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Maxine Hong Kingston is Senior Lecturer for Creative Writing at the University of California, Berkeley. For her memoirs and fiction, The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey, and Hawai’i One Summer, she has earned numerous awards, among them 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, as well as the title of “Living Treasure of Hawai’i.”Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
If a woman is going to write a Book of Peace, it is given her to know devastation. I have lost my book—156 good pages. A firestorm blew over the Oakland-Berkeley hills in October of 1991, and took my house, things, neighborhood, and other neighborhoods, and forests. And the lives of twenty-five people.
I almost reached my manuscript, typescript, printouts, and disks in time. I was driving home from funeral ceremonies for my father. I have lost my father. He’s gone less than a month; we were having the full-month ceremony early, Sunday day off. Never before had I driven by myself away from Stockton and my parents’ house. I turned on public radio for the intelligent voices, and heard that the hills were burning, toward Moraga, toward Walnut Creek. It’s not my poor sense of direction, I told myself, but the newscasters in confusion. The perimeters of the fire were different from station to station, from taped news to live news. North of the Caldecott Tunnel, south of the Caldecott Tunnel, east, west of the Warren Freeway. I pictured wildfire far up in the hills—ridgelines of flame spilling down, then running up sere-grass slopes. I have seen it at night—red gashes zigzagging the black. Impossible that it cross ten lanes of freeway and take over settled, established, built city.
Behind me, my sister-in-law Cindy was chasing me at ninety miles per hour. My family believed that I didn’t know about the fire, and would drive into it, and not be able to find my way out on the altered, burning streets. Like all the Chinese members of our family, I have an instinct that left is right and vice versa. Too easily lost. Cindy, who is not Chinese but Arkie, ran out of gas at Tracy.
In a half-hour, halfway there, forty miles to go, I was speeding over the Altamont Pass (where there be ghosts and accidents; it is the ground upon which the stabbing happened at the Rolling Stones concert, after Woodstock), and through the windfarms. Some windmills turned, and some were still. Here the winds and all seemed normal; I had no evidence that hurricanes of fire were storming on the other side of these hills but for the radio. “Forty-five houses have gone up in flames.” “About a hundred homes.” “A hundred and fifty structures have burned.” The numbers would keep going up—nine hundred degrees, the temperature of molten lava; twenty-one hundred degrees, the temperature of kilns; thirty-five hundred houses. “Winds of forty-five miles per hour . . .” “. . . sixty-five-mile-per-hour firewind . . .” “. . . record heat and winds . . .” “Foehn winds.” “Northeast winds . . .” I would have to look up “foehn,” which sounds like “wind” in Chinese, as in “typhoon.” “The fire has jumped the junction of Highway Twenty-four and Highway Thirteen.” It’s blown over and through ten lanes. Ten lanes are not wide enough firebreak. It’s on our side of the freeway. “. . . dynamite College Avenue.” “. . . draw the line at College Avenue.” “. . . helicopters and available cropdusters chemical-drop the Claremont Hotel.” “If the Claremont Hotel goes, explodes, the fire will burn to the Bay.” “No cars have been trapped in the Caldecott Tunnel.” Once, a propane truck had exploded inside the tunnel—a giant flamethrower pointed at Oakland.
NO TANK TRUCKS
WITH HAZARDOUS MATERIALS
ALLOWED IN CALDECOTT TUNNEL
A police car was parked sideways across my exit, Broadway Terrace. I drove fast to the next exit, which was blocked by a Highway Patrol car and flares. They are setting up the roadblocks moments ahead of me, I thought. If only I had driven faster, I might have saved the book, and my mother’s jewelry, and my father’s watch, and his spectacles, which fit my eyes, and his draft card, which I had taken from his wallet. “This card is to be carried on your person at all times.” He carried it safely for over fifty years.
When I got off the freeway, I was somewhere in downtown Oakland, and driving too slowly through complicated traffic. It was the middle of the afternoon, about two o’clock. Too late. Too late. The sky was black. The sun was red. Leaves of burned black paper wafted high and low among the buildings. Ashes from a forest fire were falling and blowing in downtown Oakland.
In the middle of my U-turn, the radio said that Broadway and/or Broadway Terrace was on fire, and that there was looting on Ostrander Street. Parallel streets—big Broadway Terrace for cars, little Broadway Terrace for walking—eucalyptus and pine trees and apple trees between them—a tree-high, two-street-thick wall of flame. Mass fire. I said out loud, “No. No. No. No.” Ostrander is—was?—a one-way road through a small woods on a hill. On my walks to and from the Village Market, families of quail would surprise me. They walked ahead just so far, as if leading me, or as if I were giving chase, then took off running into the bushes, and flying up into the lower branches of the oaks and pines. Once, on Ostrander, I stood amazed at the center of a storm of birds—hundreds of robins, jays, and chickadees—flying touch-and-go, on and off treetops and roofs and grass, circling and crisscrossing singly and in schools, and never bumping into one another—better than the Blue Angels. I love looking out at Oakland and seeing a crane extend itself over the city. So—their flyway can sweep this far west, and they rest at Lake Merritt or Lake Anza or Temescal. Anne Frank saw cranes out the sky window. Another time, riding BART, as the train came up out of the Bay into Oakland, I saw twelve angels wheeling in the sun, rays of white wings and gold light. “Swans!” I said loudly; the other passengers had to see them too. “Look. Swans.”
It can’t be too late. All I want is a minute inside the house—run to the far end of the living room, to the alcove where my book is in a wine box, take one more breath, and run upstairs for the gold and jade that my ancestresses had been able to keep safe through wars in China and world wars and journeys across oceans and continents.
Where Broadway meets the start of College Avenue, at the California College of Arts and Crafts (where Wittman kissed Taña; but I’ll get to that), only a few feet from the sign pointing up to Broadway Terrace, the police were herding cars down and away to College Avenue. I stopped at the light, left the car, and ran over to talk them into letting me through. Even though the light turned green, the line of cars I’d blocked did not honk; nobody yelled. I wished for a hand gesture to communicate Sorry, to use in traffic situations. Sorry. Thank you. I asked a policeman, “Are you absolutely sure I can’t drive up there?” He answered that no cars were allowed past this point. I thought, May I go to my house on foot, then? I got back in the car, drove diagonally across the intersection, and parked in the red-curb stop for the College Avenue bus. The police shouldn’t write tickets on this terrible day. Twenty-eight dollars, worth it. Have mercy on this car that could very well have been left here by someone who had escaped the fire and was getting a drink of water, parking as close as she could to home.
I stood at the curb plotting how I was going to fade past the police, and got in step with an African American family with many children crossing the street. I told them I lived on Golden Gate Avenue and was trying to go up there; where did they live? They lived on Brookside, which winds around Golden Gate. I asked, “Were you officially evacuated? Has our area been officially evacuated yet?” They didn’t know, but they had been back to their house. The father said, “The police will escort you home if you tell them you have a life-and-death situation.” The mother said, “They drove us to our house.” I asked, “What was the life-and-death situation you told them?” “We couldn’t find our son. Our son was missing.” The kids, all about junior-high age, were smiling and safe; I couldn’t tell which was the one lost and now found. An unfinished book is nothing as important as a child. I told the family that I was trying to save the manuscript of a book I was writing. Said out loud in the open to actual people, who did not get excited, my plight did not seem to have enormity. “I’ve been working on it for years,” I said. About one and a half to two years of pure writing, not counting thinking and imagining. Is one and a half to two years much? It depends on which years. Didn’t Rilke write The Duino Elegies in six months? Or was it six hours one wide-awake night? He did it about ten years before his death at fifty-one. The happy family and I wished each other Good luck and Take care.
While the policemen—the Oakland cops aren’t as big as during the Viet Nam demonstrations—were busy, I walked through the barricades into the defined fire area. Householders were staying, hosing down roofs and dry lawns. A flare of fire fell out of the sky and landed behind a man intent on watering his property. I motioned to him that he should look to his rear, but he stared at me as if I were a crazy woman, pointing at my own butt. I didn’t try to shout over the helicopters; they chopped up sound and the air, and whupped up heartbeats. Anyway, only now, as I write, am I coming up with words for the things that were making wild appearances and disappearances. That flame went out; another fell out of nowhere onto his roof. Even if he saw it, he couldn’t have reached it with the spray from his garden hose. I ran on.
I felt afraid when there was not a person in sight. I ran up the center of the street, between the houses, locked up tight. I wanted to run faster, through...
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