Review of The Fifth Book of Peace by Maxine Hong Kingston
in Peacework, Sept. 2004
Avalokiteshavara—the bodhisattva of compassionate listening—is the spirit that pervades Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Fifth Book of Peace. Informed by Ms. Kingston’s Buddhist practices and values, it is a hybrid of memoir, scholarship, and fiction. In terms of ethics, it is an intimate exploration of the complexities of peace work. What holds the book’s energies in creative tension is Ms. Kingston’s willingness to listen with utmost attention and open-heartedness to the voices within and around her.
One of the voices that Ms. Kingston listens to is her own. The first story she tells is of a 1991 wildfire that swept the hills overlooking Oakland, California. In that firestorm Ms. Kingston lost her home and all her worldly possessions, along with “156 good pages” of a work in progress, a fiction that Ms. Kingston was calling The Fourth Book of Peace. Ms. Kingston tells of returning from her father’s funeral only to discover a catastrophe that has befallen her. Because there was no backup copy to the manuscript, she is in panic and near-despair as she makes her way to where her house had stood. She stands amid the flames and ashes, and realizes her work has disappeared into the air, and that she has suddenly become “thingless” in terms of attachments. She also sees another lesson in the flames: “I know why this fire. God is showing us Iraq. It is wrong to kill, and refuse to look at what we have done. . . God is teaching us, showing us this scene that is like war.”
With the First Gulf War only recently over, and now the Fourth Book of Peace lost in the fire, Ms. Kingston tells us that the idea for a book of peace had been with her since childhood. She recalls having a recurring dream of bombers and missiles moving through the sky, and feeling that she could stop them by finding the Three Lost Books of Peace. According to stories she had learned from her parents, those books were composed at the dawn of Chinese civilization, and were destroyed in deliberately set fires, probably in militaristic eras. Ms. Kingston writes of the mythic foundations and scholarly debates surrounding these lost books, and believes that a book of peace existed up until the eleventh century. In the end, however, there does not seem to be much scholarly agreement in China or elsewhere on what a book of peace was, or might have been, or if it ever existed. Listening to the conflicting opinions on the matter, Ms. Kingston realizes that the very elusiveness of the idea suggests that a book of peace is not so much something to be inherited, as it is to be reinvented in each era.
What then might a book of peace for our time consist of? It would, she tells us, collect the stories that do not celebrate war as a way to insight or wisdom. It would collect the stories of resistance to our dominant, archetypal narratives of war. It would collect stories of non-violence and tales of creative, collective work toward reconciliation. It would redefine bravery and tell the tales of the intergenerational strains in the aftermath of war. In the years that followed the fires, Ms. Kingston asked any and all she came in contact with to send her stories of peace and images of peace work. This did not mean her initial impulse to fiction would disappear from the work. In fact, a significant portion of the Fifth Book is a fiction about the life and times of Wittman Ah Sing, her main character from an earlier novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. Wittman, in evading and resisting the draft during the Viet Nam War, is moving with his wife and their son, from Berkeley to Hawaii where he becomes involved in the Sanctuary movement, offering aid and comfort to GI’s who were becoming CO’s, or going AWOL, or deserting the American military during the Viet Nam War. Based partially on her own experiences during that era, this fictional section in the Fifth Book breaks down the boundaries between civilian and combatant, and presents the many varieties of resistance to that war, including portraits of several conscience-troubled GI’s.
The fiction in the Fifth Book, however, is prelude to the climactic section, set in recent years, including the build-up of the present-day conflict in Iraq. It is an account of a writer’s group that Ms. Kingston founded circa 1993 in the San Francisco Bay Area. The seed-idea for a writer’s group came from various peace-oriented stories sent to her by Viet Nam era veterans who had heard her speak of the fire and her new ideas for a book of peace. Ms. Kingston, with the help of several members of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community of Mindful Living, invited around twenty veterans and their families to a day of “Reflective Writing, Mindfulness, and War.” Out of that experience Ms. Kingston conceived of a writing group that would be built around and include meditation practices along with writing and sharing work aloud. There would be sitting and walking meditation, and there would be periods of silence, but above all there would be the guarantee of freedom to tell one’s story with the confidence that those around you would be sincerely committed to listening as a creative act.
In American literature, there are very few accounts of teaching and learning that really capture the quicksilver quality of fully committed thought and feeling in a classroom or a workshop. The most important things always seem to happen too quickly or too subtly, or too much below the surface of words. But Ms. Kingston’s account of the meetings of this writing group, especially the conflicts among the various veterans as they begin to learn to listen to each other, is the best piece of educational writing (for lack of better words) I have ever encountered. This is probably because in it Ms. Kingston demonstrates the importance and the frailty of listening to this process. What she declares on the first day holds true throughout the decade of the group’s existence: “there are antidotes to this violence to our bodies and souls. . . Listen to one another. Tune your ear. Listening, we draw people’s stories out of them. . . Hearing someone else’s story you may feel moved to read in response.”
The writing group Ms. Kingston founded has had an ongoing history and still meets on a quarterly basis. The participants range from combat medics to peace activists, from spouses and children of soldiers to guest writers such as Grace Paley, Larry Heinemann, and the Vietnamese writer Le Minh Khue, among others. The group’s mix of meditation, writing, and attentive listening has created a beloved community out of the fires that all have lived through. The creation of such a community is the story that is at the heart of The Fifth Book of Peace, and it is a story that we are all so much in need of in our terror-filled time.