The Open Heart Is a Force For Peace

A Conversation With
Susan Griffin and Maxine Hong Kingston




Among our most beloved writers are those who aim to illuminate the devastation wrought by war and exploitation and offer a tender, precise, and deeply respectful view of our human potential. We cherish them because they hold up a mirror to our deepest wisdom, awaken us to our beauty, and point the way to equality and peace in our private lives and in our world.

Two such authors are Maxine Hong Kingston and Susan Griffin. Among their earliest books that may have powerfully impacted us are Griffin’s Woman and Nature and Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Both books undertook strong feminist explorations that broke new ground.

Hong Kingston followed up with China Men and the novel Tripmaster Monkey. Then, wanting to use her literary skills and influence to more directly address the human costs of war, she began encouraging Vietnam veterans to put their stories on paper. Under her guidance, vets gathered to write about and share their war experiences. Eventually a book emerged—Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace—a collection of men’s and women’s voices revisiting and bringing to redemptive life the Vietnam war’s harsh realities.

In A Chorus of Stones, Griffin wove stories from her own life with the great conflicts of the age in order to examine issues of war and gender, creating a book that illuminates how history plays out in the lives of individuals like us. Her recent book,Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy, carries forward this approach of “social autobiography.” She has written, as well, on rape, pornography, the body, and the culture of courtesans; and has published a number of books of poetry.

When we met earlier this year in Hong Kingston’s dining room, both Susan and Maxine expressed a lively appreciation for each other as writers and as women. My task as interviewer was easy. All I had to do was plant a few considered questions and listen while a full-leaved garden of reflection and insight effortlessly sprang up.

At one point Susan said, “I do think any poem that opens your heart is going to be a force for peace.” Reading those words later, I thought they expressed these two artists’ vision and commitment to awaken us to our greater humanity through the power and beauty of language.

(Sandy Boucher, Persimmon Tree Associate Editor)

Persimmon Tree: Let me start by asking how you see politics and art intersecting in your own work, in others’ work, and in the world?
Susan Griffin (SG): The style of mixing current events with memoir is really catching hold. There are more and more people doing it.
Maxine Hong
Kingston (MHK):
Yes, and it’s not just a matter of mixing politics with memory. It also is putting us in the context of history that’s going on right now.When I wrote China Men, one of the reviewers excoriated me for connecting my own story with the high culture of China. As in, who did I think I was? I replied that I come from the peasant culture of China—and that we ordinary peasants do participate in history. How can he say we don’t? It’s that old definition of what history is: the story of kings and wars.
SG: And therefore not very interesting. People become alienated from history because they don’t think of themselves as being part of it. It’s as if they came here in the present moment. That’s one of the reasons why I put my own experience in Chorus of Stones.
MHK: A new kind of history is being written. For the first time people who are nobodies can come forward and say, “This is my story.”
SG: We’re talking about things we have lived through, whether they’re set fictionally or non-fictionally. This is not a drama that’s constructed from standard historical facts. Beautiful language is very important to me—but authenticity is also important.
MHK: Yes. An example would be the veterans I worked with for Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. These are privates. These are grunts. And they survived to tell their story, and oh, that authenticity is so powerful.
SG: Those vets’ stories change your view of warfare.
MHK: You mentioned caring about beauty of language. A fear that I have had is if I write politically, I will be writing merely propaganda. Propaganda is not art, not poetry.
SG: Right.
MHK: But I see that in these veterans’ eyewitness accounts, the language is beautiful. The metaphors are true. And they come with a new language. So often there isn’t a language for what people have seen, and so they must invent it. It’s so fresh and powerful.
SG: I’m teaching a class on the inner life of democracy now. I’m encouraging these students to react to what we discuss or read with memories of their own rather than taking a scholarly perspective. And they’re doing stunning writing. Occasionally one of them will lapse into the ordinary sort of essay that is standardly taught, expressing opinions and theories. Then their writing isn’t nearly as good.
MHK: It’s our task as teachers to break them out of the old forms so they can find the new form for the new story.
SG: There is a place for the old form, but it’s not very natural. I remember learning it in college. It was as if every bone in my body was broken and reset.
MHK: [Laughs] Yes.
SG: Before I went to college, I wrote poetry and short stories. To me, that was natural.
MHK: Me, too! But when I got to Berkeley and learned the “correct” form, I lost it.
SG: Yes. This changed for me only when I started listening to popular music—those were the days when Janis Joplin was singing “Bobby McGee.” Many of the songs told stories, the old ballad form in new permutations. I found the songs very moving, and I started writing poetry again.
MHK: My poetry came back to me through art. Not being able to write, I painted and drew, and it took me about two years before the writing returned. I realized that in painting, or maybe any art, you’re working with composition, perspective, metaphor, and color. It’s the same thing as writing: finding form and shape and coherence, expressing feeling, and so on.
SG: I remember in college there were so few women writers assigned. I think I read a little bit of Dickinson and a little bit of Woolf. There was a professor who was a bit of a rebel, so part of his rebellion was to assign Edith Wharton. And Henry Roth—which was wonderful.
MHK: Oh my goodness. I met Henry Roth in Albuquerque. He and his wife were living in a trailer park. His wife was a composer and a concert pianist, and they had a grand piano inside their mobile home. For whatever reason, she did not have a musical career. She was 80-something, almost 90—maybe after he died—when she gave her first concert. Conducting an orchestra playing her music.
SG: That’s a wonderful story.
Persimmon Tree: I’m wondering how your aging—bodily, psychologically, and spiritually—has affected your work or shaped it?
MHK: Susan, you start. You’re two years younger. [Laughter]
SG: I’ve had an unusual trajectory because I was ill with chronic fatigue in my middle years, and it took me a while to climb out of it. In my early sixties, I experienced having more energy and being stronger than before. But now I’m starting to really experience my age.Recently I was listening to the Rite of Spring. In one section there’s a driving, pulsating energy—dah, dah-dah, dah, dah-dah, dah, dah. That kind of energy is not what I have anymore. It’s more like a flow. Sometimes I will get into a combative mood over politics, not with any particular person but just watching television, but I don’t stay there. The change is energetic, which is not all bad.
Persimmon Tree: What about your thinking?
SG: I established certain things I was interested in decades ago, even before my first book, Woman and Nature. I keep coming back to those themes and rediscovering them. At this age, you can see the development and the evolution of your own thought.For a long time I thought I want to do something new, but now I think it is fine. It is enough. I see this material very clearly, and I’m doing different things with it. It feels like one long symphony.
MHK: That’s great. I just finished a 5,226-line poem. It starts with, “I am turning 65 years of age,” so this was four years ago. I meant to go into my aging deliberately as I wrote this poem. I did not expect it to be 5,000 lines long. When I finished it and sent it to my publisher, I had the sense that I had completed my work, and I don’t need to do anything more.I don’t need to drive myself to the next book or the next poem. This is very different from how I felt before. Since I was a baby, I’ve had the feeling that I am going to write the “great novel,” and that’s always pushed me. After I wrote each one, I thought now I’ve got to write the next one and the next one.

And I came to the end of this poem, and I thought, “I’m through.” I’ve been in this state for a few months, and it’s been very interesting to live this way. I think I am now living like most people.

Persimmon Tree: So there’s the sense that your contribution has been made—to yourself, to life, to the world—and now you don’t need to do that anymore?
MHK: I don’t even feel guilty if I don’t go out on a demonstration. [Laughter]
Persimmon Tree: What about you, Susan?
SG: It’s a little different for me. I would like to slow down, but unfortunately I can’t because of economic considerations. These days it’s hard to sell books, and I support myself partly as a writer. The idea of working much more slowly sounds heavenly. Just to have everything be considered and quiet.
Persimmon Tree: You started to address this, Maxine, so let me ask: Do you feel you are as firmly engaged in life as before, or is there sometimes a sense of disconnect or distance?
MHK: I don’t feel any disconnection. In fact, I feel more engaged and more within lives. I have learned in the last 69 years how to communicate better with different kinds of people, and I find it easier to make friends and be in groups. Even easier to be with people who don’t agree with me. I can handle that better.
SG: I completely agree. I’m touched by a wider range of people. Sometimes I’m watching television and something bad is about to happen, and I have to turn it off. I’m very porous with this kind of thing. I think it’s partly age.Also, I’m not as ambitious, even though I have the worry of surviving economically. Recently I wrote an essay and I used something that my granddaughter said. She was in a discussion with her father about making her little brother laugh, and he said, “Children don’t run out of laughter.” She replied, “Well, grownups do.” Then he asked, “Why do you think that is?” There was a long pause, “Maybe because they’re closer to death.”

After describing this, I wrote that I want my grandchildren to know that when you get older something else happens, too. There’s a certain lightness of being. It comes with really getting it that you’re not immortal, that you’ve had this many years and you maybe only have one more.

MHK: I cry now for public and political and historical events. I can read about the bombing on Hiroshima and cry. But I don’t cry anymore about personal things.
SG: If I hear a kid was shot on the street, then I’ll cry. Or a friend of mine goes through something devastating and horrible, I cry—but not over my own.
MHK: As a kid, you cry if you hurt yourself. Now I’ll cry when I laugh. I notice that was the only time I ever saw my mother cry was when she laughed. It was never over a sadness.
Persimmon Tree: Maybe feeling sorry for ourselves has gone.
SG: When I was younger, I easily would go into a state of self-pity and not even realize that’s what I was doing. [Laughter] “What, me? Moi?”
MHK: I remember reading the phrase that we shouldn’t have self-pity, and I didn’t understand why. I thought it was perfectly all right, given my circumstances. But I suppressed it because I thought I wasn’t supposed to feel that way. And then years later, in my middle age, I just let all that self-pity pour out. [Laughter]
SG: Self-pity is different from having compassion for oneself.
MHK: I’ve been taking yoga with a woman who always ends the session by reminding us to be kind to ourselves. “And care for yourself like a baby or like a dear little animal,” she says. Of course. Of course.As family members, as good political citizens, we are always showing compassion for others. And we forget that we really do need to take care of ourselves.
SG: Oh, it’s very important. But it takes a lifetime to learn this. I used to push through pain, and now I don’t anymore.
Persimmon Tree: About growing older, it sounds like both of you like being your age. You’re inhabiting it.
SG: I’m single, and I used to feel bad if I didn’t go out on Saturday night. I was the wallflower or something. Now I welcome the time alone. I’m free of thinking I have to be in a relationship. If one were to show up and work out, that would be quite wonderful. But I’ve had a lot of passion in my life, and I have a lot of very deep love in my life now. So there isn’t that sort of drive anymore, which feels very good.
MHK: The question of liking being this age. All my life I’ve been ambivalent about everything, and so I’m ambivalent about this, too. [Laughter]One of the things I like about this age is being able to look back on a long life—but I keep seeing things I could have done better. And then I am so full of regret. I do not like nostalgia, and I don’t like regret. Those are very painful feelings for me. I know that when I was younger, I couldn’t have had the wisdom or the skills to have handled it any better, but now that I know, I can’t forgive myself.I keep working on the Buddhist idea that it’s all in the present. I can deal with my regret about the past even if those people from the past are not around. It’s working out the same karma with different people.

In my fiction sometimes a character will treat another character wrongly and that one dies, but then a new one appears and the person has to work out the same themes. I can make that work in fiction. I’m trying to do it in my life.

SG: I feel regret about some of the attitudes I had that caused pain to other people. But I think the regret needs to be there. It’s a sort of truthfulness. What I’m trying to do is detach from any notion of self-image. In other words, the regret is a completely genuine feeling of sorrow that I caused that hurt. But I don’t make that into a self-image. I find this a challenge, but I do feel I’m making more progress now in separating who I really am from self-image.
MHK: When I heard the Dalai Lama speak, he said that people often ask him how he deals with the fact that all his speaking out about the situation in Tibet doesn’t seem to help those people getting tortured and thrown in jail. He said that he feels helpless, and it is very painful to him. He just sits there and he feels helpless. He didn’t give us any advice, but it made me feel so much better that even the Dalai Lama can feel helpless. Even with the amount of power he has.I’ve been thinking about the demonstrations where we tried to stop the Iraq war from happening. We did our very best. We were dancers; we were actors, musicians, poets, and we dressed in pink for Code Pink, and we performed all our art to the best of our ability. It did not stop the start of that war. It didn’t make them hesitate for a moment.
SG: It might have slowed the dropping of bombs on civilians.
MHK: I hope so. Then that brings up the question of practicing non-violence. What good does it do? What good does our art do in making a better world?Recently PEN USA organized an event in which writers were speaking up about Iran. Sholeh Wolpe wrote an amazing poem, “I am Neda,” which was performed and sung. Neda was the young woman who was killed during the riots in Iran. The poet who wrote this said, “All I can do is give my poetry.” And I think, okay, we’re doing all right.
SG: I do think any poem that opens your heart is going to be a force for peace. It’s important for people to be able to feel each other’s sorrow, to feel the sorrow of somebody in Burma or Iran or Afghanistan or Gaza. That is our work in some way. We have these skills; poetry is a form of very ancient wisdom, an artistic form. As you were saying, it’s composition. All wisdom isn’t cognitive or cerebral.
MHK: Sometimes I feel like giving up. I wouldn’t mind if I died right now because I don’t want to deal with all this sorrow anymore. But as a teacher, I can see how poetry is a transforming force. Poetry can change the heart. Again, using the veterans for an example.Here are people who’ve come back from violence, and if they can find their imagination and a form of art to express all they’ve been through, they change spiritually and physically. They go from being war people to peace people.

We perform our poetry, but we also teach others to have poetry. And then, see, we change the world slowly. That’s the only way we can change it, in that slow way. The fast way is, oh, let’s just drop a bomb. But that’s not the way we work. Our way has to be the way of poetry.

We’re living at a time when all the people with the weapons are moving very fast, and we are moving very slow. I just hope that we don’t become extinct before we can calm them down.

SG: The thing about slow movement, though, is that sometimes things will congeal all of a sudden, and there is significant change. I experienced it directly in the ’60s. After years of unconsciousness about the role of women, there was a great turning to feminism.If you look at the bigger picture, you can see a larger turning, a wave. The wave that exists now has been building up for a long time, and it has many different elements. One is a hunger for peace. We are waging two wars in the United States, but the feeling of the population is largely against both of them. I think the vast majority of people have changed inside, so let’s just hope that wave happens before the world is destroyed by warfare, or global warming overtakes us, or any of a number of disasters.
MHK: It’s important to me to hear you talk about this wave of a good world that’s coming. It reminds me that when I get into despair, I am alone, and I’m very isolated, and I’m living with that awfulness. But then to be with others in a demonstration, to be with other people who remind me of what we’re living for—that gets me out of it.
SG: I’ve been reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The book itself is like a very wide-angle lens on the history of the period, and it’s written by somebody who was there. It has that gritty feeling. What you get from that is a view of how things seem to go back and forth and they’re unpredictable—but then things intensify and change.
MHK: I read Les Miserableswhen I was a kid. I probably was home sick with a fever, because I felt such a fever as I was reading it.Look how our sense of justice is formed by that book. How dare they throw Jean Valjean in prison because he stole bread for his starving family?
SG: If you look at that theft of bread, you see that what preceded it was the theft of the life energy of the people who were starving—the exploitation of working people going on in that period.
MHK: Oh, that brings to mind Hurricane Katrina, when we saw people taking food from stores.
SG: To understand what was happening there, we need that wider lens of looking at the chain of reaction. And the chain of action before that moment.
Those nineteenth-century novelists certainly knew how to do that in literature. Anna Karenina is another example of revealing a whole portrait of the culture.
MHK: I want to write like that, too. [Laughter]
SG: See, she’s still ambitious, after all!


Susan Griffin is a poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter. Named by Utne reader as one of a hundred important visionaries for the new millennium, she has been the recipient of an NEA grant and a one-year MacArthur Grant for Peace and International Cooperation. Her work, translated into 17 languages, is taught in colleges and universities internationally. She has published several volumes of poetry.

Maxine Hong Kingston has received many honors, including the National Book Award, the National Humanities Medal, and the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. She has written three novels and several works of nonfiction about the experiences of Chinese immigrants living in the US. Her most recent book, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, is a strong statement against war and violence.

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