Printer Friendly

Writing, event, and peace: the art of peace in Maxine Hong Kingston's the Fifth book of Peace.

while it invites deep and sustained attention Maxine Hong Kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace has mostly been studied since its publication in 2003 for its resonations with the author's two earlier works, The Woman Warrior and China Me. These studies are interesting partly because they support Kingston's speech at Fudan University about what Chinese world literature has in common: the free experiment with form (2007 374-78). They are also interesting because they indicate that Kingston, a famous Chinese American woman writer, tries to go beyond her earlier concern with racial and gender identity. As a book on peace and about the way to find peace, The Fifth Book of Peace remains largely unexamined.

There are not many studies on The Fifth Book of Peace. Of the book reviewers, Jan Clausen pays much more attention to Kingston's novelistic art than any other does. Clausen not only discusses the chapter titles, as most reviewers do, but also touches on the issue of artistic expression (2003 6). As for academic scholars, David B. Eubanks offers the first detailed discussion of The Fifth Book of Peace in his Ph. D. dissertation. Comparing this book with The Woman Warrior and, especially, with China Men, Eubanks argues that, under the moral obligation to promote peace, Kingston becomes quite conventional in this book even though she questions representation and dualism in her earlier works (2005 122). In her 2006 Ph.D. dissertation, Young Sook Jeong traces the echoes between The Fifth Book of Peace and Kingston's earlier works, especially The Woman Warrior and China Men. Focusing on "the representation of the mother and the father, and the narrator's relationship with them in relation to her [Kingston's] evolving feminist ideas" (2006,53), Jeong argues that in The Fifth Book of Peace "Kingston's feminism is more community conscious and peace oriented" (53). However, neither Eubanks nor Jeong gives a detailed explanation on how the Oakland-Berkeley fire that starts Kingston's search for peace in The Fifth Book of Peace and haunts her contributes to the outcome of her search, nor do they treat the many traces left by Kingston's spiritual guide, Thich Nhat Hanh.

An examination of The Fifth Book of Peace beginning with Kingston's decision to see the Oakland-Berkeley fire as a significant event posing the problem of peace is crucial for two reasons. Firstly, her decision starts and sustains her investigation on the nature of peace and her search for methods of peace. Secondly, her grasp of her situation conditions the result of her search. Because of the important role played by the fire in Kingston's peace book, a brief detour through Alain Badiou's views on an event is necessary here.

For Badiou, an event arrives as an unpredictable and incalculable supplement to a situation (2005b 46). A situation is a "presented multiplicity" (2005a 24), that is, a collection of what are actually different yet have been treated or counted as ones. These ones are then classified into categories and re-presented. The event that happens to a situation "compels [a person] to decide a new way of being" (2001 41). Such "evental rupture [in the situation] always constitutes its subject in the divided form of a 'not ... but'" (2003b 63-64). The "not" is the "potential dissolution" of the subject's earlier belief in re-presentation while the "but" indicates "the faithful labor, in which the subjects of the process opened up by the event ... are the coworkers" (64). In other words, a subject is constituted because of its decision to be faithful to an event, whose existence is otherwise undecidable .The process of being faithful to the event--making inquiries about how to transform a situation according to the revelation of the event--makes the subject go beyond representation and further constitutes a subjective truth of the event. This subjective truth is a process, and its completion remains in the future (2004 114-19).

In the following examination of The Fifth Book of Peace, I want to argue that this peace book presents Kingston's answer to the problem of achieving both inner peace and peace in the world. By claiming that the idea of peace is constantly changing, she foregrounds her contemporaries' lack of interest in peace and the need for a shared contemporary idea of peace. While she considers no universal ideas of peace and methods of peace as eternally valid, she proposes writing as a model for any kinds of answers to the problem of peace. Writing serves as a model because it involves various perspectives and can lead to a shared perspective when agreement among them is reached. Writing is also useful because it facilitates self-understanding and inner peace, and because it helps writers grasp the ephemeral ideas of peace eclipsed by representation. Thus Kingston conducts writing workshops in which people practice writing, meditation, and silence. Her vision of a peaceful world is composed of peace-makers using peaceful methods to achieve inner peace and to produce peace in the world through a shared idea of peace.

When approached from Badiou's views about an event, both the method of Kingston's search for peace and peace tactics as well as the merits of her answer to the problem of peace surface. At the first sight, her reliance on Nhat Hanh's teachings on peace and on her personal grasp of her situation makes the result of her study of peace subjective and renders it of limited use. Though that reliance enables her to produce a truth about the nature of peace and about peace tactics, her limited perspective and the infinite possibilities inherent in a Badiouian event undermine the effectiveness of any concrete answers that she can have offered. However, Kingston's method of peace is flexible. While she affirms the truth value of her discoveries, she also advocates no fixed idea of peace and peace tactics. That is why she practices writing, meditation, and silence in her writing workshops. Her study of peace demonstrates her recognition of the necessity of constantly reexamining the elements of her situation in connection to the issue of peace as a way to approach the ephemeral idea of peace and to find out methods to achieve mutual understanding and agreement among peace-makers. Because her method of peace allows her to cope with the changes in the world, an examination of how she reaches a flexible method of peace and of what she conceives the nature of peace to be is therefore valuable for people who care about the possibility of a peaceful future.

I. The Oakland-Berkeley Fire as an Event for Kingston

Approaching The Fifth Book of Peace from Badiou's views about an event, one soon notices that the unexpected Oakland-Berkeley fire constitutes an event for Kingston. The sudden erruption of this fire shocks her and turns her into a faithful new subject investigating that event and her situation. This fire that destroyed her "house, things, neighborhood, and other neighborhoods, and forests" came unexpectedly while Kingston was out, attending funeral ceremonies for her father (2004, 3). Just like a Badiouian event coming into being because of someone's decision to take the experience concerned to be an event of significance, the fire, instead of being dismissed as simply a meaningless accident, is taken by Kingston to be meaningful, posing the problem of peace.

By her decision to connect the physical fire to the problem of peace, Kingston puts into question the usual meaning of the word "peace" and signifies her desire to create a new world based on a new conception of peace. Her treatment of the fire as a peace problem recalls what Badiou says of naming an incident in his study on Beckett: "naming pins the 'incident' to its lack of meaning, and permanently fixes that which is supernumerary into a name" (2003a 32). A name is a trace of what lies already in the past in a world of becoming. Yet the way Kingston comes to the conclusion of the need for a new conception of peace also reveals the inevitable limitation of her approach, though she is willing to improve her understanding of her situation all the time.

Kingston's views on peace are similar to Nhat Hanh's in many ways. He says of peace that it "is based on respect for life, the spirit of reverence for life. Not only do we have to respect the lives of human beings, but we have to respect the lives of animals, vegetables, and minerals" (1991 113). With Nhat Hanh's statement about peace in mind, Kingston's later connection of the Oakland-Berkeley fire to war and to disrespect for life becomes understandable because she sees any violation of or damage to life as violence.

Thus the fire gets connected to her father's anger that led to her loss of the manuscript of her peace book, and connected to America's wars against other countries. Because she came to the fire scene directly from her father's funeral, she associates the fire with her father. Also, since she suspects that BaBa (her father) envies her skill as a writer, she instinctively sees the fire as set by BaBa's ghost so that he may possess her peace book. With the loss of the manuscript of her peace book, Kingston further sees by association the connection of the fire to Americas wars against other countries.

Kingston also sees the fire and America's wars as coming from people's disrespect for life. In the case of her neighborhood, she says that, when she approached her burning house in the car,"[t]he air smelled poisonous--toxic polymers, space-age plastics, petrochemicals, refrigerants, Freon, radon" (2004, 7). Evidently she and her neighbors have tolerated the existence of those poisonous elements in the neighborhood for some time.

A further inference from Kingston's discovery of the collective disrespect for life is the American people's responsibility for America's wars. Consequently, she begins to connect this disrespect for life to physical violence in the world when comparing this fire to Americas wars in Iraq. She writes, "I know why this fire. God is showing us Iraq. It is wrong to kill, and refuse to look at what we've done" (2004, 13). She denies her craziness in making such a connection: "People who've been there" or have seen other wars also compare the Oakland-Berkeley fire to war" (14). This comparison of the fire to a war stands because, as the most violent form of the destruction of life, war manifests people's disrespect for life. So Kingston likens her way home to save her book of peace to an episode in the Vietnam War. A military chopper tries to prevent Kingston, who looks "like a Viet Cong" (31), and Bessie from returning to the burning house (31).

Badiou observes that one explores an event by connecting elements in one's situation to the event, and that is how one produces a truth of the event (2004, 115-16). Kingston proceeds in the same way. Having recognized the value of all beings, she bases her further study of the problem of peace on that recognition and, as the Badiouian explorer gets constituted into a new subject through exploring an event, Kingston begins to approach people differently and gains new insight about reality.

Instead of being a woman warrior, Kingston becomes a peace-lover. In The Woman Warrior, Mu Lan fights against male enemies. In The Fifth Book of Peace, understanding supplants fighting. Kingston's initial animosity towards BaBa does not last. She blames herself with regard to BaBa and says, "We shouldn't have hurried our father. BaBa had three more days on this side of the sky door, and so he set fire to Oakland and Berkeley" (2004, 18). She laments her earlier self-centeredness and claims that she would not have lost her manuscript it her family had not had the red ceremony three days earlier "because Sunday is convenient" (18).

A change in Kingston that corresponds more closely to Badiou's "not ... but" appears when she goes beyond representation in her perception of reality. Following her recognition of the fire as a message from God against war, Kingston demonstrates the "potential dissolution" of her belief in representation (Badiou 2003b, 64), and she recognizes her mistake in having worked for peace alone. On the one hand, she begins to care about the reality beyond representation. She acknowledges that she has not really lost her peace book in fire, because "Ideas cause things" and a book precedes its words (Kingston 2004, 21). Life has been eclipsed by representation. Likewise, even though her father was incinerated, she sees the continuation of her father's life in different forms. Kingston claims on her birthday that she discovers BaBa's continuing presence in "minerals, essence, elements" (40).To be sure, she has not tried to deceive herself. According to her, "Americans own too many things. I can feel Idea because I am thingless ..." (13). She was deceived, but, owing to the fire, she perceives reality differently now.

On the other hand, along with her new perception of reality, Kingston affirms the necessity of going beyond her self-centeredness. Here again, Kingston's thoughts are close to Nhat Hanh's emphasis on compassion. As she connects the fire to the war against Iraq, Kingston thinks of and pities a killer of twenty-two people in Killeen. She observes that "fire is morally neutral, an accident, a storm of nature. But what about that poor soul who shot twenty-two people in Luby's Cafeteria? Could he help it that a firestorm raged through his brain?" (2004, 19-20). Her admission that "[i]t is wrong to kill, and refuse to look at what we've done" (13), besides implying her courage in admitting her earlier mistakes, evidences her awareness of her lack of action.

The last step for a Badiouian subject to do with regard to the investigation of an event consists in taking action to reshape the situation according to knowledge gained about the event. Kingston becomes aware of the need not only to take action for peace but also to act collectively because of an episode in the Oakland--Berkeley fire. According to her neighbor, Eva Varga, a man who "did not see his own house go up behind him" sprayed water on Kingston's burning house (Kingston 2004, 36). His fate echoes and critiques Kingston's way of life as the solitary writer of a peace book. Kingston learns her lesson: "After the fire, I could not re-enter fiction" (61). Her solitary writing has been only "a treat for [her] personal self" (62). Kingston does not mean that she will stop writing fiction. She has learned that peace conies from collective work.

Kingston next seeks to understand her event and to promote peace by getting connected to other people and by going beyond representation in her approach to reality because she has discovered her limitation in her pursuit of peace. Thus the episode about her dream, in which she looks for help from characters from her burned book, follows from her new understanding and foreshadows the peace book to be written after the fire, one in which she will have characters probe for the sense of peace that turns out to be fluid and beyond representation. She seeks help for her new book through her dreams because demarcation of reality does not dominate them:"[i]n dream, [people] arrive at Einstein's time/place. Free of chronological order, everything happens at once" (Kingston 2004, 38). She says that in her dream she asks characters from her burned book to "find about lost Books of Peace, cities of refuge, tactics for stopping war" (42). As a parallel to her attempt to receive help from her dream, Kingston's travel to China stems from her desire to benefit from joint efforts in her re-composition of her peace book. When she goes to China and searches for the Three Lost Books of Peace, she does not simply look for three physical books. She also wants to learn about peace and to achieve peace collectively.

Importantly, while her approach to the problem of peace is subjective and limited, Kingston is willing to re-examine her understanding of her situation, and this ability for self-correction is the merit of her approach. Her next step does not simply consist in attempting to reshape her society. Badiou's conception of a subject's investigation on an event is not necessarily a linear one. In connecting more and more elements in a situation to an event, a subject has chances to correct its initial understanding of the event. After encountering unexpected difficulties in her efforts to re-shape her world, Kingston better grasps her situation and improves her understanding of the event.

II. Re-Investigation of the Situation and New Understandings

Kingston demonstrates the flexibility of her approach to the peace problem through her search for the Three Lost Books of Peace in China and through her later stay with her mother in America. Because of these experiences, she corrects her initial understandings about the idea of peace and sees the necessity for peaceful methods in achieving peace. At first she does not realize her limited knowledge about her situation and about her method of peace, so she asserts before she goes to China that the discovery of the Three Lost Books of Peace in China can give her "a jump start" in re-composing her burned book of peace (2004, 53). For Kingston, if there could be "a jump start," it would come from the three books as well as from the people who discuss peace with her. Also, having gone through a "not ... but" change in herself by being faithful to the fire event, Kingston can hope to effect a "not ... but" in the Chinese people by involving them in inquiries about peace and turning them into "coworkers" (Badiou 2003b, 64). The Chinese can not only help her know more about the problem of peace but also cease to be America's enemies. After all, China officially designated America as its global adversary in 1994 (Bernstein 1997, 22).

Kingston's stay in China teaches her to correct her earlier understanding of peace because her experience there defies her expectation and forces her to re-examine her situation. Her experience in China lays bare the lack of a shared contemporary idea of peace, and she begins to sense that the idea of peace changes in time. Instead of the Three Lost Books of Peace she asks for, the Chinese people recommend books such as Tai Ping Ching and I Ching. People also tell her of earlier peace-makers such as Kang Yu Wei, Tang Ao, Little Jug, and Chuang Tzu, but these so-called peace-makers do not meet her requirement, either. Thus, having learned of the Classic of Highest Peace, she says, "Strange: Searching for books has led me to bones, water, clouds, choreography" (Kingston 2004, 54). The strangeness of those traces of peace works corroborates her belief in the existence of ideas of peace in the past and exposes the lack of a contemporary idea of peace.

The next incident that indicates Kingston's ability to enlarge her earlier grasp of her situation and of the problem of peace comes when she returns to America and stays with her mother, Brave Orchid. By presenting how two peace-lovers can fail to achieve peace, Kingston foregrounds the transience of the idea of peace and the inseparability of peace from peaceful methods. Brave Orchid's fake document for immigration helps the daughter see the changing nature of the idea of peace because Brave Orchid's attitude towards that document reflects an old understanding of the nature of peace and an old method to reach peace. In the fake document of immigration, the mother has "labeled a parabola 'Peace Mountain' or 'Peace Hill'" (Kingston 2004, 57). Freedom from "wars and taxes lured the Chinese people of Brave Orchid's generation to America (1989a, 269, 271); however, her blame of her daughter for endangering Chinese immigrants by revealing in books how Chinese came to America illegally, only proves the mother's ignorance of the change in America (2004, 56). Brave Orchid's idea of peace is out of date.

The importance of a peaceful method reveals itself in Brave Orchid's admiration for peace lovers because her admiration for peace lovers implies that aggressors are losers. Concerning this admiration, Kingston observes that "China adores nonvictorious warriors--they are honored so well that we forget they lost" (2004, 60). That is, victorious warriors are actually losers. She will later admit her earlier mistake: she was wrong in telling Fa Mu Lan's story "as a women's liberation story" rather than as "a homecoming story" because "Fa Mook Lan [Fa Mu Lan] leads her army home from war" (390).

Along with the need for a shared contemporary idea of peace, Kingston learns from her re-examination of her situation the need for a way to co-produce peace. Brave Orchid wages war against Kingston. Besides quarrelling over how Kingston's books can have endangered some Chinese immigrants' livelihood, Brave Orchid and Kingston fight against each other over the possession of the mother's fake document of immigration. As Kingston says, she becomes "her [Brave Orchid's] enemy" (2004, 55). The hostility here is related to each person's self-centeredness and the lack for a peaceful way for them to co-produce peace. A good example is the mother's concern over her property in China. Kingston takes great pains to persuade her mother to give up their property in China, which her father once guarded "with a gun" (61). These two women learn from this process. Her mother and she "warn and argue, argue and warn" (61), to help themselves learn to let go of their property in China.

What Kingston should do after recognizing her insufficient grasp of her situation is unpredictable if one does not share her belief in an idea of peace that is universally valid and in the close connection between the idea of peace and peaceful method. After all, her failure to find her desired idea of peace in the contemporary world might result from her insistence on a particular kind of peace, even though the nature of that kind of peace is unknown to her. Besides, she has not proved why peace must be based on peaceful methods. No other element in her situation indicates that the method of peace should be peaceful except Nhat Hanh's and her preference for peaceful human relationship. Nevertheless, since she wants things that are non-existent in the world, understandably she has to create them. As fictive writing offers opportunities for her to study the unknown from various perspectives, Kingston re-affirms her status as a creative writer: "The narrator of the fourth Book of Peace [her burned manuscript of a peace book] was Kuan Yin," who knows her characters and can partly lead them by presenting "treasures and obstacles" (2004, 62). The fact that she takes herself to be Maxine Hong Fiction proves that she is now ready to effect a merger of her world with the fictive by rewriting--or discovering things through--her book of peace.

III. Writing as a Model for the Method of Peace

Because she presumes that the ephemeral peace should be based on nonviolent methods, Kingston conducts her search for peace and peace tactics through characters who share her belief in the necessity of nonviolent methods. Also, since during the Oakland-Berkeley fire she deplored the American people's blindness to reality because of too many possessions, an important theme throughout her characters' experience in Hawaii is the overcoming of people's self-centeredness and their obsession with representation.

Kingston's study proves in turn the futility of achieving peace by spatial flight, the necessity for a method to reach a shared idea of peace for collective peace-making to work, and the predicament presented by representation. The end of her exploration through fictive writing on the nature of peace and peace tactics arrives when she sees how peace workshops can engender mutual understanding and shared ideas of peace. Further, the idea of peace is reachable when one passes from grasping its representations to sense what lies beyond representation.

The futility of spatial flight and the necessity for a method to reach a shared idea of peace are evident in the description of the early experience in Hawaii of Wittman Ah Sing and Tana De Weese, the protagonists of Kingston's 1989 novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. The Ah Sings escape from California to Hawaii because of their disgust with American involvement in Vietnam. Yet in Hawaii, after discovering that Hawaii is full of military activities, the couple recognize that they only "come to the center of operations for the staging of the Viet Nam War" (2004, 117).

Kingston's awareness of the necessity for a way to achieve a shared idea of peace derives from her earlier quarrel with Brave Orchid. Now to find an answer to meet this necessity, she has Wittman and Tana quarrel over his dream. On their arrival in Hawaii, the Ah Sings take marijuana, and they have dreams in which the usual space and time no longer work. Wittman moves "with the Big Bang, which happens all at once, is still happening now" (2004, 92). He says to himself, in his dream, "All is connected to all, and 1 am conscious of that, and I am conscious that I am conscious" (92). When he wakes up, he is aware of the quarrels he had with Tana in his dream, and he tells her his wish that they would have the same dream so that they could solve their problem together (92). Even though he is a tripmaster, "a watchman who promises to remain straight" and be helpful while the others have L.S.D. (1989c, 102), in The Fifth Book of Peace, when Tana answers that he cannot hold her responsible for what he dreamed (2004, 96), Wittman must recognize the necessity for effective means of achieving mutual understanding when he and Tana are sober so that they can have peace in their dreams.

Kingston first deals with the problem of representation by affirming the existence of what lies beyond it and by exposing how representation both impedes the fulfillment of peace and constitutes a necessity for life. On the night of the Ah Sings' party, the Ah Sings experience a language of peace, which can "pacify breath and tongue, make ears and brain be tranquil" (2004, 61), from the Hawaiian natives. They hear of Samoans singing. The song belongs to a time when linguistic demarcation does not exist: "We were returned to the time when language was one long word. They didn't invite the outsiders in, or chase them away" (179). Neglecting how obsession with representation can impede peace explains the failure of the Ah Sings' party.

Wittman and Tana hold a party in order to defuse the conflicts between local feuders, and the failure of their party foregrounds the relation between conflicts and representation. The Ah Sings reason that, by attending or helping the party, neighbors would become insiders of the party (Kingston 2004, 163). In Hawaii Wittman has been entertained by a group of natives, who treated him as if he had been a family member. The Ah Sings invite feuders to the party, which is arranged "[i]n accordance with Asian ways": "you honor people by inviting them inside your private home. And the guests give high honor to you by coming in" (163). However, such a scheme cannot but fail, as it honors the host at the expense of the guests and therefore retains the dualistic structure of the inside and the outside. On the night of the party, guests are few and gunshots are heard because people want to stop tour buses from coming. When Wittman hears of the gunshots, he takes his rifle and almost shoots Britt (186). Later he would know that Sheraton De Clair and Clifton Anderson--two black missionaries who want to organize the Kahalu'u people and get them out of poverty--were run out of town that night. Kingston has offered her comment on this driving away of two black missionaries in "The Novel's Next Step." She says, "Sometimes strangers don't like being loved" (1989b, 39). If the villagers are strangers to the Ah Sings as the former are to the missionaries, the Ah Sings should learn to dissolve the boundary between themselves and the villagers first.

Nevertheless, the story about how the Hawaiian natives gradually lose their home argues for the indispensability of representation for self-preservation. In the case of these natives, "the book is not the art form of the people of this land. It is dance and mele" (Kingston 2004, 145). Rudy Ku says to Wittman, "But you know how Hawaiian people are--don't read nothing. Human nature but. Never read the gray small print in the back. And next thing you know, too late, evicted lost the land, everything. By'm'by you get one lawyer to contest it, too late. ... We lost Hawaii by not reading enough" (171). Language is not necessarily evil, even though there is linguistic demarcation of reality.

Kingston reaches an answer to her search for methods of peace that can produce a shared idea of peace when she resorts to her personal experience with AWOL soldiers in Hawaii (1998, 18). In The Fifth Book of Peace, this answer appears when the Ah Sings get into contact with the Sanctuary in Hawaii, the idea of which being developed by the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, the Quakers, and the university Wesley Foundation "to awaken the conscience of the churches" (2004, 197). GIs against the ongoing Vietnam War take to the Sanctuary where they learn from one another the reason for peace. At the Sanctuary the Ah Sings discover the working of language for communication and for collective production of peace. There they also find linguistic demarcation of reality not taken too seriously: there is no hierarchy derived from this demarcation.

The Sanctuary meets Kingston's requirement because it indicates the possibility for peace-lovers to work for peace peacefully and to produce a shared contemporary idea of peace. For example, the Tillichs organize the GIs "in ho'oponopono, which means 'to put to right'" (2004, 204). Ho'oponopono is a kind of conference where the Hawaiians "talk and listen, explain, pray, confess, apologize, and at last understand and forgive and reconcile everything and everyone" (204). The GIs would speak and listen to one another until each understands "his own feelings and thoughts, and the feelings and thoughts of the forming community" (204). Further, the Sanctuary spreads peace from there. So Kingston says, "To write and send out press releases giving the Sanctuary's point of view, Barrie Anthony 'Bue' Buxton [takes] upon himself the job of Sanctuary Press Office" (222). Actually, Kingston reaches the answer not only to her search for methods of peace but also to a way to reach peace at the Sanctuary. She uses Wittman's later imitation of the gestures of Buddha statues to make the latter point clear.

Wittman's imitation of the statues' gestures indicates the possibility for one to go beyond representation by following representations. Just as Wittman feels peaceful by imitating the gestures of various Buddha statues, GIs at the Sanctuary can benefit from one another's stories. A detour through Gilles Deleuze's statement about learning to swim can shed light on this connection between the observation of representation and going beyond representation. For Deleuze, a learner does not simply imitate the master's gestures. He says in Difference and Repetition that, "'learning' always takes place in and through the unconscious ..." (1994, 165). By unconsciously grasping the feelings that enable one to swim, one can swim in gestures very much different from the master's. Likewise, by imitating the gestures of Buddha statues, Wittman takes advantage of and goes beyond representation. He reaches a pre-representational peace and learns a way to help others reach peace.

A characteristic of the Sanctuary supports the argument about its being the answer to Kingston's search through fictive writing. Earlier she has claimed that peace does not exist in the world (2004, 61). An examination of the position of this Sanctuary reveals that, if the world is a situation, it is located on the verge of the void of that situation. A detour through Badiou is illuminating here. Talking about where the new comes from, Badiou notes the importance of the proletariat and the void. In a historical-social context, the state of a situation is "the law [of the ruling class] that guarantees that there is Oneness, not in the immediacy of society--that is always provided for by a non-state structure [the first count-as-one]--but amongst the set of its subsets" (2005a, 105). For example, members (elements) of a family (subset) belong to the family while the family is included in a nation (set). Also, in a capitalist society the proletariat can find itself presented but not represented (109). Badiou calls what is uncounted the void, which is "included in everything" (87). He states that the multiple that contains nothing other than the void is on the edge of the void (175). As a state does not tolerate the existence of the uncounted (the void), governments can prohibit "gatherings of more than three people" when "an emblem [such as 'rioting crowds'] of their void wanders about" (109). Since everything else in a situation is represented and controlled by the state, change in the state must come from people on the edge of the void or from the void.

The Sanctuary poses a threat to the government because the people there are outside the government's control, and because the Sanctuary constitutes a potential place for the production of the void. The people there are presented but not represented. With regard to the ineffectuality of representing the Sanctuary, besides the government's reluctance to admit of its existence, two things are noticeable. Firstly, the Sanctuary's organization defies linguistic correspondence because it has no decidable content: members are free to leave, and the outsiders can enter as well. Members of the Sanctuary do not really form an easy target for the government. Secondly, no leader dominates at the Sanctuary to control its unstable members. GIs averse to the Vietnam War freely exchange their views on life and peace here and encourage one another to persevere in their pursuit of peace.

The Sanctuary is a logical consequence of Kingston's search for the nature of peace and peace tactics. The way the Sanctuary produces its shared idea of peace recalls her talk about how the narrator of her fourth peace book is the goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, who can traverse the minds of various characters (2004, 62). The fluidity of the members' identities is like that of words, the meanings of which depend on their context. Yet the description of the government army's breaking apart the Sanctuary conveys an uncomfortable feeling because that violent act reveals the lack of a space where the government and the Sanctuary can negotiate. Kingston appears satisfied with her exploration through fictive writing, yet she does not say how such a negotiation can be achieved. Indeed, with her definition of an irrepresentable and ephemeral idea of peace and her insistence upon such an idea of peace, one even wonders how any negotiation can be easily achieved.

IV. Re-shaping the Situation

Unaware of the problem of negotiation, unsurprisingly, Kingston next cooperates with Nhat Hanh and conducts writing workshops in which she and the other members, like the GIs in the Sanctuary, explore the past of violence and try to promote peace. The workshops derive from her writing experience. After all, a GI's experience of the discussions in the Sanctuary is similar to a writer's experience of writing. To be sure, unlike Nhat Hanh, Kingston does not try to define the ever-changing idea of peace. Rather, as a writer, she finds ways other than Buddhism to reach and spread peace. Significantly, by having the workshop members study alongside her the problem of peace, Kingston turns the members into explorers like herself. Those workshop members get reconstituted into new subjects and her "coworkers" because of their fidelity to the problem of peace (Badiou 2003b 64).

The limitation inherent in the Sanctuary--the members' insistence on peaceful methods in achieving peaces--reappears in Kingston's writing workshops. Most workshop members are Vietnam War veterans. Kingston says, "Vietnam duty provided the most unambiguous source of antiwar sentiment" (2004, 227). However, the homogeneity of her workshop members sets undesirable limits to the base of their shared idea of peace. Because her writing workshops contain three practices, an analysis of these practices will follow to show how she seeks to re-shape her situation, or her world of violence.

i. The Writing Practice

The writing workshops help the members to regain inner peace, to study peace, and to promote peace in the world. To help the members regain inner peace, Kingston has them, herself included, write of the painful past. In Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace Kingston explains her reason for adding "a writing meditation to Thich Nhat Hanh's program for veterans": "Writing, they keep track of their thinking; they leave a permanent record. Processing chaos through story and poem, the writer shapes and forms experience, and thereby, I believe, changes the past and remakes the existing world" (2006, 1-2). So Larry Heinemann, a workshop member, also talks about self-cure through writing the war: "You do relive the war, the emotions, the smells. But this time, you have a method for handling it--writing. You can control it, put it down, pick it up. Writing is a craft of the hand" (Kingston 2004, 290). Peace arrives when the past stops haunting.

The writing practice, however, also helps the members investigate their past. Processing the chaotic past through stories and poems has truth as its ultimate aim. Through writing, members of the workshops get a safe distance for them to probe their past. As Shlomo Breznitz, a Holocaust survivor, observes, it is easier for survivors of the Holocaust "to enter the Holocaust state of mind than to exit from it" (2006,49). Survivors of a trauma can have difficulty facing their past. Still, by examining one's past, one gains a critical distance and thereby extricates oneself from the painful past to some degree (LaCapra 2001, 143-44). While it is difficult, though necessary, for Kingston to try to exhaust the significance of the Oakland-Berkeley fire, writing of the past helps her understand her past. This need to understand the past explains why the workshop members write collectively.

The practice of collective writing not only makes the past clearer but also works to produce a shared contemporary idea of peace. Echoing the Gls' discussions about peace and war in Kingston's descriptions of the Sanctuary, the workshop members write and read one another's writings. By exchanging views on one another's trouble, the workshop members can approach their traumatic experiences from various perspectives. This practice also contributes to the production of a shared idea of peace. As Kingston says to the members about their nightmares, "Write those dreams down. We'll influence one another's dreaming" (2004, 293). Her statement recalls Wittman's invitation for Tana to help end their quarrels caused by his dream. By the members' haring the separate dreams, a shared idea of peace becomes possible, as an extension of the practice of collective writing, Kingston invites Vietnamese veterans to join her veterans at one gathering. The invitation indicates her recognition that peace is related to the victims' forgiveness. Yet the forgiveness comes too easily to be of any use in supporting her belief in the power of mutual understanding. According to Kingston, through communication between the former enemies, the former enemies realize each other's perspectives. Tears of compassion and regret fall from peoples eyes, and Le Minh Khue, a Vietnamese woman and a former enemy, becomes "this lovely, lovely woman" for the Americans. Kingston ignores the possibility that those workshop members and those Vietnamese people might have been prepared to forgive one another before they agreed to meet.

Besides being more than hospitals for people with traumatic past, Kingston's writing workshops help the members go beyond representation in their perception of reality and probe for the irrepresentable idea of peace. She has tried to approach the ungraspable idea of peace by re-composing the Fourth Book of Peace, in which Wittman experiences peace when he imitates the Buddha statues' gestures and thereby goes beyond representation through representation. At Kingston's workshops, members are told to give up their habitual way of perceiving reality, and they thereby get the chance to experience reality differently. Heinemann tells the members that, when writing, they should use their "body's senses" (2004,290). He also claims that writing is "a craft of the hand" (290). Indeed, concerning the practice of silent eating Kingston offers similar advice: "Use your other senses to know the people around you" (271). Leaving behind their habitual ways of perceiving reality, workshop members experience reality differently through the "craft of the hand" and "body's senses."

Thus, through writing, Kingston tries to turn the workshop members into peace-makers like her. As she earlier renamed herself Maxine Hong Fiction because of her decision to explore the significance of peace through fictive writing (2004, 62), she helps them see how their identities get reconstituted because of their fidelity to the problem of peace. While the veterans have their "ranks and serial numbers" (261), Kingston alerts them to their illusion about their former identities. She redefines them according to their writing experience. So she tells the forty-eight-year-old Clarence Mitchell that he is only twenty because he has been writing for twenty years (261). According to her logic, with experience shared and discussed among the workshop members, new subjectivities of peace are constructed, new ideas of peace are sensed and actualized, and new understandings of the truth of the events of war are produced. These new subjects form the indefinable part in the society and can reshape it.

ii. Meditation Practice as a Part of Writing

The workshop members also practice meditation because Kingston has long followed Nhat Hanh's teachings, and because her character, Wittman, is made peaceful by imitating Buddha statues' gestures. By having her workshop members practice meditation and approach peace as Wittman does, Kingston consolidates the practitioners' ability to go beyond representation and achieve inner peace.

Even though the practitioners neither study Buddha's teachings nor practice Nhat Hanh's fourteen precepts for the Order of Interbeing, the core of his teachings, a detour through Nhat Hanh's views on meditation can supplement the information on meditation offered in The Fifth Book of Peace and further clarify how meditation forms a part of the writing practice in Kingston's writing workshop. According to Nhat Hanh, meditators practice mindfulness, that is, concentration on what they are doing. This way, they realize interbeing. One understands interbeing when one touches one thing with deep awareness. In the case of space, even though one is standing on the ground in Plum village, one realizes that one is also standing in Europe and on earth (Nhat Hanh 1992, 122-23). In the case of time, when one touches one thing with deep awareness, one touches all moments (123). So a piece of paper contains cloud, sunshine, and rain because it cannot exist without the other three (2001, 55). Elsewhere Nhat Hanh also talks about the relationship between meditation and going beyond representation: "While sitting, you sit and you are. You are what? You are the breathing. Not only the one who breathes--you are the breathing and the smiling" (1987,40). In The Fifth Book of Peace, Sister Phuong's remark on meditation corroborates the above statements on interbeing: "And then I know that when we practice [meditation] correctly we drop all the concepts, I see the realities are as one togetherness. But because we try to make a concept, we are separated: he is Christian, he is Buddhist ..." (376).

In Kingston's workshops, meditation practice is inseparable from the writing practice because they complement each other, and because the fruit of meditation, peace, is subsequently actualized and proclaimed through language. The members' meditation practice is followed by writing in a circular fashion, though Kingston also intends meditation to be connected to the other parts of life, and thus to action. Following Nhat Hanh, she fuses meditation with every aspect of the members' lives. The members do all kinds of meditation, such as hugging meditation, sitting meditation, and walking meditation. Moreover, just as Wittman's imitation of the Buddha statues gestures is embodied in writing, Kingston turns meditation into a kind of language or writing that can influence other people when she has the BBC make a documentary to show the members practicing all kinds of meditation.

iii. Silence Practice as a Part of Writing

Silence, the last major component of the writing workshops, is the silencing of noises and helps the members achieve mindfulness--"keeping one's consciousness alive" (Nhat Hanh 2003a, 74). Kingston says, "The Bell of Mindfulness sends all those who hear it off to write. The rings reverberate outward and define the silence, encircled momentarily by sounds" (2004, 292-93). With silence, Kingston and the other workshop members feel easy: "My shyness disappears in silence; I don't have to think of what to say. The silence contains us" (271). They can be concentrated on what they are doing and be perceptive of their surroundings. For example, during the eating meditation, people are required to be silent so that they can be more conscious of their food and their surroundings, since people begin to use their other senses when they eat in silence (270-71). By helping the members be attentive to what they are doing and go beyond their habitual way of perceiving reality, silence enables them to see the world anew.

Inseparable from writing and meditation, silence gives focus to these practices. It makes some thoughts unacceptable and some eclipsed reality approachable. In the case of exclusion, when Vince Dijanich, a participant, accuses the other veterans of showing no ideology in their writings, nobody answers. Kingston offers her comment on this silence: "Ideology is what got us into trouble in the first place. Communists have an ideology. Ideology is Marxist, and capitalist. We don't want ideology ... Vince is disappointed in us; he'll leave us. But we aren't going to work up an ideology to keep his interest. That's the way silence works: a thought hangs out there in the air, and disappears" (2004,330). Nhat Hanh's views about ideology shed light on the workshop members' unwillingness to answer Dijanich. He contends that "[i]n the name of ideologies and doctrines, people kill and are killed" (1987, 89). Further, ideology or any system of thought is only a provisional guideline and cannot be absolute truth (89). Kingston is not against Dijanich for his different opinion. Rather, Dijanich errs because he takes ideology to be an absolute truth. This belief in an absolute truth is harmful to peace.

So silence also helps the writing practice because of the therapeutic power of silence. Nhat Hanh advises people not to listen to too much suffering: "The practice of therapy should include hours of walking, sitting, and getting in touch with the wonders of life, so the therapist will have enough strength to do the work of listening to the suffering" (Kingston 2004, 64). Silence helps the workshop members work for peace and be free from noises harmful to peace as much as possible.

iv. The Open-endedness of The Book of Peace

Because of the limited perspective from which a subject approaches a Badiouian event, and because of the infinite elements inherent in that unrepresented event, a subject can only produce a truth, and not the truth, of a situation. However, the impossibility of producing the full truth of an event does not render Kingston's belief in the success of her workshops ungrounded. She never proclaims the completion of her exploration of peace and its tactics, and she has not intentionally ignored any elements in her situation. The problem of her exploration has a lot to do with the conditions she lays down for the investigation. Thus she sees the workshop members as Kuan Yins the night they read their writings to the public (2004, 325). Moreover, Michael L.Wong, who is the fictional Ah Sing in "Water" (290), and whose Chinese name "means 'Mankind Has"' (396), attends one of her workshops and is satisfied with the help offered there (367-68). Indeed, if Kingston approves of her workshops, this approval refers more to their ability to make peace creatively than to their grasp of any fixed ideas of peace or peace tactics.

Kingston's recognition of peace-making as an unending process explains why The Fifth Book of Peace is open-ended. The Vietnam War veterans' reluctance to get reconciled with the peace activists at the end of Kingston's workshops demonstrates the constant necessity for inventing peace. The veterans can be reconciled with the North Vietnamese veterans, but not with the peace activists because they consider the latter to be betrayers. Kingston solves the conflict by having a peace activist, Lee Swenson, explain to them his own thought so that the veterans can see their misunderstandings of the peace activists. She also asks the veterans to reconcile with themselves. If they can make peace with themselves, they will not wage war against others. Kingston does not mean that one can always live in peace if one is wise. After all, even Nhat Hanh admits that he was "shocked" and angry when he learned of the bombing of Ben Tre village in Vietnam (2003a, 263-64). Kingston's invitation for Swenson to explain and her advice to the veterans only confirm her remark about the need to constantly invent peace (2004, 402).

V. Conclusion: Kingston's Challenge

After closing the workshops, Kingston speaks "at a rally in support of Barbara Lee" "against giving the President unlimited war powers" (2004, 399). The other workshop members work for peace in different ways. For example, Tex Sexauer, Yibal Gelben Ben-Haim, and Shepherd Bliss go to different places and each works for peace in his own way--by protesting, by forming a writing group, or by publishing an essay against war (400, 401), The whole book ends with Kingston's imprisonment because of her participation in a peace walk against Americas war in Iraq and with her protest against the governments control of media. By ending her book with her imprisonment and her protest Kingston foregrounds the urgency for making peace and urges her readers to make peace creatively.

Kingston's protest against the government's control of media and its suppression of facts can disturb her readers. This disturbance results from her concrete method for achieving peace and from her understanding of peace. In her allegiance to the Oakland-Berkeley fire event, she has demonstrated how writing presents various perspectives so that a writer can probe for peace effectively and co-produce peace with other writers. Nevertheless, her frustration at the government's control of media reveals that, as means to promote inner peace and peace in the world, her writing workshops are only effective to a certain degree. Because basically Kingston's workshop members are Vietnam War veterans, those who have personally suffered from the war and are strongly against violence, one must wonder whether or not people who have no similar experience will be eager to accept Kingston's teaching, or those of her veterans, especially when America has become the sole super power in the world and when, like most Chinese people that Kingston meets in China, American leaders consider Buddhist talk of love, compassion, and mutual understanding to be too weak (Nhat Hanh 2004, 72).

Moreover, the chance for the American public to be made keenly aware of the pain of war is diminished by the Pentagon's military censorship that is supported by most Americans (Norris 2000, 250). If military censorship can suppress reality or turn the representation of the reality of war into a reality constructed by information, "derealizing warfare to the point of blunting apprehension, conscience, and memory along with criticism" (249), the majority of the Americans will probably remain indifferent to Kingston's peace project. It is true that Kingston and the other peace walkers have availed themselves of cell phones and independent radio stations, but the counterforce appears daunting. The policemen turn away journalists from important news agencies, and what Margot Norris quotes from Michael Massing rings true: "in the current climate" the outcome of contest between news organizations and the government would seem foreordained (250).

Kingston's conflicts with the American government recalls a similar difficulty: the segregationist urges prompted by globalization. Zygmunt Bauman observes that "'[m]ixophobia' is a highly predictable and widespread reaction to the mind-boggling, spine-chilling, and nerve-racking variety of human types and life-styles that meet and jostle for space in the streets of the contemporary cities ..." (2008, 67), If globalization is inescapable and irreversible, a method of peace based on mutual understanding must contain a means to make it possible for various communities of similarity to negotiate with one another.

To be sure, Kingston's workshops form a community of similarity, yet her conflicts with the government also indicate that she has overlooked some practical considerations in her investigation of the problem of peace. For example, her belief in the irrepresentable idea of peace must be an obstacle when she wants other people, or the government, to accept her idea of peace, or to negotiate with her peace-makers. The common ground between an irrepresentable idea of peace and a represented one is not easy to see. In fact, there might be no such common ground.

Again, there is the question of justice. Without justice, peace is superficial. During the Oakland-Berkeley fire Kingston has connected the fire to her father, and she is willing to give up her fourth book of peace to her father because he always envies her talent as a writer. By giving to him what he deserves to have, she achieved justice. However, in her further investigation of the problem of peace, she neglects the justice element. She has the American veterans join their former enemies in tears as if compassion and understanding can dissolve acts of injustice committed during the Vietnam War. Thane Rosenbaum observes that justice cannot be achieved without the victimizer's being punished (2005, 232). Even if the earlier victims are willing to forgive, forgiveness comes too easily in Kingston's story. Mutual understanding does not make a Holocaust survivor forgive those killers who simply obeyed Hitler. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out, forgiveness from the victims is unpredictable because forgiveness is not only a reaction but also an action (1958, 241). In sticking to her assumption about the necessity for a peaceful method, Kingston overlooks the significant role played by repentance and punishment in the achievement of justice.

These difficulties do not really invalidate Kingston's peace solution though they lay bare the incompletion of her peace project. Badiou contends that the truth of an event is a process, with its completion in the future (2004, 114-19). Kingston's book is about making peace creatively. While she has pointed out the importance of mutual understanding and the transience of the idea of peace, she never asks her readers to imitate her slavishly and organize similar workshops. The fact that she often has to "make up the way as [she] go[es]" while conducting her workshops indicates her awareness of the incompletion of her study of peace (326). If she does not know what to do at first when, writing of the past, the veterans begin to have nightmares (283), or if she questions herself as to the way to free the veterans from their traumatic past and get them to live in the present (300), her difficulties and her efforts in overcoming them prove the indispensability of further exploration of the relevant situation and subsequent creativity in making peace. How she undertakes to make peace when she decides to face an event in her situation is definitely more important than what she practices in her workshops. She says in the last paragraph of her book, "Children, everybody, here's what to do during war: In a time of destruction, create something" (402).

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Badiou, Alain. 2005a. Being and Event. Tram. Oliver Feltham. New York: Continuum.

____. 2005b. Infinite Thought. Trans. & ed. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens. London: Continuum.

____. 2004. Theoretical Writings. Trans. & ed. Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano. New York: Continuum.

____. 2003a. On Beckett. Ed. Nina Power and Alberto Toscano. Manchester: Clinamen Press.

____. 2003b. Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Trans. Ray Brassier. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

____. 2001. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. Peter Hallward. New York: Verso.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2008. Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bernstein, Richard, and Ross H. Munro. 1997. The Coming Conflict with China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Breznitz, Shlomo. 2006. "The Advantages of Delay: A Psychological Perspective on Memoirs ofTrauma." In Obliged by Memory: Literature, Religion, Ethics, ed. Steven T. Katz and Alan Rosen. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Clausen, Jan. 2003. "Narrative without a Bang." Women's Review of Books 21.2: 5-6. Deleuze, Gilles. 1994. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press.

Eubanks, David B. 2005. Purely Coincidental Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead: Worry and Fiction in Contemporary American Life Writing (Dave Eggers, Edmund Morris, Maxine Hong Kingston, Mary McCarthy, Gore Vidal). PhD Diss. University of Maryland, College Park. Ann Arbor: UMI. ATT 3202034.

Jeong, Young Sook. 2006. "Daughtering Asian American Women's Literature in Maxine Hong Kingston, Nellie Wong, and Ryonyoung Kim." PhD diiss., Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Ann Arbor: UMI. ATT 3229955.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. 2007. "What is Common in Chinese World Literature?--Speech on International Women's Day at Fudan University." In The Iron Curtain of Language (Maxine Hong Kingston and American Orientalism), by Jennie Wang. Shanghai: Fudan University Press.

____. 2006. "Introduction: Tell the Truth, and so Make Peace." In Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, ed. Maxine Hong Kingston. Kihei, Hawaii: Koa Books.

____. 2004. The Fifth Book of Peace. New York: Vintage.

____. 1998. Hawai'i One Summer. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

____. 1989a. China Men. New York: Vintage.

____. 1989b. "The Novel's Next Step." Mother Jones: 34-41.

____. 1989c. Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. New York: Knopf.

LaCapra, Dominick. 2001. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Nhat Hanh,Thich. 2004. "The Nobility of Suffering." In Dharma, Color, and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism, ed. Hilda Gutierrez Baldoquin. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

____. 2003. A Lifetime of Peace: Essential Writings by and about Thich Nhat Hank Ed. Jennifer Schwamm Willis. New York: Marlowe & Company.

____. 2001. Thick Nhat Hanh: Essential Writings. Ed. Robert Ellsberg. New York: Orbis Books.

____. 1992. Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living. Ed. Arnold Kotler. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

____. 1991. Peace is Every Step: the Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Ed. Arnold Kotler. New York: Bantam Books.

____. 1987. Being Peace. Ed. Arnold Kotler. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

Norris, Margot. 2000. Writing War in the Twentieth Century. London: University Press ofVirginia.

Rosenbaum, Thane. 2005. The Myth of Moral Justice: Why our Legal System Fails to do What's Right. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Hsu shounan is associate professor in the department of English at National University of Tainan in Taiwan. His research focuses on minority literature. He has published essays on Michael Ondaatje, Joy Kogawa, and Tayeb Salih.
COPYRIGHT 2010 West Chester University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Essays
Author:shounan, Hsu
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Words:9857
Previous Article:Love and socialism in joyce's "a Painful Case": A Buberian reading.
Next Article:Who cares who wrote the Mysterious Stranger?
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters