by Kathleen Scalise
President Clinton presented the 1997 National Humanities Medal to Maxine Hong Kingston, famed writer and senior lecturer with the English department, in a White House ceremony Monday, Sept. 29.
Author of "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts" and other award-winning books, Kingston, 56, received the new national prize for accomplishments in thought and culture.
This year the humanities medal went to 10 people from vastly different backgrounds. They include Don Henley, a member of The Eagles rock group, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel and the founder of the nation's largest humanities foundation, Paul Mellon.
Kingston is a distinguished writer of both non-fiction and fiction and was one of the first Asian-Americans to climb to the top of the literary world.
"This feels really good," Kingston said before departing for the award ceremony. "I feel happy that my country appreciates me. I'm very glad that there isn't an issue or a situation I can improve by turning down the medal."
"Woman Warrior" has already become "the book by a living author most widely taught in American universities and colleges," former Poet Laureate and English Professor Robert Hass has said.
The book received the 1976 National Book Critics Circle award for non-fiction and was named one of the top 10 non-fiction works of the decade by Time magazine.
"'The Woman Warrior' is about being Chinese in the way that 'Portrait of the Artist' (James Joyce) is about being Irish," commented The New York Times Book Review.
Born in Stockton, Kingston is famous for breaking new ground in literature and for drawing literary allusions where none existed before, in her writing and teaching.
Given Kingston's reputation for irreverence, Clinton shouldn't be surprised with the greeting Kingston said she was planning for the president. Kingston pictured it this way: The awards are out of the way, dinner's done and the White House dance floor opens up. She leans close to the president and whispers, "Shall we dance, Mr. Sugiyama?"
Sugiyama is the modest hero of "Shall We Dance?" a 1996 Cannes Film Festival favorite about a group of ordinary Japanese people and the ballroom dance lessons that bring joy to their lives.
What it means to her and why it would be so important for Clinton to hear, she won't say. But like the dancers in the movie, Kingston hopes she's able "to communicate various states of mind-such as happiness, such as joy and peace, such as all of what it means to live a human life."
Perhaps her reference to "Shall We Dance?" also has something to do with why she thinks Clinton selected her for the new humanities medal. "Usually my awards are for my writing. I'd like to think this is for being a human being," she said.
After "Woman Warrior," Kingston went on to write "China Men," which won the 1981 American Book Award and was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize, followed by "Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book," which earned the 1989 PEN West award in fiction.
Kingston has a new book due soon, "Hawai'i One Summer," and another in the works, "The Fifth Book of Peace," "based on three lost books of peace that may have existed in China. I decided I would try to think of what was in them and try to revive them," she said.
What was intended as the fourth book of peace-Kingston's first attempt to rebuild the ancient texts-burned in the 1991 Oakland fire. Kingston lost her manuscript along with her home and belongings. Her new work is now almost a thousand pages long. "It's cosmic," she said. "I feel that I'm working with powerful forces of creation and destruction."