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Celeste Ng and Maxine Hong Kingston answer your questions about 'The Woman Warrior'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A memoir of stories of ancestors in China and the lives of Asian-American immigrants.

Jeffrey Brown has our August book club selection.

It's part of Canvas, our ongoing series on art and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: We tried something different for August. We asked one of today's leading writers to choose a book she loves to return to when time slows down in the summer.

Celeste Ng is author of the bestselling novel "Little Fires Everywhere," which is now being adapted as a new streaming video series.

Her choice for our book club was "The Woman Warrior," which The New York Times recently named as one of the best memoirs of the last 50 years.

And to our delight, its author, Maxine Hong Kingston, is here as well.

So, this is a special pleasure to have both of you.

Celeste, thank you for doing this for us.

Celeste Ng: Thank you so much for having us.

Jeffrey Brown: Tell me why you picked this book.

Celeste Ng: This is just a book that has been so important to me and so influential to me personally, that, as soon as you asked, it is what came to mind.

It spoke to me when I was younger, as a Chinese American girl, speaking about some of the experiences of Chinese American women. And every time I have come back to it, it sort of gives me something new.

Now that I am a parent, I am looking it from the parent's side and thinking a lot about what parents don't tell their children.

Jeffrey Brown: So, Maxine, written in the mid-'70s, right?

What were you -- how you can encapsulate? What were you trying to do?

Maxine Hong Kingston: Well, the first sentence in "The Woman Warrior," it says, "'Don't tell anyone, my mother said, 'what I am about to tell you.'"

Jeffrey Brown: Mm-hmm.

Maxine Hong Kingston: And...

Jeffrey Brown: So, we have secrets right away.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes, and taboos, the adventures, the lives of people who had to keep their lives secret.

Being born a writer, I had to tell, I had to blab these stories out.

Jeffrey Brown: And you did it in a very creative way that jolted people then and to this day, because this is a mix of sort of fact, mythology, all kind -- fact and fiction, in a sense, in a memoir.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes, I had to do it this way, because -- well, one reason is that we were illegal aliens and always felt the threat that we were going to be deported.

And -- but I had to tell the stories, especially the stories of crossing borders against the law. And so I made up a new way of storytelling, so that you can't tell whether I'm writing fiction or nonfiction.

Jeffrey Brown: And, Celeste, you were starting to say how this had sort of felt connected to your own life in some ways.

Celeste Ng: Yes.

I'm an American-born Chinese, but there are so many things about my parents' lives in Hong Kong, where they came from, and in China, where my dad was born, that were just so opaque to me when I was growing up. I would get sort of maybe the end moral of the story, but I didn't get all the details along the way.

And that was one of the things that "The Woman Warrior" sort of made clear to me, that these stories filter down to us, and along the way, we lose track of what really happened vs. sort of what the message that the story is supposed to be telling you.

It's a reading experience sort of unlike any that I had ever had.

Maxine Hong Kingston: So when you don't know the story or they don't tell you what else happens, that is when the fiction writer in you writes it.

When I was -- "The Woman Warrior" starting with, don't tell anybody what I am about to tell you, that is much like the title of your first book, which is "Everything I Never Told You."

So you had that impetus too. I am just going to tell everything.

Celeste Ng: And I think it's the writer's impulse too that, when there is a secret, there is a power there. There is something there that is dangerous.

And one of the ways to sort of deal with that danger is to shine a light on it and tell it, and imagine your way in, and fill in all those details that have been sort of left out.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: One of the things I love about having you both here is that we can talk about the power of influence. Right?

Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes.

Celeste Ng: Yes.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Where it comes from, what you read, what sticks with you.

Maxine Hong Kingston: And the power of the imagination too.

When I -- you know, I had not been to China, where all these stories came from or where my family came from. And so I would imagine it just from the bits of information. And I would imagine what that village was like and what that well was like where my aunt killed herself and the baby.

And so I would imagine it. And then, decades later, I went to those places. And so I could test the power of the imagination against reality. And, you know, it was there. What I imagined was actually there.

And then I think, wow, it's the power of the writer to actually make something appear.

Jeffrey Brown: What about -- you know, Celeste, I know you have worked hard to mentor, to bring up new voices as well.

We're seeing sort of connections here, right, especially voices in America, Asian-American voices. Where are we today?

Celeste Ng: I think we're making progress.

I think there have been more and more stories getting told, not just Chinese American stories, but stories from lots of different kinds of Asian-American styles, Asian, East Asian. And we're seeing more books too by writers with Asian heritage that aren't -- quote, unquote -- "about being Asian," which I think is a wonderful thing, that there is space now, I think, for those writers to talk about things other than just their particular ethnicity.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

I mean, also notable, of course, in reading your book is the themes that have stayed with us, right, very much here with us.

Maxine Hong Kingston: I feel that we have created an Asian-American, Pacific Islander literature.

And we didn't have this as part of American literature just 40 years ago. And I have seen it grow from just a few books to now there's so many of us.

Celeste Ng: Well, I think your book was a very big part of that.

I mean, I read your book first when I was a teenager because my mother had it on the shelf. But when I got to college, it was on my syllabus, and it was often the only book by an Asian-American writer of any kind.

And it was wonderful to have it there, but I'm seeing now that it is now being taught alongside other books. And I think that is part of your influence. You paved the way for a lot of other writers.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, this is great.

For now, I want to say thank you, Maxine Hong Kingston, "The Woman Warrior."

Maxine Hong Kingston: Oh, you're very welcome.

Jeffrey Brown: And Celeste Ng, "Little Fires Everywhere."

Thank you for...

Celeste Ng: Thank you so much for having us on.

Jeffrey Brown: And we are going to continue our conversation online, including getting our authors to recommend some of their favorite books and other passions.

And you can find that later on our Web site and on our book club Facebook page.

But, before we go, our pick for September. It's one of the most talked about debut novels in recent years, "Conversations With Friends" by the young Irish writer Sally Rooney. She will be with us right here next month.

And, in the meantime, please read along and join other readers in discussing the book. It's all on our Facebook page for Now Read This, a partnership with The New York Times..

Judy Woodruff: And love that conversation with those two women writers.

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