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A ‘transformative’ literary mind

Photo by Christopher Huang.

In explaining her decision to write her recently completed 230-page memoir, “I Love a Broad Margin to My Life,” in free verse, Maxine Hong Kingston said, “I returned to my way of writing as a child.”

Speaking before more than 50 faculty and students in the Cabral Center last Thursday for the inaugural address in the Encountering the Humanities lecture series, the acclaimed author added, “I was born speaking poems and with talk stories.”

Kingston spent the majority of the evening reading passages from “Broad Margin” and “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976.

“Broad Margin” was filled with post-it notes annotating changes that Kingston intends to make to the memoir’s paperback edition. “Don’t worry,” she joked. “I’m not going to read to you from all these notes.”

The Northeastern University Humanities Center sponsored the event. Georges Van Den Abbeele, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, praised Kingston’s body of work. “She is the author of an entire series of transformative books and has won almost every literary award that I can think of,” he said.

Kingston, who turns 71 on Thursday, was born in Stockton, Calif., to first-generation Chinese immigrants. Her mother, who lived to be 100, is a popular figure in her writing.

The author gave the audience a window into her mother’s longevity: As she put it, “She pedaled a bike and hammer-curled pink barbells.”

Kingston won’t hesitate to pontificate on the mundane—or the monumental.  “I am given to writing whatever happens that day,” she said. “It could be a small event or a large event, but both are important.”

Kingston owes her writing style to her favorite authors, including Walt Whitman, Virginia Wolf and Norman Mailer, of whom she remarked, “He is really tough, but he gets very lyrical.”

Her writing is sprinkled with philosophical insight. Our actions, Kingston noted in “Broad Margin,” have unforeseen consequences that may play out 1,000 years down the road.

“An act of love I do this morning,” she told to the audience, “saves a life on a future battlefield.”

Kingston’s tales of living as a Chinese American in the United States, which she chronicled in the 1981 National Book Award-winning novel “China Men,” are often viewed as deeply personal accounts.

But the author doesn’t necessarily feel the same way. “If I can write deep down about myself,” Kingston explained, “then that is everybody else.”