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Kingston's life journey, told in chapter and verse

Thirty years after striking literary gold with her first book, the award-winning fantastical autobiography "The Woman Warrior," Maxine Hong Kingston decided to approach the memoir again, from a new direction.

And, again, she has delivered a remarkable work that is challenging, insightful and unlike any other woman's story you are likely to have read.

Hong wrote "I Love a Broad Margin to My Life" in free verse -- an unusual choice for autobiography but one that makes sense for a writer who learned from an earlier age the "talk-story" tradition of her Chinese forebears. The verse gives structure to her phrasing and to the experiences she recalls, both real and imagined.

Although the verse comes without the weight of epic poetry, it shares its range. As in "Woman Warrior," Kingston is not writing only about her life. She sees herself as part of the much larger culture of her Chinese ancestors and her American upbringing.

So we journey with her back to China, to her parents' villages and a past that exists only in remnants and reminders, and we go with her to Washington, D.C., and her arrest during a protest of the Iraq War.

We also go inside her thoughts on family and politics, belief and behavior, life and death, and how life goes on.

Kingston turned 70 last year, but her new book is not timid about beginning when she first started it:

"I am turning 65 years of age.

"In 2 weeks I will be 65 years old.

"I can accumulate time and lose


"Am I pretty at 65?

"What does old look like?"

What old looks like quickly gives way to much more introspective musings on what old feels like, what it means, what it is. Much of her view of her life -- the wide margin she draws around it -- comes from her visits to China. She said recently she has been there at least a dozen times (she was born in the United States, to immigrant parents) and had been making a point to travel the countryside, to the rural villages of her family, places where people still embrace many of the old ways.

Speaking about the book, Kingston said, "My idea is that all the big cities are globalized, much the same. Where we're going to find something really interesting is to get out into the countryside, to villages that have not been globalized. In these out of the way villages, there's much that hasn't changed."

She chose her title, "I love a broad margin to my life," from a quote from Thoreau's "Walden" that hangs in her office. The idea of having this "note taking" space, this area to think about the main body of one's life, inspired her reflections on aging and where people, women particularly, fit in when they have lived for a long time.

Perhaps for a very long time. Kingston's mother and grandmother reportedly reached 100 or close to it. America's traditional retirement age could be yet another beginning for Kingston herself, as she shifts from prose to poetry, to writing her own story and translating someone else's.

Her father, a poet also, wrote verse in Chinese in the margins of her books. Now, Kingston says in her own poem, she will translate his poetry, share it with a wider world, if only she can find how to do it between languages that do not share the same kinds of words.

"The true poem," she writes, "crosses eternal distances. Poem can also reach / reader born 1,000 years before / the poem, wish it into being."

Meanwhile, she counts the number of lives lost in American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the impersonal way some of those battles are fought, with drone aircraft and bombs that drop on villages no soldier's eye ever sees.

Compare that with the fate of her Woman Warrior, one of several characters and people from Kingston's earlier books who return here. On her journeys to China, she is shown the purported resting place of Fa Mook Lan (otherwise known as Fa Mu Lan), the young woman who disguised herself as a man and became a general of fierce and deadly power more than a thousand years ago. And when her disguise was revealed, and the emperor sought to claim her as a wife, the legend now goes, the woman warrior took one more life. Her own.

Events of such epic scope come and go between stories of tough and earthy village life, of would-be robbers, and dead dogs in butcher shops and snakes for dinner and witchy women.

She also gives a vivid view of modern China, with its air heavy with smog and a government that is fearful of old China ways and new China's Falun Gong. She writes of sending money to a Chinese family she barely knows, and trying to keep track of relations, and of how her cousin's brothers children all left for America, and married white demons.

And in the end, she lists those she has lost since she started her poem-book, in a chapter called "My Dead." The book could end there, but Maxine Hong Kingston has always been a hopeful person. It ends, instead, with reasons to go on, to enjoy life, to, perhaps, start all over again.

It is a most unusual memoir.

Melinda Miller is deputy features editor at The News.


I Love a Broad Margin to My Life

By Maxine Hong Kingston


229 pages; $24.95

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