American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
From The Fifth Book of Peace by Maxine Hong Kingston
Fifth Book of Peace (2003) begins with Maxine Hong Kingston's
description of the 1991 fire that destroyed her house, and with
it the only manuscript of a nearly-completed novel. The novel
was to be called The Fourth Book of Peace. In the aftermath
of the fire, Kingston came to believe that she must recreate the
lost book not in the traditional writer's solitude, but in
community. In the last section of the book, "Earth,"
from which this selection is taken, she recounts her shared journey
with a constantly changing group of veterans in a series of workshops
she led on reflective writing and meditation. The group included
nurses, civilian volunteers, and war resisters as well as soldiers,
and participants in many US wars.
Fires, past and current, set the veterans to writing me. They have flashbacks, and they recall bombings, but also moments and islands of peace. Paul Woodruff, who was at the dream symposium, writes on my birthday[...] "...I also remembered a silly thing I had done, which I had forgotten the day after: halting, during an operation, near a tall half-built pagoda--not a sanctuary. We were under fire and for some crazy reason I took shelter in the mud and bamboo huts at the base of the pagoda, where the workmen lived, though the thin walls offered no protection at all. The one-eyed Hoa Hao warlord whose adviser I was supposed to be, had to send his servant to call me out to the safety of a ditch. I knew better than to hide behind bamboo, but for some reason I thought I would be safe there. This was somewhere in Tinh Bien District of Chau Doc Province. That was my false sanctuary. (A few weeks later the warlord, who had come over with his men to our side, was shot through the one eye by a sniper. Everyone knew that was the only way he could be killed, because his skin was protected by a charm. Has any veteran told you how much magic there was in Vietnam?)"
Yes, veterans of Viet Nam keep telling me about the magic that once surrounded them, and refugees also tell of having left a place where laws of nature were different--were magic. The very air had been enchanted. You had to roll up the windows of your truck against the highland air. Breathing the spirit-filled air caused a rock to grow inside your stomach, like cancer. The rice was magic too. A Viet Cong could live on one bowl of rice a day, and run as fast as a car all day long. And he wore shower shoes. A Montagnard tribesman found a white elephant near Pleiku, and brought it to the Saigon Zoo. In wartime a child poet always comes. One was born in 1958 near Hanoi, in the Red River Delta; his name is Tran Dang Khoa. Soldiers would take shelter with him, and hear him. He sang of white storks, black rain, the rice.
The last reader of this day is John Mulligan from Scotland. (Jean, a Scottish American, was his nurse, and calls him the Mad Scotsman.) He immigrated to America at age seventeen, and at eighteen was drafted into the US Air Force to Viet Nam. "Can they do that?" people asked. "You don't have to be an American?" "Aye, they'll take anybody." He's haunted by "mean ghosts," and reads to us from a piece called "Shopping Cart Soldiers," in which there was also a good ghost, a white fox. Insects and the dead tortured Finn the Albanach. The gunship, playing matador, buzzed a white bull. "Romeo Robinson put a bullet into his balls and everybody laughed." The bull jumped into the air. "Pain can move mountains." The White One ran into barbed wire, which entangled it. Its soul streamed out of its neck. In another scene, after mercy-killing his wounded friend, Finn's soul leaves him. His soul is an Asian woman. When "Shopping Cart Soldiers" becomes a stage play, John plans to cast an Asian actress as the soul, Madman. Now he reads her speech in his own Albanachian voice. "I felt in that instant a terrific force pushing me out of his body, out of the whirling, vibrating aircraft, out in to the cold, rushing air....I couldn't leave him completely. Like the head of the bull I too seemed to be attached by a sliver of skin and ligament." The soul remains connected to Finn by a thread, and trails after him everywhere: Viet Nam, Scotland, and San Francisco, Telegraph Hill and Washington Square Park, where homeless vets sleep. She says, "Some men aren't meant for war; their souls are far too old. They've seen it all before. The Albanach is just such a man. I knew it and he knew it the very first moment we stepped onto the red soil of Vietnam. I can say this with some certainty, with some impunity, for I am his soul, his spirit. I do know that much at least, though I don't know everything!"
John says, "One, one, one, one by one, one hundred and fifty thousand Viet Nam veterans have died by their own hand since the war ended. Three hundred and thirty-three thousand homeless vets pushing shopping carts through American streets every day--just like us!"
The listeners catch their breath; they say: "Soul. I hardly ever hear or use the word soul.'" "Souls are going to appear onstage?" "I'm marveling, you all believe in souls too." "So many people believing we have souls." "We do have souls. We do."
John looks around at us, smiling, everyone smiling. "I've got me smile back," he says. "I lost me smile, and today you gae it me back. I was going to end the book with Finn committing suicide. Today I mean to have him live on."
We saved Finn's life.
Excerpted from The Fifth Book of Peace by Maxine Hong Kingston. Copyright© 2003 by Maxine Hong Kingston. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
An evening of readings
and discussion with
Maxine Hong Kingston,
Oct. 15, Friends Meetinghouse, Cambridge