American Friends Service Committee
Sara Burke, Managing Editor
Sam Diener, Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
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.
The Fire Teaching
Review of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace. Alfred A. Knopf. 416 pp. 2003. Hardcover, $26.00. Paperback, $14.95, due to be released on September 28, 2004.
is the author of three books of poetry, is the director of the
creative writing program at Suffolk University, and is a long-term
teaching affiliate of the William Joiner Center for the study
of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
Maxine Hong Kinston was the Pat Farren Memorial Lecturer for Peacework
Compassionate listening, represented in Buddhism by the bodhisattva, or deity, Avalokiteshavara, pervades Maxine Hong Kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace. Informed by Ms. Kingston's Buddhist practices and values, it is a hybrid of memoir, scholarship, and fiction. The book is an intimate ethical exploration of the complexities of peace work. What holds the book's energies in creative tension is Kingston's willingness to listen with utmost attention and open-heartedness to the voices within and around her.
One of the voices that Kingston listens to is her own. The first story she tells is of a 1991 wildfire that swept the hills overlooking Oakland, California. As Kingston returns from her father's funeral to discover her neighborhood in flames, she is in panic and near-despair as she makes her way to where her house had stood. Inside her home, along with all her worldly possessions, were the only copies, "156 good pages," of a work in progress, a fiction that Kingston was calling The Fourth Book of Peace. She stands amid the flames realizing her work has disappeared into the air, and that she has suddenly become "thingless" in terms of attachments. She also sees another lesson in the flames: "I know why this fire. God is showing us Iraq. It is wrong to kill, and refuse to look at what we have done. . . God is teaching us, showing us this scene that is like war."
Kingston tells us that the idea for a book of peace had been with her since childhood. She recalls having a recurring dream of bombers and missiles moving through the sky, and feeling that she could stop them by finding the Three Lost Books of Peace. According to stories she had learned from her parents, those books were composed at the dawn of Chinese civilization, and were destroyed in deliberately set fires, probably in militaristic eras. Kingston writes of the mythic foundations and scholarly debates surrounding these lost books, and believes that a book of peace existed up until the eleventh century. In the end, however, there is little scholarly agreement in China or elsewhere on what a book of peace was, or might have been, or if it ever existed. Listening to the conflicting opinions on the matter, Kingston realizes that the very elusiveness of the idea suggests that a book of peace is not so much something to be inherited, as it is to be reinvented in each era.
What then might a book of peace for our time consist of? It would, she tells us, collect the stories that do not celebrate war as a way to insight or wisdom. It would collect the stories of resistance to our dominant, archetypal narratives of war. It would collect stories of non-violence and tales of creative, collective work toward reconciliation. It would redefine bravery and tell the tales of the intergenerational strains in the aftermath of war. In the years that followed the fires, Ms. Kingston asked any and all she came in contact with to send her stories of peace and images of peace work. This did not mean her initial impulse to fiction would disappear from the work. In fact, a significant portion of the Fifth Book is a fiction about the life and times of Wittman Ah Sing, her main character from an earlier novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. Wittman evades and resists the draft during the US war against Vietnam. He moves with his family from Berkeley to Hawaii, where he becomes involved in the Sanctuary movement, offering aid and comfort to GIs who were becoming COs, or going AWOL, or deserting the US military. This fictional section in the Fifth Book breaks down the boundaries between civilian and combatant, and presents the many varieties of resistance to that war, including portraits of several conscience-troubled GIs.
The fiction in the Fifth Book, however, is prelude to the climactic section, set in recent years, including the build-up to the present-day war in Iraq. It is an account of a writer's group that Kingston founded circa 1993 in the San Francisco Bay Area. The seed-idea for a writer's group came from various peace-oriented stories sent to her by Vietnam-era veterans who had heard her speak of the fire and her new ideas for a book of peace. Kingston, with the help of several members of Thich Nhat Hanh's Community of Mindful Living, invited around twenty veterans and their families to a day-long workshop called, "Reflective Writing, Mindfulness, and the War." Out of that experience, Kingston conceived of a writing group that would be built around and include meditation practices along with writing and sharing work aloud. There would be sitting and walking meditation, and there would be periods of silence, but above all there would be the guarantee of freedom to tell one's story with the confidence that those around you would be sincerely committed to listening as a creative act.
In American literature, there are very few accounts of teaching and learning that really capture the quicksilver quality of fully committed thought and feeling in a classroom or a workshop. The most important things always seem to happen too quickly or too subtly, or too much below the surface of words. But Ms. Kingston's account of the meetings of this writing group, especially the conflicts among the various veterans as they begin to learn to listen to each other, is the best piece of educational writing (for lack of better words) I have ever encountered.
Kingston evokes the importance, and frailty,
of the listening process within a community of shared learning.
What she declares on the first day holds true throughout the decade
of the group's existence.
continued on page 22, top of column 1
"There are antidotes to this violence to our bodies and souls... Listen to one another. Tune your ear. Listening, we draw people's stories out of them... Hearing someone else's story you may feel moved to read in response."
The writing group Kingston founded still meets
on a quarterly basis. The participants range from former combat
medics to peace activists, from spouses and children of soldiers
to guest writers such as Grace Paley, Larry Heinemann, and the
Vietnamese writer Le Minh Khue, among others. The group's mix
of meditation, writing, and attentive listening has created a
beloved community out of the fires that its participants have
lived through. The creation of such a community is the story that
is at the heart of The Fifth Book of Peace, and it is a story
that we all need in our terror-filled time.