I Love a Broad Margin to My Life

In I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, a captivating memoir written in verse, MaxineHong Kingston summarizes her experience of aging as she turns 65: “Oldpeople suffer,/ too much feeling, shaking with feeling,/ love and grief overtoo many dear ones,/ and rage at all who would harm them and the hurtingworld.” Indeed, life seems almost too much for the gentle Kingston, theNational Book Award-winning author of TheWoman Warrior and China Men. A glimpse of a headline about Dick Cheney has herweeping openly in the street because “the stupid, the greedy, the cruel,the unfair have taken/ over the world.” At the end of the book, she liststhe 50-odd friends and relatives who died during the four years she took towrite it, saying, “Each one who dies, I want to go with you./ I feel yourpull into death./ I want to join my dead.”

But Kingston’s disillusionment and despair are no match for her fierce longingto change the world, and she presses on. She describes her 2003 arrest fordemonstrating against the war in Iraq in front of the White House. (She andAlice Walker were briefly jailed together.) “We staged/ a theater ofpeace, recited poems—and did not/ stop our country from war.” While sheseems almost surprised that her modest protest didn’t halt the war machine, shestubbornly, against all evidence, retains her faith in the efficacy of heractivism. “I believe: because of constant/ protests, the tonnage of bombswas not as massive/ as planned. And we hit fewer civilian areas./ The peace wehave made shall have consequences.”

Sections of the book focus on the Chinese-American author’s relationship withChina. In dreamlike passages she imagines her Tripmaster Monkey character, Wittman Ah Sing, experiencing thecountry for the first time. “Make up your mind, Monkey, get off thetrain,/ see the rivertown, enter its symmetry./ Paddle the river straight downthe valley;/ stream with the sun’s long rays,” she writes, directing hisjourney. She combines these with recollections of her own travels there. Hersense of responsibility, both personal and political, extends to her parents’homeland, as she promises distant relatives, “I won’t forget. I shall/send you money forever,” but, ever human, she admits to forgetting themoccasionally nonetheless.

Early in the book Kingston reveals that her writing is driven by anxiety:”I am afraid, and need to write./ Save thismoment./ Save each scrap of moment; write it down.” But she draws thetitle of this latest work from a line from Thoreau, and like Thoreau, sheresolves to live simply and deliberately; perhaps the rhythm of the book, whoseplain language carries surprising force, is entwined with that goal. Shereveals that the desire to write is leaving her. She’s said all she has to sayand wants to “become reader/ of the world, no more writer of it.” Itis a conclusion that is sure to dismay her readers.