In this 2007 interview, Bill talks with author Maxine Hong Kingston about helping returning soldiers find peace through writing.
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BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Welcome to the Journal. On this Memorial Day weekend I am reminded that I have never had to go to war, never been tested under fire, never had to kill or be killed. What I have learned about battle I have learned from the real experts, from veterans — and from poets. With their power of empathy and evocation poets open us to what lies buried in the soldier’s soul. I remember to this day hearing one of my high school teachers read Wilfred Owen’s pained cry from the trenches of France: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” So, even as America is fighting this weekend in Iraq, we turn to a poet, a writer, to honor all those soldiers who have served our country, in war and peace.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. No one I know personally has done more to help veterans themselves bear witness to unspeakable experience than Maxine Hong Kingston.
Growing up, the oldest of six children in Stockton, California, Maxine listened to her parents’ stories and memories of their native China. In a series of highly acclaimed books she linked those traditional stories to her life in America, blending memory, mediation, and magic to create Woman Warrior, one of the most widely taught books on college campuses for thirty years now, and then China Men, Tripmaster Monkey, To Be the Poet, and The Fifth Book of Peace. Her body of work has earned Kingston a large following, as well as many awards, including the National Book Award and the National Humanities Medal presented by President Clinton in 1997.
But for all the words she’s poured onto the page from her own life and mind, for the many years Maxine Hong Kingston has been coaxing words from others. In 1993 she put out a call to veterans to join her in workshops devoted to turning their experiences into poems, novels, and essays. Here in the hills of Northern California, over 500 veterans…from every war since World War II have taken part, and some of their finest work has now been published in this book, Veterans of War; Veterans of Peace. For many of them it has been a life-changing, even life-saving experience
SEAN BROWN: When I was in the Gulf War I never imagined that I would be writing my stories. My experiences in the Gulf were things that were so traumatizing to me that I couldn’t imagine ever talking about them again.
ROBERT GOLLING: A lot of things that were in the past we’ve left there and we’ve left there for a reason.
SHEPARD BLISS: As a military man I was not trained to be intimate and write about feelings. I’m trained to conceal and so the experience of writing in a group with others was very uncomfortable for me. I would write in the morning and then I wouldn’t show up in the afternoon for the part where you read it to others.
PAULINE LAURENT: These men who served in Vietnam even though they came back their lives were forever changed. They weren’t the same men. And I’ve had their wives tell me stories about the man that went to Vietnam didn’t come back.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: I think all these people have come back and they are not the same. But my hope is that through art, through telling their stories, by having people hear what they went through, it changes them again. There’s the coming home from war, being broken, feeling losses, but then there is a wholeness that takes place if the person were able to write their story, to write their poem, to have people hear them and listen and understand. Then they are changed again.
BILL MOYERS: And you write “Their stories and poems are immense in scope and in heart, and amazingly, full of life and laughter. They carry out our motto: tell the truth.”
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: At the very beginning we had this motto, “Tell the truth.” It’s because people come home, they come home from hell and they have witnessed, they have committed, they have been committed upon, horrendous acts. And then the first instinct is to keep it secret, “Oh, just forget. I’ll forget what happened. And I will not visit this upon my children, upon my wife, my husband, I will not tell people about what happened.” And holding the story inside creates terrible illness and wrong. And so it was my task to let people know, just let it out, tell me exactly what happened, it’s okay.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about some of the veterans that have been in your workshops.
BILL MOYERS: I have read, several times, “The Body Escort.”
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Oh, yes.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about that one, about Robert Golling.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Well, that story is based on real life, and Robert Golling’s job was to escort the body home to this young man’s family-
BILL MOYERS: In Massachusetts?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes, it was Massachusetts. And it was Robert’s job to help the family with their funeral arrangements and to give what comfort he could. And then, the family invites him into the house, and they invite him to stay overnight. And it turns out that he’s the same race, he’s the same religion, they’re Catholics. And he even looks like the boy who died. And so, the family was welcoming him home.
BILL MOYERS: And they put him up overnight?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: They put him overnight–
BILL MOYERS: And he says, after they’ve asked him to stay overnight in the dead son’s bedroom:
“OK, I thought, I can’t stand here all night. I turned off the light. The street lamp light jumped in through the window, casting a cold edge on all the objects in the room. I looked around at each and every thing without thinking. Each in turn said nothing but waited for some careless touch of its owner. Atop the chest of drawers, a comb and brush still with his hair, his daily missal, Catholic prayer book that looked just like mine, a baseball autographed by Ted Williams, ticket stubs.”
And then he goes on to say…
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON:
“Quietly, quickly, a peek in each drawer saw socks, underwear, and cigar boxes of childhood treasures. The bottom drawer held sweaters and a shoebox of baseball cards. To the left was a stack of comics. Should I look deeper beyond MAD? Nah, I thought. The PLAYBOYs would be in the closet, beneath something his mother wouldn’t touch. I returned all the drawers to their original positions. I’d only touched with my eyes ever so slightly. A guest will look, will look to find the familiar, he will try to be at home. But still I felt strange. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I can barely see it now, thirty-nine years later. It was like seeing a life that was not my life, but was my life. His life cut short, while mine was still in front of me. Michael was at rest, and I must sleep, too. Could I sleep in the chair? No! Slowly, I pulled back the covers further. I turned and sat slowly, very slowly. Trying not to disturb the sheets, I lay back, tucked my legs beneath the sheets. The sheets now cold around me, more goose bumps, alone, cold, I close my eyes, not moving. I, too, lay at rest. Sleep would come sometime.”
ROBERT GOLLING: I wanted to write The Body Escort, from the time that it happened. It seemed like a significant thing that had happened to me and it was the thing that I believed other people needed to hear.
BILL MOYERS: So, what happens to you when you hear a veteran 39 years later, recollecting an incident like that?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Well, quite often after these workshops, I feel hurt. I just feel such pain. And it takes a while, and I can’t sleep, also, after hearing this story. But after a while, of holding the story we promise one another we would help hold one another’s stories.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: What I mean is that when people share their stories and they share their hardships, that all of us will listen. We’ll help carry the burden. And so, after writing in such a way, in which we release our feelings we take something that happened chaotically in the past, but later, 39 years later, putting it into words, slowly understanding one’s own feelings, and understanding the point of view of others. And shaping what happened into a form and this form is a beautiful form. The form of a story, the form of a poem.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about Sandy Scull, a lieutenant in Vietnam in ’67 and ’68.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes, a poet before he went. I guess he must have been like me, you know, a poet since childhood. And then, when he went— the poetry stopped and he could not write poems for 30 years.
BILL MOYERS: After he came home?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: After he came home. There were no poems. He had a block for 30 years. And I think the way he would put it was that he lost his spirit and he lost his imagination and I want to read you the poem that he wrote.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: It’s called Sea Salt.
BILL MOYERS: Oh yes, yes.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: And the whole poem is about the way of coming home. You know, he had post-traumatic stress disorder, which means that the body goes numb, the appetite is gone, he’s alienated from, from his fellow citizens.
After the Vietnam War, I withdrew
to Nantucket: “faraway isle.”
Hoping to glimpse the boy
before spirit fled the body.
Thirty-three miles of ocean exiling me
from a homeland offering little embrace.
Me and my dog, Christopher. Christ-love
disguised as loyal canine. We combed beaches.
Working for the island newspaper connected me.
Tides soothed with ebb and flow.
A rhythm I could trust. Even eat by.
I fish the last three hours of the east tide.
Buried my toes in the sand, searching
for the texture of littleneck clam.
When water was warm, I sailed out solo.
Stripped then slid into the sound.
Looking up toward the surface light.
Christopher’s gaze wavering with wind
and water between us. Breath bubbles
rose, bursting under his nose.
My body now embraced,
a ritual purification in salt.
Dismembered dreams floated closer.
Something dissolved in a solution
that held me. Breathing easier,
I could imagine again.
BILL MOYERS: Breathing easier, a physical response that liberated a spiritual voice.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes, yes, Breathing easier, I could imagine again, So he’s inspired, spirit coming in, breathing, he’s inspired.
BILL MOYERS: Several of these veterans use the word, you know, I was frozen in that moment, and my imagination, as Scull said he was frozen. And I kept getting this image in my mind, as I read of slowly melting glaciers of emotion. And then, once they had become water, re-form and are redirected into something new and different. And so is the material of the person who was writing it. I mean the life of the person who was writing it.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: And this healing happens when people are able to tell the truth. And when they are able to tell the truth, when they are able to find words, human words for human experience.
BILL MOYERS: But it takes 30 years, 35 years, 39 years.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes, it takes a long time. And-
BILL MOYERS: But what is life like for them in that period of time? You look at a veteran who doesn’t talk about his experience, and I’ve done documentaries with them, and you know more is going on than you can ever detect.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes, I think that for people who come through the war, and live those 30 years, 39 years — if they would work hard on it. A lot of the people in this book have been through therapy, or they, themselves, became therapists. They went through the AA program and some of them, like Jimmy Janko, he just put himself on Alcatraz for 13 years as a night watchman on Alcatraz, and just stayed there.
BILL MOYERS: Took a job on Alcatraz, the prison?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: No– yes, the prison, but there isn’t a prison anymore. But he was a night watchman there.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: In a way, I suppose it was his atonement from being in Vietnam. So, he was there and all of these people, there’s such a hardship, but those who worked hard to try for some kind of understanding. And then, coming through this writing, I think they came out okay. But there are lots of people who are not able to go through this.
BILL MOYERS: While you have that open, read Mrs. Martinez.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Oh, okay.
BILL MOYERS: Sandy Scull also wrote this poem Mrs. Martinez – about one soldier instructed to write the mother of a fallen comrade.
Dear Mrs. Martinez, regret to inform you
that your son PFC . . . First name forgotten,
yet his safety entrusted to me.
He was a good Marine. Sorry about your loss.
Though just past eighteen, he looked
haggard. Last week even ghostlike blue,
like some part of him already knew.
Wanted to finish high school and marry
the Houston girl. Carried a decayed photo
showing her pimples and bouffant hair.
Died when a sandbagged roof fell
under nine inches of rain. An engineering stake
pinned across his throat, eyes bulging.
No blood. Dubbed non-hostile casualty.
Us Marines don’t know bunker building,
better at digging foxholes and latrines.
He had been drinking hot cocoa. I found his canteen cup.
And some C-4 explosive we burned for a quick boil.
It was during Monsoon rain. The other sentry
grabbing sandbags off in vain.
Maybe he was daydreaming of home,
sitting in your kitchen. Numb sentiment.
Whatever she wanted, I was unable . . .
Top Sergeant said, Use the files, LT.
And keep it brief. Fall back on a form letter,
don’t need more grief.
You know we could use a form letter to say, “We regret to inform.” And yet instead of writing a form letter, you can write a poem, you can write a story.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: And we not tell our stories so much, but write them.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the difference? Why does it make a difference whether you tell it or write it?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: I think more of a transmutation takes place — more of a transformation. War is very noisy. The people are hurt by this noise. The sound of the bombing would be all of the world, I felt that silence would be an antidote to this noise and so when we gather, we have meditation. We take a vow of silence. So in this silence we are able to hear ourselves think, we are able to hear the music that’s in the world. And in the silence is where the writing takes place. It’s safe, you can tell the truth, without anybody reading it. You can tell all your secrets, and nobody gets to interrupt or argue against it, or nobody could say, “I don’t believe you.”
SHEPARD BLISS: I never imagined I would write what I wrote and sometimes I look at it and I think, did I really do that did I tell that much of my truth. Did I really push through the shame and fear of self-disclosure. So it was not something that came easily.
BILL MOYERS: Do you remember the young soldier who had seen his friend burned alive in the war, and has never since been able to attend a neighborhood barbecue without smelling human flesh?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes, that was the story of Hopper Martinez and he came upon — it was his job to pick up the bodies of his friends. This story’s called “Hopper’s Last Barbeque” and it’s an incredible story of one’s senses as you come upon a devastation in war. He smelled the barbequed human flesh and he started to salivate. And I mean his whole body turning against him. You know, that story — it’s not a fiction, it’s not a poem. You know where he wrote this story? He, Hopper, had to apply to the VA for his benefits and instead of filling out an official form he said, “Well I’m just going to narrate what happened,” and he wrote this on his VA form to get his benefits, one hundred percent disability.
BILL MOYERS: Did he get it?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: On the basis of that narrative.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And not all of the writers in your book are actual veterans of combat. You have, for example, Pauline Laurent —
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Remember her?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Uh-huh
BILL MOYERS: She tells what it was like to be a 22 year-old pregnant woman– to get the news three days after Mother’s Day in 1968 that her husband has been killed in Vietnam. And she looks out the window and sees that ugly green Army car with the words, “U.S. Army” printed on the side, parked in front of the house. And then she picks up the story.
The men continue to sit in the car. Hours seems to pass before they get out, straighten their uniforms, and head toward my door.
‘Good evening,’ they say, as they remove their hats. ‘We’re looking for Pauline Querry.’
They look at my protruding abdomen that holds my unborn child and then look at each other in silence that lingers too long.
‘Was he wounded or killed? How bad is it?’
More silence. Finally they begin.
‘We regret to inform you that your husband, Sergeant Howard E. Querry, was fatally wounded on the afternoon of May 10, by a penetrating missile wound to his right shoulder.’
I’m dizzy. I can’t think straight.
‘Dead? Is– is he dead?’
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON:
“They don’t answer. They just reread their script as if practicing their lines for a performance they’ll give someday.
‘We regret to inform you ‘
The room is spinning. I can’t think, I can’t hear anything. I’m going to faint. Alone I must be alone to sort this out. Leave me alone.
Instead, I sit politely as they inform me of the details… funeral remains escort military cemetery medals.
Finally they gather their papers and leave. I politely show them to the door. My parents are hysterical. My dad weeps, my mom trembles. No sound is coming out — her whole body is shaking in upheaval.
After retrieving the dog, I stagger to my room and shut the door. I throw myself on the bed, gasping for air. My heart races and pounds. My unborn baby starts kicking and squirming. I hold my dog with one hand, my baby with the other, and I sob. I’m shattered, blown to pieces. It can’t be true!
No medics come, no helicopters fly me away to an emergency room. I struggle to save myself but I cannot. I die.
Half an hour later, a ghost of my former self gets up off the bed and begins planning Howard’s funeral.
Mom calls relatives. People come over to console me. I just want to be alone. I just want to be alone.”
PAULINE LAURENT: In writing that story I said that 30 minutes later I got up a ghost of my former self got up off the bed and started planning Howard’s funeral, and I thought, wow, that is exactly what happened. I was a ghost of my former self. I was shattered I was blown to pieces. And the helicopters didn’t come to save me. I was on my own I wasn’t rescued by the Army I wasn’t put me back together physically, emotionally or spiritually I was shattered and blown to pieces for 25 years before I found my way back to gather the pieces of myself to wholeness again.
Once I was able to tell that story by writing it all the other pieces of my story that wanted to be told just were like waiting in line for me to tell them to. So initially it took me like 25 years to speak about that day when I found out my husband was killed. But once I could do it was then easier to tap into the other difficult times like the day my daughter was born and there was no father there at the hospital to welcome her. And her first day of school, when I took her to school, there was no father there the celebrate, and her wedding there was no father there to walk her down the aisle.
So writing became a container that could hold all my pain. It was like writing was a vessel and I could just keep putting more pain in that vessel and writing could hold it all. Writing could… writing didn’t tell me to get over it, get better, get marry again. Writing just said tell me more, give me more of your pain, I’m here to receive it and it was such a gift to find writing.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: I just want to say that it was a triumph of writing that Pauline was able, even to say her husband’s name Howard. She was writing for about a year and when I said, “What’s his name? Tell me his name.” And then she was able to say his name, because before–
BILL MOYERS: And that was the first time she had done so in all your time with her?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yeah, yeah. And then, after that, she’s able to write again and again.
BILL MOYERS: What is it about the power of story to change the human psyche? Why do stories do that?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: I am trying to come up with a good answer. You know, I keep saying it’s magic. Let’s see whether I can say it in so many words. Story has a form that brings a certain order, you know, the shape of a finely made story has the same energy as sexual energy, or life energy. It’s like the tide, you know, the tide that Sandy Scull wrote about. Of the ebbing and flowing of tide, and of storms. I think this goes through our bodies, it goes through our psyches. And the shape of story takes that same cyclical form. And we are in story, we are able to communicate with another being, another mind. And–
BILL MOYERS: Sometimes within ourselves, right?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes, you communicate with yourself, yes.
BILL MOYERS: Well, some of these people, when I read them, I think they’re writing the story for themselves, although they wanted us to see. But it’s primarily they’re communicating some dead self, that is resurrected by this, what you say the force of sexual energy or psychic energy or the energy of the imagination.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: I know that they are writing for themselves but I always held it up as a standard of an ideal that the writer’s job is to communicate. And, I tell them, “No diary writing”, “No, private writing.” These are public acts of communication. And you must tell the story so that you can give it to another person. That you can — and when you read it aloud, there’s mouth to ear transmission. And, we are communicating. And, this way we make connections with others and, we also build the community around us. These soldiers come out of war alienated from everyone. They’re alienated from their families, from our country, from themselves. And, this communication helps them build a community and a family around them.
SEAN BROWN: I think writing is incredibly transformative. I think it allows us to speak the unspoken. To take things that we have experienced and to make them real, because when they are floating around in our heads they are not really real, they are intangible and by writing our stories down we make what happened to us and what we experienced real. And how that transforms you, And Maxine has said this before in our writing group, where she’s said, “tell the truth and so make peace”. She says that by telling your story you revisit the past and transform the present and it’s true.
BILL MOYERS: One more. Ted Sexauer, he’s a medic. Two tours in Vietnam, one with a line company of the 173rd Airborne. He writes that he became an accomplice to murder. Tell me about him.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Well, he is one of the first people that joined our group. Ted — his posttraumatic stress disorder is very strong. And he has worked for many years to get through the numbness to find his feelings again.
TED SEXAUER: What I was look for was to remember the times I had become a little bit more numb when certain things happened to me in Vietnam. And so I was just writing all of the details of the story so I wrote them in lines and the music started coming out and I realized there was something — there was a circular that was feeding me through the ear that was helping me to choose what was the true heart of the poem. So it was very organic that way.
You know I wrote all the details of each one of those things that happened. A lot of confusing things are very confusing on the battlefield. And you have questions, I can think of one in particular that I most had a doubt about whether I had done the right thing or not. And the writing — I’m not sure how to put this exactly — it was the music that was in the lines that made the logic that I trust that sort of put an order to things that both answered the question, yes I think I did the right thing and it was impossible to do more than I did.
BILL MOYERS: Well he goes back to Vietnam twenty-five years after he was there and he goes back in time for Têt which is the celebration of the lunar New Year, and he wrote a few lines of a poem called a Poem for Têt. You’ve said that this is a very important poem. How so?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: This poem is about the word, and the word that is creation, human creation, we can as we express each word, we make more of the world.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON:
Poem for Têt. Lang Cô village, Viêt Nam
Lunar New Year, 31/1/1995
This is the poem
that will save my life
this the line that will cure me
this word, this, the word word the one
this breath the one I am.
And when we listen, we breathe in one another’s words and so this poem is about breathing each other and also communicating with one another.
TED SEXAUER: In my particular case, in the case of veterans of my generation, it was very significant the fact that we were shut down so much we were not allowed to speak when we came back. So the effect of was it becomes a secret in the back of you head when you can’t speak about something traumatic that had happened to you.
So the process of writing them down and completing that circle by – after time’s gone by and people are ready to hear to reading the writing to citizens not so much other veterans but to people who hadn’t been there but were curious to know what it was like, yes, solved the problem that I had had about feeling so isolated. I got to reintegrate into society through that means.
BILL MOYERS: How do the new veterans, those who are back from Iraq, compare with those who you began to work with fifteen years ago — veterans of Korea, Vietnam, even veterans of the First Gulf War — do you find differences in their stories?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: No, the only differences are where it took place or what war it was, but the human feeling, the human consequences, the way that they think and feel, the trauma of what happened– the feelings, they’re the same.
BILL MOYERS: From war to war.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yeah, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: But you also write, “If there’s one thing these writers have in common from all the wars, it is that they become rebels.” How is that, what do you mean?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Well, some of them are literally rebels in that they left the country during the war, they would go to Canada or they were AWOL somewhere. But there’s another kind of rebellion, the suspicion against officers, the suspicion about orders, they’re rebelling — a country that led them the wrong way — so their personalities are questioning and doubting and rebelling and even during the workshops, you know, I can give an assignment and people take it upon themselves to write something else.
BILL MOYERS: There was a sense I took away from this that without bitterness they do feel betrayed by authority, by their government.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Well when you think that most of the stories in this book are from the Vietnam War, a war which they lost and which we lost, and it took people — it still is hard for people to admit that we lost a war. And so this sense of betrayal people have that, and who to pin the blame on, they would call the peace activists and say they were the betrayers, or sometimes our government, they are the betrayers and our leaders. So yeah, there is that sense of loss, that sense of betrayal.
JAMES JANKO: What drive me to write is a longing that people really understand what war is about. No only Vietnam War but the war in Iraq now all war. And I feel we have this idea that violence is a strong stance. There is a quote from Martin Luther King that I love he said that the ultimate weakness of violence is that it is descending spiral begetting the very thing that seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil it multiplies it.
I was this in Vietnam as a medic. You know I saw areas that were totally ravaged and then ravaged again. We see this in Iraq. Where violence begets more violence and often we see it as strength. And I love it that Martian Luther King defined violence as weakness. Because what I saw in the war — the destruction to the land — you know what spinelessness in all this. I mean all the bombs dropped from high in the sky. I think we need to grow up out of this infantile notion that out of violence comes strength.
BILL MOYERS: Maxine Hong Kingston’s work with veterans was also born out of trauma — a trauma that nearly stole her voice, just as warfare had stolen from so many soldiers.
In 1991, a fire raged through Kingston’s hometown of Oakland, California, burning 3,000 homes and killing 25 people. Kingston’s father had just died, and she was finishing The Fourth Book of Peace. The only copy of that manuscript was sitting in her Oakland home.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: I was coming back from funeral rituals for my father. And I turned on the radio, and I heard that the hills were on fire. And so I got there as quickly as I could, and I made my way up through the flames and over and under the fallen power lines because I was trying to save my book. I was trying to save The Book of Peace. And I got there and it was gone.
And so the fire took The Fourth Book of Peace.
BILL MOYERS: Destroyed your house?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: And everything.
BILL MOYERS: Everything?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: The house, everything. The neighborhood, the forests, the city. Yeah.
And what I was standing in was the middle of like a land– this is what land looks like after a firefight or after the bombing of Hiroshima, after Dresden, after Hue. People told me this afterwards. People who had been to those other places, they would look at our hills, our neighborhood. And they would say something like oh — I was there at Hiroshima. And this is what it looked like.
BILL MOYERS: And yet weren’t you so traumatized that you couldn’t write for a while?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yeah. I couldn’t even read. I couldn’t read. I mean this happens to many people in trauma after trauma. You can’t read. And I I couldn’t write either. But it was the reading — not being able to read — that was very disturbing.
BILL MOYERS: You say “In the shock of the loss, I changed. But I wrote directly how I felt. There was no shape, just expressions of pain and loss. It was the way I wrote as a child, to huddle in a corner secretly, away from people and make sounds, whimper while writing.” How did you come out of that corner?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: The way I came out of it was to found a community around me. And to gather veterans, people who had been through terrible war and maybe we could write together. And we could create together after all that destruction.
BILL MOYERS: So writing became for you again what it had what it would become for these veterans.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: A way through the loss.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes. Or to make…And to understand loss and what our lives are like when we’ve been through devastation, when we are– when we have participated in events that are inhuman, how do we become human again? How do we re-create ourselves?
SEAN BROWN: Often what is really healing is sometimes just sitting down and this is what I did in our writing group, the first one that I went to, I wrote a letter to my self as a way of revisiting those past stories I wrote a letter to my former myself as a way of forgiving myself for the things that I said and did. Accepting responsibility for them but also forgiving myself.
PAULINE LAURENT: I started writing to heal myself; I started writing to tell a story to tell I’d never told. I don’t know that I necessarily wanted to but the circumstances in my life pointed me in that direction and if I didn’t go in that direction that I was being pointed, I was probably not going to live. Because I was so severely depressed and writing was one of the tools I used to save my life, to heal myself.
BILL MOYERS: You make it very clear, as have others to me that art, poetry, fiction can help us come to terms with trauma. It can help us to heal and all that, but it doesn’t do anything to stop war in the first place. I mean if a government is determined to go to war, there’s almost no way to stop that government, right?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: That is such a difficult problem because here we find methods for inner peace, but how do we manifest peace out in the real world? And, maybe this is the way it works. The first one learns to be a peaceful person, and then we’re able to go into action and in action we make good relationships with one person. And there we have a friendship. We would build peaceful, loving communities such as this writing workshop. Okay, so now we have built something in the real world. Made peace manifest in the real world.
BILL MOYERS: True, but when you did take action, you campaigned against the Vietnam War and what four years ago as the United States was about to launch the bombing and invasion of Iraq. You were right there in front of Bush White House. You were right there in front of the Bush White House, you and the other women in Code Pink, the feminist organization. And you were reading history and poems and hugging each other and singing.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: And the dancers danced and the drummers drummed.
BILL MOYERS: And then the bombs fell.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes. We used all our tools of non-violence. We used all our arts. And then 20 days later, shock and awe. And so then of course, then the question is that it doesn’t work, does it? Non-violence doesn’t work. Art doesn’t work. We did all of this and we could not prevent the war. And the war continues.
BILL MOYERS: Four years later.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Four years later.
BILL MOYERS: How do you deal with that, Maxine?
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever give up thinking you could make a difference?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Oh, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: You do?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yeah. I give up. And I feel despair. And, “What’s the use. But whenever I am unhappy, and I am in despair, and everything hurts, I always go to the writing. And I just start setting down those words. And I follow the path that those words take me. And and they will always take me somewhere, where by the time that I finish a poem, or finish a story, then I am a different person.
BILL MOYERS: You know you begin your book by saying all my life I have wanted to keep soldiers safe from war. How come?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: This was just a childhood impulse. I was born into World War II and all those years of my babyhood and childhood I saw my cousins in uniform come and go. They would stop at my parents’ home on their way to camp or on their way to Europe or they were on their way to the Pacific. And they would stop at our house to say goodbye to us and they’d be on their way and I knew what was going on, that they were going to war, this terrible thing and I just — I wished-— a safety for them. I also wished that they would not go and kill anybody. And as a child, I mean, all I could do is wish on this — stars and on my birthday cake — to end the war. How am I going to do this? I took it as a personal responsibility that I had to end war. But all I knew how to do was make wishes.
BILL MOYERS: That must’ve been frustrating.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes, until I figured out that the way to make a wish is that you use words. And, so right there was my, I guess, my first idea that it’s words – they’re going to keep us safe.
BILL MOYERS: Maxine Hong-Kingston, for Veterans of War and Veterans of Peace, thank you very much.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Every year at this time I take stock of what my colleagues and I are doing as journalists. There’s a reason to do it around Memorial Day. If you saw Steven Spielberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan you’ll remember that at the end Ryan, now an old man, returns to the military cemetery at Normandy to pay his respects to the fallen comrade who saved his life. Gazing down at the simple white marker as he wrestles with whether he has lived a life that justified the sacrifice of another, he asks: “Tell me I’m a good man?”
In one way or another it seems all of us from time to time have to judge our lives against the price others have paid for our freedom. I know that even subconsciously I have never been able to forget what the generation ahead of mine did in World War II, when they took on Hitler’s legions and the Japanese warlord. I had just turned 10 years old, for instance, when the Allies landed on Normandy on June 6, 1944. I could only imagine what it must have been like on those beaches when our world was up for grabs and men spilled their blood and guts to save it.
I never knew what it was like until years later I accompanied some veterans from Texas who had fought at Normandy and survived, and were now returning to retrace their steps. That’s Jose Lopez:
JOSE LOPEZ: I was really very, very afraid. That I want to scream. I want to cry and we see other people was laying wounded and screaming and everything and it’s nothing you could do. We could see them groaning in the water and we keep walking.
BILL MOYERS: Jose Lopez went on to win the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action. But searching for the place he landed that day, he didn’t want to talk about the medal. He just wanted to be alone with his thoughts.
Howard Randall took a bullet in his ankle an almost had his leg amputated. His buddy Eddie Myers wasn’t so lucky.
HOWARD RANDALL: March 1, 1945. That was the same day I was wounded. He was behind me probably a hundred yards, maybe 200 yards. And he caught a piece of mortar fragment in the stomach, lived until that night. I didn’t know he’d died until a couple of days later.
BILL MOYERS: Every Memorial Day I think about what these men did and what we owe them. They didn’t go through hell for a political system that functions on bribery, or for off-shore tax havens that pass the cost of national defense from the conglomerates that profit from war to the ordinary people whose children fight it, or for an economic system that treats working men and women as disposable cogs to be tossed aside at a predator’s whim, or for an America where the “strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
Yes, our soldiers did fight and sacrificed for freedom; but as wiser men than I have said through the ages, when liberty is separated from justice, neither liberty nor justice is safe, and those who sacrificed for both are mocked.
In this spirit we invite you to take a look at a special edition of the Journal that many of these stations will broadcast this weekend. You’ll learn more about Jose Lopez and Howard Randall and some other old soldiers. Check your local listings for “D-Day Revisited” at pbs.org.
I’m Bill Moyers.