Maxine Hong Kingston, influential writer and an alumna and longtime lecturer at UC Berkeley, received the 2013 National Medal of Arts today (Monday, July 28) in a White House ceremony.
Best known for her books The Woman Warrior and China Men, Kingston’s “novels and non-fiction have examined how the past influences our present, and her voice has strengthened our understanding of Asian American identity, helping shape our national conversation about culture, gender, and race,” according to a White House statement.
Also among those winning medals from the National Endowment for the Arts were architects Billie Tsien and her partner Tod Williams, who designed UC Berkeley’s acclaimed C.V. Starr East Asian Library, which opened in 2008.
Kingston, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, grew up in Stockton and came to Berkeley to study engineering. But she fell in love with reading, writing and the English language and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in English in 1962.
“Her first book, The Woman Warrior, published at the end of the long ’60s, was the first, most widely read work of Asian American literature,” said Colleen Lye, an associate professor of English. “Indeed, it could be said to have launched the field itself, despite the fact that Kingston always insisted that her work was about the Chinese American experience specifically, rather than about Asian Amerian experience in general.”
The book was also a central expression of 1970s feminism, and was considered canonical to ’80s women’s studies. It helped to establish a conversation between feminist consciousness and the recovery of ethnic identity.
By the time Kingston came on the Berkeley faculty as a creative writing lecturer in 1990, The Woman Warrior had become “the book by a living author most widely taught in American universities and colleges,” said Robert Hass, professor of English, poet, author and former U.S. poet laureate.
As a teacher at Berkeley, Kingston was known as a generous mentor who nurtured the talent of aspiring writers, according to Lye. She retired from active teaching in 2003.
The National Medal of Arts adds to a long list of honors for Kingston.
Upon accepting the 1997 National Humanities Medal from President Clinton, she said, “Usually my awards are for my writing. I’d like to think this is for being a human being.”
Kingston’s China Men won the 1981 American Book Award, and Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book earned the 1989 PEN West award in fiction.
Architects Tsien and Williams were honored for their contributions to architecture and arts education, according to the White House.
“Whether public or private, their deliberate and inspired designs have a profound effect on the lives of those who interact with them, and their teaching and spirit of service have inspired young people to pursue their passions.”
In a podcast posted by the NEA, Kingston discusses her writings.
Watch KGO-TV’s coverage.
The complete list of winners can be found on the NEA website.
Many of Kingston’s papers are archived in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.