The Fifth Book of Peace
Maxine Hong Kingston (Knopf)
The narrative style of The Fifth Book of Peace will seem familiar to those who’ve read Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir The Woman Warrior. A deliberation on violence, peace and loss, the book shifts fluidly between fiction and nonfiction, wending its way through story, philosophy, history and testimony.
In “Fire,” the book’s first nonfiction section, Kingston’s house has burned to the ground. She’s lost the jade heirloom bracelets her mother brought from China and her book manuscript (The Fourth Book of Peace), and she seeks solace from her mother. “Don’t hun things,” admonishes Brave Orchid, thankful her daughter is alive. Kingston explains that hun is “the very sound and word for pain at loss.” Through labyrinthine ruminations on war and peace, Kingston teaches us what Brave Orchid already understands: Focusing on lost objects alienates us from true loss, the wounds of heart and mind. When robbed of peace, we lose not things so much as ourselves—an intangible theft by trauma and the human capacity for violence.
Kingston explores personal loss in “Water,” a fiction section featuring the draft-dodging Wittman Ah Sing, protagonist of Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey, and also in “Earth,” a nonfiction section. By presenting war as part of a fictional narrative taking place in the past in “Water,” we can briefly keep our distance. But “Earth” shatters that complacency, as present-day (primarily Vietnam) veterans struggle for peace in Kingston’s writing workshops.
Coming full Zen circle, she charges us to create even a moment of peace in our daily lives. She admonishes and encourages us, “The images of peace are ephemeral. The language of peace is subtle. The reasons for peace, the definitions of peace, the very idea of peace have to be invented, and invented again.” Through her narratives, Kingston—a bodhisattva of compassion—recovers life-giving perspectives on loss and shares them with us.