Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace
Author Biographies (alphabetical order - click on letter)
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I began my writing and editing career after my return from the Vietnam War; I served as a Marine in I Corps—part of that time as a helicopter gunner. I’ve published eight books—two memoirs and six novels.
Over the last decade and a half, I’ve been involved in efforts to bring contemporary Vietnamese literature to an American readership, and vice versa, as a form of reconciliation through literature, serving, pro bono, as American editor of Curbstone’s Voices from Vietnam series. My involvement with that project began when I met Le Minh Khue in 1993, while I was a visiting writer at the William Joiner Center at the University of Massachusetts. Part of the Joiner program was a project to bring together Vietnamese and American writers who were on opposite sides of the war. Khue, one of the leading writers of Vietnam and a chief editor at the largest publishing house in that country, is a veteran of the Volunteer Youth Brigades; she had been one of thousands of teenage girls who had left high school and went to work on the Ho Chi Minh Trails, filling in bomb craters and disarming or exploding unexploded bombs, and while often under heavy attack from our aircraft.
Khue and I discovered that we had at one time been in the same area during the war, and I thought about a mission I’d flown on when I’d shot down into that thick jungle canopy that covered the area, and how she could have been under it, an invisible but hated target. That moment of realization was an epiphany for me, and that invisibility and hatred that allow human beings to be reduced to targets or weapons or foci of fear came to stand for me as the exact opposite of what good stories, literature, could do for and to human beings. “The American Reader” is a story which deals directly with that scenario—in it I imagine the young girl on the ground, a reader, as Khue was, of American novels, and that young man in the air and his own reading habits, as the story reveals.
I grew up in Israel, where war was a persistent and formative part of my life. Like most Israelis, I identified with the story of a persecuted people defending itself. I saw us as being misunderstood by the world and having only our ingenuity to protect us from annihilation. The Six-Day War took place when I was eleven. By 1973, when the Yom Kippur War broke out, I had begun to see war as a choice and to envision other options for dealing with conflict. I was seventeen, and I decided to leave Israel, unwilling to support the violence being done in my name.
But a few months later, unable to escape the draft, I became a soldier, and by the time I was twenty, I was defeated and numb, my dreams lost. Seven years later, in 1983, I left Israel and have lived in the United States ever since, working steadily to heal the traumas of my life, personal, familial, social, and political.
In 1994, I heard a reading of the Veterans Writing Group at Cody’s Books in Berkeley, and I knew I wanted to join the group. I sensed that this would be a place I could dig deep into my fears, longings, and unhealed experiences. Being part of this group has been everything I had hoped for, and more.
The following story, “Esh,” gives voice to what I endured in Israel and what I am still struggling with to understand and become whole. For the past ten years, I have dedicated my life to teaching nonviolence in word and spirit, fervently hoping to contribute toward a world in which war is obsolete.
ABOUT THE EDITOR:
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON, editor
Maxine Hong Kingston began writing at the age of nine (“I was in the fourth grade and all of a sudden this poem started coming out of me”). She won her first writing award—a journalism contest at UC Berkeley—when she was sixteen. In 1976 The New York Times praised her first book, The Woman Warrior, comparing it to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, saying, “It is an investigation of soul .. . Its sources are dream and memory, myth and desire. Its crises are crises of the heart in exile from roots that bind and terrorize it.” At the
age of thirty-six, she was a celebrity, winning the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. Other books would follow, and the praise would continue to be unstinting. In 1980, she was named a Living Treasure of
Hawai‘i by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai‘i.
In 1991, following a massive fire in the Oakland-Berkeley hills that consumed Maxine’s house and the only copy of her manuscript-inprocess, The Fourth Book of Peace, and as the first President Bush was ordering the invasion of Iraq, she began offering writing and meditation workshops for veterans, to help them give voice to their experiences and work toward personal peace. As she’d hoped, the writing became a process of healing and renewal not just for the veterans but also for Maxine. She drew on the experience of these workshops in
The Fifth Book of Peace.
In 1997, Maxine Hong Kingston was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton. In March 2003, she was arrested for crossing a police line at the White House as part of a CODEPINK
action to protest the Iraq War.
She retired last year from her career teaching literature and creative writing, mostly at UC Berkeley, where she was known for offering personalized instruction to each student, even in auditorium-sized classes, encouraging “real communication.” She and her husband, actor Earll Kingston, live in Oakland, California. Their son, Joe Kingston, is a musician in Honolulu.
Growing up, I had tears of pride in my eyes as the flag passed by. My heart beat more quickly as they played the national anthem. My father served (was drafted) into the Marine Corps in World War II. He was called up to serve again, in Korea, and served at the Chosin Reservoir. He served further as commander of his VFW post in South Denver, where I grew up. I wrote the newsletter, sold poppies, and listened to the vets’ stories.
I was raised to believe in the good things our Constitution and our country stand for. I believed, and still do, that everyone should give service of some kind for two years. I was raised to take the responsibilities of citizenship seriously. Trying to put myself through college was tough, as women weren’t paid much for their work. At the age of twenty-one, ripe for service, I was very thoroughly recruited by a family friend; I believed that I would finish college, become an officer, and serve my twenty or more years to retirement. And, yes, that I would be treated equally with the men. I proudly donned the USAF uniform. I enlisted in 1969 during the Vietnam War.
Today I work for peace. As the vice-president of Veterans for Peace, I strive to maximize the voices of veterans to end war and the militarization of our youth. I work to make visible the misogyny and treatment of women in the military. I struggle daily with the seeming ambivalence of so many of my fellow citizens to taking direct action to stop the Iraq War.