For Maxine Hong Kingston, Age Is Just Time Going By

The Unstoppables is a series about people whose ambition is undimmed by time. Below, the writer Maxine Hong Kingston explains, in her own words, what continues to motivate her.

In a way, I don’t believe in old age. I hear people say, “this hurts” or “that hurts,” and they attribute that pain to old age. It’s not age. Age is just time going by, and that’s very mysterious.

I don’t think about vanity much. I look in the mirror and if I think, “I look young, that’s good enough.” Instead of wearing lipstick or rouge, I darken my eyebrows. I can express all kinds of things just with my eyebrows.

I do think about retiring, but stories and ideas keep coming. As Phyllis Hoge, a poet and my best friend, used to say, “We won’t die until we’ve finished our work.”

I was born this way. From a very young age I just wanted to be a storyteller or a poet. I didn’t know what I was going to write. I wasn’t even aware at that age that I had nothing to write about.

Maxine Hong Kingston in 1977, speaking at an interview at Knopf Publishing Company.Credit…Jack Sotomayor/New York Times Co., via Getty Images
Ms. Kingston accepting the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama in 2014.Credit…Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

Sometimes I’ve thought, or had the illusion, that I’ve been this way for two incarnations back. This is my third reincarnation as a writer. John Whalen-Bridge, who is writing my biography, is thinking of calling it “American Bodhisattva.” I don’t go around thinking I’m a bodhisattva, but I suspect that younger women see me in that way, as somebody who could help them, have mercy on them. That’s the impact I’m having on young people. I just play the role of grandma for them.

I’m not nostalgic myself. I don’t like the feeling of nostalgia. Nostalgia has something to do with regret, the sadness of “Oh, this time is over.”

I don’t like it when I have that feeling, but I don’t seem to get it very often. I like to go into the new.

“Veterans of War, Veterans (2006), an anthology of writings on survival that Ms. Kingston edited. Credit…Chiron Publications

Current and upcoming projects: Second edition of “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace,” a compilation of storytelling and poetry by wartime survivors, with new contributions by Israelis and Palestinians; revising (“polishing,” in her telling) a diary of the past decade.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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