The Fact of Fiction

Many fear that the postmodern trend of mixing fiction and autobiography sacrifices truth for the sake of entertainment and authorial agendas. Countering that argument is the California-born Maxine Hong Kingston, who wove the stories and myths of her Chinese immigrant family into her debut novel, The Woman Warrior (1975), before ever stepping foot in that country.

"I wanted to write the imaginary China. The fabulous China that is in all our minds," Kingston says. Yet her parents were struck by how perfectly her book captured the tastes and feel of the homeland she had never seen. When Kingston finally visited China, she found she did, somehow, know the country. "Hearing the oral story, I could know the history and saga and the lives of people who were far away."

For Kingston, the feelings, motivations and experiences of a particular person living in a particular time and place should never be sacrificed for the niggling details critics love to belabor. Even myths have their own truths. "There's truth such as "take heart,' "be brave,' "be true,' " Kingston says. "How does one arrive at joy? How does one go through hardship? All these truths we find in stories."

Continuing her synthesis of myth, autobiography and fiction, the author will read from her upcoming Fifth Book of Peace, which had to be rewritten when the first draft -- representing two years of work -- was lost in a fire. So Kingston found herself, much as her mother did with her talk-stories, completely relying on memory to retell it. "I think [the book] is better," Kingston says. "Then I think whatever I write recently is better." Still, she admits, she wishes she had never lost that manuscript to the flames.

That seems to be the paradox inherent in fictional biographies: The exact phrases and details may be lost forever to time, memory or translation. We are left with only the truth of our impressions, and the faith that the story's essence lives on.

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Dylan Otto Krider