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Towards the Transformation of Whiteness, the White Centered National Narrative, Racial Categories and the Self in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Fifth Book of Peace

Klara Szmańko

Abstract

The Fifth Book of Peace (2003) marks the evolution of Maxine Hong Kingston’s vision of whiteness and the very definition of racial categories in her works. In The Fifth Book of Peace, Kingston assumes a much more transnational perspective, reflecting to a greater extent on the enmeshment of whiteness in imperialist and colonizing practices beyond the perimeter of the mainland United States and the territory of the United States as a whole. While in The Fifth Book of Peace Kingston notes the implication of whiteness in colonization and imperialism, she also to a greater extent stresses its potential for transformation. This potential was hinted at in The Woman Warrior, but it is much more explicitly elaborated on only in The Fifth Book of Peace. All of Kingston’s works are written in the spirit of transformational identity politics and intersectionality. In all of her works, Kingston notices the intersection of diverse types of oppression, going beyond exposing the stripes of exploitation that immediately affect the major characters of her works. Yet it is in The Fifth Book of Peace that she underscores the need for cooperation between individuals affected by diverse types of trauma stemming from different kinds of oppression. It is also in The Fifth Book of Peace that Kingston envisions the possibility of white Americans cooperating with people of other races and nationalities on behalf of peace rather than in the name of war, expansion and colonialism symbolized in the narrative by the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and the colonization of Hawaii.

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1The Fifth Book of Peace (2003) marks the evolution of Maxine Hong Kingston’s vision of whiteness and the very definition of racial categories in her works. In The Fifth Book of Peace, Kingston assumes a much more transnational perspective, reflecting to a greater extent on the enmeshment of whiteness in imperialist and colonizing practices beyond the perimeter of the mainland United States and the territory of the United States as a whole. While in The Fifth Book of Peace Kingston notes the implication of whiteness in colonization and imperialism, she also to a greater extent stresses its potential for transformation. This potential was hinted at in The Woman Warrior, but it is much more explicitly elaborated on only in The Fifth Book of Peace. All of Kingston’s works are written in the spirit of transformational identity politics and intersectionality. In all of her works, Kingston notices the intersection of diverse types of oppression, going beyond exposing the stripes of exploitation that immediately affect the major characters of her works. Yet it is in The Fifth Book of Peace that she underscores the need for cooperation between individuals affected by diverse types of trauma stemming from different kinds of oppression. It is also in The Fifth Book of Peace that Kingston envisions the possibility of white Americans cooperating with people of other races and nationalities on behalf of peace rather than in the name of war, expansion and colonialism symbolized in the narrative by the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and the colonization of Hawaii.

2After losing the original manuscript of her book and before venturing upon the composition of a new one that was to become The Fifth Book of Peace, Kingston spoke extensively on what she hoped to achieve in and through her narrative. In a 1993 interview with Neila C. Seshachari, Kingston declared that in The Fifth Book of Peace she would like to “claim evolution”—the evolution of the human species (210). Ideally, according to Kingston, “reading and writing should expand and transform the self” (Seshachari 213). This transformation and expansion of the self is possible only if one “go[es] beyond” “family, tribe, Chinatown, gang, nation—into a larger selflessness or agape” (Seshachari 213). Reminiscing on the beginning of her writing career, Kingston remembers that she initially envisioned herself as avoiding explicitly political discussion and didacticism, being even close to embracing the concept of art for art’s sake (Skenazy 109-110). Later she concluded that it was incumbent upon writers to “have a vision of a future” and she claimed to have the “power to envision a healthy society, healthy human beings” (Skenazy 110). Noting that “the imaginative life and the real life intertwine” (Skenazy 110), Kingston defines her writing as interventionist, asserting “I want to be able to manipulate reality as easily as I can manipulate fiction… What if I could strongly write peace, I can cause an end to war” (Seshachari 196). In The Fifth Book of Peace, everyone is supposed to be a “star” and a “spectator” (Seshachari 212), an observer and a participant. Making all these bold claims, Kingston takes the concept of a writerly text one step further, not only including readers in the very act of composition, but also exhorting them to do certain things, to transpose the concepts of her fiction to the extra-textual reality.

3The transformation of the self that Kingston envisions through reading and writing inevitably involves the transformation of whiteness in her writing. Double associations of whiteness and the potential of whiteness for transformation are best encapsulated in the narrative through Kingston’s representation of two different flags: the flag of the United States and the flag of the United Nations. In Kingston’s portrayal, the “Red, White and Blue stands for competition and nationalism” (12). She openly declares her desire to resignify the red, white and blue of the American flag in such a way as to make them “stand for peace and cooperation” (12). The reflections on the flag come in the “Fire” section of The Fifth Book in which the narrator visits the site of her burnt down house, being able to see the singed American flag waving opposite the empty space of her former home. The white elements of the flag are further underscored by the whiteness of the “white metal flagpole,” adding to the sense of desensitization evoked by the narrator through her associations of the flag with competition and nationalism. It also bears noting that the narrator identifies the red, white, and blue of the American flag as “its primary colors,” observing that they “don’t occur much in nature” (12), a claim which may be startling considering that one can find a lot of red, white and blue in nature. Yet on a moment of reflection one must agree that while they do occur separately, they barely ever appear together, amplifying the narrator’s metaphor of competition and nationalism as well as the need for cooperation. The label “primary colors” invites not only the socio-historical connotations specific for the United States presidential election, but also the optical context of color theories. The Optical Society of America distinguishes between primary basic colors and derived basic colors (Boynton 137). Together with green, yellow and black; red, white and blue are also defined as “unique” or “elemental” color categories (Wooten and Miller 75). They are identified as “unique,” “elemental,” or primary because “non-unique” or derived colors are derived from them or in other words “compounded of them” (Wooten and Miller 75).

4Both the U.N. and the U.S. flags are juxtaposed with each other in the narrative in connection with the outbreak of the first war against Iraq, when the narrator identifies herself and her neighbor as the only ones to fly a flag of peace at the inception of the war. The white and blue of the United States flag recur on the United Nations flag, but they are reconfigured in such a way as to signify peace and cooperation rather than earlier mentioned competition and nationalism. In juxtaposition with the white dove, the symbol of peace, whiteness no longer stands for competition and nationalism. Another recurring color is blue. Still, it is also a different kind of blue than that on the United States flag, being qualified as “sky-blue” (13). Depicting the United Nations flag, the narrator returns blue to its most frequent positive signification. Blue is usually perceived as a soothing color. In Color for Philosophers, C. L. Hardin observes that blue is also the last primary color, red being the first one (304). Both blue and red are often perceived in opposition to each other. While red features on the United States flag depicted by Kingston, it is no longer a part of the description of the United Nations flag that follows. Additionally, white and blue of the U.N. flag are accompanied by another primary color—green and derived colors—orange and brown: “a white dove on a sky-blue silk field, UN colors plus orange beak, green leaves, brown branch, brown eye” (13). Orange is a compound of yellow and red (Wooten and Miller 78), while brown is compounded of black and yellow (Wooten and Miller 81). In the multicultural context of the United States, derived colors imply a racial and ethnic mosaic, cooperation desired by the narrator rather than competition, nationalism and separatism.

  • 1 Having said that, it needs to be emphasized that Wittman’s claim to partially Hawaiian heritage mig (...)

5The narrator’s preponderance of the United Nations flag over the United States one epitomizes not only her quest for peace, but also her embrace of a much more transnational perspective than in Kingston’s previous works. This transnational perspective is explicitly delineated in some of the pronouncements on race, nation and ethnicity in The Fifth Book of Peace. Reflecting on the aesthetics of race in the “Water” section, the protagonist of The Fifth Book of Peace and also Tripmaster Monkey, Wittman Ah Sing, concludes that race is a matter of perception: “But race is in the eyes of the beholder; if you look at her [the Hawaiian beauty] and think Black, then she looks Black. You think Italian, your eye searches out the features that are to you Mediterranean, such as olive skin, aquiline nose. Noses and lips are a degree more or less flared or flat or wide. We differ but shades and fractions of an angle from one another. Whatever race you’re thinking, you can see it” (110). A similar line of reasoning occurs when Wittman declares “Free-choose your ethnicity” (77), claiming to be “almost a Hawaiian,” arguing that he could trace Hawaiian ancestry in his lineage and averring that he would vote against Hawaii becoming another state of the United States of America (77). Such a declaration is a stark divergence from Wittman’s mentality in Tripmaster Monkey, in which he bent over backwards to emphasize his own Americanness, as well as trying to change the mindset of first generation Chinese Americans who perceived themselves as Chinese rather than Chinese Americans. The evolution of Wittman’s mentality fulfills Kingston’s design to “break open” his Chinese American consciousness (Kingston, “The Novel’s Next Step” 40). Now he is close to embracing the mentality of a transnational, diasporic subject.1

6The narrator’s own reflections on nation and national belonging become conspicuous in the “Earth” section at the time of her visit to the Vietnamese sangha community, called Plum Village, together with Vietnam veterans participating in her writing workshops. Attracting people from all over the world, Plum Village “cross[es],” “erase[s]” and “broaden[s] boundaries” (390). The visit to Plum Village also in a sense completes the textual search for her own village initiated by Kingston in The Woman Warrior. While the narrator of The Woman Warrior grapples with the question about her village, in the end concluding that “‘Wherever we happen to be standing, why, that spot belongs to us as much as any other spot’ (125) and ‘[her] job is [her] own only land’” (58), the narrator of The Fifth Book of Peace seems to be aware that assigning oneself physically and mentally to one particular place may be more and more challenging for postmodern subjects with personal histories of migration or migration of their families. “Crossing, erasing, broadening boundaries” of which the narrator speaks in the context of Plum Village matches Alejandro Portes’s definition of transnationalism as “goal-oriented initiatives that require coordination across national borders by members of civil society” (186). Portes emphasizes that these activities “are undertaken by transnational subjects on their own behalf, rather than on behalf of the state or other corporate bodies” (ibid 186). The encounter between the narrator’s community of peace and healing operating in the United States and Vietnam based Buddhist sangha exemplifies transnational cooperation between members of civil society across national boundaries. Peace that is at stake is not only global peace in a broader sense of the word, but also internal peace that according to the narrator and the Vietnamese Buddhist monks is essential for the achievement of global peace.

  • 2 One might ponder to what extent white veteran soldiers are critical of nationalism and to what exte (...)

7Asked about the definition of “nation,” the narrator is dumbfounded, proclaiming it to be one of the “abstract terms” which “put [her] into despair” (390). Defining “nation” as an abstract term, the narrator is still aware that this abstraction is backed up by very concrete acts such as choosing a ruler, inventing an ideology, making money, amassing weapons etc. (390). The definition of “nation” as an abstract term approximates Benedict Anderson’s definition of nation as an “imagined community” (6). Still, like the narrator of the “Earth” section in the afore-cited passage, Anderson’s Imagined Communities traces the concrete steps that accompanied the process of imagining. Transnationalism also finds its way into the narrator’s definition of Americanness. For her, being an American is to be from everywhere: “‘When you hug Americans, who are from everywhere, you hug all the people of the earth’” (396). An equivalent of Vietnamese Plum Village on American soil comes in the form of creative writing workshops organized not only for veteran soldiers of various wars, but also for survivors of other traumatic events like domestic violence. The participants are predominantly, yet non-exclusively, American men since the workshops include women of diverse ethnic and racial origin and Vietnamese soldiers too, bringing together in the spirit of transformational identity politics people of various races and ethnicities with diverse histories of oppression. While American soldiers may be seen as a tool of imperialism and colonialism in Vietnam, they were also the victims of imperialist and colonial policies. The inclusion of white American soldiers in creative writing workshops, which are about to bring healing and nurture peace is also part of the striving for the transformation of whiteness. The Sanctuary created by Wittman and Tana in the Hawaii based “Water” section of the narrative is a refuge for all draft dodgers who hope to evade the Vietnam war and defy the imperialist and colonial policies. Like Plum Village and the narrator’s veteran creative writing workshops, the Sanctuary brings together individuals across the racial and ethnic divide.2

8Whiteness and in particular the elements of the discourse of the white national narrative lie at the core of oppression from which communal organizations like the Sanctuary, veteran creative writing workshops or Plum Village try to escape, or which they try to heal. Traces of this white national narrative are visible in President Johnson’s speech to American soldiers at Cam Ranh Bay, the speech cited by the Hawaiian woman Poly in a conversation with Wittman in the “Water” section of the narrative. The speech attributed to Johnson displays a minoritizing face of whiteness, whiteness that presents itself as a “minority identity,” to use Robyn Wiegman’s term (116), fearing lest it be swept from the surface of the Earth by non-white races: “‘The trouble is that there are only two hundred million of us and nearly three billion of them and they want what we’ve got and we’re not going to give it to them’” (78). Wittman’s reaction to Johnson’s speech is as follows: “Who are the Them he’s talking about? He can’t come up with three billion unless he’s counting every Oriental on earth” (78). The whiteness of Johnson’s speech is a site of power that assiduously clings to its entitlements afraid that some non-white intruders may weaken them.

9While in the above cited passages whiteness embodies power presenting itself as being under siege, in another passage of the “Water” section whiteness is identified as a source of empowerment and a status booster. The narrator presents the whiteness of Wittman’s wife, Tana, as a marker of empowerment and entitlement: “Spoken like the White woman she is… One reason you espouse yourself to a White person: access to more of the world” (71); “A habit that the Ah Sings had gotten into was that the White person in the family did the negotiating, went out ahead into America, particularly the rental market” (85). “Going out ahead into America” implies progress and ability to bring about certain results. It is not accidental that Kingston mentions the rental market since minorities have been perennially discriminated against in the real estate market and the legislation designed to achieve residential integration of racial minorities was successfully blocked in Congress (Massey and Denton 234).

10Another aspect of colonizing, conquering whiteness appears in The Fifth Book of Peace in the context of the colonization of Hawaii. More than once in the narrative, Native Hawaiians express their grudge against “haoles.” The “ghosts” of The Woman Warrior and the “demons/devils” of China Men turn in The Fifth Book of Peace into “haoles,” although “haoles” does not occur in the narrative with the intensity of “ghosts” of The Woman Warrior and “demons/devils” of China Men. In her anthropological study of whites in Hawaii, The Mainland HAOLE, Elvi Whittaker observes that the term “haole” originally denoted a “stranger,” yet since most strangers were whites, it started to pertain to whites (197). Because of the context in which whites appeared in Hawaii, it also came to be linked with white conquest, white reign or white supremacy. Even if the term is used in the neutral context, many white people still see it pejoratively. Whittaker notes that if Hawaiians wish to express their negative attitude to whites, they usually do it through their intonation or by adding a pejorative adjective: “‘God damn haole,’ ‘stupid haole,’ ‘fuckin’ lazy haole’” (53). The Fifth Book of Peace registers the following exchange between above mentioned Poly, Native Hawaiian woman educated in law, and Wittman—Tana duo while the latter are flying into Hawaii: “ ‘haoles come over and make us wear clothes; now they laze on the beach with no clothes on, and we do the labor. The slavebor.’ Though she wasn’t directly name-calling, her listeners felt sticks and stones” (78). Although Wittman is not white and he goes as far as to trace remote Hawaiian lineage and identify himself as Hawaiian, he also seems to be an addressee of Poly’s statement because he is a newcomer from the mainland. Tana treats Poly’s words as directed overtly at her, which is why she feels compelled to emphasize that she is not “Anglo haole,” but a person of “Dutch and Indonesian descent” (78). In the mainland United States she resents being called “an Anglo” or “English.” The narrator’s follow-up on Tana’s disidentification in the Hawaiian context is that “now she would have to start saying, ‘Don’t call me haole’” (78). In her attitude Tana fits into the race-traitor-school within whiteness studies, which “advocates the abolition of whiteness through white disaffiliation from race privilege” (Wiegman 122). Her disidentification from the Anglo centered identity clashes with her attitude displayed in afore-cited passages in which she very consciously draws benefits from white privilege. Tana’s disidentification from “Anglo haoles” can also be explained through Elvi Whittaker’s anthropological observations on Caucasians’ dissatisfaction with the fact that in Hawaii their “ethnicity” becomes the most defining characteristic. Whittaker observes that for many it is their very first confrontation of the issue of their own “ethnicity” (153).

11Non-native inhabitants of Hawaii, mainlanders, not exclusively whites but all people from the mainland United States, are portrayed in The Fifth Book of Peace as exploiters of the Hawaiian land, violating “aloha,” the Hawaiian tradition of giving and receiving: “‘You mainland people… you take advantage of our aloha. You come to our country with the prejudice that we give, give, give, and you take, take, take. ‘Aloha’ does not mean only giving. It is giving and receiving. Giving and receiving love. Reciprocal generosity.’ Wittman had been told: Cold hard English does not have a word for ‘aloha’”(75).

12The colonizing and imperialist face of whiteness features in the Hawaiian context of The Fifth Book of Peace also in connection with the Hawaiian land “aina” defined by Kingston as “land, earth, property, estate. Not just any land, but the sacred land that is Hawai`i” (79). Elvi Whittaker, identifies “aina” as “homeland” (116). For Native Hawaiians of The Fifth Book, the land is a sacred feature that needs saving and protection from foreign inroads. Poly casts herself as someone who thanks to her law degree can protect the land. The land provides in the narrative a staging ground for the maneuvers of the American army before its redeployment to Vietnam: “The U.S. Army were on maneuvers, occupying Hawaii. On their way to Viet Nam” (117). In Kingston’s portrayal, the United States army is an occupier of Hawaii, which becomes a stop in a colonial enterprise of the government of the United States: “The island was an aircraft carrier, a launching pad, an armed satellite, and its purpose was to funnel our every destructive resource to Viet Nam” (119). Wittman’s analysis of the scope of the military presence on the tourist map reveals an incommensurately large appropriation of Oahu by the military. Ironically, the presence of the army is marked in pink, the color perceived as feminine, not masculine.

13The presence of the American army on the island is portrayed in The Fifth Book as anything but innocent. The acts perpetrated on Hawaiian soil during the military maneuvers parallel those depicted in China Men and performed in the name of conquest and civilization. The citations below reveal that correspondence: “They [China Men] were the first human beings to dig into this part of the island and see the meat and bones of the red earth. After rain, the mud ran like blood” (China Men 100). “He [Wittman] saw the green skin of a section of mountain to his right explode, blow apart, fly apart. Underneath the green skin was red earth like meat…. Pieces of green skin and red-meat dirt chunks broke apart and fell” (119). While the purpose of China Men’s work on the land is its cultivation albeit through what Rachel Lee terms as the “violent restructuring of both settlers and the soil” (148), American soldiers’ military exercises bring about exclusively destruction. Both constitute a version of the Manifest Destiny performed in the name of democracy and progress ostensibly championed by the propagators of the white national narrative. Different, as their positions are, both China Men and the American soldiers play the role of the executors of this design.

14The soldiers of the United States army exercising in Hawaii are by no means identified as exclusively white. Watching the soldiers pass by, Wittman can also spot African Americans, Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans. With all his pacifism he does not perceive them as aggressors, but as victims themselves: “They should be in college. It’s the poor, the uneducated who have to go to war, the poor fighting the poor” (117). The racial differences of the soldiers in question are made almost indistinct because of the blackening covering their faces, including the faces of African American soldiers. “The poor fighting the poor” obfuscates racial and ethnic divisions in favor of class solidarity.

15Whiteness is not the only site of racial oppression in the Hawaiian context of The Fifth Book of Peace. The Hawaiians themselves become implicated in racial oppression on the basis of reverse power dynamics, misdirecting their anger at two black Peace Corps welfare workers from the mainland United States: Sheraton and Clifton. Having received all kind of assistance from Sheraton and Clifton, the Hawaiians show no gratitude, but instead drive them out of the island, behaving as if the black social workers presented an affront to their pride: “‘Who they think they are?’ ‘Fuckeeng Popolos, Welfaring us.’ The reasoning of the Hawaiians runs along the following lines: ‘Black haoles. Bad enough White haoles—we get Black haoles’” (188). Since they cannot run out whites, they will at least run out blacks. The Hawaiians spout all kinds of racist slurs against black people, essentializing their physical features: “‘You should see their Popolo eyes—so big and round and sked.’ ‘Pop eyes like Rochester and Buckwheat.’ ‘They get white eyes shine in the dark.’ ‘They fuzzy-wuzzy hair stand up in air. No more Popolo in Kahalu’u forevah now.’ ‘Popolos go stay back to Main Land.’ ‘Da black, da buggahs’” (189). The pidgin spoken by the Hawaiians brings remote echoes of the white Southern racial slurring of African Americans. In Wittman’s imagination, the driving out scene gains the semblance of a lynching, exposing the dehumanization of human condition close to that traced in white “demons” and “devils” in China Men. It is interesting that the most graphic scene of racial prejudice involves representatives of two racial minorities, excluding whites. In a similar vein, Kingston mentions anti-Asian American racial massacres in China Men, but never employs her artistic imagination to describe one.

16A substantial portion of the representation of whiteness in The Fifth Book of Peace takes place through the imagery of the work, illustrating Mieke Bal’s claim that imagery can be a tool of subversion and counterdiscourse (1290). While in the initial sections of The Fifth Book of Peace the imagery of whiteness reveals whiteness as associated with death, mourning, loss and destruction, in the course of the narrative whiteness comes to signify opulence, plenitude, luxury, comfort, empowerment, peace, light, brightness and visibility.

17Whiteness often features in The Fifth Book of Peace together with blackness. At the very outset of the narrative Kingston establishes the dyadic connection of whiteness to blackness, claiming that both black and white have negative connotations in the Chinese tradition, signifying death and mourning. Red stands in opposition to both, being a vibrant positive alternative, the color of life (15). Black and white prevail in the depiction of destruction following the fire of the narrator’s house. The color of the narrator’s burnt house turns from red to white: “Its paint had been seared from red to white” (12). Looking at the scorched landscape surrounding her former house, the narrator can see “a black-and-white Guernica of trees—black skeletons, negatives of trees, caught in poses of agony, killed and reaching for air” (22). Approaching the fire zone, the narrator notes that she “[has] entered the black negative dimension where things disappeared” (10). She goes on to compare her former house to “the black space” that replaced it (18). The original manuscript of The Fifth Book of Peace lost in the fire also turns white: “a book-shaped pile of white ash in the middle of the alcove… The ashes of my Book of Peace were purely white, paper and words gone entirely white… the edges of pages, like silvery vanes of feathers, like white eye-lashes… this ghost of my book” (34, emphasis added). Apart from standing for death, destruction and in this case the spent life of the book, whiteness also signifies in the above cited passage, as it does in The Woman Warrior and China Men, insipidness and blandness. “The ghost of my book” is one more whiteness related application of the term “ghost” in Kingston’s works, embodying a remnant of a once living thing.

18Kingston’s representation of the fire is an exemplification of what E. San Juan, Jr. terms as “anti-imperialist aesthetics” (11). Whiteness evoked aesthetically in the fire of the narrator’s house reverberates once again as implicated in the colonial or semi-colonial ventures, which the narrator visualizes while watching and later surveying the destruction of her neighborhood. For the narrator, the fire triggers an instant association of the fires of war ravaging in the past Vietnam and in her contemporary times Iraq: “God is showing us Iraq. It is wrong to kill and refuse to look at what we’ve done. Count the children killed, in ‘sanctions:’ 150,000; 360,000; 750,000. ‘Collateral damage’…. we are given this sight of our city in ashes. God is teaching us, showing us this scene that is like war” (13-14). In the narrator’s portrayal, the fire becomes a visualization of the war in Iraq. Taking a bird’s eye view of the fire, a Vietnam veteran remembers “the shock and horror of Vietnam” (14). Seeking communion with the survivors of other traumas caused by “firewinds blow[ing] over the top of the earth,” the narrator displays understanding for those living underground in Vietnam and Okinawa (12). Although the Oakland fire is the making of a natural force, in The Fifth Book of Peace it becomes a focal point for establishing a connection with survivors of man-made disasters. Explaining the significance of the fire episode, Hsu shounan cites the Badiouian typology of an event, claiming that every event is significant, a “situation is a ‘presented multiplicity’… ‘compel[ling] [a person] to decide a new way of being’” (1). After the fire the narrator concludes that stripped of her possessions, she can appreciate the sphere of “idea” to a greater extent. “Touch[ing] the ashes again and again,” the narrator resembles the I-speaker of Anne Bradstreet’s “Upon the Burning of Our House,” when the latter repeatedly reminisces on the things that were no more. Leading expeditions to the fire site, the narrator rejects the position of a passive victim, placing herself in the position of an active subject. The Oakland fire interfered with the publication of the original manuscript of The Fifth Book of Peace and another fire almost got in the way of the publication of the recreated manuscript. Kingston delivered the first draft of The Fifth Book when September 11 occurred only to hear from the editor, Deborah Garrison, that her book was too pacifist and outdated since in the current political climate everyone had to be more “sensitive” in order not to hurt the majority’s political feelings (Lim’s Interview with Kingston, “Reading Back, Looking Forward” 167).

19Maxine Hong Kingston’s earlier works, The Woman Warrior and China Men, estrange whiteness, placing it in the position of the “other,” unraveling the mechanisms of its socio-historical construction and exposing its enmeshment in oppression largely in the domestic context of the United States. The Fifth Book of Peace sheds light on white embroilment in oppression too. Yet the oppression at stake here is mostly imperialism and colonization unfolding in the transnational context, but still affecting negatively citizens of the United States, including white people. Kingston identifies whites as colonizers of Hawaii. She also implicitly and explicitly names whiteness as responsible for armed conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. Overall, however, rather than portray whites chiefly as “others,” “ghosts,” “demons” or “barbarians,” The Fifth Book of Peace to a greater extent aims at integrating and transforming whiteness, incorporating it in the work on behalf of peace and struggle against various miens of oppression. Its transformation and integration takes place in The Fifth Book of Peace not only through the multiracial and multiethnic organizations featuring in the narrative, but also on the aesthetic level of the work, through the images including whiteness, illustrating Mieke Bal’s claim that imagery can be a tool of subversion and counterdiscourse (1290). The transformation of the representation of whiteness in The Fifth Book of Peace inscribes itself in the transformation of the representation of the self and racial categories that can be traced in Kingston’s narratives. Both the self and racial categories in The Ffth Book of Peace become more complex, ephemeral, more dynamic and permeable, diluting the clear-cut boundary between the self and the “other.”

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Notes

1 Having said that, it needs to be emphasized that Wittman’s claim to partially Hawaiian heritage might be criticized by proponents of conventional identity politics, while supporters of transformational identity politics might show more openness and acceptance.

2 One might ponder to what extent white veteran soldiers are critical of nationalism and to what extent they are aware of the enmeshment of whiteness in military projects which most of them question as a result of their own Vietnam war experience. That criticism and awareness are mostly implicit in the narrative, manifesting themselves through manifold expressions of their own trauma, post-traumatic stress as well as openness to ethnic and racial difference during the writing workshops and during the visit to the Plum Village.

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References

Electronic reference

Klara Szmańko, Towards the Transformation of Whiteness, the White Centered National Narrative, Racial Categories and the Self in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Fifth Book of PeaceEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-2 | 2024, Online since 07 June 2024, connection on 24 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/22063

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About the author

Klara Szmańko

Klara Szmańko is Associate Professor of American literature at the University of Opole, Poland. She specializes in Asian American and African American literature with the focus on problems of whiteness, invisibility, visibility, visual dynamics, power dynamics, autobiography, transformational identity politics, multiculturalism, representation of space, mimicry, nationalism and gender relations. She is the author of Invisibility in African American and Asian American Literature: A Comparative Study (McFarland 2008) and Visions of Whiteness in SelectedWorks of Asian American Literature (McFarland 2015). She edited a special issue of the journal Res Rhetorica titled “Rhetoric of Silence in American Studies.”

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