Maxine Hong Kingston was born on October 27th, 1940, in Stockton, California. She graduated with a BA in English from UC Berkeley in 1962, and later she wrote her first nonfiction novel, The Woman Warrior, which was published in 1967 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award (Poetry Foundation). Since then, Kingston has wrote numerous other nonfiction works and novels on her experiences as a Chinese American and a woman: National Book Award-winner China Men (1980), Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989), To Be the Poet (2002), and The Fifth Book of Peace (2003). Her most recent work, “I Love a Broad Margin to my Life” (2011), is a book-length poem that was inspired by Walt Whitman and shifts "between real and imagined time, tracing the writer’s journey" (Poetry Foundation).
Kingston is an fierce advocate for feminism and writes on her frustrating experiences as a Chinese American. In the autobiographical work The Woman Warrior, Kingston grapples between loving and honoring her Chinese heritage, as seen in the relationship she has with her mother, and despising her confusing inability to voice her opinions and beliefs as an autonomous being of value. As stated from the National Endowment for the Arts website, Kingston's works have “examined how the past influences our present, and her voice has strengthened our understanding of Asian American identity, helping shape our national conversation about culture, gender, and race” (National Endowment for the Arts). Indeed, Kingston has left her mark in the literary world and has further breached unsaid barriers blocking conversations needed for healing from generational trauma that stems from colonization, misogyny, and patriarchal control. In her lifetime, Kingston has collected many achievements, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, the PEN West Award for Fiction, the National Book Award, a National Humanities Medal, and the title of "Living Treasure of Hawai'i" (National Endowment for the Arts). She is a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and lives in Oakland, California.
"When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves. We could be heroines, swordswomen. Even if she had to rage across all China, a swordswoman got even with anybody who hurt her family. Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound" (Kingston 19).
Kingston, Maxine H. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts. Vintage International, 1989.
“Maxine Hong Kingston.” National Endowment for the Arts, https://www.arts.gov/honors/medals/maxine-hong-kingston.
“Maxine Hong Kingston.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/maxine-hong-kingston
Andrea Wagner is a English Literature and Rhetoric graduate student, a Penumbra editor/frequent contributor, and a writing tutor for Stanislaus State University.
Simin Behbahani (Simin Khalatbari)
Born: July 20, 1927, Tehran, Iran
Died: August 19, 2014, Tehran, Iran
Spouse: Manouchehr Koshyar (m. 1971–2002), Hassan Behbahani (m. 1946–1970)
Iranian contemporary poet, lyricist and activist.
Books: A Cup of Sin
Simin Behbahani was not only Iran's most influential poet but also one of the most important women in the long history of Persian literature. Her main influence was her mother, Arghun, who also wrote poetry and played the tar, a long-necked lute. Arghun was a progressive woman for her time and her house was a popular meeting place for writers and social activists. It was she who discovered the poet in Simin when she was still a teenager.
In what proved to be her last media interview in 2013, Behbahani told BBC Persian how she had written her first poem at the age of 14. When her mother found it, she pretended it had nothing to do with her. But her mother knew the truth and sent it to a poet friend. The next day the poem was published in a newspaper. It was the beginning of a writing career that spanned more than seven decades.
Behbahani wrote about love and femininity, but most of her work focussed on social issues. "The Ballad Of The Brothel," a poem about prostitutes in Tehran, drew attention to the plight of a group of women who had previously been ignored. In the early days after the Islamic revolution, Behbahani continued to write challenging poetry as chilling pictures emerged of people executed by the new regime, although it was not published until several years later. She was a member of Iran's Writers Association - a group always viewed with suspicion by the authorities.
Despite the risk, Behbahani remained an outspoken critic of the state. The cost was continued defamation and harassment by newspapers close to the clerical establishment, a temporary ban on travel outside Iran, and constant censorship of her work. In 2009, Behbahani received the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women's Freedom on behalf of women's rights campaigners in Iran.
We All Thought She Was Untouchable
Known as the "lioness of Iran," Simin Behbahani has been writing fierce poetry for decades: during the reign of Iran's Shah, during the Islamic Revolution, during the reign of the ayatollahs, and over the past year's political turmoil. Through it all, she was not imprisoned and continued to enjoy the freedom to travel, says Farzaneh Milani, who teaches Persian literature at the University of Virginia and is one of Behbahani's translators.
"We all thought that she was untouchable. And it's amazing that a woman of 82, a woman who can barely see anymore, a woman who has brought nothing but pride for Iran, is now a prisoner in her own country," Milani says.
Behbahani has been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in literature, and she has received many literary accolades around the world. She was on her way to read her poetry in Paris, where last year she was awarded a prize for her defense of women's freedom.
In a 2007 interview with NPR in Tehran, Behbahani expressed horror at the practice of stoning to death women convicted of adultery.
"In the last 28 years after the revolution in Iran, this has been repeated. And even once at the beginning of the revolution, we had a woman condemned to stoning to death. While they were stoning her, she would not die, as she was resisting. At the end, one of the police, or Revolutionary Guards, got a piece of heavy cement and put [it] on her head to kill her," Behbahani recalled.
In recent years, it has not been easy for Behbahani to publish her poetry in Iran, and for much of the last decade, she was not able to publish at all. Not long ago, she did release a book of poems, but only after government censors required her to remove 40 poems or fragments of poems. In 2007, the government closed a magazine that published a poem of hers about the Iran-Iraq war.
"It was an anti-war poem. And it would question the people who created and started the war," she said during the 2007 interview.
"Most [Iranian] writers cannot write, cannot publish exactly what they have in mind and what they have written. And they are forced to change or modify some of what they have written."
Most Popular Books
A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems (Modern Middle East Literature in Translation Series)
The Story of Zahra Simin Behbahani, written by Hanan Al-Shaykh and published in 1980
Bernadeh Mokhatas is a graduate student at Stanislaus State University and a writing tutor at her college.
Penumbra is happy to announce its collaboration with CSU Stanislaus' Writing Center in a five part series: Five Figures from Five Cultures. This series aims to share fantastic writers and thinkers across generations and cultures. Our first guest blogger is Ashna Singh, who introduces the writer and professor Jhumpa Lahiri.
Hindi: भाषा और पहचान मौलिक रूप से परस्पर जुड़े हुए हैं। हम क्या पहनते हैं और क्या खाते हैं और जो चीजें हमें चिह्नित करती हैं, और अंत में, जो हमारे पास है, उसके संदर्भ में आप सभी परतों को छील देते हैं।
English: “Language and identity are so fundamentally intertwined. You peel back all the layers in terms of what we wear and what we eat and all the things that mark us, and in the end, what we have are our words.”
Jhumpa Lahiri is an English-born, Bengali-American novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. She is the daughter of immigrant parents who originally were from West Bengal and moved to Kingston, Rhode Island when Lahiri was three years old. She received her B.A. in English literature from Barnard College of Columbia University in 1989. She continued her education at Boston University and acquired an M.A. in English, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. She is currently a professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University. Lahiri speaks fluent Italian and published her first book in Italian, Dove mi trovo, in 2018. The start of Lahiri’s literary career was when she published her debut short story collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999). The Namesake (2003) was Lahiri’s debut novel, which turned into a superb movie directed by Sooni Taraporevala. As for literary achievements, Lahiri is a notable author who won several awards such as the O’ Henry, PEN/Hemingway, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Asian American Literary Award, and National Humanities Medal.
Due to Lahiri’s lived experiences as a Bengali-American, she often writes about the Indian immigrant experience in the United States. Her storytelling portrays the complexities of Indian immigrants assimilating in a new world, such as the United States, where cultural values are being explored and challenged; therefore, cultural tensions within the Indian community may arise. Lahiri carefully illustrates Indian culture and its traditions through her warm, vibrant and descriptive language. She is an authentic writer who is connected to her Bengali roots: she seeks to elucidate Indian communities’ cultural identities in a raw, realistic fashion. As a reader, her words offer a space of comfort and familiarity that one can take a deep dive into her multifaceted world. She is a profound literary figure who communicates about Indian diaspora, identity formation, alienation and belonging. Lahiri’s nurturing voice allows readers to bond over universal life experiences and to acquire cultural competency. That being said, Lahiri’s works are considered autobiographical since her characters are inspired by her family members, friends, and other people within the Bengali community. Her books examine the themes of loss, nostalgia, cultural conflicts, and cultural hybridity, in which she highlights through her characters’ hardships and anxieties.
Bengali: আমি কেন লিখব? অস্তিত্বের রহস্য অনুসন্ধান করতে। নিজেকে সহ্য করতে। আমার বাইরে যা আছে সব কিছুর কাছাকাছি যেতে।
English: “Why do I write? To investigate the mystery of existence. To tolerate myself. To get closer to everything that is outside of me.”
Other book/essay suggestions:
Unaccustomed Earth (2008)
The Lowland (2013)
Il quaderno di Nerina (2020)
“Teach Yourself Italian” (2015)
Jhumpa Lahiri on writing, translation, and identity
At Home with Jhumpa Lahiri
“Jhumpa Lahiri: By the Book”
Ashna Singh is a graduate student in Rhetoric and Teaching Writing at CSU Stanislaus. She has worked in the university's Writing Center as a peer writing tutor since 2020.