Maxine Hong Kingston receives National Medal of Arts

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Maxine Hong Kingston, a UC Berkeley alumna and senior lecturer emerita of English, received the 2013 National Medal of Arts on Monday in a White House ceremony.

President Barack Obama awarded the medal to Kingston, 73, and 11 other recipients, including San Francisco singer Linda Ronstadt and New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who designed the campus’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library.

When presenting the medals, Obama said Kingston’s works have “examined how the past influences our present and … strengthened our understanding of Asian American identity, helping shape our national conversation about culture, gender and race.”

The National Medal of Arts is awarded annually to as many as 12 individuals from any artistic field. Members of the public can make nominations, which are reviewed by the National Council on the Arts and submitted to the president, who makes the final selections.

Kingston is best known for her memoir “The Woman Warrior,” about being a first-generation Chinese-American woman, and her book “China Men.” Her works explore gender and ethnicity, and they present realist perspectives of the lives of Chinese immigrants.

“Her work has been extraordinarily influential over the past 30 years, especially in legitimizing a genre that has been around for a while but has never been used in the way she used it — the memoir,” said Alex Zwerdling, a professor emeritus of English at UC Berkeley. “She remade it in a way that released and suggested all possibilities for that whole literary form.”

According to Zwerdling, Kingston wrote a letter to a friend when she was 15, expressing her hope that the story of her family would never be lost. That same story brought her international acclaim 16 years later, when she published “The Woman Warrior.”

“[Kingston] is a great innovator,” Zwerdling said. “When a 15-year-old predicts her career … that’s remarkable. She is very focused and has achieved exactly what she wanted to achieve.”

Kingston was born in Stockton and graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1962. She joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1990 and received the National Humanities Medal from former president Bill Clinton in 1997, among other awards.

N. Scott Momaday, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who formerly taught at UC Berkeley, also received the National Medal of Arts in 2007.

“I’ve been personally touched by all sorts of these folks,” Obama said at the ceremony. “When I was first writing my first book and trying to teach myself how to write, ‘The Woman Warrior’ was one of the books I read.”

Contact Sarah Rockwood at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @srockwood44.