Each week, we take a look at our archives for boosts to propel you into the weekend.
In Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Brother in Vietnam,” which we excerpted in 1980, the main character is simply “the brother.”
It is the Vietnam era. The draft looms. He, “the brother,” does not have a religion, a wife, a physical disability, or a desire to go to war—he has only a job teaching high school in California. So “the brother” does that, at first; he teaches. The brother waits to be called up to the war. He hopes not to be. He spouts a bit of anti-capitalism to his students in the meantime. Kingston writes:
During Current Events, [the brother] told his class some atrocities to convince them about the wrongness of war. They looked at the pictures of napalmed children and said, “Sure, war is hell.” Where had they learned that acceptance? He told them the worst torture he knew: the Vikings used to cleave a prisoner of war’s back on either side of the spine, and pull the lungs out, which fluttered like wings when the man breathed. This torture was called the Burning Eagle. The brother felt that it was self-evident that we ought to do anything to stop war. But he was learning that, upon hearing terrible things, there are people who are, instead, filled with a crazy patriotism…
He explained how water, electricity, gas and oil originally belonged to nobody and everybody. Like the air. “But the corporations that control electricity sell it to the rest of us.” “Well, of course they do,” said the student; “I’d sell the air if I had discovered it.” “What if some people can’t afford to buy it?” “Whoever discovered it deserves to be paid for it,” said the stubborn boy. “It’s Communist not to let him make all the money he can.” Although the students could not read or follow logic, they blocked him with their anti-Communism, which seemed to come naturally to them, without effort or study.
Some have written that “the brother” is likely Kingston’s own brother. Her work often swirls into an autofiction, as Hua Hsu wrote in a profile this year in the New Yorker. This roots Kingston’s story in a tangible haze of guilt. Perhaps one we all recognize today.
Hsu’s article begins where most do with Kingston: her iconic The Woman Warrior, which “changed American culture.” He describes the process of her writing the book—she burned out on Berkeley counterculture, moved to Hawaii, and, on vacation in Lāna’i, Kingston in 1973 began writing by moving a desk to face the wall.
But it is his description of her process of writing her second book—China Men, a series of stories about immigrant men published in 1980, which includes “The Brother in Vietnam”—that caught me, and made our excerpt make more sense. He writes:
When she completed “China Men,” she and [her partner] flew to New York. After reading the manuscript, [her editor] told her that she had failed. “You don’t understand men,” she remembers him saying. “They’re lonelier than this.”
Devastated, Kingston got on a bus uptown to her friend Lilah Kan’s apartment, where she and Earll were staying. “I just felt terrible,” she said. She was met by [friends] who greeted her with champagne and pot to celebrate her big meeting. They went ahead with the party, as she retreated into the corner with her Selectric typewriter and wrote a scene based on her father’s time in New York. So much of the immigrant story is joyless hard work. America is so free that you are even free to work through the holidays, Kingston wrote. She wanted to give the immigrant workers a day off. Her father enjoys a night out on the town, ending up at a tearoom, where Chinese men could buy dances with white women. Her father fox-trots with as many blondes as he desires, then returns home alone, wondering if his wife will ever make it to America.
This work follows a similarly sly trajectory. Unsure what to do, Kingston’s “brother” actually enlists in the Navy. “He arrived at his decision by reasoning like this,” she writes. “In a country that operates on a war economy, there isn’t much difference between being in the Navy and being a civilian.” If every microwave purchase fuels the bombs what point is there?
Yet the brother cannot fully give up his hatred of the Vietnam War. As much as he tries to give in, Kingston finds that the brother keeps fighting: in small, subtle ways. It is the “sadness” of men that her editor wanted. But the strength too.
The brother cannot fully go limp, cynical, and evil. He is complicit, yes, in war, but never wages it fully. In Vietnam, as part of the Navy, he refuses to kill. And he refuses to die.
There’s a shrewd lesson there. Sometimes we must just survive.
Check out Hsu’s profile, and pick up a copy of any of Kingston’s books.