I had felt for a long time that there was something about literary culture that was slightly foreign to me. Not long ago, I went to an East-West writers conference, where a young Chinese writer said that she wrote because she didn’t like to go out, and she thought that by writing novels, she could stay at home and make money. I laughed, and everybody laughed, and then I thought, “That’s such a typical thing for a Chinese person to say. In the West, we’d never say that.”
About that time, my father wrote his autobiography. On the one hand, it’s very familiar, and on the other hand, it’s very strange. He doesn’t start with “I was born.” He doesn’t mention his birth at all until page 8, then he puts it in parentheses in conjunction with another event. That was very striking to me; this narrative is very different from the narratives I see in novels all the time.
Those two things — together with this feeling I’ve always had that there was something about the way we narrated in the West that is not the way I had narrated in my childhood home — were an impulse I wanted to follow.
Would you say that writing in the East often comes from an “interdependent” self, and in the West from an “independent” self?
That is a generalization, of course, and in my book, I try very hard to give both the generalization and the nuance. Neither East nor West is a monolith. That said, there’s still a difference. In our minds, art must somehow be an expression of the self. It’s an expression of freedom. It is something whose purpose is simply to be. And yet if you look at that Fan Kuan painting that I have in my book, a northern Song Dynasty landscape, it shares none of these ideas. It is didactic, it does not imagine itself as an original thing, it is not an emanation of someone’s self — none of that. With globalization in full swing, it’s a good time to take stock of our ideas about art and what ideas about art are in other cultures.
The conflicts that arise from this difference are important themes in your work. Has that been conscious?
I think I was naturally writing about it. Part of the adventure of this book was I began to see things in my own work that I knew in my bones but not in my head. It was a revelation. And in that way, it mirrored fiction. You always write something much more than you ever knew you knew.
You say that for most Chinese people, “things — even literature — should be useful.” How about your writing?
I’m right on the line. There are parts of my work that I have clearly written for myself — and I won’t tell you what they are. There are many jokes that are simply my little jokes, and I don’t expect anybody will ever get [them].
At the same time, I probably am more plagued than most of my contemporaries with the feeling that fiction writing is selfish. I’m not sure what I’m contributing to. That’s different from being didactic. You can’t make a useful contribution by being didactic because the novel will be dead. But do I want my work to be culture shifting? The answer is yes. I need to feel I have made society less restrictive in some way, that I have promoted understanding, that I have provided a place of reflection that has enabled people to become more thoughtful. I do think that’s a manifestation of an interdependent orientation.
Burns is editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between.” She teaches creative writing at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
On Thursday at 7 p.m., Jen will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore at 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.