The Washington Post

Interview with Gish Jen, author of ‘Tiger Writing’

Critically acclaimed author Gish Jen’s newest book is “Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self.” (Feng Xu )

In critically acclaimed novels such as “Mona in the Promised Land” and “World and Town,” Gish Jen explores the sense of being between two worlds that the children of immigrants often experience. Jen looks directly at how that feeling has shaped her work in “Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self” (Harvard Univ., $18.95), first delivered as last year’s Massey Lectures at Harvard.

You embarked on writing this book because there was “something in your bones” you hadn’t figured out yet. What was that?

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.

“Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self” by Gish Jen (Harvard Univ.)

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.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read
Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Making family dinnertime happen
How to make Sean Brock's 'Heritage' cornbread
A veteran finds healing on a dog sled
Play Videos
Drawing as an act of defiance
In search of the Delmarva fox squirrel
The most interesting woman you've never heard of
Play Videos
This man's job is binge-watching for Netflix
The Post taste tests Pizza Hut's new hot dog pizza
5 tips for using your thermostat
Play Videos
Philadelphia's real signature sandwich
5 ways to raise girls to be leaders
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.