Author Gish Jen, the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, has always felt a bit between two worlds. Writing fiction was her way of understanding and bridging the culture gaps she percieved between the East and West. In 2012, Harvard University invited Jen to give the Massey lectures in the History of American Civilization. This series of lectures became the basis for Jen's powerful book, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self. Here's more from the author:
Jennifer Haupt: How do you describe the difference between the independent and interdependent self?
Gish Jen: It’s a matter of whether you see the self as fundamentally in relationship to other selves or not—whether you see the boundary between self and the world as relatively permeable, which makes you “interdependent” (collectivist) in outlook, or relatively impermeable, which makes you “independent” (individualistic). Of course, there are shades of gray with this, as with everything. Still, these are two different ways of conceiving the self, with profound aesthetic implications, as I discuss in my book Tiger Writing.
JH: When it comes to writing a novel, is there a choice an author can and should make with regard to the voice of the book?
GJ: Many of the ideas we have about fiction in the West today are of quite an independent cast. There is, for example, a kind of novel that focuses on one decision or one moment on which a life hinges. There is a focus on character, and a belief that character is fate. And many novels, too, are quite linear, as if the writer believes that life is like dominos—that one thing leads to another in a cause-and-effect way, and that life is progressive rather than, say, cyclical.
These are ideas that work for many, and that may well reflect your true understanding of life. But you may in fact belong on a different place on the inter-independence spectrum, and may want your work to reflect that, even though that’s not the norm in the West. And that can make a book richer, more complex, and more honest.
JH: Did you see your novels as interdependent when you were writing them? And was that a problem?
GJ: Tiger Writing came after my novels, so I didn’t have the intellectual framework for articulating the tension I felt between how I was writing and how I was supposed to write.
But now I see that my books are often hybrid works, and tend to have, for example, an ensemble feel. The protagonist is a little bigger than the other characters but not much, and his or her status may be questioned by the work overall. For example, in my last book, World and Town, there are five sections. Three are given to one character, so she’s the protagonist. But by having these two other, interrupting sections, with related but fairly separate narratives—narratives that do not represent different views of the same events, but that focus on different sets of events—there’s the sense that this could be a totally different book if one of the other “protagonists” was given more space. What’s more, there is a suggestion that these two other possibilities are just two of a number of possible narratives. The main protagonist’s story has an independent arc, that’s to say, but its context is quite interdependent.
JH: You told Bill Moyers that growing up Asian-American with immigrant parents serves as a kind of amiable irritant, the grain of sand that hopefully produces the pearl. How does your cultural identity shape you as a writer, and what questions does this bring up that you’re trying to solve in your novels?
GJ: That phrase “amiable irritant” comes from Philip Roth. As for the influence of my background, the fact is that, whatever I do in life, I’m almost always aware that there’s another way to do it. I find that not just in my writing, but even with, say, raising a child. And what’s right, what’s wrong—who can say? I explore these things in my writing, though I solve, sadly, nothing.
JH: Did Tiger Writing help you in a different way than the fiction in making sense of all this?
GJ: Yes. It gave me a vocabulary with which to look at my predicament as a writer in particular—a predicament often shared, by the way, not just by people with dual cultures, but to varying degrees by many women. I hate to generalize because there are always so many exceptions to any rule. And yet the fact remains that many women tend toward the interdependent end of things—that we tend to see ourselves in relationship to others to a far greater degree than men.
And if it’s not too interdependent thing to say, I’m happy to have written Tiger Writing, not only for myself but for others. So many people have come up to me and told me how liberating it was for them to read. Many non-writers have said this, but of course many, many writers, too. Somebody told them it wasn’t okay to have more than one protagonist or that they needed to write in a more linear way, and even if they accepted that advice and felt they profited from it, they never understood why exactly they were told that. Now, they at least understand where these ideas come from— that they are related to Kant and the Enlightenment, and America’s current hyper-individualism.
JH: Does this hyper-individualism affect our literature, and vice versa?
GJ: Yes. Many writers, if they actually thought about what our society’s extreme reinforcement of individualization is actually doing to us as a society, might be opposed to it, and certainly not want their books to contribute to the problem. And yet often their work is part of a cultural feedback loop of which they are unaware, and that is exactly what they are doing.
It used to be that we expressed our individualism through writing novels and that was liberating. But now, I think, that same individualism has become codified, and a kind of prison.
JH: What’s the One True Thing that you wanted to express in Tiger Writing?
GJ: We are made by culture, but we make culture, too.
Gish Jen is the author of Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, as well as several novels. Jen has published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New Republic, and other magazines, as well as in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Her honors include a Lannan Literary Award and a Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.