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Interview and Book Excerpt: "Tiger Writing" by Gish Jen

by Chris McLachlan
10 April 2013

In her new book Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self , celebrated Asian-American novelist Gish Jen turns her attention to non-fiction. A collection of lectures delivered at Harvard University, Tiger Writing is a lively blend of family history, cultural criticism, and meditations on Jen’s life as the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, reflecting on Eastern and Western ideas of self and how they intersect. The novel, she writes, is fundamentally a Western form that values originality, authenticity, and the truth of individual experience. By contrast, Eastern narrative emphasizes morality, cultural continuity, the everyday, and the recurrent.

ASNC is pleased to host Gish Jen on Tuesday, April 16th at the Mechanics' Institute. She will join in a conversation with pioneering Asian-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston.

For a preview, hear what Gish Jen has to say about her book Tiger Writing in this short YouTube video:


A short excerpt from Tiger Writing:

I have been interested in this difference for a while. In talking a few weeks ago to my old teacher from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, James Alan McPherson, I was reminded that it was the subject of the essay I wrote in conjunction with my master’s thesis in 1983. And if I look back over the novels that followed, I can see that if I have embodied a dialectic, as some writers do, it is the tension scholar Werner Sollors has so pithily put as between consent and descent, which in my case is also a struggle between Emerson and Confucius. I think we all feel this tension to a degree: between an independent self that finds meaning in the truth within, and to whom rights and self-expression are important; and an interdependent self that finds meaning in affiliation, and duty, and self-sacrifice. That is to say that if we think of Hamlet’s assertion, “I have that within me that passes show,” we resonate, feeling that we, too, have something in us that others can’t see, and to which we must “above all be true.” Yet if we think of the end of Casablanca, when Humphrey Bogart says, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” we find we resonate as well.

My tension is simply a more extreme version of this. Thanks to globalization, it is also one whose acuteness is shared by more all the time, what with the difference in self typically thought of as East–West actually being, as psychologist Richard Nisbett notes, between the “West and the rest”—with “the West” here referring to Europe and North America, and “the rest” referring to the rest of the world; and what with accelerating modernization now bringing to “the rest” a veritable epidemic of individualism. I should probably say here that to the extent that I bring cross-cultural studies into these lectures—as I will especially in the first half of the second lecture—I will keep to various East–West findings—that focus being, as I think you’ll agree, quite broad enough. Still, what with the traditionally interdependent but now fluctuating orientation of many African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American cultures, not to say numerous European and American subcultures, there are more and more people like me every day—changelings, often usefully able to tap into our inter-or independent selves as the situation warrants, but connoisseurs of a certain dissonance, too. As for what sort of children we changeling adults will raise, who knows? And what their children will be, and their children’s children, is obviously impossible to say.