Soloists Are Often Lonely

Gish Jen and Maxine Hong Kingston on Bridging East and West

In a spirited conversation that ranged from memoir and family history to the craft of writing, celebrated Asian American writers Gish Jen and Maxine Hong Kingston shared stories and insights on how East and West diverge and intertwine in their lives and their fiction at an ASNC event hosted at the Mechanics' Institute in San Francisco on April 16.

Tiger Writing–Jen’s first non-fiction book–takes as its subject Eastern and Western notions of independent and interdependent selves. The West, Jen said, tends to prioritize originality, authenticity, the particular over the general, and the individual over the group.

The East, by contrast, puts community above the individual, commonalities over discrete differences, and the everyday over the singular. The very idea of writing novels or memoirs, Jen said, is a Western form and can be challenging for those not steeped in individualism. One result is that we see far fewer autobiographies coming out of the East. Salman Rushdie famously wrote his memoir, Joseph Anton, in the third person because the first person felt so narcissistic, he said.

Jen saw a poster for a musical performance in Shanghai last year that perfectly captured this divide: “Soloists are Often Lonely. Chamber Music is Just Right.”

Of course, the real world and real selves are not so clearly defined. Hong Kingston and Jen both noted that they cycle back and forth as the occasion demands, being a solitary writer one moment and happily sharing a communal feast another.

Citing the mentor they have in common, the great short story writer Grace Paley, they also rejected the notion that art is, and should be, held at bay from everyday life and community engagement. 

Whatever one’s cultural background, most people draw from multiple traditions and display multiple selves. Which is very good news for would-be writers in the East. As Hong Kingston put it, “Oh the wonderful faith! That the novel can be learned.”