The Big Idea: Gish Jen


I heard a story long ago that may or may not be true. Anyway, it should be. The story concerns a scientist who won the Nobel Prize. Hours after the call came from Stockholm, the night watchman at the lab where the scientist worked congratulated him:

“I always knew you’d get it,” the watchman said.

“Really?” asked the scientist. “How come?”

“Because night after night, year after year, your lights stayed on.”

I remembered this story recently when I read that environmental activist Bill McKibben (recently interviewed here at The Rumpus) first wrote about climate change back in the eighties, and that Gloria Steinem began thinking about women’s rights while working on her very first magazine assignment, about contraception, in 1962. I remembered it again when I interviewed Dr. Neal Barnard, who’s been promoting animal rights and veganism for three decades, and Andrew Solomon, whose work on a 1994 New York Times Magazine article about Deaf culture inspired him to begin work on Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, which he published nearly twenty years later.

This new column, “The Big Idea,” features interviews with people whose lights stay on—writers, artists, scientists, activists, and others who take a long and broad view of an issue, problem, or concept, and pursue it over many years. The series begins with the third installment (numbers one and two are the Rumpus interviews with Barnard and Solomon): a conversation with Gish Jen. Jen has been thinking for nearly her whole life about the cultural and aesthetic differences between China, from which her parents emigrated, and America, in which she was born and raised. She’s written a book about these differences, and I recently sat down with her to talk about it.


It’s not so easy to get Gish Jen to talk about herself.

I spent a good half hour in the kitchen of the Cambridge, Massachusetts home Jen shares with her husband, David O’Connor, and their two children, drinking coffee and answering her questions about my work and my family, before I finally managed to steer the conversation to Jen’s new book: Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self.

I should not have been surprised.

Tiger Writing, Jen’s first nonfiction book—she’s the author of four novels: Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, The Love Wife, and World and Town, plus a short story collection, Who’s Irishis a meditation on Jen’s deep ambivalence about the self. On the one hand, she was raised by parents who emigrated to the US from China as adults, and who brought with them a culture which valued community over the individual. On the other hand, Jen—now fifty-seven—found in Western literature, and especially in the reading and then writing of novels, great joy in the individual story, the singular voice.

Jen has spent many years trying to reconcile, or at least articulate, this duality—and in 2012 she got the chance to do so. Harvard University invited her to give three autobiographical lectures, which formed the basis for Tiger Writing. In these lectures, Jen explored her “independent” and “interdependent” selves—terms she borrows from cross-cultural psychology. She explains:

The…”independent,” individualistic self [more prevalent in the US and Western Europe]…stresses uniqueness…and tends to see things in isolation.

The…”interdependent,” collectivist self [more prevalent in Asia]…stresses commonality…and tends to see things in context.

Though she is very aware of the danger of perpetuating stereotypes, particularly of the self-effacing “robotic” or “sheep-like” Asian, Jen still finds value in thinking about these two categories as lenses through which differences in family relationships, culture, art, and literature can be better understood. Tiger Writing is, as Jen calls it, a “magpie,” jumping from memoir to Chinese landscape painting, to experimental psychology, to the modern novel. It’s also peppered—as are Jen’s novels and her conversational speech—with Yiddish.

There was so much I wanted to ask Gish Jen about her life and writing, her thoughts about “tiger mothers,” and contemporary fiction—if only I could get her interdependent self to stop being so interested in what I had to say…


The Rumpus: Enough about me. I want you to talk about your book!

Gish Jen: But the truth of the matter is, I like to listen. I’m much more interested in listening than in speaking, for sure. So please don’t feel like you’re going on. I could sit here all morning hearing about your parents. I probably should have been a therapist. No, I don’t want to be a therapist. But the empathic piece is definitely an important part of fiction. It’s human to hear stories and to know how people live and to imagine how that is for them. It’s very interdependent! I naturally hear what you have to say and focus on that, and I’m not thinking “Oh my God, when is she going to listen to me?” I’m not thinking that at all. I’m totally interested in what you’re saying.

Rumpus: Your parents constantly reminded you, when you were a child, about “consideration for others,” not yourself. Yet the impulse to write narrative, an individual personal narrative, even if it’s not about you, seems to be, as you’re framing it, kind of “independent”—self-focused.

Jen: Yeah. I mean, obviously I have both sides. I’ve described myself as shuttling back and forth, but it’s not really shuttling. It’s more like a very wide angle lens.

Rumpus: Or two sides of one coin?

Jen: They’re not even that separated. It’s more like a dual processing. I’m a little bit concerned that talking so much about interdependence makes it sound like there’s no “I” at all in interdependence. I am clearly very hybrid, which is not the same thing as having two sides. It’s about being a third thing, which is a hybrid. But there’s a way in which I understand being interdependent, which I wouldn’t if I didn’t grow up the way I did. At the same time, I certainly understand what it is to be independent, too.

Rumpus: Is it analogous at all to being biracial?

Jen: That’s another term where it makes you sound like you’re split down the middle, like one side has a blue eye and one side has a brown eye…

Rumpus: But you’re really a “third thing”?

Jen: Yes, you’re a third thing. I mean, we all are “third things.” I guess in this book, it comes up as more of a duality because I’m trying to introduce an idea with which many people are unfamiliar. The reality is much more gray. I’m trying to give people an idea of what black looks like and what white looks like before I introduce them to gray.

Rumpus: I want to ask you about what you write your husband calls the “CYA” (“cover your ass”) portions of the book, where you acknowledge that you risk perpetuating stereotypes, but that these stereotypes may contain a truth worth exploring.

Jen: The word “truth” makes me a little bit uncomfortable. I think, a “basis.” One of the reasons I tried to be so careful in this book is that when people are looking at something they don’t understand they quickly label it as something that’s from their own framework. And in the case of interdependence, the label is “sheep” or “robot.” You hear that all the time [about Asians]: “They’re sheep. They’re robots. They’re not human.” And I think that’s where you have to be careful not to say, “Well, it’s true…” That’s the stereotype. You’re looking at something, you see the phenomenon, but you make it into something that isn’t really about the phenomenon at all. It’s really all about you.

Rumpus: So it’s a phenomenon worth exploring, even if it’s not an absolute duality, or even if the things that have been said about it thus far aren’t accurate?

Jen: Yes. I think something that’s hard for the particularly independent to understand, even though it’s all around them. I talk over my novels with my hairdresser, who is Brazilian-American. She’s interested. She asks “What’s this one about?” But this book! When I told her I was writing about interdependence she just lit up. She’s from Brazil, and I could see that it’s a reality she lives with every day, but that somehow she feels is unrecognized. Even with people she interacts with regularly, she feels they don’t understand this thing about her.

Rumpus: What part of the independent/interdependent spectrum is she on?

Jen: In some ways she’s from the independent side. She runs her own business, she’s unmarried and has no children. She’s certainly not anything like a sheep or a robot. But she has a piece of her—because she grew up in Brazil, she was one of nine children—which is very at odds with the mainstream. Now you can’t say this isn’t “American” because she’s American. And it’s not confined to immigrants from Latin American countries. A friend of mine told me she went to a basketball game in the Southwest. And there was a team that was predominantly Native American playing against a team that was predominantly non-Native American. On the non-Native American team, everyone had their own water bottle. And on the Native American team they were sharing a water bottle. You can’t say one is less American than the next. But you can say that there is another self which is a different self—primarily a Protestant self, though it’s more complicated than that…it came to America via Protestantism.

Rumpus: But in the book you talk about “The East and the West” being less accurate than “The East and the Rest”—implying that you wouldn’t place Brazilians and Native Americans with Asians.

Jen: Yes, the Brazilians and Native Americans are with the Asians. In this book I’m trying to explain interdependence to a largely independent audience, but, in fact, it’s a phenomenon with which the rest of the world is quite familiar. Even within Western Europe, Ireland is much more interdependent than England. The English always say the Irish are very “clannish.”

Rumpus: Which used to be said of the Jews.

Jen: Right. And countries which are predominantly Catholic are more interdependent, as opposed to countries that are predominantly Protestant. There’s a continuum, of course. If you want to know who’s at the far end of the continuum, that would be Europeans and Americans, especially those that come from Anglo-Saxon Protestant backgrounds. You know the Durkheim study? The independents are the ones who tend to commit suicide. I’m not against this way of being in the world. Individuals have brought us many treasures. You can’t just say that’s a bad way of being in the world—it’s not. But it’s not everyone’s way of being in the world.

Rumpus: You know, in a funny way, we are enacting your book right now. I’m thinking, Yeah, but I want to ask her about herself. And you’re contextualizing. So I’m being very independent-minded, and you’re being very interdependent-minded. And I can’t help thinking about the part of your book where you describe your father’s “autobiography” in which he wrote more about his house and his community than about himself. But I’m going to pin you down and ask you about your early life. Your parents were from Shanghai…

Jen: My mother was from Shanghai and my father was from a town west of Shanghai.

Rumpus: And they came over in the 1940s?

Jen: Yes.

Rumpus: You were born in New York.

Jen: Yes.

Rumpus: For eleven years you lived in Yonkers.

Jen: Something like that.

Rumpus: And then you moved to Scarsdale. You describe yourself at that point as being “narratively naïve.” It was your exposure to the well-funded library in this very affluent town that really allowed you to tap into your independent self. And you describe yourself as the black sheep of the family. What I wonder about is: when you were reading all those books in that library—obviously decades before you ever heard the terms “independent” or “interdependent”—did you have the sense that you were changing? Or did you have the sense that there was an aspect of yourself that was finally blooming?

Jen: That’s a very good question. And it’s the sort of question that one answers in an interview and then one thinks that night, Hmm…that wasn’t actually the truth. Do you know what I mean? It’s a little hard to cough up an answer.

I think that I was somewhat temperamentally different from my siblings. I don’t know that I would have identified that as an “independent self.” If you look at how my father grew up…he remembers his brother breaking a plate, and his mother had the urge to reprimand him for that, but the reaction of his grandmother was, “No, give him a whole set of plates and let him throw them against the wall.” Because a Jen boy should not be inhibited. My father had a lot of that in him, the sense that for him—and this is very much a class thing—he should be free, within the confines of that society. And I think that I grew up with some of that. I grew up with a sense that somehow I was sort of on a different program, from very early on. That program was not the “independent self program.” I don’t know what program it was, exactly.

Rumpus: It sounds like it had something to do with gender. Do you think it wasn’t so much that by going to that library you were being independent rather than interdependent, as that you were taking more the prerogatives of a male than of a female?

Jen: It’s so interesting that you say that, because I think another part of what happened was that our family—the family I grew up in—like my father’s family in China, and to some degree my mother’s family, too, was very, very sexist. So you’re right. There was a way in which all the attention was focused on my older brother. The next two were myself and my sister and then two younger boys. There was so much focus on that eldest son. And really, my sister and I were just kind of ignored—which was kind of a gift. In the Chinese system, I think it was really hard for my brother to have that much pressure on him. But there was a way in which, too, I probably felt that I was being neglected—you know what I mean? And that the library was some kind of world which was mine, but which I was somehow denied. And I think that this somehow dovetailed with the reading, and had something to do with why I was in that library. Also, I just loved to read! My parents kept very little in the way of records about us, but I found a bunch of report cards recently and it said in a very early report card: “She loves to write. She’s very imaginative.” Maybe these two things came together in the reading.

Rumpus: Self-empowerment and independence?

Jen: Yes. Some kind of self-empowerment because there was so much emphasis on my brother’s education and not on mine, so there was a way in which I was getting my own education. “I’m going to get my own education since no one is going to take an interest in what I’m doing.” But I don’t think that I was particularly looking for this independent self. That kind of snuck in the back door. That was kind of a surprise to me. Somehow it worked for someone like me.

Rumpus: Before I get into the narrative and aesthetic aspects of independence/interdependence I want to ask a few questions about parenting.

Jen: You’re a psychiatrist, right?

Rumpus: No, an internist. Probably should have been a psychiatrist.

Jen: Yeah.

Rumpus: First off, you married a non-Asian.

Jen: Yes.

Rumpus: And you have a couple of kids.

Jen: Yes.

Rumpus: And they’re grown or almost grown?

Jen: One fourteen, and one twenty-one.

Rumpus: You talk a lot in the book about high-elaborative versus low-elaborative parenting—meaning parents who talk a lot to their kids versus parents who don’t, the latter being more typically Asian. My husband and I never called it “elaborative parenting” but we always rolled our eyes at parents who talked and negotiated endlessly with their toddlers, like in a crowded bakery—”You want this one? Or are you sure you don’t want that one?” I mean, just buy the kid a fucking cupcake! Was there any tension at all in your and your husband’s parenting because you were bringing this heritage of low-elaborative parenting to your marriage and family? Did you instinctively feel, at all, like “the high-elaborative thing doesn’t work for me, doesn’t make sense to me?”

Jen: I would actually say that I am more elaborative than my husband.

Rumpus: Fascinating!

Jen: Well, I did grow up in Scarsdale, you know? I think I took the middle ground. Obviously I spoke much more to my children than I was spoken to, and probably in a very different way. I mean, my daughter will say: “Everything you say is an essay!”

Rumpus: The kid’s got a point.

Jen: That’s sort of interesting. I don’t know if that’s a reflection of how I learned to elaborate. I wonder whether it’s a reflection of the fact that I learned to elaborate so late, so that I don’t elaborate the way a two-year-old elaborates. I elaborate the way a much older person elaborates.

Rumpus: And you’re a writer.

Jen: Right. You could also say that I’m a writer and that I will structure.

Rumpus: Okay, so now I have to ask about Amy Chua [author of the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother]. One thing you write about her is that you were sympathetic to some of what she said but felt she didn’t adequately address the sense of vulnerability that is at the root of strict Asian parenting. And I was a little confused about that because, of course, there are other vulnerable and persecuted immigrant populations or are more elaborative. For example, stereotypical Jewish parenting is very elaborative.

Jen: I don’t really want to talk about her.

Rumpus: But how about that style of parenting? Where does it come from?

Jen: I think that—and, again, I hate to generalize—but in the case of China, you had a combination of incredible insecurity and a little ladder that could get you out. So you’re right, the Jews were insecure, everyone is insecure. But what the Chinese had was like this big steamship, with a very little ladder leading up from  the ocean. And the ladder is very, very narrow. But there is a way up. And you can imagine that there are thousands of people in the ocean and you have this one little ladder, and that ladder is…exams. And that’s true to this day.

Rumpus: You mean, to get into universities?

Jen: The gaokao [college entrance exam] in China is everything. There’s a lot of politics around the college entrance exams, who gets to take what exam. The exam is not the same nationwide. It’s much more difficult in the provinces than in Shanghai. And one of the sources of great discontent in China is that migrant kids have to take the gaokao in their home town. So if they’re growing up in Shanghai, they’re not going to the same schools in any case, but they’re also not being schooled for the gaokao in their home town. And the result is, basically, that the parents are taking incredible risks by staying in the city and having their kids educated in “the wrong way.” And, of course, that’s meant to discourage them from staying in the city. It’s just one more way they make it very unpleasant for these migrant workers.

But my point is that the ability to succeed in that exam is the difference in your whole life, if you succeed in that exam, as opposed to if you don’t succeed at it. Huge. So you have this system that’s been in place—I think it started in the Han Dynasty and didn’t get going in full swing until the Song Dynasty—but you’re still talking about something that’s been there for thousands of years now. And you have a population that has learned that this is what you have to do. I don’t know what’s on the gaokao today, but the nature of the exam for thousands of years was about memorization and the classics. My point is that there was always this little ladder. And there is a way in which the kind of training in Amy Chua’s book was actually very well-suited for producing people who would go up that ladder. And I think we still see that culturally today. People aren’t any less human, they’re just from much more desperate circumstances.

Rumpus: I’m sure you’re familiar with the essay by Wesley Yang called “Paper Tigers.” It was in New York Magazine and then Best American Essays 2012. He makes the argument that the same ethic that gets Asian kids into Stuyvesant [a very selective public exam school in NYC, now seventy-two percent Asian] and Harvard prevents them from attaining a leadership position, like being CEOs, because it doesn’t encourage initiative and creativity. Did that seem to you too facile?

Jen: Yeah. I mean, look at me: I didn’t climb the ladder, and I didn’t want to be in the corner office. Now we really are getting into stereotyping.

In my book I cite another study that is in “Inheriting the City” where the writer is looking at the population of Asian-Americans in New York City and finds that they are the most creative group, bar none, in America. If we were talking about people in Shanghai, I would say that there is a lot in that system that stifles creativity. And you can see in some of the ideas that someone like Amy Chua may import to the United States vestiges of those ideas. But the truth of the matter is that once they get to New York, that model no longer applies. For students who are in the most creative group in America to somehow be presumed to be narrow is just completely meshugga.

Rumpus: So you think he narrows the argument to make it sexy, but that it’s really too narrow?

Jen: I think it’s too narrow. Anyone who is on the old Chinese program is not going to get into Harvard. Harvard’s not an exam school. I don’t know what the average kid at Stuyvesant High School is like, but this idea that the Asian-Americans—and remember: you have to distinguish between them and their counterparts in China—the whole idea that they’re like that right through high school and then they all get into Harvard, is really erroneous. Berkeley is now something like fifty percent Asian-American and this has not skewed the culture at Berkeley toward math and science. You would think: Okay, these kids all go to Stuyvesant and you didn’t let them into Harvard but they went to Berkeley and what do you get? You get a campus full of robots who are only interested in doing engineering. But that’s not what they get. No. They get a campus that looks a lot like a liberal arts campus on the East Coast, only everybody is not white.

Rumpus: Right. In medical schools and residencies now you have, if not a majority, a very large number of Asians and South Asians—and they’re not robotic young doctors.

Jen: Totally! It’s really very annoying, right? I’m sure every single one of them feels the way I feel. I will confess that I have very high-achieving children. If you ask them  what we did in our household, I think they would say that the only thing they ever hear their mother say is: “Have fun!” I really mean it. All I ever say is: “Have fun!” Everybody assumes that my daughter has a “tiger mother” at home. It’s very unfair! She feels it and I feel it. The most Asian-American thing about her is that she feels this stereotyping. People go on because she’s good at math—it’s not from my side. It’s from her Irish-American father! It’s not me! Are you kidding?!

Rumpus: Really? I had you pegged for a math genius… Okay, I want to go on to art and literature. You write that it’s hard to translate Proust into classical Chinese.

Jen: Yes.

Rumpus: Is it hard to translate Proust…?

Jen: Into vernacular Chinese? I don’t know the answer to that. Actually they have translated Proust and it has done extremely well in China. I think it was a bestseller. I think this was just within the last half year.

Rumpus: And your books have been translated…

Jen: Some of them. Not Mona [in the Promised Land]. That’s very difficult and it has not been translated.

Rumpus: Is it difficult because of the American vernacular? My sense of why you raise the point about Proust being difficult to translate into Chinese in Tiger Writing is that there is something about the interiority of that particular narrative that’s hard to capture in Chinese. Now we’re getting into the idea of the narrative structure of the Western novel versus the interdependent self. Again, making dualities where perhaps there shouldn’t be dualities. I want to understand one of the essential arguments of your book, which has to do with Eastern versus Western narrative structure.

Jen: When you ask me whether there is something about contemporary Chinese language, the answer is: I would really have to think about that. My gut says probably not. There clearly is something about classical Chinese.

Rumpus: So it’s not the language? It’s something else?

Jen: In some ways, as you can see with Mo Yan [2012 Nobel laureate] and others, the fundamental difference has to do with how much space you think should be taken up with “I.” And that can be important in myriad ways. I would have to think about the language piece. Chinese language tends to be quick, economical. To know what people are saying, you always need to know what the context is. The verb tenses are not marked. The way you know past tense or present tense is by context. So there is a way in which it assumes that you understand what the context is. That’s true. But I wouldn’t want to make too much of that.

I think more important are the millions of everyday realities that give you an idea about where you stand, how much power you have relative to the society around you, how much room you can take up. And of course there are millions of things in China that tell you you cannot take up that much room, starting with the fact that you have a very small place in which to live. If you’ve ever gone to a student dorm in China, it’s not unusual to see six people sharing a small room. There’s only so much “self” that you can have. And you see it even in people who are in the West [but grew up in interdependent cultures]. I am very struck that Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, about his years under the fatwa—he had a lot of trouble writing that in the first person. He tried it. He hated it. He just couldn’t keep going.

Rumpus: Because of his sense of personal vulnerability? Because he had been in danger?

Jen: No. I think he was just uncomfortable.

Rumpus: He’s not an “I” guy?

Jen: Yes. He had to go to the third person. To me that makes perfect sense, that somehow he was very uncomfortable with “I..I…I…I…,” not being brought up to be public in that way.

Rumpus: You say in Tiger Writing that one of the reasons the book became, as you call it, “a magpie” is…if I am understanding this right, is you were asked to give an autobiographical lecture…

Jen: An intellectual autobiography. That was suggested to me, and I took that seriously because the truth of the matter is that in any given field, the expert in that field is at Harvard and they don’t need to hear my opinions about social psychology, etc. It’s not really what I’m there for.

Rumpus: Yet the book is heavily contextualized, and I daresay there’s less “I” in there than there might have been if somebody else had been asked to be “autobiographical.”

Jen: That’s absolutely right. I give a lot of context. From reading it, you probably become aware that without the context I couldn’t tell my story. There’s so much about my story which is not about me, which can only be understood if you understand the context.

Rumpus: I want to dig into this idea about Eastern and Western sensibilities in art and narrative. You mention the Japanese essayist Shonagon and you also mention several times Chinese landscape paintings…

Jen: Yes.

Rumpus: Correct me if I’m misinterpreting, but I almost felt, at times, that you were somehow saying that these were exceptions that prove the rule—that the interdependent mindset is not the most compatible with making art. Am I wrong?

Jen: What I am trying to say is that there’s nothing about interdependence that would keep somebody from making art. In other words, if you look at that Fan Kuan painting [Travelers Among Mountains and Streams], and you look at how big that mountain is and how small the people are, obviously this is not the product of a Western mindset, where you get the portrait of the person with the little landscape in the background.

Rumpus: Like the Mona Lisa.

Jen: Yes. It’s a very different orientation. And yet that Fan Kuan painting and many, many others…it’s not just that painting…I mean I think these things are indisputably great, and indisputably art. But they’re not art as we understand it. It’s certainly not art as we are defining it in the West right now. What I really think is that the way we are looking at art in some circles is too narrow. If you use that interdependent lens, suddenly all these things that are “not real art” are real art. There’s nothing wrong with the art. The problem is with the lens.

Rumpus: In your novels, the relationship of interdependence and independence is so entangled. On the one hand, novel-writing itself has such an independent thrust to it; on the other hand, you mention that your novels are often very landscape-oriented, and they usually have Chinese and Chinese-American subjects.You mention the irony that you use this independent art form to engage your interdependent self. Do you feel that your kind of novel writing is not as appreciated as it should be within the current literary climate? Or not as understood as it might be in the current literary climate?

Jen: I think that there is a bias in the current literary climate, which is not only very Western but very male. Are we headed down some wrong road in the way we’re reading the novel now? Are we somehow using a lens where women lose their definition? You have to ask yourself about the lens!

Many of our greatest works don’t shine, do not come into focus with this lens we’re currently using. An example is War and Peace. I was just looking at the review of the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that James Wood did in The New Yorker. He picked out this unconventional thing that Tolstoy did and that unconventional thing that Tolstoy did…all these things that were really quite striking to him. And every single one of them was a sign of interdependence. It’s so interesting. No one disagrees that this is a great work. But if you look at the book with a lens that’s a little broader, none of those things are striking at all. They’re only striking if you come at it with this very particular lens. So my question is, when we start using a lens that says all these books by Asians have “odd features” and all these books by women have “odd features”…

Rumpus: They don’t need to be “exceptions” if you broaden the lens.

Jen: You got it. It’s not only about contemporary fiction by women. It’s also about War and Peace. It’s about Middlemarch. Maybe it’s time to take a step back and think again a little bit.

When I hear all the arguments about women’s fiction, about what the “problem” is…and I hear that it’s because it’s so “domestic…” It’s a lot more than that they’re so domestic. Although that’s related to it because, if you remember the whole thing about the interdependent way of narration, it very much foregrounds the everyday. Everyday-ness is very important. War and Peace ends on a very domestic note, which many would feel to be very anticlimactic. “Why did he end there?” people say. “That’s not the best part of the book. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a weakness, because it’s Tolstoy, but it’s not the best part of the book.” I think that what they’re really saying is that here is a person who’s blended independence and interdependence in a wonderful way. I think many people get to that end and they think, “Well, okay, that’s the ‘Peace.’”

Something is awry.

Rumpus: You write about having come of age artistically and personally after the civil rights movement and before the diversity movement. You talk about growing up in that “narrative hole.” I wonder if you look at younger writers writing between cultures, people like Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat and Aleksandar Hemon…

Jen: Or Jhumpa Lahiri.

Rumpus: …Yes, writers who are coming from more interdependent cultures—obviously everybody’s fiction is different, but do you see a new generation coming up now that’s incorporating more interdependence in their fiction? Is that part of what we call “the immigrant experience in fiction”—or not so much?

Jen: I hesitate to say something where I didn’t look at that particularly, but I will say that it is noticeable to me that so many of the figures we think of as distinguishing themselves today are distinguishing themselves in the short story.

Rumpus: Do you think short stories are more interdependent than novels? Or more interdependent-ish?

Jen: I don’t know about “interdependent-ish.” I’m thinking even of people who have distinguished themselves with novels, but still gravitate to the short story. For whatever reason they shy away a little bit from the novel. Maybe it’s because they’re aware that there’s this yardstick and they’re aware that it doesn’t come naturally to them, it’s not like an open door to them, it doesn’t feel like an open door.

Rumpus: You’re talking about the classic, independent, Western novel?

Jen: All that self in it—oh my god! If you think about figures like Grace Paley—a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful voice—who always felt that she couldn’t write a novel. What is that about? Why did she feel that it was so alien to her? Is there something the matter with the way we define the novel that she should feel it was so alien to her?

Rumpus: And Alice Munro?

Jen: And Alice Munro. And Maxine Hong Kingston. She gave me that beautiful blurb [ for Tiger Writing]: “Oh, and the wonderful faith—that the novel can be learned!” But there’s this feeling that somehow the novel is another land, and not a land for her.

Rumpus: And yet it has been a “land” for you.

Jen: It has, yes. I have a very independent side as well. I don’t think anyone has ever said, about one of my books, “Oh, that’s not a novel.” So I guess there’s a way in which I’m not arguing exactly on my own behalf.

But I am noticing that so many people feel that there’s a barrier there. And I’m wondering, well, what is that about? Why should they feel that way? I do think it is has to do with this this idea about where you should be writing from, how big a self you should be projecting onto the page. The bigger the self, the better we like it. The story that gets extolled, always, is of people who define themselves, who aren’t defined by society. The novel’s always on the side of the individual, the individual, the individual, the individual…freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom… It’s never about maturity, and balance.

Rumpus: I happened to meet a young writer whose first short story collection has been very well-received, and of course everybody assumes that she’s going to write a novel now. But she doesn’t want to. She wants to write more short stories.

Jen: Good for her!

Rumpus: It’s funny that this is somehow considered subversive.

Jen: Not only do some people feel that the novel is a foreign land and that the door to it is not open, but also there is this knee-jerk privileging of the novel. So what is that about? When we say that, aren’t we saying that in our culture our yardstick is: “How individualistic is it? And all the people who are not individualistic enough to write a novel, well, they’re not artists!” That’s sort of what the assumption is. I really wonder about that.

And I especially wonder about it because along with the assumption that there’s a hierarchy at the top of which is the novel with all its individualism and all its assertions of freedom—that’s the top—and short stories are quite a bit down, right?—don’t we also assume that the people who write novels are also somehow more human than the other ones?

I think that Kazuo Ishiguro makes this point in Never Let Me Go. I love that book. One of the ways in which the authorities gauge whether the clones are human or not is whether or not they can produce art. I think Kazuo is right on there, in that we associate the ability to make art with being human. And so when we are saying that this group or this gender cannot make real art, I think there is a way in which we are also saying they are less human. And that I really reject. I really, really reject it.

So that’s why I’m thinking, Well, it’s not just a matter of: “When we use this lens does it mean that you can’t get into The New Yorker?” You know what I mean? It’s a lot more than that. It’s not just that when you use this lens you’re not going to get X prize. But more importantly, I think that when we use this lens we end up with a view of the world that’s pretty problematic.

Rumpus: I hadn’t thought about it that way, that somehow the short story is the province of “girls and foreigners” and that the novel is for…

Jen: The fact is, we never talk about The Great American Short Story Writer. We never talk about it that way. “Greatness” does not lie in the short story. There’s something there which does not comport well with either our own multicultural society or with our new globalizing world. Something is a little off.

Rumpus: Do you think the pre-eminence of the novel form has not only to do with the “I” factor, the independent factor, but also with an American obsession with size? Is the novel the Big Gulp of literature? Bigger is better? The Corrections is bigger and therefore better than Interpreter of Maladies?

Jen: Right. I absolutely agree that there’s an association with size—up to a point. It’s partly about size, but more than size, it’s about “I.” So the more it is focused on the self, on consciousness, on uniqueness—the “better” it is. I think that’s a useful lens, but the other lens is good, too.

Rumpus: In Tiger Writing you refer to the Emersonian versus the Confucian world views. Can you define those, regarding literature?

Jen: Don’t get me wrong—I’m not in favor of a Confucian novel!

Rumpus: What would that look like?

Jen: That would all be about the order of the universe and how to be moral. That’s too extreme, even for me. I don’t see how the novel could possibly accommodate that way of thinking and not be awfully dull.

Fundamentally, Confucius was about the proper order of things, proper relationships: “What is the relationship between a man and his wife?” In his way of thinking, one is always above and one is always below. Things are never side-by-side. So the man is above and the woman is below. Now, the man also has an obligation toward the wife. I mean, it’s not as if the wife simply serves the husband. There’s a lot of emphasis on benevolence, on humanity. So it’s not only about servitude. But nonetheless, something is dominant and something is dominated. It’s very much about the ordering of society. It’s also about how to get along in society.

And Emerson, of course, is about the truth within. And I think there’s a way in which that can be taken too far. If you’ve ever been a teacher, there’s always a student who’s very aware of the truth within but has a lot of trouble with the truth “without.”  We all know the student who wants to write and doesn’t want to read, who thinks writing is about self-expression, but not about giving form to that self-expression.

Rumpus: Or understanding given forms? Literary traditions and conventions?

Jen: Right. One of the big questions is: “What is your relationship to tradition?” Confucius was the original fundamentalist. He believed in allegiance to the past and being guided by the past—this is obviously not the Emersonian program! These things lie at either end of some continuum. I think we should be in between.

Rumpus: I guess the question in my mind is: have we become too individualistic in our way of thinking about the novel, and also in our habits of being? Is that more problem than gift?

Jen: The degree of individualism that we have in America is actually a distortion of reality. You know the fundamental attribution error test? In the sixties, they developed a test where they had various subjects write an essay pro- or anti-Castro. Because people were randomly assigned their positions, nobody knew who really held what position. And the essays were given to various groups of people to read and then, after reading them, they were told the real situation—which is that people had been randomly assigned. And people from most cultures readily accepted the reality of the situation. They said, “Oh, I see.You wrote you were pro-Castro but you weren’t really pro-Castro.” But Americans had a lot of trouble accepting that. They could not believe that somebody could write something that they didn’t really believe. What the Americans resisted was, objectively, the truth. They resisted that something external to the self could have enough power over the person to make them say something that they didn’t mean. They rejected it, yet, objectively it was true.

The tendency in this country is to ascribe much more to the individual than is objectively the case. We saw this in the 2012 presidential election with this whole “I built that” attitude. We have countering things in this country. We have Obama and “we’re all in this together”—that’s a very interdependent message.

Rumpus: Of course the irony of “I built that” is that it’s a received message that’s being internalized.

Jen: Absolutely. I think that’s one of the things many people would say about this “inner authentic self.” There’s a jealous guarding of “the sacred spark,” but it’s based on ads they’ve been seeing on TV since they were two. It’s really unclear whether there’s a lot of authenticity in there or not. But that’s an idea against which Americans tend to be very defended. We have all these cultural messages everywhere, messages that say “you’re special, your specialness is very important, and if you don’t feel so special you need to find out what’s so special about you.”

Rumpus: You need to go into therapy to find your true authentic special self.

Jen: Right, as opposed to finding a way that works better for you, whatever that means—which would be a much more Asian view. I see the novel as maybe not so sacred itself, but actually as being part of this cultural apparatus of reinforcing the self. In that way, I think we all want to feel the novel is a realm of real freedom. But, actually, I think that the novel is a way that the self is reinforced, and if we hold a certain vision of the novel in inflexible ways, we’re not supporting freedom at all, but showing slavish devotion to a different god.

Rumpus: Tiger Writing is your first nonfiction book after four novels and one short story collection. Was it refreshing to write a nonfiction book? Did it open up different narrative possibilities for you?

Jen: Yes, absolutely! Of course I got dragged into it kicking and screaming. I had to say yes, but after I did I said, “Oh my god, what have I done?” Every novel is an adventure because you don’t actually know where you’re going—it’s a discovery—and I was surprised by the degree to which nonfiction also was a discovery. It was not as different from fiction as I had imagined.

Rumpus: In what sense?

Jen: It was an adventure to find out the many things I knew—that was fun. You’ve said, “Well, it’s not that much about you,” and I think that I was horrified about the idea I had to write about myself, but somehow I managed to get out of writing so much about myself. I’ve said before that I think fiction is a form of shyness. Maybe that’s a way of saying that it’s a way of expressing myself the way that a chef expresses him or herself through food.

Rumpus: Even if you’re writing about yourself and even if it’s nonfiction, there’s still the buffer of time, the page. The experience of me reading about you is not the same as the experience of me sitting talking with you. It’s a different kind of intimacy.

Jen: It’s given form. And I enjoyed giving it form. You can see in my books that I have a lot of formal restlessness, and here you see the restlessness again. I can only wonder what’s next. I don’t know!

Rumpus: One final question: you mention at the end of your introduction to Tiger Writing that you hope the book will be useful—

Jen: A very interdependent statement!

Rumpus: Yes. In what way do you hope it will be useful?

Jen: I do not believe in didactic fiction or didactic nonfiction, either. I just don’t. I don’t think it’s alive. That part of me is very firmly independent.

But I do see writing—my own writing and the writing of others—as culture-making. I have a big interest in seeing the culture open up and lighten up, which goes back to something we were saying earlier: that there’s a way in which culture always has a tendency to settle down and become hard, static, and unresponsive to humans—and I have a very big interest in helping it float a little bit. Float and be fluid and responsive to humans.

And so there is a way in which this book, as with my other books, I hope will be useful to people and to the culture. I hope that it will steady the part of the culture that’s reflective and thoughtful. And I hope that it will be liberating, finally. I want it to be useful and culture-making, but how so? The answer is, finally, liberating! That’s the independent part. So there we go straight from the independent to the interdependent. I don’t want to say, “I made it, and that’s enough for the world—and they should all be happy, because I made it and I’m an artist and I make art and they should all just be glad!” It’s not that.

But, finally that, yeah, it would have an effect on the culture, that the people who are in an independent frame of mind might begin to perceive the rest of the world, have some kind of understanding of the reality that most of the world is living in. Although the world is changing, but, still, to understand what interdependent relationships are, and what that might have to do with you—that would be a wonderful thing.

Also, for the many, many people who, I think, will recognize themselves in this book and will recognize this tension—whether it’s my Brazilian hairdresser or some young writer who is confronted with exactly the problem I confronted—it would give me great pleasure to feel that this person picked this book up and said: “Oh, I see. I see what the problem is and it has a name.” I would just be thrilled to feel that they could go through their day with a little spring in their step. The highlight so far of the reception of this book was Maxine Hong Kingston’s reaction. She wrote to me and she said: “This book is about me.” I cried. I cried. I cried.

Rumpus: And it’s about you.

Jen: And it’s about me, too. But I think that she felt some struggle of hers had been described, had been explained. And I was beyond thrilled.


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First photograph of Gish Jen © 2013 by Romana Vysatova.
Second photograph of Gish Jen © 2013 by Feng Xu.

Suzanne Koven MD, MFA is a primary care physician and writer-in-residence at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Her writing has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Boston Globe, VQR, and elsewhere. Her interview column “The Big Idea” appeared at The Rumpus. Her memoir-in-essays, Letter to a Young Female Physician, will be published by W. W. Norton & Co. on May 4, 2021. More from this author →