Novelist Gish Jen, asked to give a series of lectures at Harvard, writes that she accepted the invitation because of the opportunity to explore her thoughts and feelings about “a special way in which my cultural background was profoundly at odds with the literary culture I negotiated every day.” “Tiger Writing’’ comprises the three lectures, plus some very entertaining notes. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen is interested in cultural differences in the idea of the self, the shape of memory and narrative, and the purpose of art. Probing, precise, and extremely thought-provoking, this is a small volume about big ideas.
Jen begins with her father’s “notably un-self-centered” autobiography, written for his family when he was 85. While a typical Western life story of this type usually starts with the subject’s birth, Jen’s father’s doesn’t give his birth date and full name until Page 8. His memoir sketches 4,000 years of family history, focusing especially on their hometown and, later, the house in which he grew up: “before he describes any person,” Jen writes, “my father describes the power structure of his world as it was inscribed in its architecture.” This emphasis on the context rather than the individual demonstrates a mind-set that reflects the Chinese value of interdependence, which “stresses commonality, defines itself via its place, roles, loyalties, and duties, and tends to see things in context,” as opposed to the Western value of independence, which “stresses uniqueness, defines itself via inherent attributes such as traits, abilities, values, and preferences, and tends to see things in isolation.”