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.”
These differences in worldview exert their power in many arenas, but their influence is particularly striking in the arts. How could it not be? Citing studies involving images of a static figure against changing settings, or changing figures in a static setting, Jen points out that “Asians tend to focus on the context, and Westerners, on the figure.” Similarly, while Western art and literature are acutely interested in the individual, the episodic, the narrative thrust, Chinese art instead exalts the holistic. Describing Fan Kuan’s 11th-century painting “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams,” Jen shows us a tiny figure in harmony with his setting: “There is no sense that he needs to be larger or to exert more control over his environment, quite the contrary. He appears perfectly content to be a minute, interdependent part of a magnificent whole.”
This can sound a little essentialist, as Jen acknowledges. But while she’s abundantly aware of the dangers of stereotyping (anyone who has read her fiction can attest to this), she argues that “fear of stereotyping has sometimes led to a discomfort with any assertion of cultural difference,” which limits our ability to understand and respect such differences. As a child reading her way through the library, Jen found Western literature “self-indulgent, brash, antiauthority, obsessed with happiness” — characteristics alien to those stressed by her parents. In her own work, she sees both perspectives, an example of fiction being “a very real bridge between East and West.”
We’ve seen the rise in recent years of the general-audience lecture as entertainment. There is something heartening in this renewal — who wouldn’t have wanted to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Mark Twain? But today’s talkers often try too hard, flinging around gonzo pop-science trivia and hyperpersonal revelations as if competing with reality TV and other mental junk food. To her great credit, Jen renews the older tradition, talking and then writing in a way that expands our way of seeing the world; she writes in the book’s introduction that she hopes her words “make some sense and do some good.” They do.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.