Here and below is my review of Gish Jen”s Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self, published by Harvard University Press in March; it ran in today’s Shelf Awareness for Readers.
Gish Jen’s elegant and wide-ranging Tiger Writing–a collection of the award-winning novelist’s talks in Harvard’s annual Massey Lecture series–explores the differences between Eastern and Western ideas of the self in fiction and culture, and why they matter.
When he was 85, Jen’s father wrote a 32-page family history that began 4,000 years in the past, reflecting an Asian sense of connection to place and history and an interdependent idea of the self. By contrast, the Western notion of an independent self focuses on individual experience as the basis for observing and narrating the world. Jen synthesizes cross-cultural and cognitive studies with analysis of Western literature and other art forms to argue that the novel, which celebrates the truth of individual experience, could develop only in the West and expresses the core American values of individualism and exceptionalism.
Jen, the child of Chinese immigrants, loved novels because they were an “Outsiders’ Guide to the Universe.” She read to understand her context, not to see herself reflected on the page as her young American friends did. Both cultures influence her fiction, she writes, concluding that literary fiction is important because it can express either way of understanding oneself: “The novel knows much more than the person who wrote it.”
The hardcover edition of Tiger Writing is physically beautiful–printed on ivory paper with photos throughout, intimate in the hand and a pleasure to touch and hold. It seems fitting that a book about writing, connection and culture provides such a full sensory experience. It is a perfect metaphor for its contents.
Discover: Gish Jen (Typical American; Mona in the Promised Land) looks at the development of the novel, holding it up to contrasting ideas of the self in Eastern and Western culture.
The New York TImes Book Review ran its review this past Sunday. It was written by Wesley Yang (who writes regularly for New York Magazine and whose piece Paper Tiger, published in that magazine in May 2011, argues that Asian Americans raised with traditional values of academic over-achievement through college often have difficulty in the hard-charging corporate career world.)
In his review, Yang focusses on Jen’s cross-cultural psychological arguments rather than their artistic expression, and he seems to look for their inherent contradictions. He writes, “Jen is acutely conscious that to affirm that Asians have a strongly reduced sense of individuality in relation to their Western counterparts risks endorsing the view that Asians are ‘robot- or sheeplike.’ She is therefore keen to assert that her father made significant innovations in the scientific field in which he worked.“ But he dismisses one of her arguments simply on the grounds that it is made “silkily” though he does not explain what he finds lacking or unpersuasive. He speculates that her father’s disciplinary action against an insubordinate student is a possible incidence of bullying, which of course undermines Jen’s argument but makes his own seem small-minded and resentful. And disappointingly, he does not engage deeply with Jen’s point about the way these differing views of the self contribute to each side’s cultural output.