Gish Jen: we vs. me

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Community garden. Photo: Travis Estell

Community garden. Photo: Travis Estell

It’s dangerous for me to walk past the Browsing section in the St. Lawrence Library. I feel myself drawn toward those shelves, where shiny book jackets flash and say, “Read me! Read me!” Those books show no mercy when I tell them I have many other things to do. As soon as I have one of them in my hand I’m lost, sucked into its vortex.

The last time I let myself be drawn in I found a small book by Gish Jen, a Chinese-American novelist who visited SLU a couple of years ago as part of the Writers’ Series. Jen arrived at the podium casually dressed with a stocking cap perched on her head. Yes, it was winter, but it was also fun to see her disregard for the usual formality of the Famous Visiting Writer. She was a witty and intelligent speaker and after she was in Canton I read two of her novels, Mona in the Promised Land and World and Town.

Her new book is based on a series of three lectures she gave at Harvard a few years ago when she was asked to reflect on her own journey as a writer. Her book—Tiger Writing-Arts, Culture, and the Interdependent Self—is a mix of “memoir, cognitive studies, literary analysis, and reflection.”  It’s the kind of book that I have to read in little chunks then take a break as the ideas are big and I want to make sure I understand them.

The “interdependent” self is how most Asian cultures see the world—as a place where family and ancestry and obligation are of primary importance. I still remember talking to a friend in Japan about her daughter, a young woman who had left home to study English in Canada for a couple of years. My friend didn’t speak much English and my Japanese wasn’t great so we had to use a dictionary for a word she kept repeating—oyakoko. When I saw the English translation I nodded my head. “Ah, soo desu ne!” Yes, now I understand! Oyakoko means “family obligation” and the daughter was not being a proper Japanese woman by disappearing to Canada just when she should have been settling down with a husband.

Jen Gish. Photo via PBS.

Gish Jen. Photo: Romana Vysatova, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

In Tiger Writing, Gish Jen tries to understand how her upbringing as a child of Chinese immigrants left her between two worldviews and has influenced her work as a novelist. She writes: “Whereas in the East literature with a lesson has traditionally been extolled, in the West the mother of all deadly adjectives is ‘didactic’.” Jen’s novels feel very “American” to me, with individual protagonists who struggle to understand the world. Jen herself says she is very “westernized” in her writing, that she is an independent self. But she includes an excerpt from World and Town of a scene where the protagonist, a middle-aged Chinese-American woman, is teaching English to a Cambodian immigrant woman in the trailer next door. The Cambodian woman struggles to ask her teacher if she has any children. Yes, the teacher says, but in America the children do not stay, they go away. “Yes, it’s hard. Quiet. You do everything yourself. Decide everything yourself.”

The opposite of the self-deciding is shown in the autobiography that Jen’s father wrote at the age of 85. Mr. Jen grew up in China and the first pages of his book tell of his ancestry, starting 4,000 years ago! He then tells about his family house—at 400 rooms “the best house in town.” Finally he mentions himself, briefly, on page 8 of the 32 page text.

I like Jen’s idea that we all have tension between the independent and interdependent self. In her case she calls it “a struggle between Emerson and Confucius.” She says that an independent self finds meaning in the truth within, that rights and self-expression are important. An interdependent self finds meaning in affiliation, and duty, and self-sacrifice. I think of some of the families I know that have lived in the North Country for generations. They may not live together in the same 400 room house but they often have houses clustered on one big piece of ancestral property and family loyalty is of the utmost importance. Our American idea of pioneer spirit and independence has shifted in some rural places into interdependence, within a family and beyond it. We help each other survive in a place and economy where solo living would be too difficult.

This is interesting stuff! Maybe I should stop by the Browsing section more often. But I’m afraid my independent self is very fond of new novels and doesn’t often choose thoughtful non-fiction. I could work out a personal deal—one novel followed by one “meaty” non-fiction book. It’s worth a try.