A review of Gish Jen’s Tiger Writing by Stefanie Krasnow published in Abusters #109
The Yíxīng clay of southern China is famous, Gish Jen writes in Tiger Writing, “not because it does not absorb odors, the distinction of so much Western cookware, but rather because it will absorb the flavor of every pot of tea made in it; so that over time, the many pots of the past come to lend an inimitable depth to what is steeped in it today.”
This idea of a distinct quality that can only be achieved by slow accumulation over time is, Jen reminds us, “characteristically Chinese, as is the interdependent suggestion that while an individual pot of tea is less than a be all and end-all, it gains complexity and subtlety from the pots that preceded it and enriches the pots that follow.”
These distinct philosophies about tea are the perfect metaphor for the difference between Chinese concepts of selfhood and their Western counterparts. At large, the Chinese concept of self is interdependent, understood as vitally and intimately related to all that has come before it and to all that surrounds it — place, culture, environment, moral codes. The Western self, in contrast, is defined in isolation from all these things — as an independent core of identity separate from roles, duties, family, society and place. The Western self is all about its own distinctness, freedom, originality and exceptionality while the Eastern self is tied to ancestry, commonality and duty.
As both an American novelist and second generation Chinese immigrant, Gish Jen runs up against a certain dissonance between her cultural background and the literary culture she participates in everyday. Contrary to what we in the West are accustomed to believe, not all art emerges from within the hallowed inner recess of a unique individual. For example, Gish’s father, a first-generation immigrant from China, wrote a lengthy autobiography in which personal details were eclipsed by a focus that fell instead on the architecture of his house and his family’s 4,000 year-old genealogy. This is not unusual for Asian narrative, Gish explains, for in Eastern countries your ancestry and hometown mean everything, while Western narratives often portray an individual leaving home and family in order to discover an authentic self divorced from place and familial and cultural expectations.
It should come as no surprise, then, that mainstream European and American culture — with their individualistic values — bore the novel. The fictitious novel, that is, defined by elaborative style, memoir-like structure, extensive subjectivity, and lavish detailing of a protagonist’s innermost thoughts and desires, i.e. interiority. These trends came to full apotheosis, even to the point of self-conscious parody, with high modernism. Think of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness style inMrs. Dalloway, James Joyce’s free association of thought in Finnegan’s Wake, and Marcel Proust’s exhaustive use of subjective detail in In Search of Lost Time. Even within the first seven opening lines of Proust’s masterpiece, we get not only the narrator’s thoughts, but the thoughts he has about his thoughts, the thoughts he realizes he doesn’t have the time to explore.
A novel like In Search of Lost Time, which maps the inner architecture of fleeting, ceaseless thought and involuntary memories, would not translate into Chinese literature, a culture which Jen describes as being more suited to the recurrent and the typical in content, and terseness or selectivity in style. While Mrs. Dalloway follows the life of an ordinary person on a single day, a typical Chinese narrative might begin instead, like Jen’s father’s autobiography does, not with where the protagonist slept, what she ate or thought, but with “Ancient History.”
The focus on an individual and their freedom, and the preference for linear plot might all seem indicative of a modern, industrial Western culture, where originality and authenticity are extolled under the influence of the competitive ideology of free market capitalism. However, Jen references an insightful letter from scholar David Damrosch who remarks that these cultural differences were held long before the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. “As for the assumption,” he continues, “the Chinese poet is meditating on the natural and social world around him, whereas the Western writer makes things up, the assumption [is] etymologically embedded both in the Latin-based “fiction” and the Greek-based “poetry,” both from roots meaning “to make,” with connotations shading over to forgery and deception.”
That fiction can be seen as something deceptive or trivial is a criticism lost on many novelists within that tradition. Western “art for art’s” sake believes literature is “right” to be staunchly and thoroughly “useless,” but nothing could be more foreign to a traditional or even contemporary Chinese author, who likely harbors the assumption that all things, literature included, should be useful and instructive. In the East, literature with a moral lesson has been celebrated for centuries, but for Western literary critics, as Jen reminds us, “the mother of all deadly adjectives is ‘didactic.’”An emphasis on the proper order of things, proper relationships and a Daoist-inspired focus on a “way” of life, each form segments of the backbone to Asian narrative. And while “open-minded Westerners might admire interdependent based art,” Gish muses, “in truth we shake our heads at all that reinforces a self that in our unguarded moments we have been known to characterize as robot or sheep-like.”
Alas, it is a struggle we all feel, no? A tension between “Emerson and Confucius,” as Jen suggests, between an “independent self that finds meaning in the truth within, and to whom rights and self-expression are important; and an interdependent self that finds meaning in affiliation, duty and self-sacrifice.”
Describing herself as a “changeling” child born of two worlds, an author in a globalized era and a “connoisseur of dissonance,” one who is skillfully able to shape-shift into her inter or independent selves as needed, Jen ends: “We need both the independent and the interdependent self, but how interdependent of me to see them as two poles of human experience that cannot be disengaged.”