Apr 172013

Moving restlessly between independence and interdependence in style and content, the lecture captures the changeling quality that Gish Jen associates with those who must creatively manage multiple cultural influences.

Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self by Gish Jen. Harvard University Press, 224 pages, $18.95.

By Ju Yon Kim.

Readers well into Gish Jen’s Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self may find themselves asking a question similar to the one that puzzled Jen upon reading her father’s autobiography: “Why did he not write more about himself?” This question launched the exploration into the differences between the “independent” and “interdependent” self that became Jen’s 2012 William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization.

The answer that Jen simultaneously shares and models in her lecture is that her father was writing about himself. The long family genealogy and descriptions of his childhood home in China that delay his entrance into his own life story do not deny the self so much as deny its uniqueness. His is a self that sees time and space as crowded, not empty: the landscape, Jen artfully demonstrates, is not just the background for the interdependent figure, but inextricable from it.

For Jen, the mystery of her father’s autobiography unveiled the tension between two notions of self that spurred her to become the writer of four novels, including Typical American, Mona and the Promised Land, and World and Town, as well as numerous short stories. Raised by immigrant parents to think of the self as interdependent, she describes how she became fascinated with Western narratives of the independent self, from gruesome playground stories full of “blow-by-blow” accounts to the novels that she carried out from the library “an armful at time, as if under a spell.”

Yet her lecture is, aptly, not just the story of how one author came to be. Jen’s own writing is only the explicit focus in the last of three sections, after she reflects on her father’s autobiography and engages studies of cognitive psychology and Eastern and Western art. The lecture thus sets Jen’s own “intellectual autobiography” within the wider frame of how the East and the West, bluntly put, cultivate distinct notions of selfhood, with the former emphasizing interdependence and the latter stressing independence.

As Jen carefully explains, the difference between these conceptions of self is one of degree and not absolutes or essences. She points to studies, for example, that show the Hokkaido Japanese are almost as individualistic as European Americans, whom researchers have placed at the far end of the interdependence-independence spectrum. The topic of cultural differences is a difficult one to tackle, in part because of its complexity, but also because it has served at times as a flimsy cover for perpetuating notions of essential racial differences. In venturing into this territory, Jen asks, is there a way to discuss divergent notions of self that seem to divide the world with broad strokes into “the West and the rest” without either affirming stereotypes or refusing to consider meaningful distinctions?

Jen approaches this challenge by meditating on the value and the limits of both the independent and interdependent self and complicating our assumptions about each. She notes, for example, that the independent self has become so embedded in Western culture that it paradoxically manifests itself as a collective insistence on the importance of individuality, genius, and interiority. Similarly challenging the association of interdependence with slavish conformity, Jen emphasizes, “Interdependence is not exclusive of agency and creativity. This is to say that, contrary to the perception of many in the West, to have an interdependent self is not to have no self. It is to have a different self, the possession of which is a joy; the loss of which is disabling; and the restoration of which can be a joy, too.” Tracing both change and consistency over time, she further demonstrates that while the interdependent thinking suggested by her father’s account of his childhood reflects a recognition of traditional structures of power, it also manifests in responses among immigrants and minorities to the powerlessness that comes with war and dislocation.

Author Gish Jen — she asks if there a way to discuss divergent notions of self that divide the world into “the West and the rest.”

Jen’s dynamic and nuanced picture of both independence and interdependence comes with various caveats, reflecting her sensitivity to potential misreadings of her lecture. Yet she expresses hope that readers will be inspired to reflect on their own perceptual tendencies rather than seize on elements that affirm previous beliefs. Jen equips us for such a self-reflective inquiry with psychological studies, visual and textual citations, and anecdotes that, when integrated into her lecture, collectively model what it means to navigate between independence and interdependence.

The intertextual quality of Jen’s lectures is immediately evident, her initial weaving of her father’s unusual autobiography with her own. The lineage he traces, the doors he counts, and the routines he details become, through Jen’s mediation, a measure of the distance between the interdependent and independent selves. The shifts between his voice and hers establish the multivocal quality of the lecture, a quality that is more evident in print form where block quotations set off excerpts from emails, novels (her own and those of others), and academic works. Images from family albums, paintings, and psychological tests also interrupt the flow of text. Yet as a published lecture, the book also carries within its pages the singular voice from the podium that first delivered its words. Moving restlessly between independence and interdependence in style and content, the lecture captures the changeling quality that Jen associates with those who must creatively manage multiple cultural influences.

Although the title of Jen’s lecture will undoubtedly tempt comparisons to Amy Chua’s controversial memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, she points us toward a different inspiration near the lecture’s end. Emphasizing the poem’s aptness for thinking about the novel as well as poetry, its ostensible subject, she quotes from “Ars Poetica?” by Czeslaw Milosz: “A thing brought forth that we didn’t know we had in us./So we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out/And stood in the light, lashing his tail” (160). Jen’s decision to close the portion of the lecture about her own writing with this quotation (before ending with a humorous anecdote about her father) might attest to a final affirmation of the independent self.

It presents to us an image of the internal light expressed by the poet and (Jen adds) the novelist through their writings. Yet perhaps the picture is ultimately less clear, and appropriately so. The plural “we” that dominates the poem and the lack of absolute comprehension that the excerpt dramatizes resist a reading that would cast it as an untroubled celebration of the independent self. It may indeed be Jen’s playful reminder to be mindful of the limits of what we see and remember that she chose the lines above, rather than those later in the poem that bear echoes of her father’s autobiography: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us/how difficult it is to remain just one person,/for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,/and invisible guests come in and out at will.” To echo Jen, these lines are exactly right, and for her lecture, too.

Ju Yon Kim is an assistant professor of English at Harvard University. Her research and teaching interests include Asian American drama, fiction, and film; modern and contemporary American theater; and theories of performance and the everyday. Her research has been published in Theatre Journal, Modern Drama, The Journal of Transnational American Studies, and Modernism/modernity.


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