Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self

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For author Gish Jen, the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, books were once an Outsiders' Guide to the Universe. But they were something more, too. Through her eclectic childhood reading, Jen stumbled onto a cultural phenomenon that would fuel her writing for decades to come: the profound difference in self-narration that underlies the gap often perceived between East and West.

Drawing on a rich array of sources, from paintings to behavioral studies to her father's striking ...

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For author Gish Jen, the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, books were once an Outsiders' Guide to the Universe. But they were something more, too. Through her eclectic childhood reading, Jen stumbled onto a cultural phenomenon that would fuel her writing for decades to come: the profound difference in self-narration that underlies the gap often perceived between East and West.

Drawing on a rich array of sources, from paintings to behavioral studies to her father's striking account of his childhood in China, this accessible book not only illuminates Jen's own development and celebrated work but also explores the aesthetic and psychic roots of the independent and interdependent self-each mode of selfhood yielding a distinct way of observing, remembering, and narrating the world. The novel, Jen writes, is fundamentally a Western form that values originality, authenticity, and the truth of individual experience. By contrast, Eastern narrative emphasizes morality, cultural continuity, the everyday, the recurrent. In its progress from a moving evocation of one writer's life to a convincing delineation of the forces that have shaped our experience for millennia, Tiger Writing radically shifts the way we understand ourselves and our art-making.

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Editorial Reviews

Junot Díaz
Gish Jen is the Great American Novelist we're always hearing about, and in Tiger Writing she delivers a profound meditation on the divergent roles that storytelling, artmaking, and selfhood take on across the East-West divide. Penetrating, inspired, and, yes, indispensable.
Maxine Hong Kingston
In a magnificent feat of integration, Tiger Writing honors the becoming of the Chinese American writer. I am proud, proud, proud to share ancestors-and the novel and the world-with Gish Jen. Oh, and the wonderful faith-that the novel can be learned!
David Damrosch
Blending family memoir, cultural criticism, and reflections on her own life as a writer, Gish Jen makes a compelling case for the novel as a meeting-ground of typically American themes of independence with classically Asian ideals of interdependence. Tiger Writing is a rare case of a book on writing that itself is a joy to read.
Amanda Claybaugh
How to balance the competing claims of social order and self-determination? It's a question that all novelists must grapple with, and Jen, drawing on extensive research in the social sciences as well as her own vividly-rendered biography, gives us an entirely new answer. The result is a strikingly original--and compellingly personal--account of the novel as a genre.
Gary Shteyngart
Tiger Writing is both precise and intimate, a terrific contribution to our understanding of the artist's lot in the East and in the West.
The Hindu - Murali Sivaramakrishnan
Tiger Writing is a remarkable achievement on account of its sobriety and unique perception of difference between what Gish Jen considers as the West and Asian narratives...Her sensitivity to her own roots and the transparency with which she focuses on these textures is what makes Tiger Writing remarkably interesting...Gish Jen's translucency as a novelist with an astute critical sense is that which leads us through the pages of this extremely interesting narrative. Tiger Writing is thus at once a text of critical exploration and a manifesto.
Boston Globe - Kate Tuttle
Probing, precise, and extremely thought-provoking, this is a small volume about big ideas.
Shelf Awareness (starred review) - Jeanette Zwart
Gish Jen's elegant and wide-ranging Tiger Writing...explores the differences between Eastern and Western ideas of the self in fiction and culture, and why they matter...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.
Choice - M. L. Jackson
Jen weaves together examples of the interdependent views that influenced her and how she came to be a novelist--an independent thing. She addresses the notion of culture with a small c and a capital C. In addition, she discusses the blurring of inter/independence in negotiating narrative and life. The notes following the lectures are well worth reading for their nuggets of information.
Library Journal
Novelist Jen (Mona in the Promised Land) compiles three pieces originally delivered as special lectures in 2012 at Harvard. She compares the Western with the Eastern interdependent self, and in her first essay, uses her father's autobiography to demonstrate this contrast and its implications for self-narrative. To a Westerner, her father's description of his childhood home contains many seemingly trivial details about the structure itself, with scant information about the individuals living there. But for him, Jen notes, the power structure of his world, as defined by the structure of his house, was most important. In her second essay, Jen discusses studies that measured perceptual differences between Easterners and Westerners. The studies found that, when presented with a passage to read or a photo to view, Easterners typically remember things holistically, whereas Westerners tend to focus on distinct aspects. Jen's third essay discusses her own writing and provides a look inside the mind of a writer who must often navigate between Western and Eastern thought. VERDICT These pieces are as entertaining as they are insightful. Jen's readers will undoubtedly love them, and those new to her work should consider them as well.—Mark Manivong, Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Gish Jen
Gish Jen is a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of four novels, including Typical American and Mona in the Promised Land. Her most recent novel is World and Town.


As a child, Chinese-American author Gish Jen read constantly, though she did not dream of becoming a writer. From pre-med at Harvard to finally finding an academic "home" in an MFA program, the author of The Love Wife, Typical American, Who's Irish?, and Mona in the Promised Land, is known for her tragi-comic sensibility and transcending stereotypes in her characters' search for identity.

Typical American, Jen's first novel, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and launched Jen into the literary limelight. The story follows three Chinese immigrants, Ralph Chang, his wife, Helen, and his sister, Theresa, as they pursue the American Dream and do battle with the pressures of greed, assimilation, and self-interest. Brilliantly funny and sad, the story takes some surprising turns in the quest to become American.

Gish Jen, whose characters undergo profound changes in the quest for identity, is herself no stranger to identity issues. After publishing two short stories with her given name, Lillian Jen, in the early eighties, she began using the name she acquired in high school, Gish Jen, after the silent film star, Lillian Gish.

Born in 1955 in New York, Jen grew up Chinese and Catholic in Queens, Yonkers and in the large Jewish community of Scarsdale. She never dreamed of being a writer. Instead she dutifully pleased her parents by first going to Harvard with plans to become a lawyer or doctor. That changed when a poetry professor suggested she at least work in publishing if she wasn't going to be a full-time writer. She took a job at Doubleday Books, but was not quite satisfied. From here, she enrolled in an M.B.A. at Stanford University, only to drop out and follow the urge to write. Finally, in the M.F.A. program at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she found her academic and creative home.

After Jen graduated from Iowa in 1983, she married David O'Connor and lived in California until 1985, when they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they now live with their two children. During this period, she was so discouraged about a literary career that she took a typing test at Harvard. Although she passed it with flying colors, she was able to triumphantly turn down the clerical job offered because she had been accepted as a fellow at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute. It was here that Jen began writing her first novel, Typical American, which was eventually published in 1991.

Typical American was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and gave Jen literary clout and exposure. The book follows the lives of three foreign students -- Ralph Chang, older sister Teresa, and Ralph's future wife Helen. When the Communists assume control of China in 1948, the three become trapped in the United States and band together, planning to achieve the American dream while keeping their Chinese values intact. However, as they encounter their own foibles and the challenges of America, the ride in this tragi-comic story is by no means smooth.

Rave reviews followed the publication of Typical American. The New York Times Book Review said, "No paraphrase could capture the intelligence of Gish Jen's prose, its epigrammatic sweep and swiftness. The author just keeps coming at you, line after stunning line. Even her incidental description seems new-minted -- purely functional, bone clean yet lustrous."

Although Typical American was successful, Jen resented being labeled as just an AsianAmerican writer. As a reaction, she decided to complicate what that meant with her second novel, Mona in the Promised Land (1996).

The story centers on the middle-class owners of a pancake house, Helen and Ralph Chang, who have moved on up to a house in wealthy, suburban Scarshill, NY. In 1968, with Vietnam and the civil rights movement in full swing, their younger daughter Mona enters high school, joins a youth group at a synagogue, converts to Judaism, fights against other "isms" and becomes known as Mona "Changowitz." Eventually, her mother turns her back on Mona, and Mona learns that her rabbi is right in telling her, "The more Jewish you become, the more Chinese you'll be."

Jen told the journal, Ploughshares, in 2000 that Mona in the Promised Land grew out of a short story, What Means Switch?, that she had written while trying to finish Typical American. She had lost her first pregnancy, and didn't know if she'd be able to finish the novel. After running into an old high-school acquaintance, she was inspired to revisit her teen years in Scarsdale in a short story.

In the eight short stories of Who's Irish? (2000), Jen chronicles Chinese and other Americans as they take on America with sometimes comic and heart-breaking outcomes. The stories originally appeared in such publications as The New Yorker and Ploughshares. Two stories were selected for the anthology Best American Short Stories, and one that was originally published in Ploughshares, "Birthmates," was chosen by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

The title story of Who's Irish? is one of the best. The story's narrator is a Chinese-born grandmother, who clashes with her liberal-minded, Westernized daughter in matters of childrearing. When she tries to discipline her misbehaving granddaughter in her firm Chinese way, the child's mother, who has married an Irish-American, decides her own mother should move out. Ultimately she moves in with her Irish-American son-in-law's mother, who is just as confused as she is about their offspring's modern ways. It seems the generational clash has superceded ethnic differences.

Throughout her writing career, Jen, has chosen to take advantage of what freedom she could find rather than play such roles as expert on China, or of professional victim. In the Ploughshares interview, she said, "I have hoped to define myself as an American writer."

In her third novel, The Love Wife (2004), readers are introduced to another of Jen's "typical American families." The family is made up of a second-generation Chinese American husband named Carnegie, a blue-eyed wife named Blondie, adopted Asian daughters Wendy and Lizzie and a blond biological son, Bailey. Then from mainland China, along comes Lan, a nanny and relative who is "bequeathed" by Carnegie's mother.

The mother of two biracial children, Jen told Dale Raben in a 2004 interview for the Library Journal that their appearances helped shape one of her themes in The Love Wife.

"My children look exactly alike except that my son has straight black hair and my daughter has fine, light hair. And for whatever reason, that has caused them to be seen very, very differently by the world.

In the novel, Blondie is already worried that their family looks strange, as if she and Bailey don't belong. Lan's arrival only intensifies this pre-existing tension.

Writing from a Chinese American standpoint, Jen argues that grouping people by ethnicity is almost meaningless. Continuing her interview in the Library Journal, she said, "You have to ask, ‘Are they immigrants or are they non-immigrants?' For the people in this book, to be first- and second-generation immigrants from a non-Western culture is very germane. How germane it will be to their children, who can say?"

In her novels and short stories, Jen liberates her characters from stereotypes by making them profoundly human and complex. In an interview published in 1993 in the journal MELUS (The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature) Jen said she views her work as indeterminate in its final message: "I think it has to do with the fact that I come from a culture where things can have opposite attributes at the same time, like in food, sweet and sour. The world is at once yin and yang."

Good To Know

Some outtakes from our interview with Jen:

"I am a more or less normal person."

"I have two happy, healthy children. They are far funnier than I am."

"I love nothing more than a long swim in a pond."

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    1. Hometown:
      Cambridge, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 12, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A. Harvard University, M.F.A., Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Read an Excerpt

Lecture 1: My Father Writes His Story

In 2005, when he was 85, my father sat down to write a personal narrative. This begins simply: “It is few days before my 86th birthday. I am writing my personal history for my family.” As for what follows, it is not elaborate. And written over the period of a month, and totaling 32 pages, it does not begin à la David Copperfield with “I was born”; in what we will come to recognize as true interdependent style, my father does not, in fact, mention his birth at all. We do not hear how much he weighed or whether he peed on the nurse or anything of the “the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously” sort. In fact, he does not even give his birth date until page 8, when he includes “Norman Chao-Pe Jen, June 26, 1919” in parentheses.

Instead he begins: “(1) Ancient History,” drawing his information from his family genealogy book. This is an item those of you who have read my novel, The Love Wife, may recognize as the bait with which Carnegie Wong’s mother, Mama Wong, gets Carnegie to take in a woman who appears to be a second wife. It is the sort of genealogical record that was traditionally kept by any family who could afford to do so, and was of course always prized – but never more so than now, what with every book that survived the Cultural Revolution having done so by a miracle. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s family genealogy book, for example, long hidden inside a wall, was found during a home renovation; and my mother’s was found when Shanghai families whose things had been confiscated during the Cultural Revolution were allowed inside a warehouse with the idea that if you could find what was taken from you, you could reclaim it. I don’t think you have to be a novelist to imagine the piles of stuff, and the crowds and the chaos, and the despair with which people like my aunts pored through the heaps. Finally, though, my youngest aunt simply stopped and, closing her eyes, prayed to our ancestors to help; and when she opened her eyes and turned around, there, right at eye level, was the family genealogy book.

My father’s family was less lucky; the physical book itself did not survive. A copy of it, though, did, thanks to the Japanese, who for reasons perhaps related to their use of the Jen family compound as their regional headquarters during their occupation of China, preserved one in a Japanese library.

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  • Posted April 22, 2013

    What I love most about Tiger Writing are the journeys it takes y

    What I love most about Tiger Writing are the journeys it takes you on  -- across the most familiar of American and European literature and into the unfamiliar of the East, from poetry to architecture to the Mona Lisa and still yet into brain research and culture studies, and finally 900 years into Jen’s ancestry, from New York back to Shanghai and Lake Tai.  All in just 200 pages!

    Don’t be fooled by the subtitle that this is a challenging or academic book.  Serious yes, thoughtfully provocative certainly, but fun to read – a surprising ‘page turner’ given the subject matter, as Jen has surprises for you around each corner.   The photos are wonderful and I only wish there were more…

    I’m Irish-American, and the Irish, being a somewhat “clannish” people, exhibit some of the qualities described in Jen’s Asian examples of interdependence – more ties to the East than just our mutual animosity to the British I guess.  But its clearly not just us Irish-Americans that find something in Jen’s writing:   I was struck by Junot Diaz’ use of the word “indispensible,” first about Jen’s already-classic novel Typical American (in a NYTimes interview), and now on the Tiger Writing book jacket, describing this “profound meditation” as “penetrating, inspired, and yes, indispensable.”   So there is something much more universal about Tiger Writing – something for every American, regardless of stripe (or ancestry).

    I consider myself an educated reader of broad interests, and to me, Tiger Writing ends up on my indispensible list.  And, given its small size and beautiful cover, it will be an indispensible part of my Christmas giving as well. 

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