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.
In this thoughtful and often witty volume, Jen (Typical American) presents three essays that she originally delivered as lectures at Harvard University in 2012. Jen, whose novels often deal with questions of ethnicity and identity, has created a self-described mix of memoir, cognitive studies, literary analysis, and reflection that tackles the interplay of culture, writing, and the tension between the Western concept of the independent, individualistic self, and the Eastern concept of the interdependent, collectivist self. In the first essay, Jen uses her father s autobiography (written when he was 85) as a lens through which to compare differences between Western and Eastern narratives of the self. The intriguing second essay more broadly addresses both cultures, and includes a fascinating scientific exploration about how the brain perceives and retains memories of events (the basis of the self-narrative), along with one of the book s more lyrical moments as she discusses the Westchester library of her youth. The third essay focuses on her writing and development as a writer. Meant for an academic audience, there is some thorny jargon, but Jen raises important questions about how we fashion our own stories and how cultural differences influence that process. Jen s humorous interjections throughout the text give a sense of how warm and engaging her lectures must have been. 22 halftones.
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Indispensable to me too.
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.