Finding Eastern and Western Selves Through Eastern and Western Stories
Gish Jen investigates the effect of Western cultural influence on storytelling and identity
I had often taught Gish Jen’s work to my students at UCLA, but I first got a chance to meet her in at a fiction writing workshop she offered in Shanghai on “Influence and Confluence in the Short Story: East and West.” Jen’s workshop focused on deconstructing Western assumptions of literary storytelling.
A few months later, Jen’s nonfiction book The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East–West Culture Gap was released with Knopf. It continued not only the discussion we’d had in our Shanghai workshop, but also the exploration of East–West differences from her earlier nonfiction book, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self (2013).
Besides nonfiction, Jen has published five fiction books — four novels and a story collection. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and many other periodicals and anthologies, and has been included in The Best American Short Stories four times (including The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike). In addition to a masterful portrayal of Chinese American experiences, her fiction explores the American story of migration in other ethnic communities alongside those of alienation, assimilation, globalization, culture gap, generation gap, and more.
We talked mostly about Jen’s latest book, The Girl at the Baggage Claim, and the innovation it offers the idea of “global” art and literature.
Namrata Poddar: From literary storytelling and visual arts to cocktail hours and satirical humor, from academic settings and entrepreneurial strategies to American interracial dynamics and the minority experience, The Girl at the Baggage Claim relentlessly challenges a white West on its sociocultural assumptions. What were some of the biggest joys and struggles of writing a hybrid nonfiction book of such an ambitious scope?
Gish Jen: I really was both blessed and cursed in having so much fantastic material. The struggle was first to decide what to include — and I really had to be ruthless — and then to make a coherent narrative out of what was still an enormous amount of material: to present each nugget and give it its due, but also to make sure it led on to the next nugget, even as certain themes and motifs recurred. In many ways, it was like writing a novel except that even if I could see just what I needed to make it all work, I couldn’t just make it up.
As for the biggest joy, that was finally — yes — making it all work together. I felt like a baker who had just finished a twenty-layer wedding cake.
NP: In exploring cultural assumptions and differences, your book aptly reminds the reader that the East and the West aren’t mutually exclusive binaries, or for that matter, strict geographical concepts. And yet, it repeatedly reminds the reader how differences in Eastern and Western conceptions of the self do dominate our understanding of creative practices. Can you reiterate your understanding of East–West perceptions toward the self? What do you think are some of the factors engendering this cultural gap?
GJ: This is an enormous simplification but in a nutshell, people in Western industrialized societies, especially the U.S., tend to imagine ourselves as avocados: We imagine ourselves as having a big pit at our center, to which we must above all be true. What’s more, we are preoccupied with the features of those avocado pits, and the ways in which they are unique. In other parts of the world — and, I should say, many parts of the U.S. — people are also unique, courageous and capable of independent action. They have just as much integrity and just as much creativity. But if you ask them why they just undertook what they undertook or made what they made, they will not say because they did it to be true to their avocado pits. Rather, they will say they did what they did out of duty or obligation — because they wanted to repay someone for something, or because their religious beliefs demanded it of them, or because they saw themselves as a part of a great artistic tradition. This might entail self-expression, but it will not be self-expression for self-expression’s sake. That is, the reason will not be their avocado pit.
People in Western industrialized societies, especially the U.S., tend to imagine ourselves as avocados.
The factors contributing to this difference? There are way too many to list. But to give you an idea, they range from the realities of rice farming to the experience of immigration to the American frontier to the invention of the horse collar.
NP: As a creative writer, I’m particularly intrigued by the ways in which your book shifts the reader’s understanding of storytelling in different parts of the world. What do you perceive as some of the key differences between Eastern and Western literary storytelling?
GJ: Oh, how I hate to generalize(!) — aware as I am that, truly, every writer is sui generis. But in a general kind of way, post-19th century Western literature has tended to focus on the avocado pit — on the exploration of a single character, whose interior — visible or not — is given great consideration. This character’s idiosyncrasy is more important than his or her representativeness; the character must, above all, not have what MFA programs call a “generic” quality. And the structure of the story further reinforces the idea that nothing counts more than the avocado pit, as the pit ultimately generates the plot events.
In earlier Western literature, as well as much non-Western literature, characters are more often “types,” and often cope with, rather than drive, events. Of course, they, too, have inner lives. But the uniqueness of those lives is less important; and the overall emphasis is often on a group or network of characters, even on capturing an entire world.
We do not have to choose between the self that dominates in the West and the self that dominates elsewhere.
NP: While first person narratives are a valuable outlet for marginalized voices, you remind us how the thriving market for memoirs is a particularly American phenomenon, even if Asia, as I think of it, is a hugely diverse cultural space with a much older literary tradition. What do you think accounts for the American “popularity” of memoirs?
GJ: I talk a lot about this in both Girl at the Baggage Claim and Tiger Writing, drawing on the wonderful and nuanced work of Cornell psychologist Qi Wang. The answer in brief: As we Americans build ever-larger psychic moats around our ever-more mobile selves, we seek to foster elective ties with others. And one of our chief ways of doing that is by sharing the stories of our avocado pits — the more revealing and stirring the better.
NP: If there is one idea (and I know you have several) you would want the reader to most remember about your book, what would it be?
GJ: We do not have to choose between the self that dominates in the West and the self that dominates elsewhere. There is a middle. We can have both selves; and while, yes, the possession of both can result in conflict sometimes, it can also bring us richness, creativity and joy.