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An Interview with Gish Jen

Gish Jen is a second generation Chinese American writer whose books have won numerous awards. World and Town, her most recent novel, won the 2011 Massachusetts Book Prize in fiction. In this book, Jen fills the pages with humor, compassion, and deep insight, following the struggles of a Chinese American widow and her friendship with a family of Cambodian immigrants. Her latest book, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, explores the differences of the independent and interdependent self—each crafted along radically different paradigms: West and East. Several of her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories and her piece “Birthmates” was chosen as one of The Best American Short Stories of the Century by John Updike. Breakwater Review sat down with Gish Jen to talk about her work and ideas.

Breakwater Review: Something I noticed in your stories is your use of both humor and sadness. Can you talk about the relation between the two?

Gish Jen: Of course they’re related. I can’t say that I’m funny in order to be sad, but with humor, there’s a relaxing, there’s an abandon. As soon as you abandon your guard, all sorts of things will come up—including sadness.

BR: Do you ever receive a racist reaction to your work?

GJ: No. I never have. But my audience is a particular thing. When you get out into the American mainstream, it’s different. If I ever had response, I would be very worried.

BR: Do you think the writer has a responsibility to inhabit a political role?

GJ: I don’t think the writer has that responsibility. But there are people who think a writer shouldn’t. And that’s not me, either. When I was younger, I was asked in an interview what the major issues were, what I wanted the candidates to discuss, and I said campaign finance reform. I was criticized by a fellow writer, an older writer I respected immensely. She said that I was being a citizen. And that was bad. But I reject that idea. If the writer wants to be involved, I don’t think they have left the high track of serious literature. It is entirely possible to be both a responsible citizen and a serious artist. I don’t think those things are in conflict. It does become complicated if you start using your work to advance certain positions. Whether someone is required to do that? I don’t think you can require the artist to do anything.

Myself, I feel like if you have the microphone—and you do have to be aware that not everybody has that—it’s just the decent thing to do. To use that. The same way if you pass someone on the street and they are unable to get up, I don’t know if it’s your responsibility or not to help the person, but it’s just…what we do.

It’s more about being human, less about being a writer.

BR: In the past couple years there’s been a rise in the appearance of Asians in mass culture. I’m wondering if you think if this is being handled correctly. What do you think it will take for Asians to finally be integrated into mainstream culture?

GJ: Time. I think Fresh Off the Boat is great. But I’d say it’s still a baby step.

I don’t know if you saw the Academy Awards, but there were really a couple moments that were unbelievable. With Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen.

I was thinking later, after watching, we know so much about the African American experience, that’s why it’s easy to joke about. In other words, for a comedian like Chris Rock, he could make a joke like “Back then, we weren’t protesting such and such because we were busy protesting lynching,” and everybody would know what he was talking about. He doesn’t need to give backstory. Whereas when it comes to Asians, the people barely realize the Japanese were in internment camps. Much less anything else.

I’m not excusing what happened at the Oscars. It was wrong.

But I will say that a bigger problem would be not even getting the chance to be joked about, to not get to be in the picture. You want to be part of the American fabric. But here’s the thing: they don’t even know how to joke, because they don’t know anything about it. You can see how foreign we are to them, in the fact that they don’t know how to write a joke about Asians that’s actually funny without being crude.

I do think, though, it will happen with time. The fact of the matter is that Asian Americans were a tiny, tiny, tiny minority until 1965. That wave is just hitting now. So the fact is that many people my age or even younger are just clueless about Asian Americans.

If you didn’t grow up in, let’s say, New York, it’s quite possible that you’d never even seen an Asian American!

I mean, how many Kosovos have you met out there? Probably none! There’s just not many out there in this country.

BR: In relation to your book Tiger Writing, which focuses on themes of Individualist versus Interdependent mindsets of the West and East, what do you make of the contemporary obsession with always trying to find novel or new styles in art? Is that inherently the goal of art? Is it only a fad for the moment?

GJ: It’s totally a reflection of our current individualism. Actually, most places in the world, it’s not such a heavy focus on constantly remaking their fields. People don’t have this fantasy of their own individual genius. In most parts of the world, people feel like they are part of a tradition, and the first thing they need to do is master the tradition. And after they’ve done that, perhaps they can make it their own in some important way, then pass it on. Like Fan Kuan.

Clearly, someone like Fan Kuan is a very great painter. Period. But he didn’t have any of these ideas like, “I’m going to reinvent painting. I myself. The Cutting Edge.” I think it’s a fallacy. But a fallacy that has served our country very well. We do dominate the rest of the world.

I’m not anti-individualism. It is true that it is hugely productive in some ways. But in others, less so.

BR: Some months back there were articles written about white males using Asian pseudonyms to get published in literary journals. What are your thoughts?

GJ: It’s a scam like any scam. To me there’s no excuse. They know what they’re doing. There’s nothing redeeming about it.

It’s not like they were always longing to be Asian. If you had told them tomorrow the thing to be was to be Serbian, they would be Serbian.

Do think it’s reprehensible? Yes. It’s just somebody being a jerk.

Although I will say I will devote exactly one nano-second of my time worrying about that kind of con-artist. I’m much more worried about Ted Cruz.

Have some self-respect.

BR: What do you think of writers of color who deliberately avoid the topic of their race?

GJ: Why not? It wasn’t my way. My way was try to write about what I was interested in. And to use Asian Americans. Because it’s what I know.

We are also interested in art. We also have religious preoccupations. You know what I mean? When you’re writing about Asian Americans, you’re still writing about all that other stuff.

Look at Saul Bellow. He buried his Jewish background. Unlike Roth, let’s say.

It reifies certain things, thinking you need to erase your ethnicity to become a major American writer. And that’s probably true to a certain degree, even still. But you have to decide if that’s a program you’re going to accept or not.

Probably at some level I will always be an ethnic writer, but that’s all right. I don’t care. What I imagine the contribution I might be making is more than worth the price.

BR: What advice do you have for young writers?

GJ: Find your voice. More than ever it is important to find the thing that only you can say. You might say I’m anti-individualistic, but only up to a point!

They say an artist signs every word that he or she writes. I think you should be able to pick up a work and know, in one or two sentences, who wrote it. Certainly, by the end of the first paragraph.

If somebody else can write it, why should you write it?


Ryan Kim is a first year fiction student at UMass Boston. He studied English at NYU for his undergrad. He is from Seattle and struggles daily to decide between the West and East coast. He is working on his first novel.

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