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2014 Courtney Steel ’87 Lecture: Gish Jen and Tiger Writing

Spence was thrilled to have Gish Jen as this years speaker for the Courtney Steel 87 Visiting Author Program. Distinguished by her works of fiction, Jen’s first nonfiction creation, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, emerged from a realization about how she perceives the world. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, her integration into American life through reading and writing presented a stark contrast between her experience at home and her experience outside of it. Only years later did she delve into the complexities of how two very different cultures make up her identity. In Tiger Writing, Jen juxtaposes her Eastern heritage with Western values, and what she labels as the Interdependent Self and the Independent Self.

Jen is the incarnation of the “candor and humor of her novels,” Ana Silva, Middle and Upper School English teacher, noted about this year’s guest lecturer. She spoke in simple language to describe a comparatively intricate concept, interspersed with small bursts of contagious chuckles. Her concision was remarkable. Images within her presentation reinforced her words—the first was a lone lion in an African savanna. She asked her audience whether they would first notice the animal or the surrounding environment. Jen shared that studies have shown that people who were raised in Eastern Asian culture are likely to see the background, and people raised in the West, the lion.

Western society is entrenched in the idea of the individual, the self, the importance of autonomy (The Independent Self). The East revolves around community values and your relations to others (The Interdependent Self). Jen presented many more examples of research and drew from personal experience to support this polarity. “It’s like Confucius versus Emerson,” she remarked.

The next afternoon, I spoke to Mary Frosch, Head of the English Department, who teaches the Literature of Japan, China and the Pacific Rim course at Spence. Ms. Frosch is also the editor of Coming of Age in America: A Multicultural Anthology, which includes one of Jen’s renowned fictional short stories. Having studied Eastern literature, she is very familiar with its holistic themes. The separation of good and evil, the prominence of a main character and a linear narrative with cause-and-effect events are exclusive to the Western novel. Jen discovered this through her own extensive reading and writing.

As concisely as her lecture, Gish Jen described what we should take to heart. “We may be raised with many conflicting influences, but our identities, our selves are blends of all of them—syntheses that we choose to be, and make us each unique.” When asked by Psychology Today what the “one true thing” she wanted to express in Tiger Writing is, Jen replied, “We are made by culture, but we make culture, too.”