Gish Jen is the author of four novels, a short story collection, and a volume of lectures. Jen’s work has appeared in many notable venues, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Best American Short Stories. Jen has received many accolades and awards, including the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her latest book, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, is based on the Massey lectures Jen delivered at Harvard University in 2012. She currently resides in Cambridge.
Interviewer: Can you talk about your progression as a writer? How have your goals or interests changed?
Gish Jen: That’s a really hard question to answer because I’ve been writing for such a long time. As a young writer I was very focused on the making. I wanted to get things down, to give them form and coherence. Helen Vendler wrote a wonderful book called The Given and the Made. She talks about a writer’s “given,” but also what the writer makes of the given. People can be given amazing material but the question is—what did they make with that material? Now, maybe, I have more of a sense of wanting to open things up for other people. A writer makes a cultural space. And that cultural space can be very helpful.
Many of the characters in your stories are first- or second-generation Americans. Can you speak to the way generational trauma or triumph affects the interconnectivity of your characters?
I can’t say that those words ever crossed my mind, because I don’t think about my stories in that way. Trauma wasn’t a big word then—it was 1986, pre-multiculturalism. I was more focused on the question, what makes something literature? I had the goal of writing a “real” novel. Almost every day someone would say, “Aren’t you really writing immigrant autobiography?”; “Aren’t you really making something that is not artifice but artifact?” I was very much focused on what makes something artifice and artifact, not just the facts of the matter—like generational trauma—or any of those things. For me, it’s about all the ways in which materials form in a highly meaningful way.
As I understand it, when writing Typical American, you had not fully articulated the “dual processing” of the independent and interdependent selves at play in your fiction. Now that you’ve defined them (in Tiger Writing), do you find yourself paying more attention to the constructed self you draw influence from while writing? How do you navigate the boundary between these selves?
I think that I’m much more aware of it in my day-to-day life. I’m much more apt to say, “this is my interdependent part.” It is very easy to know when I feel interdependent because I think that self is quieter. It is a listening self. And I see now that the listening self is part of my interdependent inheritance. Of course there’s another part of me, when I’m in front of the microphone, when I’m withholding myself and it’s not a time to be listening. It’s a time to be speaking. In this way, I’ve developed quite a strong independent self. I can feel myself shifting roles—as a mother, author, and friend. I have to say that the interdependent feel in my work seems to happen unconsciously, that 90 percent of my writer self is independent.
You spoke earlier about your revision process. You said you compose up to 50 drafts of a novel. I was wondering—how do you know when to stop writing? When are you ready to say, “this is the draft that is the one?”
You know, I keep on going until I can’t think of one more thing to write. Or until my editor says—“All right! It’s time!” My editor has described having to go to various cities to wrest a manuscript away from its author. So I know that if I don’t give it up, my editor will be here to claim it. However, I have faith by the time my editor would want to do such a thing, that the novel really is done.
What are you currently reading?
Mostly nonfiction. Right now in my bag I have Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City. I’m about halfway through. It’s wonderful. There are lots of pictures, so that’s always fun.
What is next for you in terms of writing projects? Any upcoming publications we should watch for?
I’m working on a nonfiction book.