RACE, POWER AND STORYTELLING: AN INTERVIEW WITH GISH JEN
Gish Jen is an American author of six previous books—four novels, one short story collection and a nonfiction book. She has published short work in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and dozens of other periodicals and anthologies. Her work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories four times, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. Nominated for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award, her work was featured in a PBS American Masters’ special on the American novel, and is widely taught. Jen is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has been awarded a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study fellowship, and numerous other awards. Her most recent book is The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap (Knopf 2016). More at www.gishjen.com.
Namrata Poddar writes fiction, nonfiction, and teaches transnational American literature in the Honors Collegium at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her work explores the intersection of power, privilege and storytelling via race, class, gender, place or migration, and has been published across the world. Her MFA thesis of connected short stories Ladies Special, Homebound is currently a finalist for Feminist Press’s Louise Meriwether First Book Prize. She holds a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures and an MFA in fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. More at www.namratapoddar.com.
NP: The Girl at the Baggage Claim is one of the noisiest books of contemporary American nonfiction for a trade market that challenges the assumptions of Western art and storytelling. You had already explored the topic in your first nonfiction book, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self (2013). What prompted you to write a second nonfiction book, given that you’re predominantly a writer of fiction, and novels in particular?
GJ: Tiger Writing was really about the culture of the art world (with a focus, of course, on literature); and it was written for people interested in that world. When I was all done with it, though, I realized that what I had to say explained much more than literary culture, or art culture—that it explained things that puzzled many people on both sides of the East-West divide. And so I took some time out from fiction to write, for once, a useful book.
NP: When discussing cultural differences in your book, you aptly remind your reader that “East” and “West” aren’t mutually exclusive binaries, or for that matter, strict geographical concepts. Can you reiterate your understanding of East and West? How does this understanding shift a “mainstream” Euro-American perception of Art, especially of literary storytelling? What do you think is at stake if we ignore cultural differences that inform art-making, particularly in Trump’s America where neo-fascism and xenophobia are staples of everyday news?
GJ: It is obviously impossible to draw a line between East and West, geographically or otherwise. And yet, paradoxically, there is a cultural gap—really between what psychologist Richard Nisbett called the West and the rest, with the "West" mostly meaning Western Europe and the U.S., and "the rest" meaning the rest of the world. Of course, what with the Western dominance of the world, Americans are often blissfully unaware of what a minority we actually are in our thinking, and how we use our narratives as a mirror rather than a window. I give a number of examples of this in Tiger Writing and Girl at the Baggage Claim. Is it dangerous to blind ourselves this way? Of course. We would have been far more aware that the Vietnamese were capable of digging, and living in, huge networks of tunnels, for example, had we understood how different their selves were than that of the average American soldier; and had we been aware of that, perhaps we would have thought better of getting into the quagmire of the Vietnam War. As for whether the dangers are greater than ever today—absolutely.
NP: As a literary critic, I was particularly intrigued when your book explored a recent rise of memoirs as a thriving market in the U.S. in comparison to other parts of the world. According to you, the American market for memoirs is less a sign of an egalitarian society welcoming minority voices, including those of women, POC and the LGBQT community—as if November 2016 wasn’t an indication enough—but more a society obsessed with the individual self. Can you elaborate on this?
GJ: It is both. The memoir is a way for the individualistic self, cut off from traditional forms of intimacy, to connect with others. It is also a way to celebrate difference.
NP: When it comes to telling a “literary” narrative, your book is a rare one in the trade market to question as assiduously as you do the key assumptions of Western storytelling, including linear causality, individualism, an over-emphasis on conflict, and so forth. If you had to pick any one, what do you think is a key difference between Eastern and Western storytelling?
GJ: Of course, I'd prefer not to pick just one! But, all right. One difference, just for starters: there is a tendency, in all but modern Western writing, to cleave to the representative or typical or archetypical. In the modern West, in contrast, we see an emphasis on the resolutely singular, the idiosyncratic.
NP: What struck me most about your book is its ambition and scope. From literary storytelling and visual arts to cocktail hours and Western satirical humor to corporate marketing strategies and a culture of higher education on both sides of our planet, your book is relentless in deconstructing the assumptions of western, transmedia storytelling. This also makes the form of your book rather hybrid, somewhere between cultural criticism, transdisciplinary anecdotes and a more personal form of creative nonfiction? Did your agent or editor ask you that classic question, “Where do you see your book being shelved at Barnes & Noble”?
GJ: Very happily, neither my editor nor my agent asked me this.
NP: 87% of the American publishing industry is known to be white, particularly at the executive levels of gatekeeping and decision-making. During the writing process, were you ever afraid of writing a book that tackles white supremacy in western Art, given that the book would then by midwifed, quite likely, by a predominantly white team of gatekeepers to the global reader? What were some of the main challenges and happy surprises in your process from writing the book to getting it published with a literary mogul like Knopf
GJ: While the immediate midwives of my book were white, I must note that the head of Knopf, Sonny Mehta, is not. Whether that has had any influence on my editor, or on the many people I have worked with over the years—people who are hugely educated and open-minded and curious in any case—I don't know. But for whatever reason, I was in no way discouraged from challenging the status quo. That is not to say that Knopf did not recognize that they themselves were taking a risk. As my editor said, in anticipation of pub, all depended on whether the public was ready to hear what I had to say. There was no sense that if it wasn't, Knopf was going to have to reconsider, or that they regretted backing me. Knopf believes in the long game—that in the end, it pays to support groundbreaking works. Indeed, they believe that it is their support of such works that makes them Knopf. But they understood that they might not exactly make a killing on this book; and needless to say, I am hugely grateful to them for their support.
NP: As you look back on your journey, would you consider writing a daring, hybrid work like The Girl at the Baggage Claim for your first book? Had it been your first book, do you think a publication house like Knopf would have bought it? What advice would you give to emerging writers who are struggling to pay their bills and navigating a predominantly white publishing world on the act of balancing artistic integrity and innovation alongside economic survival?
GJ: Were I not an established author, I don't think Knopf would have taken The Girl at the Baggage Claim, as they did, in proposal form. For an unpublished writer to simply promise that she is going to write this hybrid book, unlike any other, that is going to explain East to West and West to East? I can't imagine how any house would have made the leap of faith involved. But I do believe that some house—and maybe even Knopf—would have taken the finished book. Yes, publishing houses have to make money and are under more pressure than ever. At the same time, they are full of editors who became editors because they love books; and a great many of them know a real book when they read one. So my advice for young writers, minority and otherwise: Write the book you were born to write—the book that only you could write, that only you would dare write. Then pray.