Celebrated writer Gish Jen discusses literature with an Asian-American perspective
Award-winning author Gish Jen visited the University at Albany to speak about her new book on Tuesday, Jan. 30 in the Standish Room of the Science Library.
Jen is a celebrated author whose novels and short stories explore the Chinese-American experience. Having written six novels previously, she has branched out to nonfiction with her new work, “The Girl At the Baggage Claim.” The book compares the ideas of “self” in Eastern and Western cultures.
On her website, Jen writes, “While I think this book will be of special interest to anyone who is teaching or doing business with Asians, or visiting or studying Asia, I hope it will be read, too, by people wanting just to understand the world and themselves.”
Jen spoke about her book and then took questions from the audience. She explained the difficulties of writing nonfiction for the first time.
“This book is something of a departure for me,” she said. “People will ask me, ‘Was it hard to write this book?’ and I will say, ‘yes.’”
The idea of “self” was greatly discussed.
Jen explained that all people have a sense of self that they use to define their place in life. In her view, people have their inner self and the person they actually present to the world. Both selves exist, but most people only acknowledge one.
“Just like you can say that you’re left-handed or you’re right-handed, but actually you can use both hands, similarly… you can talk about what it means to have one self or the other self…most people actually have both selves.”
Approaching nonfiction as a novelist was a transition for her, but Jen always felt that it was something she needed to write.
“I knew there was something about the dominant literary culture that did not quite fit me,” she said. “In my book you can see little bits of memoir coming out. It’s not a memoir, although in a funny kind of way, it’s more about me than a memoir would be.”
Jen is known for writing fiction that shows the world through the Asian-American lens.
An audience member asked how she felt Asian-American literature fit into the American literary canon as a whole.
“I think that Asian-American literature is American literature…there is no one figure who can be representative of the American today,” she explained. “To me, this is a very rich kind of literature…[but] there is no one lens that is the ultimate lens.”
When it came to explaining why she began writing fiction in the first place, Jen offered some insight by saying, “I was very late coming to fiction, and I came from an immigrant family where people didn’t write novels…I had always just loved to read. I had never thought of myself as a writer.”
She shared that she recently uncovered her third-grade report card where her teacher noted that she loved to write, even back then.
“I felt like it took me decades to understand that this is what I had to do, but my third grade teacher knew.”
Jen left the audience with one piece of advice for writing nonfiction pieces, “Talk to as many people as you can…have them read it.”