Interview with Gish Jen on Finding Your Own Narrative
Personal Reflections Bardo
Between-States: Conversations About Bardo and Life
In Tibetan Buddhism, "bardo" is a between-state. The passage from death to rebirth is a bardo, as well as the journey from birth to death. The conversations in "Between-States" explore bardo concepts like acceptance, interconnectedness, and impermanence in relation to children and parents, marriage and friendship, and work and creativity, illuminating the possibilities for discovering new ways of seeing and finding lasting happiness as we travel through life.
"Writing chose me," says author Gish Jen. "It's not like I sat down with four alternatives and thought, ‘Okay, which one of these things am I going to do?’ Writing chose me, and I do not see myself as having had any other option." Born in Long Island, New York, to Chinese immigrant parents, Jen has written five novels, two nonfiction books, and two short story collections, including her latest, Thank You, Mr. Nixon. Named a best book of 2022 by the New Yorker, NPR, and Oprah, Thank You, Mr. Nixon looks at the fifty years since Richard Nixon's groundbreaking visit to China, unfolding with Jen's signature wit, empathy, and poignancy.
In her writing, Jen explores family and cultural ancestry, existing between worlds, and how we figure out—or don't—who we are. She's not sure she would have become a writer if she hadn't grown up the child of immigrants. "From an early age," she says, "I was engaged in the activity of making a coherent narrative out of my life." Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and the New York Times, among many others, and her stories have been chosen five times for The Best American Short Stories. Honors include a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination and a Guggenheim fellowship; she's a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and serves on the board of the MacArthur Foundation.
From her home in Boston, Jen spoke with me about being between cultures and how she became the author of her own life.
I loved Thank You, Mr. Nixon! How did you come to write this book? I was sitting by a lake during COVID, and it was very quiet, and I had a bunch of stories I’d written over the years. All of a sudden, the stories started to coalesce in a way I hadn't anticipated.
Bardos include times when the reality we know ends and we’re in a state of suspension, like during a pandemic. How did COVID influence the writing of your book? It heightened my awareness of contingency in general and sparked an interest in historical contingency in particular, especially the way that one man, Richard Nixon, could go to China and unleash forces beyond anything we imagined.
American culture tends to be less accepting of contingency, in contrast to many Asian cultures. Is your view of impermanence influenced more by Chinese culture than American culture? That's an interesting question. I’m from a background where dynasties fall, governments come and go. There's an assumption of flux. My friends in America are surprised when a company goes out of business, but I assume things are unstable.
You grew up in ethnic isolation in Queens, Yonkers, and Scarsdale. Did you feel like you were "in between"—kind of American but kind of Chinese? It's only now that I understand I was in limbo, in transit from one culture to another. I was aware my parents knew nothing. It was news that people used dishwashing detergent, that they drank things iced instead of at room temperature, that they had a different idea of personal space. We had a Volkswagen Beetle and we’d all crowd into it, my parents in front, the three bigger kids in the middle, and my two little brothers in back. We loved it, but being squished together like that would be unacceptable to most of the people I live with today.
Was there a point when you started to feel different from your family? I was ambivalent about my home life because it was so isolating and people thought everything we did was funny. The way we ate was funny. The way we dressed was funny. The way we thought was funny. My feeling of disjuncture became more acute in high school. I remember driving in Chinatown with my boyfriend and my family, when my father got pulled over. He started speaking in Chinese, pretending he didn't speak English. The cop said, "You stay right here," and went for help, whereupon my father took off! Everyone in the car was laughing, but I was aware we weren't all laughing the same laugh. My siblings were laughing because we’d gotten away with something. My boyfriend was laughing because he just couldn't believe it. He was like, did that really happen? And I was laughing because I felt uncomfortable—I was aware my boyfriend was laughing in a different way, and also that it wasn't OK to do what my father had just done. Not only was my family life a bardo, but I was in a personal bardo within the bardo. A meta bardo, if you will. You could see the writer coming: I was becoming an intimate outsider, part of my family but not.
How do you feel about that? Today, I can feel the loss of it, but I mostly feel the liberation. I’m happy to have become a person who could leave. And I don't feel like I’m still in bardo. Or maybe bardo has become a home for me?
The bardo teachings encourage us to face reality so we can live in a way that's authentic to who we are. After you graduated from Harvard, you went to business school but dropped out. Did you wake up one day and realize, this isn't for me? When I finished college, I thought, "I really need to do something," so I applied to business school. I can't believe they took me, because I was the least business-oriented person to ever set foot in Stanford Business School. As soon as I got there, I knew I was in the wrong place. Everyone was concerned about things I didn't care about. By the second trimester, I’d stopped going to class. I was taking writing classes instead and read one hundred novels that year.
During my time at Stanford, I went to a funeral for the first time and realized, "Oh, my god! We’re all going to die!" I was going to die, and if I didn't try to become a writer, I would lie on my deathbed asking myself, "Why did I not try to become a writer?" You can't lie on your deathbed with regret of that order. At the same time, I was the daughter of immigrants, and nice Chinese girls did not just drop out of graduate school. It was a hard break to make.
I dreaded telling my parents. You yourself know what these Asian immigrant families can be like. My parents had experienced a lot of trauma in China and had worked really hard to raise five children and send them all to college. So to have a daughter say, after all that, "I’m going back into the pool of the hopelessly insecure" was upsetting.
How did they take it? They stopped speaking to me for over a year. Eventually they accepted that I had become a writer, but to the end, they would have loved to see me in real estate or medical school.
Being aware of death helps us remember that not only are we finite but also that we don't know how long we have, so there's no time to waste. Do you still feel the consciousness of impermanence that struck you at the funeral? Absolutely. For every book, I ask myself, "If it's only given to me to write one more book, would this be it?" And, "Would I rise up from my deathbed to finish this book?" People are always saying, "Why don't you write for TV?" and I see great work being done on TV. But on my deathbed, I wouldn't say, "Grim Reaper, wait one more minute. I have to finish this episode," while with a book, I would say, "You know what? I’m on page 275. Give me a little more time, I’m almost done."
That's such a great image. I can imagine the Grim Reaper standing there. While I’m typing away…
In bardo, we’re the artists of our lives. We create our trajectory with the choices we make, like you did when you dropped out of business school and became a writer. You often talk about the importance of self-narration. Does self-narration mean being the author of your own story? Being the artist of your own life is quite a Western idea. The Eastern idea has more to do with adjusting to whatever life brings. It's about navigation rather than authoring. I credit Western culture for the degree to which I do feel like the author of my own life. Today, I’m very much a hybrid figure, oriented toward accommodation but uncomfortable simply accepting everything that's given to me, especially because what I was expected to accept as a girl was so ridiculous.
What kinds of expectations did you encounter? My parents were informed by a 19th-century, premodern China, so I grew up with the ludicrous idea that I should try to make myself into someone marriageable. My grandmother "kept in the background," as my mother described it, so much so that she never laughed aloud. The whole idea that that's the ideal, that it's not okay for you to exercise your voice in any shape, way or form, is so extreme that I reacted against it. You begin to say, "Well, no, I don't accept that. I cannot go along with that." And if that means I’m the author of my own life, I guess I am! But it doesn't start so much with this idea that my life is mine and I should be able to do what I want with it as, "I don't know what my narrative is, but I can tell you one thing: I reject yours."
When I left business school and entered writing, I could never have said that I was self-narrating. I was just doing what was given to me to do. Grace Paley once said to me, "It's your fate." That made perfect sense. In "it's your fate to self-narrate," you can hear the marriage of the old world and the new, both East and West. It's not that it's your right to self-narrate, or that you should do it because you feel like it. You do it because it's your fate.
When I say "East and West," I don't mean these things are monoliths. However, it's true that many people from non-Western backgrounds are uncomfortable using the first person. Distinguished writers with this discomfort include Yiyun Li, who has said, "As soon as I use the word ‘I,’ my confidence crumbles." And Salman Rushdie started writing his memoir about life under the fatwa, Joseph Anton, in the first person and had to switch to the third person. A lot of reviewers and readers thought that was weird, but if you understand anything about non-Western cultures, it's much less surprising.
Even if you shy away from the first person, though, you’re still the author of your life. Right. Someone like Salman Rushdie is obviously the author of his own life, so it's not like the opposite of a first-person orientation is passivity. Many people from non-Western backgrounds see themselves as part of a larger chain. They are born from something, and when they die, something continues. So the idea that you would tell a story that only begins with you and only ends with you seems strange and wrong. That's why you’ll see this discomfort with the autobiographical impulse as it's practiced in the West.
For me, it isn't so much that I’ve needed to tell my story, but that writing has been a way of making sense of all the dissonance I experienced as a child. It's been a way of grappling with the forces that made my parents who they were, the forces that make America what it is, and where I fit in all that. It's been a way of grappling with the very different ways there are of being human. I’m grateful that I have a facility with words, and a way of addressing it all as opposed to simply marinating in it. It's nice to be the marinator instead of the marinated.
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