January 7, 2014
By Catherine Buni
Last spring, novelist Gish Jen published her first book of nonfiction, a fascinating book called Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self. In it, Jen explores how the intersection of culture, of East and West, informs the stories she tells, indeed, how culture informs the stories all writers tell.
Tiger Writing is about writing. Tiger Writing is about art. It is also about the assumptions that underlie the standards by which art is judged. In an interview soon after the book’s release, Jen said, “With globalization in full swing, it’s a good time to take stock of our ideas about art and what ideas about art are in other cultures.”
It’s no secret the mainstream literary landscape – including lists of “must read” or “best books” about writing – does not reflect the diversity of the larger world. VIDA counts documenting the marginalization of women writers and research from journalist Roxane Gay reporting even grimmer numbers for writers of color have roundly illustrated the reality. In “Broader, Better Literary Conversations,” published by The Nation this fall, Gay noted, “[The] numbers suggest, quite plainly, that the people shaping the literary conversation are not reading diversely. If they are reading diversely, it’s a well-kept secret.”
Scanning “best of” lists of books about writing – where the technical, pedagogical, theoretical and critical appear to happily cohabitate – the landscape appears similarly distributed. This is a loss for writers....
But what if a writer doesn’t find herself or himself reflected in books and discussions about writing art and craft? What if a writer’s particular questions are not addressed or even noticed? Last summer in New Mexico, novelist David Haynes launched the inaugural Kimbilio retreat as a weeklong workshop and community “committed to developing, empowering and sustaining African American fiction writers and their stories.” “As it turns out,” he says, “the general creative writing orthodoxy is presented by folks who have no reason to think about cultural specificities. It puts them in a position that allows them to say with a certain amount of legitimacy: ‘My job here is to teach you about craft, and to not have to address these other issues.’ It’s terribly easy to erase textures and questions that are entirely outside of your ken.”...