Sunday, February 5, 2012

Jess Row, of Best American Short Stories, 2011: On Spirituality and Writing

Recently I had the privilege of conducting an email interview with Jess Row, whose story "The Call of Blood" is in Best American Short Stories, 2011.

What is your religious background, if any, and what led you to Zen practice?
I was raised a Unitarian Universalist. My parents were brought up more or less as Presbyterians, though more in the cultural sense than in the sense of regular churchgoing. It was a mostly secular and liberal household with strong Calvinistic undertones. I started practicing Zen when I was in college and searching for a tradition that made sense to me on my own terms. I was suffering a lot at the time, emotionally, and the Buddhist focus on the nature of suffering spoke to me. And I loved a silent practice that anyone could do. Unitarianism, as most people know, is an extremely talky religion...and also very much wedded to a certain cultural and socioeconomic milieu, outside of which it makes no sense at all. I was looking to escape that milieu, and so I found Zen practice. Of course, that process of "escape" is very questionable and also self-defeating, as I discovered later, but at the time it was the only trajectory I had.
Do you consider writing a spiritual practice? 
 Not exactly. I find my writing complementary to my religious life in some ways, but I don't feel that there's anything inherently religious about writing—to the contrary, in fact. I do think that Zen practice and Buddhism in general offers me a great deal of helpful insight into how to deal with the uncertainties of my writing life, but those insights are available for any vocation. 

 Does your meditation practice inform your writing practice...and vice versa?

In the Buddhist tradition there have been writers who felt quite profoundly that their (secular) literary writings were a form of Buddhist practice, like the medieval Japanese poet Shunzei, for example, who wrote that all poetry is one big dharani (that is, an extended chant or invocation, like a mantra). Perhaps in their most optimistic moments Beat poets like Ginsberg and Kerouac felt the same way. But I think it's quite difficult to support that line of thinking in the modern or postmodern world. You run the risk of diluting what it means to be religious. (Or, for that matter, what it means to be a writer). I'm much more in tune with the famous phrase of the poet Bai Juyi (Po Chu-i) who wrote that to be a Buddhist writer was to "take up the karma of words."  That is a very complicated and risky thing.
To answer the question of whether being a writer influences my approach to Buddhism: absolutely, and not always in a good way, as I'm always looking at things with a literary eye, and can become fascinated by an unusual metaphor, or turn of phrase, and so on. There's also the issue (for a fiction writer) of constantly regarding the people around you as material for your fiction. Practicing Zen teaches you the limits of that way of viewing the world, to put it mildly.
Being a writer also led me to want to learn classical Chinese and translate Zen texts, which I'm now doing, in bits and pieces.  

Did a link then exist between your spiritual practice and writing, or did it come later?

I was very excited, right from the very beginning, about integrating certain Buddhist ideas into my work, though it didn't really happen for a number of years.
Narrative is essentially a study of human desire, or one could say, an endless, no-escape study of the cycles of desire and attachment.  On the surface it would seem that poetry suits the Zen sensibility far better than fiction.  Poetry opens up the thingness of things. So why do you write fiction?
That's a great question, which I think you've answered yourself. Narrative is a study of the cycles of human desire. I wouldn't disagree with that at all. As I said earlier, I find that art and religious practice (my religious practice) are complementary, but not the same thing at all. One is not necessarily justifiable to the other. It is absolutely true that narrative is a model of karma, and I believe that the kind of models of karma some narratives create (for example, novels like Bleak House or The Corrections) have a lot to teach us about the complexity of human life and the ways our decisions have unintended consequences over time. On the other hand, you can't ignore the fact that most fiction, like most art, exists entirely for its own sake. If it didn't, it wouldn't work. I don't think this is any less the case for poetry.
Of course it's true that poetry has a special place in the Zen tradition, but then again, so does fiction: it's likely, if not provably true, that nearly all of the classic koan stories handed down from the Tang dynasty are fiction. Some of them, like the famous story of Huineng receiving transmission from Hongren after beating Shenxiu in a poetry competition, are incontestably false and composed as hagiography after the fact.
So I wouldn't say that the Zen sensibility, in the deepest sense, is especially allied to poetry. That itself is a culturally constructed illusion. And, as a footnote, I would say that the greatest novel I know—the Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, sometimes also known as The Story of the Stone—is very deliberately constructed as Buddhist parable and consciously tries to bind and unbind a narrative cycle in Buddhist fashion. There is plenty of Buddhist fiction out there, in short.

 Thank you for your thoughts on spirituality and writing.  I know how busy you are, and it was generous of you!

My pleasure. 

Jess Row's first book, The Train to Lo Wu, a collection of short stories set in Hong Kong, was published in 2005; in 2006 it was shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize. In 2007 he was named a “Best Young American Novelist” by Granta. His second collection of stories, Nobody Ever Gets Lost, was published by FiveChapters Books in February 2011.
His stories have been anthologized three times in The Best American Short Stories and have won two Pushcart Prizes and a PEN/O.Henry Award. His nonfiction and criticism appear often in The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and Threepenny Review

In 2009, Jess and his wife, Sonya Posmentier, started Suture Press, which publishes limited edition chapbooks of short fiction and poetry. You can find Jess’s chapbook The True Catastrophe here.
Jess is an associate professor of English and Buddhist chaplain at The College of New Jersey, and lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with Sonya and their two children, Mina and Asa. A member of the core faculty in the low-residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he also teaches in the MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong. He is a longtime student and ordained dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen.


Catherine Stine said...

Interesting interview. Wow, I never really thought of narrative exactly as the cycle of human desire and attachment-but yeah...
I will check out The Train to Lo Wu. I traveled to Suzhou and Beijing last year, and loved it. Hong Kong is another location that interests me.

HelenQP said...

Interesting, isn't it? This writing stuff always has philosophical implications, however you slice it! Row's short story collection is WONDERFUL also. But you'll really enjoy reading about places you've been, or almost been.