While Jen’s findings are undoubtedly intriguing, she is not fully convincing in her portrayal of the modest, hardworking...




A Chinese-American novelist and essayist investigates how culture shapes identity.

Award-winning writer Jen (Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Independent Self, 2013, etc.) continues the inquiry of her last nonfiction book, in which she examined differences in Eastern and Western writing and art. Here, drawing on abundant research from psychology and sociology, the author probes East-West distinctions in self-definition and community. These distinctions are so profound, she asserts, that they affect personal relationships, teaching, storytelling, architecture, and even “our ideas about law, rehabilitation, religion, freedom, and choice.” In the individualistic West, Jen argues, the self is “a kind of avocado, replete with a big pit on which it is focused.” In the collectivist East, the “flexi-self” is interdependent, “a context-focused self, oriented toward serving something larger than itself.” Whereas the big pit self believes that individual ability and drive lead to achievement, the flexi-self, Jen asserts, “starts with debt” to parents, teachers, and community. The flexi-self is more attuned to patterns than to “the strange and novel”; the Chinese, therefore, are not “divergent thinkers—thinkers who can easily generate novel uses for a brick, say, or a tree branch,” but rather can adapt others’ ideas to their own needs. Jen makes much of the Chinese college admission exam, in which students’ success is supported by the entire nation. Traffic noise is forbidden so as not to disturb the test-takers, and taxi drivers offer students free rides to the exam site. Yet despite the “self-sacrificing help” of parents and teachers, students are under extreme pressure to perform, since their entire future depends on admission to an elite college. In asserting that American schools “concentrate more on imagination and resourcefulness”—big pit traits—Jen ignores the competition for top nursery schools, emphasis on resume-building extracurricular activities, and intense test-prep tutoring that mark the experiences of many students.

While Jen’s findings are undoubtedly intriguing, she is not fully convincing in her portrayal of the modest, hardworking flexi-self and the big pit self “with high self-esteem and a lack of stick-to-it-ness.”

Pub Date: March 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-101-94782-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 23, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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