Mona in the Promised Land

Overview

It is 1968, the dawn of the age of ethnicity: African Americans are turning Chinese, Jews are turning black, and though some nice Chinese girls are turning more Chinese, teenaged Mona Chang is turning Jewish, much to her parents' chagrin. The Chang family has just moved to posh Scarshill, New York, where the rhododendrons are as big as the Chang family's old bathroom, and no one trims the forsythia into little can shapes. This takes some getting used to, especially since there's also a new social landscape, with ...
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Overview

It is 1968, the dawn of the age of ethnicity: African Americans are turning Chinese, Jews are turning black, and though some nice Chinese girls are turning more Chinese, teenaged Mona Chang is turning Jewish, much to her parents' chagrin. The Chang family has just moved to posh Scarshill, New York, where the rhododendrons are as big as the Chang family's old bathroom, and no one trims the forsythia into little can shapes. This takes some getting used to, especially since there's also a new social landscape, with a hot line, a mystery caller, and a Temple Youth Group full of radical ideas. Mona quickly bleaches her bell-bottoms; then it's off with her friends to reform race relations. They find a cause in Alfred, the handsome black number-two cook at Mona's parents' pancake house, and pretty soon there is a mansion hideout with an underground railroad and a utopia called Camp Gugelstein. Certain love affairs run into trouble, though. And by the end, for better or for worse, unforeseen truths of contemporary America have been memorably revealed.

The author of Typical Americans sets readers' notions of cultural diversity and ethnic identity spinning in Mona in the Promised Land. Moving to Scarshill, New York, with her newly prosperous family, Mona Chang discovers that, in 1968, the Chinese have become the "new Jews." 320 pp. National ads, publicity. 40,000 print.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The daughter of Chinese immigrants grows up in an affluent New York suburb in what PW described as a "wickedly and hilariously observant" second novel. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Helen and Ralph Chang of Typical American fame (LJ 2/15/91) have moved up the American dream ladder as owners of a thriving pancake house and, in 1968, when younger daughter Mona enters high school, of a house in wealthy, suburban Scarshill (read Scarsdale), New York. But the times are fraught with change-not just the rebellion of U.S.-born Mona against the warnings and ways of her immigrant parents ("make sure," caution the elders repeatedly), but the rebellion of an entire generation against the ways of its parents. Over the next few years, with best friend Barbara Gugelstein and boyfriend Seth Mandel, Mona embraces Judaism (the religion of many of Scarshill's residents), confronts racism against blacks and others, espouses various causes, argues about socialism and other isms, and experiences sex and drugs. Ultimately, her actions prove too much for her mother, who turns her back on Mona, saying "Is this my daughter?" Jen's hilarious rendering, and rending, of an era is so accurate that it becomes real even for those who weren't there. She evenhandedly skewers all groups, from Jewish to black to WASP to Chinese to Japanese, reminding each of the shared histories that separate them. A brilliantly clever, worthy successor to her first novel.-Francine Fialkoff, "Library Journal"
Charles Taylor
Years ago, in a routine about craft projects, Lily Tomlin said that some of the things people can make nowadays are so clever it's impossible to tell whether or not they have any talent. You could say the same thing about comic observation in modern novels. There's observation up the ying-yang in Gish Jen's second novel, Mona in the Promised Land: witty observations of how the teenage Chinese-American heroine has more in common with her Jewish friends in suburban Westchester than her hard-working parents and telling observations of how Mona's parents give themselves over to the all-American work ethic while they resist becoming more Western. But is there dramatization, narrative momentum, any spark of savvy, pep, sensitivity or -- excuse me -- chutzpah that would tell us why we should care about Mona? We should only be so lucky.

The opening passages, with Mona sprouting all sorts of tall tales about her heritage, had me laughing. "In the eighth grade, people do not want to hear about how Chinese people eat tomatoes with the skin on . . . On the other hand, the fact that somewhere in China somebody eats or has eaten or once ate living monkey brains -- now, that's conversation." Fifty pages later, I had stopped laughing and had no idea why I was still reading.

Jen has the audacity to combine an adolescent's search for self with the larger search for cultural identity, and to set the whole thing in the late '60s when questions of racial and cultural identity seemed new and urgent. But there's nothing here Margaret Cho hasn't done funnier already, and Jen shies away from any turmoil or conflict that would require more than her oblique, low-key fiction-class approach. Reading Mona, you'd never know the '60s were anything more than a fad for bored, spoiled suburban kids. It's not just that the characters are oblivious to the larger questions swirling around in that decade; so's Jen. The book reads like notes for a character who didn't make the final cut on "The Wonder Years." In this novel, the '60s are grist for nothing more than the latest offbeat entry in the "It's all a part of life's rich pageant" genre sweepstakes. --Salon

Kirkus Reviews
"American means being whatever you want," the intensely bright and high-spirited protagonist of Jen's second novel (after Typical American, 1991) declares to her mother early in the narrative, and this droll, moving work presents an unsparing analysis of the allure and tolls of that freedom.

Mona Chang offers a first-person record of her life from 1968, when she is in the eighth grade, to adulthood. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Helen and Ralph, who have worked determinedly to discard the more obvious habits and tastes that might mark them as being too foreign; they have even (grudgingly) accepted that Mona and her sister Callie will inevitably lead lives far removed from most Chinese traditions. Grasping just how far, though, is the problem: Mona, feeling increasingly unmoored when her parents move to wealthy Scarshill, New York, believing that she needs to belong to a minority prouder of its identity and traditions, decides to convert to Judaism. Her decision unnerves not only her parents but the wider community, yet she stubbornly perseveres in the first of several rebellions. Woven through Mona's often witty narrative of her adolescence, of her struggles both to fit in and to stand apart, of her first hesitant experience of passion, is her determination to live outside both the expectations of her parents and the blithe stereotypes of society. Jen, who misses little, renders the status-laden particulars of life in Scarshill with the specificity of an anthropologist, and she catches the enthusiasms and prejudices of the 1960s and '70s with a documentary-like zeal. Mona describes all of this in a voice that is earthy, vivid, and convincing.

In tracing the (guardedly triumphant) struggles of one young woman to be herself, borrowing from a variety of traditions without being constrained by any of them, Jen gives us an affecting story—precise, often very funny—and a wonderfully idiosyncratic heroine.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781862070530
  • Publisher: Gardners Books
  • Publication date: 5/14/1998
  • Edition description: New

Meet the Author

Gish Jen
Gish Jen
Gish Jen's first novel, Typical American, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award -- earning Jen a place among such established Asian-American writers as Amy Tan and Chang-rae Lee. Her latest novel, The Love Wife, is "her most ambitious and emotionally ample work yet," according to Times critic Michiko Kakutani.

Biography

As a child, Chinese-American author Gish Jen read constantly, though she did not dream of becoming a writer. From pre-med at Harvard to finally finding an academic "home" in an MFA program, the author of The Love Wife, Typical American, Who's Irish?, and Mona in the Promised Land, is known for her tragi-comic sensibility and transcending stereotypes in her characters' search for identity.

Typical American, Jen's first novel, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and launched Jen into the literary limelight. The story follows three Chinese immigrants, Ralph Chang, his wife, Helen, and his sister, Theresa, as they pursue the American Dream and do battle with the pressures of greed, assimilation, and self-interest. Brilliantly funny and sad, the story takes some surprising turns in the quest to become American.

Gish Jen, whose characters undergo profound changes in the quest for identity, is herself no stranger to identity issues. After publishing two short stories with her given name, Lillian Jen, in the early eighties, she began using the name she acquired in high school, Gish Jen, after the silent film star, Lillian Gish.

Born in 1955 in New York, Jen grew up Chinese and Catholic in Queens, Yonkers and in the large Jewish community of Scarsdale. She never dreamed of being a writer. Instead she dutifully pleased her parents by first going to Harvard with plans to become a lawyer or doctor. That changed when a poetry professor suggested she at least work in publishing if she wasn't going to be a full-time writer. She took a job at Doubleday Books, but was not quite satisfied. From here, she enrolled in an M.B.A. at Stanford University, only to drop out and follow the urge to write. Finally, in the M.F.A. program at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she found her academic and creative home.

After Jen graduated from Iowa in 1983, she married David O'Connor and lived in California until 1985, when they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they now live with their two children. During this period, she was so discouraged about a literary career that she took a typing test at Harvard. Although she passed it with flying colors, she was able to triumphantly turn down the clerical job offered because she had been accepted as a fellow at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute. It was here that Jen began writing her first novel, Typical American, which was eventually published in 1991.

Typical American was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and gave Jen literary clout and exposure. The book follows the lives of three foreign students -- Ralph Chang, older sister Teresa, and Ralph's future wife Helen. When the Communists assume control of China in 1948, the three become trapped in the United States and band together, planning to achieve the American dream while keeping their Chinese values intact. However, as they encounter their own foibles and the challenges of America, the ride in this tragi-comic story is by no means smooth.

Rave reviews followed the publication of Typical American. The New York Times Book Review said, "No paraphrase could capture the intelligence of Gish Jen's prose, its epigrammatic sweep and swiftness. The author just keeps coming at you, line after stunning line. Even her incidental description seems new-minted -- purely functional, bone clean yet lustrous."

Although Typical American was successful, Jen resented being labeled as just an AsianAmerican writer. As a reaction, she decided to complicate what that meant with her second novel, Mona in the Promised Land (1996).

The story centers on the middle-class owners of a pancake house, Helen and Ralph Chang, who have moved on up to a house in wealthy, suburban Scarshill, NY. In 1968, with Vietnam and the civil rights movement in full swing, their younger daughter Mona enters high school, joins a youth group at a synagogue, converts to Judaism, fights against other "isms" and becomes known as Mona "Changowitz." Eventually, her mother turns her back on Mona, and Mona learns that her rabbi is right in telling her, "The more Jewish you become, the more Chinese you'll be."

Jen told the journal, Ploughshares, in 2000 that Mona in the Promised Land grew out of a short story, What Means Switch?, that she had written while trying to finish Typical American. She had lost her first pregnancy, and didn't know if she'd be able to finish the novel. After running into an old high-school acquaintance, she was inspired to revisit her teen years in Scarsdale in a short story.

In the eight short stories of Who's Irish? (2000), Jen chronicles Chinese and other Americans as they take on America with sometimes comic and heart-breaking outcomes. The stories originally appeared in such publications as The New Yorker and Ploughshares. Two stories were selected for the anthology Best American Short Stories, and one that was originally published in Ploughshares, "Birthmates," was chosen by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

The title story of Who's Irish? is one of the best. The story's narrator is a Chinese-born grandmother, who clashes with her liberal-minded, Westernized daughter in matters of childrearing. When she tries to discipline her misbehaving granddaughter in her firm Chinese way, the child's mother, who has married an Irish-American, decides her own mother should move out. Ultimately she moves in with her Irish-American son-in-law's mother, who is just as confused as she is about their offspring's modern ways. It seems the generational clash has superceded ethnic differences.

Throughout her writing career, Jen, has chosen to take advantage of what freedom she could find rather than play such roles as expert on China, or of professional victim. In the Ploughshares interview, she said, "I have hoped to define myself as an American writer."

In her third novel, The Love Wife (2004), readers are introduced to another of Jen's "typical American families." The family is made up of a second-generation Chinese American husband named Carnegie, a blue-eyed wife named Blondie, adopted Asian daughters Wendy and Lizzie and a blond biological son, Bailey. Then from mainland China, along comes Lan, a nanny and relative who is "bequeathed" by Carnegie's mother.

The mother of two biracial children, Jen told Dale Raben in a 2004 interview for the Library Journal that their appearances helped shape one of her themes in The Love Wife.

"My children look exactly alike except that my son has straight black hair and my daughter has fine, light hair. And for whatever reason, that has caused them to be seen very, very differently by the world.

In the novel, Blondie is already worried that their family looks strange, as if she and Bailey don't belong. Lan's arrival only intensifies this pre-existing tension.

Writing from a Chinese American standpoint, Jen argues that grouping people by ethnicity is almost meaningless. Continuing her interview in the Library Journal, she said, "You have to ask, ‘Are they immigrants or are they non-immigrants?' For the people in this book, to be first- and second-generation immigrants from a non-Western culture is very germane. How germane it will be to their children, who can say?"

In her novels and short stories, Jen liberates her characters from stereotypes by making them profoundly human and complex. In an interview published in 1993 in the journal MELUS (The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature) Jen said she views her work as indeterminate in its final message: "I think it has to do with the fact that I come from a culture where things can have opposite attributes at the same time, like in food, sweet and sour. The world is at once yin and yang."

Good To Know

Some outtakes from our interview with Jen:

"I am a more or less normal person."

"I have two happy, healthy children. They are far funnier than I am."

"I love nothing more than a long swim in a pond."

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    1. Hometown:
      Cambridge, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 12, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A. Harvard University, M.F.A., Iowa Writers’ Workshop

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