The New York Times Book Review \ \
Who's Irish?by Gish Jen
With dazzling wit and compassion, Gish Jenauthor of the highly acclaimed novels Typical American and Mona in the Promised Landlooks at ambition and compromise at century's end and finds that much of the/i>/i>/i>
"Sparklinga gently satiric look at the American Dream and its fallout on those who pursue it."The New York Times
With dazzling wit and compassion, Gish Jenauthor of the highly acclaimed novels Typical American and Mona in the Promised Landlooks at ambition and compromise at century's end and finds that much of the action is as familiarand as strangeas the things we know to be most deeply true about ourselves.
The stories in Who's Irish? show us the children of immigrants looking wonderingly at their parents' efforts to assimilate, while the older generation asks how so much selfless hard work on their part can have yielded them offspring who'd sooner drop out of life than succeed at it.
The New York Times Book Review \ \
In the gang warfare of contemporary American fiction, no turf has been claimed more genially than that of the Chinese-Americans in the work of Gish Jen, who is quite as ready to expose the foibles of her own people as to catalog their complaints. One of the most impressive things about her first collection of stories -- Who's Irish? -- is its range: First-person tales told by an old lady, a little girl and an Italian-American teenage boy sit easily alongside wry omniscient narratives set in prosperous American suburbs, the tough inner city and China itself. Yet in all its widely diverse cast of characters, there's not one you can't like, or at least sympathize with, even if there are few you can admire. Which is just as it should be.
The title story is one of the best. A Chinese-born grandmother, the story's narrator, makes a poor baby sitter in the eyes of her liberal-thinking, Westernized daughter, who has married into an Irish-American family. When the old woman tries to discipline her naughty granddaughter in the Chinese fashion -- firmly -- the child's mother decides it's time for her own mother to move out. They look at some small apartments, but in the end the narrator stays with her son-in-law's mother, an Irish woman of her own age, who is just as befuddled as she is by the young people's modern ways: The generational wars have overwhelmed the ethnic skirmishing.
Jen has a deft way of turning stereotypes on their heads. In "Birthmates" -- which John Updike recently included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century (a title P.T. Barnum would not have been ashamed of) -- a traveling Chinese businessman, pinching pennies, stays at a welfare hotel, where a young hoodlum knocks him out in the lobby. He regains consciousness in the room of a young black woman; groggily, he sees her cooking something and notices a plastic bag full of white powder on the table. He assumes the worst, but it turns out that she's making him a mug of hot milk and can afford only the powdered kind.
"Duncan in China," a novella-length piece, is a fascinating reversal of the usual immigrant's story. The title character, an assimilated Chinese-American, idealizes the intellectual and cultural tradition of the mother country and goes there to discover "the China of ineffable nobility and refinement." The story is set in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, and Duncan finds not the refinement of the Song dynasty porcelain he cherishes, but rather snitches, a tubercular cousin, lust and anti-intellectualism.
Another novella, "House, House, Home," is the weakest work in the collection. It tediously details the decline of the marriage of a college student and her art professor, a man of highly cultivated eccentricity who would surely be among the most irritating characters in contemporary fiction if you could believe in him for even a moment. "Sven did not see why he should not wear other people's clothes if they were left handy. And why not pick up someone else's camera at a party and, holding it behind your back, snap the party scene you couldn't see?" The narrator, who is Asian, finally splits up with this highly original person and finds a sensitive, politically enlightened Hawaiian hunk, who shows her "how she had been wifed, how she had been fetishized, how she had been viewed as Orientalia" by white, Western Sven. Where is the irony with which Jen usually slaps down that sort of cant? At the end, the author even finds it necessary to inform the reader that both these men were "anatomically well-equipped."
"House, House, Home," never before published, has an earnest '70s air about it; I would hazard a guess that it's the torso of a failed novel that was resurrected to bring the book up to 200 pages. That might be wrong and completely unfair, but in any case including it was unnecessary: The 126 pages that precede it are well worth the price of admission.
The New York Times
"Gish Jen's fiction is always engaging, always necessary."Newsday
- Knopf Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.95(w) x 8.67(h) x 0.98(d)
Read an Excerpt
Nothing the matter with Sophie's outside, that's the truth. It is inside that she is like not any Chinese girl I ever see. We go to the park, and this is what she does. She stand up in the stroller. She take off all her clothes and throw them in the fountain.
Sophie! I say. Stop!
But she just laugh like a crazy person. Before I take over as baby-sitter, Sophie has that crazy-person sitter, Amy the guitar player. My daughter thought this Amy very creative--another word we do not talk about in China. In China, we talk about whether we have difficulty or no difficulty. We talk about whether life is bitter or not bitter. In America, all day long, people talk about creative. Never mind that I cannot even look at this Amy, with her shirt so short that her belly button showing. This Amy think Sophie should love her body. So when Sophie take off her diaper, Amy laugh. When Sophie run around naked, Amy say she wouldn't want to wear a diaper either. When Sophie go shu-shu in her lap, Amy laugh and say there are no germs in pee. When Sophie take off her shoes, Amy say bare feet is best, even the pediatrician say so. That is why Sophie now walk around with no shoes like a beggar child. Also why Sophie love to take off her clothes.
Turn around! say the boys in the park. Let's see that ass!
Of course, Sophie does not understand. Sophie clap her hands, I am the only one to say, No! This is not a game.
It hasnothing to do with John's family, my daughter say. Amy was too permissive, that's all.
But I think if Sophie was not wild inside, she would not take off her shoes and clothes to begin with.
You never take off your clothes when you were little, I say. All my Chinese friends had babies, I never saw one of them act wild like that.
Look, my daughter say. I have a big presentation tomorrow.
John and my daughter agree Sophie is a problem, but they don't know what to do.
You spank her, she'll stop, I say another day.
But they say, Oh no.
In America, parents not supposed to spank the child.
It gives them low self-esteem, my daughter say. And that leads to problems later, as I happen to know.
My daughter never have big presentation the next day when the subject of spanking come up.
I don't want you to touch Sophie, she say. No spanking, period.
Don't tell me what to do, I say.
I'm not telling you what to do, say my daughter. I'm telling you how I feel.
I am not your servant, I say. Don't you dare talk to me like that.
My daughter have another funny habit when she lose an argument. She spread out all her fingers and look at them, as if she like to make sure they are still there.
My daughter is fierce like me, but she and John think it is better to explain to Sophie that clothes are a good idea. This is not so hard in the cold weather. In the warm weather, it is very hard.
Use your words, my daughter say. That's what we tell Sophie. How about if you set a good example.
As if good example mean anything to Sophie. I am so fierce, the gang members who used to come to the restaurant all afraid of me, but Sophie is not afraid.
I say, Sophie, if you take off your clothes, no snack.
I say, Sophie, if you take off your clothes, no lunch.
I say, Sophie, if you take off your clothes, no park.
Pretty soon we are stay home all day, and by the end of six hours she still did not have one thing to eat. You never saw a child stubborn like that.
I'm hungry! she cry when my daughter come home.
What's the matter, doesn't your grandmother feed you? My daughter laugh.
No! Sophie say. She doesn't feed me anything!
My daughter laugh again. Here you go, she say.
She say to John, Sophie must be growing.
Growing like a weed, I say.
Still Sophie take off her clothes, until one day I spank her. Not too hard, but she cry and cry, and when I tell her if she doesn't put her clothes back on I'll spank her again, she put her clothes back on. Then I tell her she is good girl, and give her some food to eat. The next day we go to the park and, like a nice Chinese girl, she does not take off her clothes.
She stop taking off her clothes, I report. Finally!
How did you do it? my daughter ask.
After twenty-eight years experience with you, I guess I learn something, I say.
It must have been a phase, John say, and his voice is suddenly like an expert.
His voice is like an expert about everything these days, now that he carry a leather briefcase, and wear shiny shoes, and can go shopping for a new car. On the company, he say. The company will pay for it, but he will be able to drive it whenever he want.
A free car, he say. How do you like that.
It's good to see you in the saddle again, my daughter say. Some of your family patterns are scary.
At least I don't drink, he say. He say, And I'm not the only one with scary family patterns.
That's for sure, say my daughter.
Meet the Author
Gish Jen lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
- Cambridge, Massachusetts
- Date of Birth:
- August 12, 1955
- Place of Birth:
- New York, New York
- B.A. Harvard University, M.F.A., Iowa Writers¿ Workshop
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