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."
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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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In the fall of 2004, Gish Jen took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Probably I was most influenced by Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, though Heidi was a close second. I wanted to refuse rich Teddy and marry Professor Baer while drinking goat's milk in the mountains.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I don't know that I could name ten favorite books, but here are some titles that have left their mark:
King Lear by William Shakespeare -- That "Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms" still breaks my heart.
Essays by Michel de Montaigne -- These ever-fresh essays are for me the definition of companionship.
A Century of Nature edited by Laura Garwin and Tim Lincoln -- This is a collection of a very different sort -- 21 seminal science papers from the esteemed Nature magazine. "Discoveries that changed the world," they range from the discovery of the neutron to the cloning of Dolly the sheep -- each utterly fascinating, and yet only part of the onslaught that is the book as a whole. Such an overwhelming visceral passion for knowledge! I was awed.
The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather -- Talk about passion. Thea chooses art over love! This book shocked me more than anything I ever read in Philip Roth. I remain grateful for Cather's courage, and not a little amazed.
Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism by Joan Acocella -- Must reading, I think, for any writer. As my mother-in-law always used to tell me, "Tastes change"; we all know it. Still, It is ever tonic to be reminded how much so.
A Private Life of Henry James by Lyndall Gordon -- Another important book for me as a writer, raising as many questions as it does about how art gets made -- or at least how James made it. I might add that I found Gordon's bold book far more tactful, more vivid, and more convincing than Colm Tóibín's more popular book about James, The Master.
Preschool in 3 Cultures: Japan, China, and the United States by Joseph Tobin, David Wu, and Dana Davidson -- This one raises questions about how people get made. The authors of this book observed preschool life in three countries, with astoundingly revelatory results.
Midnight by Mao Dun -- This is an early-20th-century Chinese classic, written, it turns out, by a relative of mine. Mao Dun was a distant cousin, and also a student of my grandfather's.
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky -- I could never be friends with someone who did not like Prince Myshkin.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy -- I cannot eat a potato without thinking of Pierre.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I love Brahms, particularly The German Requiem. However, I do not listen to Brahms or anything else while I'm working.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Snow by Orhan Pamuk. This book delights and instructs, in the best way.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like giving people books they will love but have somehow never heard of. I give Alice Munro to anyone who hasn't read her; also Cynthia Ozick, whose Heir to the Glimmering World is particular fun for the literary. I loved Stephen Greenblatt's new book about Shakespeare, Will in the World, and hope to get that to my theatergoing friends before they find it themselves. As for new mothers up at night, I've found Elizabeth Graver's Awake to provide particularly appropriate company. This is about a woman with a child born unable to tolerate sun; many a mother recognizes the intimate claustrophobia of their nocturnal life.
I love receiving books through which I see the world as my friend sees it. A friend gave me Andy Goldsworthy's book Stone, for example -- a visionary book I never would have thought to pick up. Another gave me Domestica, by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, about immigrant domestic workers -- a book that forever changed how I view the help on which I, like so many people, depend.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Before I had children, I used to garden to get into the right frame of mind; also I took a lot of creative naps. Now I drop my kids off at school, down my double cappuccino, and start typing.
What are you working on now?
Something or nothing, it's hard to say.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It wasn't so long ago when, having given up on writing, I took a typing test, hoping to qualify for a secretarial job somewhere in my hometown university. I still vividly recall the moment when the woman at the front of the room said, "Miss Jen?" and I realized, That's me! And when the woman said, "You have typed 90 words a minute without any mistakes, I'm sure we can find you a job," I was elated.
But in fact no job was forthcoming for some time; and in the meanwhile, I was by a miracle named a fellow at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe. By the time someone finally called with an offer, I was able to reply, "I'm sorry, I'm no longer interested, I am now a fellow at the Bunting Institute." A wonderful moment! And yet even now, I am aware that things could so easily be other than what they are for me. When I think of how things have worked out, I often recall that great scene in the movie The African Queen, when Bogie and Katharine Hepburn are lost in a rainstorm in the jungle. They go to sleep in despair but wake up to discover that the rising water has floated them out into the open sea. That, it seems to me, is my life.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I would love to see Qiu Xiaolong "discovered" by a larger audience. Death of a Red Heroine is a charming whodunit set in contemporary China, starring an inspector who quotes classical Chinese poetry.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
There is still no substitute for radical sincerity.
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