Authors: Gish Jen

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American author of fiction and nonfiction

August 12, 1955

New York, New York

Biography

Gish Jen emerged as a promising new writer in the early 1990s, when her stories and articles began appearing in such prominent publications as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, and the Boston Globe. Jen is a second-generation Asian American who grew up in Scarsdale, New York, a privileged suburb of New York City. She was educated at Harvard University, Stanford’s School of Business, and later the University of Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop. Since completing her education, she has worked in the publishing industry and has been the writer-in-residence at Yale University and Williams College.

Her first works, written while she was studying at Iowa, were published under her given name, Lillian. Friends recommended that she change her first name to “Gish,” the nickname that she had gone by ever since her school classmates christened her after the famous silent film star, Lillian Gish. Jen has stated in interviews that she likes the double accented syllables of “Gish Jen,” with its ambiguous gender identity. All of her later work has been published under that name.

Gish Jen.

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By Romana Vysatova (direct from photographer) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Jen’s concern over taxonomy is evident in her work, where verbal games and idiom play an important role. One of her distinguishing features as a writer is her acute ear for the way in which people speak. She has a gift for capturing the syntax of nonnative speakers of English, in a way that not only illuminates their intended meaning, but also the inadequacies of trying to pour the meaning of one language into another. A consistent theme running throughout the body of Jen’s work is the way cultures interact and overlap. The tensions she chronicles are carried out at the mythic level—specifically in the way the expectations and legends about the United States differ from those of Jen’s Asian forebears.

Jen’s reputation was established with Typical American. The novel developed from her short story “In the American Society,” in which the problems of the Chang family were first presented. In Typical American Jen returns to the Chang family to explicate the themes that the story introduced. Jen also interpolated the text of her story “The Water-Faucet Vision” into the book. The novel follows a young Chinese man, Ralph Chang, who comes to the United States to do graduate work in engineering. The novel dramatizes the cultural differences that Ralph Chang, his wife Helen, and his sister Theresa encounter. Ralph’s expectations about America collide with the realities of academic politics, leaking roofs, and the superficiality of American culture. The family learns to navigate through this new and threatening society by distancing themselves from it. They use derogatory expressions, such as “typical American,” to convey their sense of the shallowness and commerciality of American life. China is still very much part of the Changs’ inner lives, a touchstone of comparison for all that they now find threatening. China for them represents all that is unsullied and the purity of the inner self. Much of the novel’s satiric fire derives from this tension between the two cultural poles. By the end of the novel, Jen achieves a truly comic resolution, when her characters realize that they too have become “typical Americans.” The reader is left with the sense that the Changs’ inner Chinas are just as illusory as their initial impressions of America had been.

Questioned about her use of a male protagonist in Typical American, Jen says that she was trying to “figure out what reality was like for her parents.” Jen’s position as a second-generation American, aware of both her parents’ culture and the one in which she grew up, allows her the comic scope for drawing a sharp satiric portrait. Ralph Chang’s America proves not to be the one for which the young engineer hopes, but a more practical, drearier reality in which he manages a pancake restaurant.

Mona in the Promised Land continues the story of the Changs, this time focusing on their teenage daughter Mona. The story takes place in the 1970s, and Mona has repudiated her Chinese identity by assimilating to the Jewish culture of the upscale New York suburb where the family has moved. After increasing incomprehension between the generations as the elder Changs try to understand what has happened to their daughter, Jen finishes with a comic paean to multiculturalism as Mona marries, is reconciled with her parents, and considers having her Jewish husband change his name to Changowitz.

Many critics have pointed out that Jen’s perspective is inevitably that of an outsider; as a daughter of privilege, with an Ivy-League education, looking at the East, and as an Asian American woman viewing American society with a cool distance denied a writer who is unalloyed with any other society. The magic of Jen’s work is the ease with which she can move between the two cultures she inhabits. Jen joins a growing list of Asian American women writers, such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, who in the late twentieth century have found a voice. These writers have added the richness of their insights and poetry into a literary and cultural tradition where they had not previously been heard.

In the 2000s and 2010s, Jen published two novels as well as two cultural studies. The Love Wife (2004) is the story of the Wong family, interracial by marriage and adoption, and how their lives are thrown into disarray when a relative from China arrives to live with them at the behest of the family matriarch, Mama Wong, after her death. The protagonist of World and Town (2010), Hattie Kong, is a retired high school biology teacher who, in the spring of 2001, is grieving the loss of her husband and best friend to cancer. Her loneliness is interrupted by a Cambodian family who moves into a double-wide trailer down the hill. Both novels are told from the first-person perspectives of multiple narrators. The two cultural studies, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self (2013) and The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap (2017) examine the difference between Eastern and Western perceptions of the self and society.

Author Works Long Fiction: Typical American, 1991 Mona in the Promised Land, 1996 The Love Wife, 2004 World and Town, 2010 Short Fiction: “In the American Society,” 1987 (in The New Generation: Fiction for Our Time from America’s Writing Programs, Alan Kaufman, editor) “The Water-Faucet Vision,” 1988 (in Best American Short Stories, 1988) “The White Umbrella,” 1990 (in Home toStay: Asian American Women’s Fiction, Sylvia Watanabe and Carol Bruchac, editors) Who’s Irish? Stories, 1999 Nonfiction: Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, 2013 The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap, 2017 Bibliography “About Gish Jen.” Ploughshares 26, no. 2/3 (2000): 217–222. Profile of Jen. Chen, F. J., and S. L. Yu. “The Parallax Gap in Gish Jen's The Love Wife: The Imaginary Relationship between First-World and Third-World Women.” Critique—Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 51, no. 4, 2010, pp. 394–415. Gonzalez, Begona Simal. “The (Re)Birth of Mona Changowitz: Rituals and Ceremonies of Cultural Conversion and Self-Making in Mona in the Promised Land.” MELUS 26, no. 2 (2001): 225–242. Examines the question of choice of “ethnic” identity and the differences between ritual and ceremony in Jen’s novel. Jen, Gish. “The Intimate Outsider.” Interview by Marilyn B. Snell. New Perspectives Quarterly 8, no. 3 (1991): 56–60. Focuses on Typical American and Jen’s depiction of the immigrant experience. Jen, Gish. “MELUS Interview: Gish Jen.” Interview by Yoko Matsukawa. MELUS 18 (Winter, 1993): 111–120. An excellent examination of Jen as both a person and a writer, which discusses Jen’s development and concerns as a writer. Jen provides a substantial analysis of Typical American. The article includes a bibliography of her works, including those under her given name, Lillian. Rifkind, Donna. “Neighborhood Watch.” Review of World and Town, by Gish Jen. The New York Times, 5 Nov. 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/books/review/Rifkind-t.html. Accessed 5 May. 2017. Samarth, Manini. “Affirmations: Speaking the Self into Being.” Parnassus 17, no. 1 (1991): 88–102. Discusses the use of tropes in Jen’s stories and the way she turns them into satire. Storace, Patricia. “Seeing Double.” The New York Review of Books 38 (August 15, 1991): 9–12. A review of Typical American focusing on the novel’s theme of duality. Includes a synopsis and an exploration of duality in both the joining of opposites and the coexistence of parallels. Yang, Wesley. “Many Selves.” Review of Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, by Gish Jen. The New York Times, 26 Apr. 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/books/review/tiger-writing-by-gish-jen.html. Accessed 5 May. 2017.

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