Last reviewed: June 2017
American author of fiction and nonfiction
August 12, 1955
New York, New York
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.
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.