Gish Jen American Literature Analysis
From the first settlements of European pioneers on the shores of the North American continent, issues of who would determine the dominant cultural conditions of the New World created a power struggle among competing nations seeking to establish colonial outposts. Testaments to this struggle, such as James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826), were an early and ongoing form in American letters, one reinvigorated by successive arrivals of immigrants from regions whose languages and mores differed, at least in appearance, from the English model which assumed ascendancy with the formation of the American republic. The interaction of an American Indian (Chingachgook), a European frontiersman (Natty Bumpo, or “Hawkeye”), and British officers in Cooper’s novel prefigure a clash and confluence of viewpoints which continues to the present day.
Jen’s novels and short stories are a manifestation of this genre, shifting the perspective from an Atlantic orientation toward a pan-Pacific one, reversing the direction of entry but still located in and around New York City, the dynamic center of the American Empire. As Jen told an interviewer in 2005, “We are seeing more and more families that fall outside of the Dick and Jane mold these days—mixed race families, blended families, adopted families, and so on—as is very much in keeping with the idea of America.” She sees this situation as “natural.” The plural, hybrid nation that she describes, however—as much as it might stand as an ideal vision—is still complicated. Jen notes, “for all its naturalness, how challenging this new phase of the American experiment” continues to be.
With the introduction of three Chinese immigrant characters in her debut novel, Typical American, critics immediately hailed Jen as the representative of the newest American ethnic community, a designation which she wanted to deny as limiting but which she realized was inevitable. As a student, her favorite authors had been the likes of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Cynthia Ozick. These writers’ settings were grounded in the experience of Jewish immigrants who brought a deep cultural legacy to the United States. Jen felt close to and very friendly toward the Jewish students she met in high school in Scarsdale, once commenting that “The Chinese were the new Jews.”
The humor inherent in this comment informs Jen’s account of the Changs in Mona in the Promised Land. It is also a crucial part of her view of American society in the late twentieth century, enabling her to treat Chinese culture with respect and understanding while avoiding a solemn reverence that would limit the sometimes startling changes that occur in her characters’ lives as their expectations collide with the energetic flux of life in the United States.
Rather than avoiding some of the stereotypes applied by outsiders to the Chinese American community, Jen has taken and twisted them to reveal the human need beneath a facade that acted as a defense against prejudice. The Changs think of themselves as a team, the “Chinese Yankees,” leading to the pleasure of watching and rooting for the New York Yankees at home on television, since the one time they went to Yankee Stadium, “people had called them names and told them to go back to the laundry.” Helen Chang seeks acceptance by assimilation, her husband, Ralph Chang, maintains a dignified distance while maneuvering quietly to overcome prejudice, their daughters Callie and Mona tend toward becoming ultra-Chinese or ultra-American—except when they are all acting in apparent contradiction to these tendencies.
Neither Jen nor her characters are confined by any single mode, and Jen is continually putting them in awkward or absurd situations where comic confusion inevitably results. Jen has cited the familiar image, in an interview with Carla Drysdale, of a world “where things can have the opposite attributes at the same time, like in food, sweet and sour. The world is at once yin and yang.” Jen’s distintive humor, a function of linguistic invention, unexpected and startling action, and brash flaunting of convention, has a singular quality. Jen, in response to a query in a BookBrowse conversation about how she managed “to make the character’s lives funny even as awful things happen to them,” maintained “I do not manage to make them funny—they simply turn funny at the most inappropriate times,” a working definition of comedy itself.
An important aspect of Jen’s comic vision is conveyed by her employment of the language which illuminates the psychology of her characters. Lan, arriving from China in The Love Wife, speaks Mandarin, which Jen renders in italics. The Changs in Typical American speak a blend of standard English and a vernacular influenced by a syntax anchored in Chinese languages, which gives their obvious intelligence an endearing informality. The title story of Who’s Irish? is told by a Chinese American woman, deftly presented in a kind of casually fractured English—which Jen says she could not have used earlier because editors would have advised her to resubmit her work when she had mastered English forms.
Commenting on the Irish Shea family, the Chinese woman acknowledges her good fortune in operating a successful restaurant, noting that she comes “from a country where the food is popular all over the world,” before wryly adding, “I understand it is not the Shea family’s fault they come from a country where everything is boiled.”
A continuing source of irritation for Jen has been the frequent critical judgment that she is not writing about “real Americans.” She called Mona in the Promised Land “a book about a very big America,” a land where “from the beginning, it has been about fluidity of identity.” Rather than a denial of heritage, Jen has insisted...
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