Gish Jen 1955-
(Born Lillian Jen) American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Jen's career through 2003.
Jen's works focus on the immigrant experience and the biculturalism of the children of immigrants. Her novels Typical American (1991) and Mona in the Promised Land (1996) recount the experiences of several generations in the fictional Chang family who emigrate from China to the United States, where they find themselves grappling with the dilemmas of their bicultural status as Asian-Americans. In an interview with Marilyn Berlin Snell, Jen observed, “Immigrants see America through different eyes: They see the potential, but they also see the shortcomings. They are the intimate outsider.” Jen further commented, “In a way, the immigrant—or the immigrant literature of which I am a part—is pushing the limits and expanding the notion of America's view of itself. … Somehow, we must found a new American myth that is more inclusive of diversity than any of the myths we have had so far. … We need to create a new notion of what it means to be American, one that acknowledges our diversity.”
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen was born in New York in 1955. She grew up in Yonkers and Scarsdale, where hers was one of a very small minority of Asian-American families. “In Yonkers, people threw things at us and called us names,” she told Scarlet Cheng. “We thought it was normal—it was only much later that I realized it had been hard.” Jen acquired the nickname “Gish,” which became the basis of her pen name, Gish Jen, while in high school, based on having the same first name as that of the silent film star Lillian Gish. Jen graduated with a B.A. in English literature from Harvard University in 1977 and obtained a job in the nonfiction department of Doubleday Publishing. She enrolled in Stanford University business school in 1979, but found herself drawn to fiction writing and dropped out in her second year. She then traveled to China, where she worked as an English-language instructor at a coal-mining institute. Upon returning to the United States, Jen enrolled in the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. She earned an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1983 and was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1988. Her short stories, collected in Who's Irish? (1999), have been published in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Yale Review, and Iowa Review, and have been included in the anthology Best American Short Stories 1988. Her short story “Birthmates” was chosen by John Updike for the anthology Best American Short Stories of the Century. Jen has expressed frustration with being pigeonholed as a writer of the Chinese-American experience, asserting that her narratives encompass a broader literary and thematic focus. “If you're an Asian American writer,” Jen observed, “the work is not valued as art; it's valued as what is called ‘social documentary.’” She asserted, “Although the subject of my book [Typical American] is Asian American, it's also American … it's a way of understanding what it means to be American.” Jen has taught creative writing at Tufts University (1986) and the University of Massachusetts (1990-91). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children.
Typical American opens with the line, “It's an American story,” and proceeds to recount the experiences of siblings Ralph and Theresa Chang, and Theresa's friend Helen, who eventually becomes Ralph's wife. While students during the World War II and post-war era, they emigrate from China to the United States. Yifeng (later Ralph) Chang travels from Shanghai to New York City, where he is enrolled in a doctoral program in engineering. Ralph opts not to become an American citizen and is consequently forced to leave the university. Downtrodden and left with only ＄3.16 to his name, Ralph is aided by his sister and manages to regain order in his life. He falls in love with Helen, returns to school, earns a Ph.D., and is hired as a professor. Ralph and Helen marry, and the three immigrants form a happy family unit in which they maintain their Chinese cultural identity while pursuing the American dream of middle-class success. An American-born con-man by the name of Grover Ding, however, disrupts the harmony of their lives and causes their relationships to unravel by encouraging them to adopt what they had formerly looked down upon as “typical American” values and behaviors—greedy materialism, marital infidelity, and personal dishonesty. Critic Scarlet Cheng observed that Grover Ding represents “the temptation of the New World incarnate,” under whose influence “the American Dream tailspins into chaos.” Ding convinces Ralph to quit teaching and launch a fast-food restaurant, called Chicken Palace, which ultimately fails. In the end, Ralph once again obtains a teaching position and the three immigrants reconcile with one another. Through the characters of Ralph, Theresa, and Helen, Jen represents the immigrant experience as a struggle between old-world and new-world values that each individual must negotiate on his or her own terms. Jen commented in an interview with Snell that immigrants to the United States are faced with questions of self-identity that are not part of their traditional culture: “Indeed, when one escapes the circumscribed life of the Old World, new questions surface: Who am I? What can I make of myself? In the U.S., where there is so much more freedom, the immigrant sees that he or she also has a responsibility to attain at least some degree of self-knowledge. That is very different from the Old World, where one is born into a preordained life, remains in that circumscribed role and never has to think about it very much.” In an interview with Martha Satz, Jen commented, “I hope Typical American will be viewed not only as an immigrant story but as a story for all Americans, to make us think about what our myths and realities are.” While addressing serious themes, Typical American includes a strong element of humor and has been described as a social satire or comedy of manners. Jen's second novel, Mona in the Promised Land, explores the nature of individual, ethnic, and hyphenated identities in America's multicultural land of opportunity. Mona in the Promised Land has been described as a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. Set in a wealthy suburb of New York City in 1968, Mona in the Promised Land focuses on the experiences of Ralph's teenaged daughter Mona, who converts to Judaism and changes her last name to Changowitz. In the process of her struggle to formulate a sense of identity for herself, Mona gains a small multicultural group of friends—a young African-American man, a Japanese-American boy, and a Jewish girl—who find themselves living together for a summer. Through these experiences, Mona ultimately learns to negotiate her inherited Chinese-American identity with her newly adopted identity as a Jewish woman.
Jen has been compared to a number of prominent Asian-American writers of the late twentieth century, most notably Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. Critics offered high praise for Jen's portrayal of the immigrant experience and her treatment of the complexities of pursuing the “American dream” in Typical American. Yuko Matsukawa commented, “By guiding us through one Chinese immigrant family's experiences, [Jen] perceptively and brilliantly challenges readers to reexamine their definitions of home, family, the American dream, and, of course, what it is to be a ‘typical American.’” Scarlet Cheng, calling Typical American a “satiric, cautionary tale,” noted, “Jen shows us that the road to cultural assimilation is often paved with misguided intentions.” Reviewers of Mona in the Promised Land discussed the complexities of Jen's treatment of issues of individual identity in multicultural America. Marina Heung described Jen's representation of identity in Mona in the Promised Land as one that “adopts a distinctively postmodern stance, exploding accepted notions of identity boundaries and insisting that the identities are willfully chosen, not made.” Richard Eder offered praise for Jen's treatment of issues of identity in Mona in the Promised Land, explaining, “It is a kind of joyful irony that, among other things, makes Mona a kind of shining example of a multicultural message delivered with the wit and bite of art.” Reviews of Jen's novels and short-story collection Who's Irish? have praised her for a well-crafted prose style. Some reviewers, however, have faulted Jen for underdeveloped characterization. In a review of Typical American, Cheng, for example, commented, “Unfortunately, Jen's characters tend to remain emotionally remote. They seem too much like figures in a morality play, and we never really get under their skin, feel their angst, or experience their joy.” Others have criticized Jen for overly optimistic endings that tend to be saccharine as well as unconvincing. Most critics, however, agreed that Jen's prose style is witty, ironic, satirical, and infused with a shrewd sense of humor. Sylvia Brownrigg commented, “Jen's spry comedy comes from being able to look at Chinese and American cultures with both an outsider's and an insider's eye.” Several critics noted that Jen's writing is at its best when she works in the tragic-comic mode, asserting that she treats serious subjects with an appropriate touch of irony.
SOURCE: Jen, Gish, and Yuko Matsukawa. “MELUS Interview: Gish Jen.” MELUS 18, no. 4 (winter 1993): 111-20.
[In the following interview, conducted in November 1991, Jen discusses her writing process, literary influences, development as a writer, and use of humor in her stories.]
With the publication of her first book, Typical American, in 1991 and articles such as “Challenging the Asian Illusion” (New York Times 11 August 1991), Gish Jen is fast becoming a visible and vocal part of the contemporary American literary landscape. Born in New York City in 1955, Jen, who is a second-generation Chinese-American, grew up in Yonkers and Scarsdale,...
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SOURCE: Jen, Gish, and Martha Satz. “Writing About the Things That Are Dangerous: A Conversation with Gish Jen.” Southwest Review 78, no. 1 (winter 1993): 132-40.
[In the following interview, conducted in November 1991, Jen discusses multiculturalism, the immigrant experience, and the nature of identity in America.]
Interviewer's note: In November 1991, I interviewed Gish Jen on the occasion of the publication of her first novel, Typical American. The novel deals with a young Chinese man, Ralph Chang, who comes to do graduate work in engineering and pursue the American Dream as he understands it in China. In this country, he is reunited with his sister...
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SOURCE: Schwartz, Eleanor N. “Where the East Is Read.” Far Eastern Economic Review 154, no. 46 (14 November 1991): 56, 58.
[In the following review, Schwartz evaluates Jen's Typical American, along with two other novels by Chinese-American authors writing about the Chinese-American experience. Lee concludes that Jen, Amy Tan, and Gus Lee are all master storytellers.]
It has taken a long time for Americans to acknowledge the presence of the Chinese in their midst. Arriving with the California gold-rush in 1849, hired to lay railroad track in the Rocky Mountains, the Chinese were overworked, underpaid and the easy victims of persecution, both legal and...
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SOURCE: Jen, Gish, and Scarlet Cheng. “Gish Jen Talks with Scarlet Cheng.” Belles Lettres 7, no. 2 (winter 1991-92): 20-1.
[In the following interview, Jen discusses her use of humor in Typical American, and the frustrations of being pigeonholed as an Asian-American writer.]
Gish Jen is fuming. She is in Washington, D.C., on a book tour for her first novel, Typical American, and reporters keep asking her the same tiresome questions about being an Asian American writer. Her work keeps getting lumped together with the other Asian American books that came out last year—particularly, Frank Chin's Donald Duk and Gus Lee's China Boy—she...
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SOURCE: Cheng, Scarlet. “The Typical American Comes to Town.” Belles Lettres 7, no. 2 (winter 1991-92): 21, 23.
[In the following review, Cheng describes Typical American as a funny and well-crafted novel. However, Cheng observes that the characters are not fully developed and tend to remain emotionally remote from the reader.]
The last year brought a bloom of books from Chinese American writers, including the long-awaited second novel from Amy Tan, whose beautifully written bestseller, The Joy Luck Club, triggered the current fascination with Chinese American Literature.
Several distinctive first novels are among the offerings. All...
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SOURCE: Samarth, Manini. “Affirmations: Speaking the Self into Being.” Parnassus 17, no. 1 (1992): 88-101.
[In the following essay, Samarth compares Jen's Typical American with Donald Duk by Frank Chin and Pangs of Love by David Wong Louie. Samarth asserts that Jen's novel presents a more complete picture of the Asian woman's experience than do the works of Chin and Louie.]
A memory: a rush of summer air flirting the leaves into consternation; sunlight boiling off the tarmac; a comma-row of crows deepening telephone wires—black punctuation, visual speech; the roadside littoral of gnarled tree roots in frozen...
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SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “Some of Her Best Friends.” Washington Post Book World (12 May 1996): 3.
[In the following review, Yardley observes that Mona in the Promised Land includes likable characters and interesting stories, but asserts that the novel as a whole is disappointing because of inconsistencies in the narrative voice.]
Gish Jen's first novel, Typical American, published five years ago, is by any reasonable standard a rare accomplishment: mature, subtle, knowing, compassionate and, by no means least, funny. It tells the story of two Chinese immigrants to America, a brother and sister, whose determination to become “typical American”...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “A WASP-Free America.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 May 1996): 2.
[In the following review, Eder describes Mona in the Promised Land as a witty, thoughtful, and beautifully narrated story.]
Gish Jen's Typical American was a brilliantly witty and affecting novel of a Chinese family eroding like an island in the sucking tides of American culture.
Mona in the Promised Land is a sequel in a way. It focuses on what the tides restore: a 16-year-old whose stubborn sensibility obliges her to invent a way to be American that takes account of her cultural traditions even while rebelling against them....
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SOURCE: Miner, Valerie. “Asian-American Pancake.” Nation 262, no. 24 (17 June 1996): 35-6.
[In the following review, Miner describes Mona in the Promised Land as a witty but ultimately uneventful novel.]
What may distinguish our immigrant parents from the general mass of fretting fathers and mothers is that their decision to “create a new life in a new place” instills a profound conviction in will. Hence the children inherit responsibility as much as opportunity. “One generation is supposed to build on the last, ascending and ascending like the steps of a baby bamboo shoot.”
In Gish Jen's second novel, Mona in the Promised...
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SOURCE: Foster, Catherine. “A Wacky Mosaic of Teenage Self-Discovery.” Christian Science Monitor 88, no. 149 (27 June 1996): B2.
[In the following review, Foster describes Mona in the Promised Land as a funny and satisfying novel.]
The bare-bones plot of Gish Jen's novel Mona in the Promised Land, could have been written by a Benetton copywriter. Chinese girl in New York works in the family's pancake house; gets mad crush on a Japanese boy; becomes Jewish; volunteers on a suicide hot line; hangs out with her boyfriend in a tepee; and falls in with a low-life black crowd.
Are any groups left out?
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SOURCE: Heung, Marina. “Authentically Inauthentic.” Women's Review of Books 13, no. 12 (September 1996): 25.
[In the following review of Mona in the Promised Land, Heung asserts that the characters are not well developed and that Jen fails to adequately resolve the questions of multicultural identity raised in the novel.]
As Mona in the Promised Land opens, Ralph Chang, his wife and two daughters are moving to an affluent suburb of New York City called Scarshill—a move that signals the immigrant family's progressive assimilation into middle-class America. Gish Jen continues the saga of the Chang family that she began in her first novel, Typical...
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SOURCE: Mong, Adrienne. “The Chosen Person.” Far Eastern Economic Review 159, no. 44 (31 October 1996): 47.
[In the following review of Mona in the Promised Land, Mong criticizes Jen's storytelling skills.]
In the same irreverent vein as her first novel, Typical American, Gish Jen [in Mona in the Promised Land], continues to chart the life of a Chinese-American family, the Changs—this time through the eyes of teenager Mona. Moving to a posh New York suburb called Scarshill, the Changs unwittingly arrive at a cultural crossroads, where only Mona appreciates the issue of assimilation or rejection. It seems inevitable then that, floating in the...
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SOURCE: Kachuba, John. Review of Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen. Antioch Review 55, no. 1 (winter 1997): 114.
[In the following review, Kachuba describes Mona in the Promised Land as an insightful and witty novel.]
The '90s could be called the decade of multicultural literature, as Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian writers make their unique voices heard and clamor for inclusion in the American literary canon. Jen is one such writer. In her latest novel [Mona in the Promised Land], she employs her considerable wit and humor to skewer her experiences growing up as a “hyphenated-American,” in this case Chinese-American....
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SOURCE: Krist, Gary. “Schemers and Schemas.” Hudson Review 49, no. 4 (winter 1997): 687-94.
[In the following essay, Krist evaluates several works of recent fiction, including Jen's Mona in the Promised Land, about the working poor. Krist asserts that Mona's prose style is one of its greatest strengths, but comments that the narrative tends to be annoyingly cute in some passages.]
There was a time when the working classes were an endlessly fertile subject for writers in this country. Honorable lives played out in dreary, poverty-straitened circumstances seemed to contain enough color and passion to fill any number of novels, short stories, and plays....
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SOURCE: Ambrose, Mary. “In the Melting Pot.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4903 (21 March 1997): 24.
[In the following review, Ambrose unfavorably assesses Mona in the Promised Land, asserting that it is unfocused, frivolous, lacks emotional weight, its characters are not well developed, and its narrative voice is awkward.]
Gish Jen is a writer of Chinese descent whose popular novels tackle one of the central issues of American life, the new nature of cultural identity, without being ponderous or claiming victimhood. Mona in the Promised Land is modern, politically aware and has some interesting ideas handled with self-deprecating humour and a light...
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SOURCE: Huang, Betsy. “The Redefinition of the ‘Typical Chinese’ in Gish Jen's Typical American.” Hitting Critical Mass 4, no. 2 (summer 1997): 61-77.
[In the following essay, Huang argues that Jen's Typical American complicates the stereotypical representation of Chinese vs. American culture portrayed in many other works by Chinese-American authors.]
The title of Gish Jen's book, Typical American, is particularly provocative in that it engages readers to review the stereotypical notions of Americans and Chinese they may harbor. In spite of the growing number of contemporary Chinese American literature emerging onto the mainstream literary...
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SOURCE: Beauregard, Guy. “Myths of History.” Canadian Literature, no. 154 (autumn 1997): 162-64.
[In the following review, Beauregard discusses several works of fiction by Asian North American authors that address themes of history, memory, and multicultural identity. Beauregard observes that Typical American challenges the reader to rethink what it means to strive for the American dream.]
Near the end of his memoir, David Mura asks a series of remarkable questions about identity and culture: “Does culture ordinarily form a net of remembrance, a safety guard against forgetting? Does it provide the individual with at least some clues, some vague outlines,...
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SOURCE: Smith, Wendy. “Gish Jen: ‘The Book That Hormones Wrote.’” Publishers Weekly 246, no. 23 (7 June 1999): 59-60.
[In the following interview, Jen and Smith discuss Jen's development as a writer, her writing process, and her methods of balancing career with family life.]
If your idea of a serious writer is a man sequestered in his study, thinking deep thoughts in seclusion from society's trivial pursuits, then Gish Jen definitely doesn't fill the bill. Like most women with young children (her son, Luke, is seven years old; her daughter, Paloma, seven months), Jen inhabits a world in which the competing demands of work and family are everywhere—literally...
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SOURCE: Heung, Marina. “Windows of Opportunity.” Women's Review of Books 16, nos. 10-11 (July 1999): 41.
[In the following review of Who's Irish?, Heung asserts that Jen's writing style has matured, and that her stories, in comparison to her novels, demonstrate a broader scope as well as greater insight and clarity.]
Families, generations and habitats have always been Gish Jen's subjects. Her first novel, Typical American, tells us how the story of how the Changs arrive in America and enter the affluent middle class. Mona in the Promised Land, her second novel, is an extended riff on identity-switching, with one of the Chang daughters, Mona,...
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SOURCE: Brownrigg, Sylvia. “Margarinized.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5026 (30 July 1999): 21.
[In the following review, Brownrigg comments that the stories of Who's Irish? address the theme of marginalization with intelligence and humor.]
Gish Jen's new collection of stories [Who's Irish?], like other recent fictions by Lan Samantha Chang or Mei Ng, explores a rich territory where intergenerational conflict intersects with cross-cultural misunderstanding.
Jen's characters are fluent in the vernacular of the American suburbia in which they are raised, but they remain alert to the chiding voices of their striving, often immigrant...
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SOURCE: Xiaojing, Zhou. “Becoming Americans: Gish Jen's Typical American.” In The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature: Carving out a Niche, edited by Katherine B. Payant and Toby Rose, pp. 151-63. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Xiaojing contrasts representations of the Chinese-American immigrant experience in Jen's Typical American with those of novels by Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Frank Chin. Xiaojing argues that Jen's work breaks from the paradigm of immigrant fiction established by Kingston, Tan, and Chin by focusing on the inner life of her characters as they work through the process of adapting to life in...
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SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Blair-Speak.” London Review of Books 22, no. 1 (6 January 2000): 25.
[In the following review of Who's Irish?, Annan comments that Jen's prose is witty and perceptive, but that her stories are marred by unrealistically happy endings.]
Ever since her first novel Typical American appeared in 1991, the Chinese American writer Gish Jen has been acclaimed as the new Amy Tan. Amy Tan herself acclaims her on the cover of Mona in the Promised Land (1996), Jen's second novel; and again on this collection of short stories. Jen has a lot going for her: she is witty, perceptive, penetrating, sharp on motives and a great mimic. She...
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SOURCE: Zierler, Wendy. “Laughter with a Twist.” Far Eastern Economic Review 163, no. 5 (3 February 2000): 36-7.
[In the following review, Zierler asserts that the stories in Who's Irish? demonstrate Jen's best writing to date. Zierler observes that Jen is at her best when in the tragic-comic mode.]
Gish Jen is at her best when she is funny and serious at the same time. And she is at her best in this new collection of stories about the Chinese-American experience.
Who's Irish in this book? Not the immigrant Chinese mother who narrates the title story, but her perennially unemployed son-in-law, allowing for some hilarious observations on the...
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SOURCE: Furman, Andrew. “Immigrant Dreams and Civic Promises: (Con-)Testing Identity in Early Jewish American Literature and Gish Jen's Mona in the Promised Land.” MELUS 25, no. 1 (spring 2000): 209-26.
[In the following essay, Furman compares fiction about the Jewish-American immigrant experience to that of the Chinese-American immigrant experience in Jen's Mona in the Promised Land. Furman asserts that Jen's writing “engages the paradigm shift regarding the immigrant ethos” that has developed in America since the 1960s.]
One of the things about which he often made fun of me was my Talmud gesticulations, a habit that worried me...
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SOURCE: Lee, Don. “About Gish Jen.” Ploughshares 26, nos. 2-3 (fall 2000): 217-22.
[In the following essay, Lee provides an overview of Jen's life and career.]
Gish Jen lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, eight-year-old son, and one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and the hectic pace of her life is reflected in her rapid-fire speech. The celebrated author of two novels and a collection, Jen is known for her humor and brimming intelligence, her ready opinions and easy laugh, her charm, and, not least of all, her volubility. Even though she remembers herself as being shy and withdrawn as a kid, she admits she was constantly kicked out of class for...
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SOURCE: González, Begoña 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 (summer 2001): 225-42.
[In the following essay, González examines the dialogic tensions between ritual and ceremony in Mona in the Promised Land, in the context of Chinese-American literature. González argues that Mona suggests the need to embrace the concept of heterogeneity and reciprocal, shared difference in the formation of individual identity.]
Much has been written of the cultural alternatives of continuity, rupture, or invention in recent years. It has become...
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SOURCE: DelRosso, Jeana. “The Convent as Colonist: Catholicism in the Works of Contemporary Women Writers of the Americas.” MELUS 26, no. 3 (fall 2001): 183-201.
[In the following essay, DelRosso examines the intersections of gender and Catholicism with the discourses of nationhood and colonialism in several narratives of Catholic girlhood. DelRosso discusses the impact of education in a convent school in China on the immigrant experience of the character Theresa in Jen's Typical American.]
Writing about the complex relationship between Christian religions and third-world countries in Women and Christianity: A Map of the New Country, Sara Maitland argues...
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SOURCE: Lee, Rachel. “Who's Chinese?” Women's Review of Books 19, no. 5 (February 2002): 13-14.
[In the following review, Lee analyzes Jen's representation of gender, travel, and the immigrant experience in the title story of Who's Irish?]
I hang onto “travel” as a term of cultural comparison, precisely because of its historical taintedness, its associations with gendered, racial bodies, class privilege … frontiers … and the like. I prefer it to the more apparently neutral, and “theoretical,” terms such as “displacement,” which can make the drawing of equivalences across historical experiences too easy.
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SOURCE: Lin, Erika T. “Mona on the Phone: The Performative Body and Racial Identity in Mona in the Promised Land.” MELUS 28, no. 2 (summer 2003): 47-57.
[In the following essay, Lin draws on the gender theories of Judith Butler to argue that Jen's Mona in the Promised Land deconstructs the dominant discourse of the racialized body.]
When the teenage title character in Mona in the Promised Land realizes
how in the popular conception Orientals are supposed to be exotically erotic, … all she'll want to say is, But what about my areolaless hubs? Not to say my sturdy short legs—have you ever seen a calf so...
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