Typical American Essay - Critical Context

Lillian Jen

Critical Context

Jen is an American-born writer of Chinese descent who traveled to China to explore her cultural heritage. A graduate of Harvard University, she attended business school briefly but soon turned to creative writing. Her reading of the immigration experience as portrayed by Jewish American writers is one of the major influences in her work. For her writing, Jen has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College.

Typical American is Jen’s debut novel, preceded only by the publication of several short stories in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Upon its appearance in 1991, Typical American was immediately acclaimed for its original voice and viewpoint, its use of humor and pathos, its insights into the Chinese American immigrant experience, and its deep indictment of typically American values.

With Typical American, Jen has been heralded as a member of a new generation of Chinese American writers. Modern Chinese American writing began to emerge in 1950 with the publication of Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter, an autobiographical novel about assimilation into American culture. Other books that built the tradition include Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), a collection of autobiographical stories and traditional tales; Bette Bao Lord’s Eighth Moon: The Story of a Young Girl’s Life in Communist China (1964); and Wong’s autobiographical novel The Immigrant Experience (1971). Among Jen’s contemporaries in the 1980’s and 1990’s are Amy Tan, known for her novels The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), and Playwright David Henry Hwang, whose M. Butterfly (1988) earned him Tony and Drama Desk Awards.