Lillian Jen was born in the suburbs of New York city in 1955, the second of five children of Norman and Agnes Jen. Her father, a hydraulics engineer, left China for the United States to work on a project preparing for a hypothetical invasion of the Chinese mainland in 1945. He was prohibited from returning to China after the Communists took control of the government there. He resented being classified as a refugee and did not become an American citizen, officially holding no national status for many years.
Jen’s mother had been sent abroad for her education, a typical pattern among moderately wealthy Chinese families. Jen grew up in Yonkers, New York, where her family were the only Chinese in the area; they were often taunted by local children. When the family moved to the more prosperous neighborhood of Scarsdale, Jen took advantage of the well-stocked local library to launch a personal program of avid reading which included every book in the building by the time she reached fifth grade.
Her family had a high regard for formal education, and her three older brothers attended Ivy League colleges before becoming successful businessmen, while her sister followed a pre-med curriculum. The family had expected Jen to pursue a similar course, but she was already writing poetry in junior high school, and on a National Science Foundation archeological dig she introduced herself as “Gish” Jen—an adaptation of the name of the famous actress Lillian Gish. It was also a characteristically idiosyncratic attempt to claim or establish an individual identity beyond traditional cultural expectations. Nonetheless, Jen entered Harvard University as a pre-law or pre-med major, until in a class with the noted classics scholar and translator Robert Fitzgerald she found herself fascinated by weekly assignments requiring the students to write poems. “I loved it,” Jen recalls, “I remember telling my roomate I loved writing and would do it for the rest of my life.”
When Jen graduated from Harvard in 1977, Fitzgerald suggested she might “consider doing something with words,” so she accepted his offer to help her find a job with Doubleday publishers. At Doubleday, she found herself in a kind of limbo, neither writing nor earning much money, so she entered an M.B.A. program at Stanford University (encouraged by her parents, who insisted “You need a meal ticket”) but divided her time between classes and writing workshops, passing her exams with the assistance of a fellow student, David O’Connor, her future husband, whose expert prepping substituted for full-scale study.
In 1979, Jen’s family visited China for the first time since her parents’ departure. There they discovered that they were regarded as “overseas Chinese,” a distinction which Jen recalls as a part of her growing awareness of the multiplicity of identities within outwardly homogenous ethnic groups. Jen returned to China in 1981 to teach in Shandong Province. On subsequent visits she realized that, for many Asians, identity “resided at least as much in tradition as much as blood.” She, especially during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic of the early 2000’s, began to see herself as “acutely American” in her disdain for sharing a communal meal.
Jen’s parents were very displeased when she left Stanford to enroll in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1981. They refused to provide her with any financial assistance, and her mother did not speak to her for a year. Jen completed the M.F.A. program in 1983 and moved with O’Connor to California after they were married. They returned East to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1985, where Jen was accepted as a fellow at Radcliffe College’s Bunting Institute. There, she began her first novel, Typical American, which was published in 1991 and listed as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award that year. At that time, Jen bristled “early on at being labeled an ’Asian-American writer,’” a label which she eventually accepted, to a degree, with the wry observation that “we live in a culture where if you’re not labelled you disappear.”
Her second novel, Mona in the Promised Land (1996), followed the Chang family Jen introduced in Typical American through a series of expansions and revisions of identity. It was inspired initially by a meeting with a classmate from high school whose Jewish background led to the “birth” of Mona Chang, a convert to Judaism who “came spinning out” of the first chapter.
Jen collected the short fiction she had been publishing in Who’s Irish? (1999), a reference to her two children with O’Connor. One of the stories, “Birthmates,” was chosen by John Updike for inclusion in his anthology The Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999), while the story “In the American Society” was a kind of recapitulation and extension of the Changs at the turn of the twenty-first century, a story included in several prominent anthologies used in many universities. Jen received a Strauss Living Award (five years at $50,000 per year) in 2003 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2004 she published The Love Wife. This work carries the themes of ethnicity and identity further by focusing on a second-generation Chinese American family whose assumptions about their place in American society are disrupted by the arrival of a Mandarin-speaking relative from China, ostensibly a nanny sent to assist, who compells all of them to question everything about their moderately comfortable lives.
As Jen told Library Journal in an interview, “My children look exactly alike except that my son has straight black hair and my daughter has fine, light hair. And for whatever reason, that has caused them to be seen very differently by the world,” just like the children of Carnegie and Janie (Blondie) Wong in The Love Wife, who have adopted Asian daughters Wendy and Lizzie prior to the birth of their biological son, Bailey. As for her future plans, Jen tends to be cautiously reserved, replying to a question about what she was working on: “No. Too early, too early, too early!” and “Something or nothing, it’s hard to say.”
Gish Jen’s explorations of a multivalent American identity are a part of a literary mode including Louise Erdrich’s (German/American/Indian) The Master Butchers Singing Club (2004) and Ishmael Reed’s (African/American/Indian) Japanese by Spring (1993), which challenge the exclusive and limiting terms previously applied to American ethnic communities.
Gish Jen, born Lillian Jen in 1955, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who came to the United States separately in the 1940’s. Jen grew up in the suburb of Scarsdale, north of New York City. Her father was a hydraulics engineer who had been invited to the United States to assist in the war effort and her mother was a young socialite who had been sent to the United States for graduate education. Neither was able to return to China following the communist takeover there. Now permanently in the United States, her father felt he was living “in no world”; he did not become a U.S. citizen for many years.
Jen has said that she and her brother were beaten and insulted regularly as children because they were part of the only Chinese family in the neighborhood. She soon began to introduce herself as Gish Jen, named for film star Lillian Gish, in “a spirit of adventure.” Jen’s parents wanted her to earn an M.B.A. after majoring in English at Harvard, but she “had to be a writer or die.” She took a job at Doubleday, which did not pay well or advance her aspirations to write. She then applied to Stanford University’s business school only because Stanford had a graduate writing program. She managed to pass her business courses while “taking great courses across the street.” Her mother did not speak to her for one year after she graduated from Stanford. Jen then taught English at a coal-mining school in China before applying to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa; she graduated in 1983. She and her husband David O’Connor lived in California until 1985 then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Jen was awarded a fellowship to Radcliffe’s Bunting Institute. She wrote her first novel, Typical American, while at Radcliffe. The novel was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991.
Jen’s two children with O’Connor inspired the title of her short-story collection Who’s Irish? and her increasing interest in the traditional culture of mainland China formed the basis for The Love Wife, which explores how a visitor from China affected an acculturated Chinese American family.