Gish Jen emerged as a promising new writer in the early 1990’s, 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.
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...
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