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.