Gish Jen Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Gish Jen uses words and phrases drawn from the Mandarin language, as well as references to geographical features around Shanghai, to convey the Chinese heritage of her characters. Locate examples and consider how they are used.

Jen was displeased when an interviewer asked her why Mona in the Promised Land had “no real Americans in it.” She replied, “You have to think again about what an American is.” How has she guided this thinking?

In her depiction of first-and second-generation Americans, Jen often draws a contrast between what seem like traditional values and modern innovations. What are some of the core values that Jen supports beyond any specific ethnic identity?

One of the most distinctive elements of Jen’s work is its comic qualities. She has said, “If anything, I have sometimes struggled to make my work less funny. My natural facility is to find the laugh.” What are some of the most prominent examples of this tendency, and how do they contribute to the mood of an incident?

Jen describes The Love Wife as a novel “as if told by the various Wongs at a very long family therapy session.” How does she make each separate “voice” distinct and unique, belonging to and illuminating a particular character?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In Who’s Irish? Stories (1999), Gish Jen (jehn) has collected short stories that are both a part of the origins of the central themes in her fiction and a continuance of their implications. Her first novel, Typical American, developed from the short story “In the American Society” (1987), whereas her novel Mona in the Promised Land was first begun while she was working on Typical American. She was uncertain about how to finish the second novel and decided instead to explore her teenage years with the short story “The Water-Faucet Vision” (1988) after meeting a friend from her high school days.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Gish Jen’s work has been instrumental in introducing Asian American cultures to a reading public that, for the most part, has been casually familiar with an ethnic community that remains stereotyped in the United States. Asian Americans and Asian immigrants are often derided as not just different but as representative of a kind of evil in direct conflict with European values. Jen’s presentations of Chinese families in the United States are so fully human, humorous, and admirable that they counteract these bigoted preconceptions.

Jen’s goal as a writer has been to demonstrate that the essence of the American experience is one of forced accommodation to a narrow, constricting model of behavior. She also has sought ways to demolish the model itself by showing how much more there can be to life for all if the full range of a diverse, transnational population is permitted to flourish. With insight, humor, and clarity, her books have transformed conceptions of Chinese Americans and expanded the entire concept of what it means to be “typically American.” In recognition of her achievements, Jen received the Lannan Literary Award in 1995 and a prestigious Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for 2003-2008.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“About Gish Jen.” Ploughshares 26, no. 2/3 (2000): 217-222. Profile of Jen.

Gonzalez, Begona 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 (2001): 225-242. Examines the question of choice of “ethnic” identity and the differences between ritual and ceremony in Jen’s novel.

Jen, Gish. “The Intimate Outsider.” Interview by Marilyn B. Snell. New Perspectives Quarterly 8, no. 3 (1991): 56-60. Focuses on Typical American and Jen’s depiction of the immigrant experience.

Jen, Gish. “MELUS Interview: Gish Jen.” Interview by Yoko Matsukawa. MELUS 18 (Winter, 1993): 111-120. An excellent examination of Jen as both a person and a writer, which discusses Jen’s development and concerns as a writer. Jen provides a substantial analysis of Typical American. The article includes a bibliography of her works, including those under her given name, Lillian.

Samarth, Manini. “Affirmations: Speaking the Self into Being.” Parnassus 17, no. 1 (1991): 88-102. Discusses the use of tropes in Jen’s stories and the way she turns them into satire.

Storace, Patricia. “Seeing Double.” The New York Review of Books 38 (August 15, 1991): 9-12. A review of Typical American focusing on the novel’s theme of duality. Includes a synopsis and an exploration of duality in both the joining of opposites and the coexistence of parallels.