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...
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