Gish Jen Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Lillian Jen, c. 1956. Education: Harvard University, B.A. 1977; attended Stanford University, 1979-80; University of Iowa, M.F.A. 1983. Career: Lecturer in fiction writing, 1986, Tufts University; visiting writer, University of Massachusetts, 1990-91. Awards: Transatlantic Review award (Henfield Foundation), 1983; resident, MacDowell Colony, 1987; fellow, Radcliffe Bunting Institute and James A. Michener Foundation/Copernicus Society, 1986; fellow, Massachusetts Artists Foundation, 1988; fellow, National Endowment for the Arts, 1988; Katherine Anne Porter Contest prize, 1987; Urban Arts Project prize (Boston MBTA), 1988. Agent: Maxine Groffsky, Maxine Groffsky Literary Agency, 25th Avenue, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.
Typical American. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Mona in the Promised Land. New York, Knopf, 1996.
Who's Irish?: Stories. New York, Knopf, 1999.
Contributor, Best American Short Stories of 1988. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
Contributor, New Worlds of Literature. New York, Norton, 1989.
Contributor, Home to Stay: Asian American Women's Fiction. Greenfield Review Press, 1990.
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For someone whose first novel was just published in 1991, Gish Jen has already made quite a mark on the literary scene. Her first novel, Typical American, was a finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle award, and her second novel, Mona in the Promised Land, was listed as one of the ten best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times. In addition, both novels made the New York Times "Notable Books of the Year" list. Jen's latest work, a collection of short stories entitled Who's Irish, has also been largely acclaimed, putting Jen's name once again on the New York Times "Notable Books of the Year" list, while one of the short stories in the collection, "Birthmates," was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Jen's work has been canonized via inclusion in the Heath Anthology of American Literature, discussions of her work appear in various studies of American—and particularly Asian-American—literature, and her writing is well-represented in college literature courses.
All of Jen's work to date centers around similar themes, each set within a distinctly American context: identity, home, family, and community. This fictional ground is clearly claimed in Typical American, which announces itself from the beginning as "an American story." It is the story of Ralph Chang and his family—from his life in China (quickly covered) to his arrival in the U.S. in 1947, to his education, marriage, children, and career as a scholar and entrepreneur in America. The novel chronicles Ralph's rise and fall in business (somewhat like a latter-day Chinese American Silas Lapham), as well as the Chang family's immersion in American culture. Ralph dubs his family the "Chang-kees" (Chinese Yankees), they celebrate Christmas, they go to shows at Radio City Music Hall, Ralph buys a Davy Crockett hat, Helen (Ralph's wife) learns the words to popular musicals, Theresa (Ralph's sister) gets her M.D., Ralph gets his Ph.D. and a tenured job. But Ralph is unhappy; he is convinced that in America you need money to be somebody, to be something other than "Chinaman." It is only after Ralph makes and loses his money—and tears apart his family—that he realizes that the real freedom offered in America is not the freedom to get rich, to become a self-made man, but the freedom to be yourself, to float in a pool, to wear an orange bathing suit—to define your own identity.
While Jen's novels—and particularly Typical American—have been classified as "immigrant novels," it is essential to recognize the ways in which her novels stand apart from traditional immigrant novels of the early twentieth century. Typical American 's departure from earlier immigrant novels, for example, is immediately apparent upon Ralph's arrival in America: rather than being greeted by the glorious Golden Gate Bridge (symbol of "freedom, and hope, and relief for the seasick" in Ralph's mind), Ralph is greeted by fog so thick that he can't see a thing. While earlier immigrant novels focused largely on the goal of assimilation and their characters (usually white European immigrants) achieved this goal, Jen's Typical American—like other contemporary immigrant novels such as Mei Ng's Eating Chinese Food Naked, Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, Gus Lee's China Boy, Fae Myenne Ng's Bone, and Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior and Tripmaster Monkey—focuses on a different generation of ("nonwhite") immigrants with substantially different problems and goals. In this contemporary generation of immigrant novels, the "American dream" is shrouded, like the Golden Gate Bridge upon Ralph's arrival, in fog—and underneath the dream is old, tarnished, and not quite what the characters thought it would be. Their effort is not to assimilate and become "American" but—recognizing that they lack the "whiteness" that leads to full assimilation as unhyphenated "Americans"—they work to negotiate the space occupied by the hyphen and stake out their own uniquely American territory. As Typical American illustrates, in this generation of immigrant novels there really is no "typical American"—Ralph Chang, as much as anyone, can stake claim to that title.
As part of this new generation of novelists focusing on the immigrant experience in America, Jen then reconstructs and recasts the ways in which we see both the "American dream" and American identity. At least since Crevecoeur posed the question in 1782, "What is an American?" has echoed throughout American literature. The answer to this question, of course, has never been easy or stable—American identity is fluid, shifting, unstable, and never more so than now. Nothing illustrates this better, perhaps, than Jen's second novel, Mona in the Promised Land. In many ways a sequel to Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land moves the Changs to a larger house in the suburbs, to the late 1960s/early 1970s, and to a focus on Ralph's and Helen's American-born children, Callie and Mona. Americans, this novel suggests, are constantly reinventing themselves, and no one more so than Mona, who in the course of the novel "switches" to Jewish (after entertaining thoughts of "becoming" Japanese) and becomes, to her friends, "the Changowitz." Callie likewise reinvents herself during her years at Radcliffe, where she "becomes" Chinese (she was "sick of being Chinese—but there is being Chinese and being Chinese"); she takes a Chinese name, she wears Chinese clothes, cooks Chinese food, chants Chinese prayers—all under the influence and tutelage of Naomi, her African-American roommate. It is also through Naomi that both Callie and Mona decide that they are "colored." While the contemporary theorist Judith Butler has argued that gender identity is performative, Jen's works suggest that ethnic identity is also performative—at least to an extent. The "promised land" in Mona in the Promised Land is one in which the characters have the freedom to be or become whatever they want—within, of course, the limitations placed upon them by American culture and society.
Mona in the Promised Land, like Typical American, is narrated in a straightforward, realistic fashion, without the self-conscious narrative stance or vast intertextual references of writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston (there is no winking at the reader or formal pyrogenics here). While Jen's writing is poignant and beautiful—as well as often hilariously funny—she clearly puts her characters, rather than her narrative, center stage. It is the characters, with wonderful dialogue that catches all the idiosyncrasies of American speech (regardless of ethnicity or gender of the character), who stand out in Jen's novels. Jen's later work is also distinguished by her use of tense; Mona in the Promised Land is narrated rather unconventionally in the present tense, giving the reader a sense of immediacy and placing us right there with Mona as she navigates through her adolescence. (Who's Irish continues Jen's experimentation with tense, with some stories told in the first person—including the voice of a young, presumably white, boy—and one even told partially in the second person.)
While Jen has been most often compared to other Asian-American authors such as Kingston and Amy Tan, she has stated that the largest influence on her writing has been Jewish-American writers—partly as a result of her upbringing in a largely Jewish community in Scarsdale, New York, but also partly as a result of a commonality she finds between Jewish and Chinese cultures. Other authors Jen has noted as influential on her work include diverse contemporary writers such as Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, and Jamaica Kincaid, as well as realistic nineteenth-century women writers such as Jane Austen. Jen has also been paired with Ursula K. LeGuin on an audiocassette, with both authors reading stories about a female protagonist struggling to make sense of the sometimes culturally foreign world in which she finds herself. In terms of literary associations and influences, one might also observe that Jen's focus on suburban family life invites comparisons to well-known chroniclers of the American suburbs such as John Cheever. Although the suburbs and the marital malaise that Cheever depicts in them have been cast as overwhelmingly white in the American imagination, Jen shows us that those "nonwhite" immigrants newly "making it" to the suburbs have their own problems, secrets, skeletons—all of which are complicated by the strange rituals and ways that govern the American suburban landscape, right down to its neatly trimmed lawns.
There is no doubt that Jen is here to stay. She is a writer of great insight and power. While her writing evokes the alienation and pain of the immigrant experience, it also shows us the possibility and hope embodied in new versions of the "American dream." As her characters continually reinvent themselves and seek to define their place within America, Jen encourages her readers to see the ways in which "identity" in America is a complex, multifaceted, constantly shifting thing. Overall, Jen shows us that the Chinese-American story, like her first novel, is truly and simply "an American story."
—Patricia Keefe Durso
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