MELUS Interview: Gish Jen

Article excerpt

With the publication of her first book, Typical American, in 1991 and articles such as "Challenging the Asian Illusion" (New York Times 11 August 1991), Gish Jen is fast becoming a visible and vocal part of the contemporary American literary landscape. Born in New York City in 1955, Jen, who is a second-generation Chinese-American, grew up in Yonkers and Scarsdale, New York. It was during high school that she acquired the nickname "Gish" (after the actress with whom she happened to share a first name, Lillian Gish), which she later adopted as her pen name. Educated at Harvard and Stanford Business School, Gish Jen embarked upon her writing career while attending the Iowa Writer's Workshop and has been writing and publishing her stories in literary magazines now for over a decade (see Selected Bibliography). Size also has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and grants and has won awards for her short stories, many of which have been anthologized repeatedly.

Several of Gish Jen's short stories center on the Changs, an immigrant family from China. In captivating stories such as The White Umbrella," "The Water-Faucet Vision," and "What Means Switch," we witness how the daughters of the family, Callie and Mona, ingeniously and ingenuously attempt to navigate their way through the turbulent waters of childhood and adolescence, carefully mediating the overlapping relationships between cultures, between home and the outside world, and between their parents, their friends, and themselves. Through moments of revelation and their contemplative interpretations of events, Gish Jen charts the sisters's complicated, funny, and often heartbreaking process of growing up Chinese-American.

It is in the short story "In the American Society," however, that we get a glimpse of the dynamics of the Chang family. Ralph, here the successful proprietor of a pancake house who prefers his own society to the American society, and his wife, Helen, who has broader social aspirations, come into their own as characters through their interactions with family, neighbors, and employees. The life stories of Ralph, Helen, and Ralph's sister Theresa are further expanded and elaborated in Gish Jen's first novel, Typical American, which has garnered deservedly excellent reviews. The New York Times Book Review declares, "No paraphrase could capture the intelligence of Gish Jen's prose, its epigrammatic sweep and swiftness.... The author just keeps coming at you, line after stunning line. Even her incidental description seems new-minted - purely functional, bone clean yet lustrous." The New York Review of Books calls the novel "poised and unsentimental," and asserts that "Gish Jen sustains her complex pattern of duality even in her prose style, sophisticatedly choosing to tell her somber story wittily." Gish Jen starts her book with the line "It's an American story"; by guiding us through one Chinese immigrant family's experiences, she 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."

This interview took place late in November 1991 at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband, David O'Connor, and baby son, Luke. Sitting by the fireplace - the archetypal site for listening to and telling stories - Gish Jen animatedly answered my questions about her life and her work; our conversation was delightfully punctuated by laughter.

Interviewer: Has motherhood changed your writing schedule?

Jen: I have to say that it's very slow now. I used to basically write fulltime. Now I'm a mother fulltime and try to work my writing around that. But I'm hoping to start my son on twenty-hour-a-week day care soon.

Interviewer: Do you work at home?

Jen: No, I work in an office. I really admire people who work at home; they have a lot more discipline than I do. I think everyone has something which they have to reject in order to become a writer. …