Understanding Gish Jen

Understanding Gish Jen

Understanding Gish Jen

Understanding Gish Jen

Synopsis

Jennifer Ann Ho introduces readers to a "typical American" writer, Gish Jen, the author of four novels, Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, The Love Wife, and World and Town; a collection of short stories, Who's Irish?; and a collection of lectures, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self. Jen writes with an engaging, sardonic, and imaginative voice illuminating themes common to the American experience: immigration, assimilation, individualism, the freedom to choose one's path in life, and the complicated relationships that we have with our families and our communities. A second-generation Chinese American, Jen is widely recognized as an important American literary voice, at once accessible, philosophical, and thought-provoking. In addition to her novels, she has published widely in periodicals such as the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Yale Review.
Ho traces the evolution of Jen's career, her themes, and the development of her narrative voice. In the process she shows why Jen's observations about life in the United States, though revealed through the perspectives of her Asian American and Asian immigrant characters, resonate with a variety of audiences who find themselves reflected in Jen's accounts of love, grief, desire, disappointment, and the general domestic experiences that shape all our lives.
Following a brief biographical sketch, Ho examines each of Jen's major works, showing how she traces the transformation of immigrant dreams into mundane life, explores the limits of self-identification, and characterizes problems of cross-national communication alongside the universal problems of aging and generational conflict. Looking beyond Jen's fiction work, a final chapter examines her essays and her concerns and stature as a public intellectual, and detailed primary and secondary bibliographies provide a valuable point of departure for both teaching and future scholarship.

Excerpt

Gish Jen is an American writer. She also happens to be an Asian American writer, and specifically she is an American writer of Chinese descent. While it might be tempting to pigeonhole her work as Chinese American, Asian American, or ethnic American literature, Jen’s writing exceeds the bounds of those categories even as it provides exemplary literary representations of Chinese American, Asian American, and ethnic American life. As Jen said in an interview with fellow contemporary American and Asian American writer Don Lee, “I have hoped to define myself as an American writer.”

Lillian Jen was born on Long Island, New York, on 12 August 1955, the second of five children, three boys and two girls. Her parents were Chinese immigrants from Shanghai, and in the United States her father, Norman, worked as a civil engineer while her mother, Agnes, taught elementary school. The Jen family moved from Long Island to Queens and then to Yonkers, where Jen attended a Catholic school with a library that contained only a single shelf of books. Despite the paucity of reading material at her school, Jen developed a love of both reading and writing. In the fifth grade Jen had her first story published in the class’s literary magazine; it was a tale “about a maid who had stolen some gold. She had hidden it inside this hat, but when she picked up the hat, the gold fell out!” Even in this first literary offering, Jen’s trademark wit and comic sensibility are in evidence. Among Jen’s earliest literary influences, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one can see how these novels of female domestic life left their mark on Jen, as her own work would tackle similar small family dramas that reveal larger social, political, gender, and in Jen’s case racial and ethnic dynamics.

It was also while she was in the fifth grade that Jen’s family moved once again, this time to the more affluent community of Scarsdale, New York, which . . .

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