Shuchen Susan Huang
“Gish” is a pseudonym that Jen invented in high school. She sees her creation of the pen name “Gish Jen” as “a way of having [her] own identity” (Pearlman 45). Her real (first) name is Lillian. Born in Yonkers and growing up in Scarsdale, New York, Jen is the second of five children, all of whom attended Ivy League schools. She graduated from Harvard University in 1977 and went to the Stanford business school in 1979 but dropped out a year later. After returning from China where she taught English for a year, she entered the writing program at the University of Iowa and received her M.F.A. in 1983.
Becoming a writer is not an easy path for those with Asian immigrant parents who expect their children to pursue more “practical” careers. Jen is no exception. She tried pre-med and pre-law in college and later also studied toward an M.B.A. for a year. Her decision to attend an M.F.A. program and to pursue a writing career was at first greeted with strong disapproval from her parents. But her parents' objection was not the only challenge for the writer-to-be. Generally speaking, before the commercial success of Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club (1989), it was not easy for Asian American writers to have their works accepted by major publishers. As Jen started her writing career in the early 1980s, she had to tackle the problem of the publishers' preconception of what an Asian American writer should produce. When studying at Iowa, Jen did not think that her stories would “be published in a commercial magazine, ” because she was told that her stories were not “exotic” enough (R. Lee, “Gish Jen” 227).
Yet, Jen continued to write against all odds and her works have gradually met with increasing recognition. Before her first book, Typical American (1991),