The Multitudes of Gish Jen
Gish Jen has spent a lifetime navigating internal cultural conflicts, yet the best-selling novelist has found peace with a personal East/West divide that could serve as a model for all.
Gish Jen is a best-selling novelist, short storyist, and non-fiction writer whose work explores American multiculturalism and the East-West cultural divide. Her distinctions include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Fulbright fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Prize, among other awards.
Raised in suburban New York City by Chinese American parents, Jen studied English at Harvard University and attended Stanford Business School, but dropped out and earned an MFA in fiction at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. Her first novel, Typical American (1991), was nominated for a National Books Critics’ Circle Award. She’s written four more novels, a collection of short stories, two non-fiction books, and pieces for the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and The New Republic, among other publications. John Updike selected one of her stories for The Best American Short Stories of The Century and named Jen as his successor for the 21st century in a millennium edition of The Times (London).
(Excerpt from Gish Jen’s The Resisters):
Of course, Gwen’s team, the Lookouts, were hardly a tidy bunch at any time ranging in age from 14 to 23, they were not only every possible color, shape, and size, but had noticeably wide-ranging ideas about appropriate baseball attire. People sported sweatshirts and jeans, but also a bowler hat, a Cape, a dashiki, and a kilt. Still, all accepting as they were, they made a good team and anyone could see that there in their midst, Gwen felt, for once in her life that she belonged.
The Resisters is the eighth book, the sixth work of fiction from the best-selling author Gish Jen. A woman, intimately familiar with the struggle to belong on the page she has dissected from every imaginable angle. The battles that have waged within her first-generation Chinese American for decades, the group versus the individual, tradition versus change, East versus West.
Gish Jen: I do come from a different cultural background than a lot of artists in the United States, you know? So they grew up, with everyone asking, “What do you think, how do you feel about this? What is it that you want?” I didn’t have any of that. So it’s not like I have this loud voice that’s coming forth and I just need to kind of get myself to have the nerve to express it. It’s much more like I had to be very quiet so I could hear what it is that I think and then it’s just there and I just write it down.
From an early age, Jen was outspoken, opinionated, and driven— all these that would serve her well as an American but that was unbecoming of the dutiful wife for traditional Chinese parents, Norman and Agnes hoped she would become.
Jen: I was frequently told that I had too much to say, I mean, my mother told me that every day. I was the bringer of news from the outside world into the households, you know? So the president has been shot, my mother said to me, “You’re crazy.” So that was, that was a very tough moment for me because I wasn’t crazy because the president really had been shot and all these, a million ideas about, things that were okay for girls to do, okay for girls to wear pants, you know pants to school. Oh, and there’s, so there’s a lot of, there’s definitely a lot of rub the whole way, especially for me as a girl. The girls were supposed to be this that, girls were supposed to be graceful. Girls were not supposed to talk so much about all those kinds of things.
Outside the family home, things weren’t much easier. In suburban Yonkers, New York, the Jen’s stuck out. Gish and her four siblings were ostracized and tormented by neighborhood kids, who would throw rocks disguised as snowballs. But this didn’t break Jens’ spirit. Reading became an escape. She found allies in her favorite authors, Isaac Asimov, Louisa May Alcott, Albert Camus. In high school she changed her name from Lilian to Gish, honoring Lillian Kish, the first lady of American cinema. Yet the more, the young Gish tried to find herself the more difficult it became to live the kind of life her parents envisioned for her. Years later she would learn that her internal struggle came down to two radically different notions of Selfhood. The pit-self of the West, centered on the individual versus the flexi-self of the East dedicated to serving the group.
Jen: Your job as a person, your imperative is to be flexible and to respond to the needs of others, as opposed to in the West where we imagine ourselves as kinda like avocados with a big pit inside of us. And your imperative is to be true to that pit. So these are two very different things, so, but it’s not that everybody gloms together and everybody thinks alike, It’s not that. However, kind of in this kind of struggle between, so, I want to be a writer. That’s a very kind of pit-like thing to do. If that’s at odds with my duties as a daughter, as a mother, from the point of view of my parents, that would be, but of course, your duties come first. You know what I mean? So this idea that you should realize yourself is, is not really, that’s just not paramount. It’s not that you can’t do it, but it doesn’t come first. And so here in America, of course, your first obligation is to realize yourself, you have to be true to that pit. They don’t have that idea.
When the time came for Jen to attend college, she nurtured a private love of writing, but wouldn’t give up hope of one day pleasing her parents. At Harvard, she studied law and medicine, but couldn’t commit to either in a last ditch effort to secure a future her mom and dad would approve of. She enrolled at Stanford business school. That was a disaster. She hated every minute of her first year and dropped out early in her second.
Jen: I will say that my parents did not speak to me. My siblings, nobody would speak to me. I mean, everybody was so angry at me. My mother didn’t talk to me for over a year. And I know it was hard. It was the full-court press on the part of my sibs too. I mean, it was just so unacceptable for somebody basically to take off in this very Western individualistic direction. But it was something that I had to do. I mean, it’s almost honestly, I think if I could have made myself go to Business School, get a nice job. If I could have made myself do it, I would’ve made myself do it, but I couldn’t.
But just as her family was turning away from her, Jen was falling in love with a star of her business school class, David O’Connor. He supported her unconditionally first in her choice to drop out of Stanford. Then in her decision to spend a year in China, ultimately cheering on her move to the Midwest to pursue her long-standing dream at the Iowa writers’ workshop. In 1983, they wed and Jen’s parents were so relieved to see their headstrong daughter married at all that they welcomed the pair back into the fold. But the best part for Jen was being with David, never felt like a compromise.
Jen: I still think that was kind of a magical thing, I mean I can’t, I mean it truly, it was this really kind of depressed person who wanted to do this thing that she didn’t really was not very at all clear about what that would look like. He never asked me like, kind of like, “Well, what would that look like? What would success look like?” Or, “how do you think, do you think that you would ever get a teaching job?” Or he never asked me any of those questions. When we got married, we’re given tons and tons of crystal. And we had Julie pack them all up and brought them all out west to Stanford, right? And then we’re coming back and, I’m just like, “What, I, Oh my God, I’m so overwhelmed by these kinds of duties, the sense that we had to take care of all these items.” David opened a window, took a glass and he threw it out. And that was that and we had a very huge garage sale that Saturday we got rid of all of it, it was just David, but he was so wonderful that way. It was just like, forget it, boom, gone.
O’Connor’s, self-assuredness rubbed off on Jen. And so to quiet the chorus of other voices in her head, they threatened to drown out her own ideas. She followed his example by throwing distractions away.
Jen: When I first sat down at my desk, I would make like a little visual icon of anybody whose voice I did not want to hear and I would take them and I would move them and I would put them in the hall. So starting with, of course, my mother, right, bang. My editor, early on certain people in my writing class. So I didn’t want to hear, I would remove the more just so that I can hear myself.
And the more she listened, the more she found, she had to say about families like hers. Newcomers to the west, walking your precarious line between old and new world values, between being a good Chinese daughter and achieving in America and much of her fiction, grandparents, parents, and children clash about what they owe to each other versus what they want for themselves. In 1991’s Typical American, the protagonist, Chinese grandfather, Ralph resists assimilation.
(Excerpt from Gish Jen’s Typical American):
He refused to be made of an American citizen. He thumbed his nose at the relief act meant to help him as though to claim his home was China, was to make China indeed his home. And wasn’t it still, even if his place and it was fading like a picture hung too long in a barbershop. Even if he didn’t know where his family was any more or was it exactly because he didn’t know where his family was? For certainly he felt more attached to them for their having turned abstract, missing them more than he had liked them. The missing being simpler.
Much like Ralph, Jen’s own parents were reticent to build a life in America. They came to the U.S separately in the 1940s for graduate school and they always planned to return home. But once communism took hold in China, they weren’t allowed to go back. A generation on, Jen has reconciled her Eastern roots with our Western surroundings. And to a great extent resolved her own bi-cultural identity crisis. Today, she understands the forces at play within her own spirit and has come to cherish the values her parents instilled in her.
Jen: Today as an adult. I feel that kind of like the richest parts of me are not those, I mean, yes, that hard one individualism, which I certainly have in the end, as you know, I did what I wanted. I became this writer that my family did not want me to be. And yet I would say that kind of that the older, this older self, that I fought so hard to kind of get rid of. I would say that boy, if I could do something to the world, I would somehow give it to all my individualistic friends who I think are just suffering, frankly, from the levels of individuals that they’ve been brought up on. Because I see so much isolation, I see so much protection of the pitch to the degree that they’re very anxious. And I want to tell them, “You know what? If you actually brought up with this other self, it’s fine to be ordinary. You know, not everybody has to be extraordinary.” It’s like a, not in a bad way. Like you’re not extraordinary, but like you’re really fun. It’s really fun for you to meet your extraordinary.
Nevertheless, Gish Jen is extraordinary. Her latest book, 2020s, The Resisters, is in some way, a radical departure from her earlier works. But at its core, it tells a familiar story of a strong willed outsider who survives by finding a way to live on her own terms. Not because she’s selfish, but because it’s what she must do to survive. And today at age 65, Gish Jen has discovered how to be exactly who she needs to be, a writer.
Jen: It’s my home, I’m a fish in Waterland. That’s what I was put on earth to do.
AJC: Isn’t that a lovely idea though, that you’ve.
Jen: I think it’s hell. It’s caused me no end of difficulty, but.
AJC: But While you’re in the action of doing it.
Jen: But while I’m doing it. It’s just, it’s simply what I was put on earth to do.
AJC: Well, long may you stay and do.