Campus & Community

Gish Jen, American

6 min read

Writer reads from upcoming novel at Radcliffe

Novelist Gish Jen: ‘I’ve tried to be someone who really thought about the American project, and what it means, what this nation is. I try to use my vantage point from the margins to kind of illuminate the larger questions.’ (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln)

As the audience questions escalated from softball (“How did you start writing?”) to hardball (“How do you manage multiple points of view in your narrative?”) to curveball (“Why is there a disproportionate representation of Asian Americans among novelists all of a sudden?”), novelist Gish Jen ’77 responded thoughtfully, respectfully, insightfully.

But when a question probed her use of humor, pondering whether it was a shield behind which she hid to dig deep into difficult emotions, Jen was almost curt.

“I think I am just funny,” she replied.

Jen, a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, read from the yet-unnamed novel she is writing to a packed Cronkhite Graduate Center Living Room last Wednesday (Jan. 16). The audience’s frequent laughter gave credence to her self-assessment; their hushed attention and sympathetic sighs indicated that her writing raises far more than a chuckle.

The author of the novels “Typical American” (1991) and “Mona in the Promised Land” (1996) and of the short story collection “Who’s Irish?” (1999), Jen is celebrated for her poignant chronicling of the American immigrant experience and ethnic identity. Among her many honors and achievements, her story “Birthmates,” from “Who’s Irish?,” was selected by John Updike to be included in “The Best American Short Stories of the Century.”

The Wongs and the Baileys

Her new novel also explores traffic patterns at the cultural crossroads. In it, Carnegie Wong, a successful second-generation Chinese American, marries the WASP-y Janie Bailey, dubbed “Blondie” by Carnegie’s meddling mother, Mama Wong. They parent adopted and biological children, including Lizzie, a foundling Asian baby who joins their family prior to marriage.

Narration of the story shifts between Carnegie and Janie. “It’s kind of like family therapy, without the therapy,” said Jen. In the excerpt, Mama Wong’s voice – rendered in the dead-on halting English of a Chinese immigrant – is also prominent, as she wields her financial and persuasive power to encourage the couple to call off their wedding. “You break up engagement now, I give you one million dollars. Cash,” she bribes her son just before the rehearsal dinner.

Carnegie turns down his mother’s enticement and the wedding proceeds, with Mama Wong driving up to the Baileys’ down-at-its-heels Maine retreat in a chauffeured Mercedes. While Mama Wong behaves well, and even enjoys herself, at the wedding, she “does not give up on sabotaging the marriage,” Jen promised the audience.

A return to Radcliffe

Jen, who lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children, credits her writing inspiration and a good measure of her success to Harvard and Radcliffe. Although she wrote her first story in the fifth grade, “in truth, I really did not think of myself as a writer,” she said. She was pre-med as an undergraduate when English 283, a poetry course taught by the late Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory Robert Fitzgerald, reawakened her interest in writing.

“The first time I wrote anything serious was for Professor Fitzgerald’s class,” she said, describing her initial horror when she discovered that the regular writing exercises would be poems, not papers. Her fear quickly vanished. “I wrote my first poem and I said to my roommate, ‘I love this. If I could, I’d do this for the rest of my life.’”

Still feeling pressure from her parents, themselves Chinese immigrants, to succeed in a traditional field, Jen entered Stanford’s business school but was drawn more toward writing workshops than courses required for her M.B.A. She left Stanford for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received the M.F.A. Although Fitzgerald had questioned her career path and encouraged her to “do something with words,” said Jen, “it took me years to realize he was right.”

Jen returned to Radcliffe in 1987, using her time as a Bunting Institute Fellow to write “Typical American,” a novel about the Changs, three Chinese immigrants pursuing the American dream. “Mona in the Promised Land” continues the Chang saga from the perspective of their teenage daughter Mona, who converts to Judaism.

‘An Asian-American writer is an American writer’

While Chinese Americans take center stage in most of her work, Jen bristles at being hastily categorized as an Asian-American writer. “An Asian-American writer is an American writer,” she said.

“I’ve tried to be someone who really thought about the American project, and what it means, what this nation is,” she said. “I try to use my vantage point from the margins to kind of illuminate the larger questions.” Her books are now as likely to be taught in courses about the American dream, she reported with satisfaction, as in Asian-American literature courses.

Dismissing an audience member’s observation that Asian Americans are writers in “disproportionately” large numbers, Jen acknowledged that “Typical American” rode a wave of Asian Americans coming to prominence as fiction writers.

“When I went to graduate school, from ’81 to ’83, it was very well accepted that Asian-American writers would never be published in a mainstream publication. It was really clear to us that nobody was interested in us,” she said. “But then along came multiculturalism and suddenly, there was an audience.”

Familiar, but not autobiographical

Jen insisted that her work is not autobiographical, sharing her mother’s relief upon reading the galleys to “Typical American” and finding her family absent from the story. Still, she writes of familiar emotional landscapes. “It’s a distillation of attitudes that, I have to say, are probably representative of a generation,” she said. Finding Mama Wong’s voice came easily, she said, because “I grew up with that sentence structure. I know exactly how it sounds.”

Estimating that she was halfway through her new novel, which she expects will come out in a few years, Jen shared her writing process with the audience. “I do not know what’s going to happen at the end,” she admitted. “I’ve always been somebody who’s been a very intuitive sort of worker. … I write something, I see whether there’s something there that speaks to me. I try to see if there’s a nerve there. If there’s a nerve, I go back and try to understand the nature of the nerve.”

Contact Beth Potier at