| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Born in Long Island, New York, Gish Jen comes from a
family of five children with parents who were educated in Shanghai, China (her
mother in educational psychology and her father in engineering) and who
separately immigrated to the United States around World War II. As a pre-med
and English major at Harvard University, Jen earned a B.A. in 1977. She then
attended Stanford Business School for a year and, from 1981 to 1983, completed
an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
with her husband, son, and daughter.
Jen’s works have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including The
Atlantic and The Best American Short Stories 1988, the 1991 novel Typical
American marks her arrival as a much-acclaimed fiction writer. Callie and Mona,
two sisters who appear in several of Jen’s short stories, play minor roles in
this work. The novel focuses on the girls’ father, Ralph Chang, who, in line
with the 1950s atmosphere of upward mobility and conformity in America, becomes
absorbed with pursuing the American Dream. Jen’s next novel, Mona in the
Promised Land, focuses on Mona Chang, the daughter who converts to Judaism
after the family moves to the upscale Jewish neighborhood of “Scarshill” (Jen
grew up in Scarsdale, New York). Her collection of eight short stories, Who’s
Irish?, includes new and previously published works such as “The Water Faucet
Vision” and “In the American Society.”
an interview, Jen said that the scene in “In the American Society” where Ralph
throws the polo shirt into the swimming pool convinced her to use Ralph as the
protagonist for her first novel. This dramatic act, she stated, indicated that
Ralph was the kind of make-things-happen character she needed. The first part
of “In the American Society” depicts a Chinese immigrant’s vain attempt to
impose the feudal practices and attitudes of an old-world Chinese village lord
on his American restaurant employees. Placed in a different setting, the second
part of the story suggests that this same background enables Ralph to resist
being ridiculed. The parallel structures of the two scenes and the resolution
of the story offer an insightful analysis of cross-cultural and racial issues
in American society.
this short story and in her other works, Jen displays a seamless, engaging, and
comic narrative voice. Her ironic wit is apparent in disarmingly
straightforward language. Jen’s style contrasts markedly with the styles of Amy
Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, two other contemporary Chinese American writers
with whom she is inevitably compared. However, although all three are Chinese
American, each is a highly effective artist in her own right and should be read
and enjoyed for her individual style. Like Kingston and Tan, Jen comes out of a
specific Asian American historical-cultural experience. She takes her rightful
place in an American literary tradition that is being redefined to include
writers from the various cultures that compose American society.
In the Heath Anthology
In the American Society
"The White Umbrella," Home to Stay
"The Water-Faucet Vision," Best American Short Stories
"What Means Switch," The Atlantic
Mona in the Promised Land
Who's Irish and Other Stories
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Author Gish Jen Explores America's Immigrant Experience
An article by Erica Noonan from the Associated Press.
Gish Jen Passes Muster – Again
An interview conducted by Dave Weich.
Who’s Chinese American?
In this Asian Week article, Calvin Liu writes about Jen's work.
New York State Writers Institute
Brief biographical and literary introduction to Jen.
Voices from the Gaps
Biography, criticism, selected bibliography, and links.