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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Gish Jen
(b. 1955)

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.

Although 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.”

In 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.

In 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.

Bonnie TuSmith
Northeastern University

In the Heath Anthology
In the American Society (1991)

Other Works
"The White Umbrella," Home to Stay (1985)
Shedding Silence (1987)
"The Water-Faucet Vision," Best American Short Stories (1988)
"What Means Switch," The Atlantic (1990)
Typical American (1991)
Mona in the Promised Land (1996)
Who's Irish and Other Stories (1999)

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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.

Secondary Sources