Gish Jen’s novels are often described as “immigrant” and “American, ” labels that describe but do not capture her work . Writer Chitralekha Basu of the China Daily has described her, more broadly, as having “ taken up the time-tested themes of migration, aspiration, globalization, and … fundamentalism”-- weighty matters Jen has paradoxically infused with a quicksilver vitality. Richly polyphonic, memorably peopled, and profoundly human, her large-but-intimate, funny-but-sad, formally inventive chronicles of lives and times in revision have won her decades of praise from a panoply of readers. Alert from the start that something new was afoot, critic Richard Eder declared in 1991 vis-à-vis her first novel, Typical American, “Gish Jen has done more than tell an immigrant story…She has done it more and in some ways better than it has ever been done before.” Today, Princeton scholar Elaine Showalter, among others, champions Jen as one of the essential American novelists of the 21st century—a truly unique voice that continues to redefine the American Experience.
That redefinition began with Typical American, which traces a Chinese immigrant family as it makes its way through the “wilderness of freedom” that is America. Negotiating languages and cultures, transformed from people who call others “typical American” to people who might themselves be called that, the Changs embodied many ironies and provoked many questions. Among them was whether a “typical American” today might be, not so much someone who grew up on a farm and ate apple pie, as someone who asked him- or herself certain questions. Perhaps as soon as you ask yourself, What does it mean to be an Iraqi American, a Somali American, a Russian American, this novel suggested, you are an American.
Its comic sequel, Mona in the Promised Land (1996), portrayed a suburbanized, teenage daughter of the Chang family who, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, converts to Judaism. Does being American indeed mean, as Mona Chang claims, “you can be whatever you want”? Peppered with as much Yiddish as Chinese, and set in an America where a minority was the majority, this distinctly un-p.c. novel chronicled the invention of ethnicity, American-style, even as it struck an equally American blow for freedom.
Jen’s third novel , The Love Wife (2004), presented us with a “new American family”—a “mixed” family, the Wongs, that was not only interracial but composed of both biological and adopted children. Is one kind of child more “real” than the other? this novel asked. What about a family? Is a chosen family less “real” than a family based on blood? And, by extension: what about a nation based on consent rather than descent? The obvious answer to Mama Wong, the China-born matriarch of the family, is no. “A child should say this is my mother, period. This is my father period. Otherwise the family look like not real,” she insists. But as her American-born son, Carnegie, can see things both ways, she finds she must straighten him out.
The family as subject and metaphor shades into the town in Jen’s latest book. Set in post -9/11 America, World and Town (2010) features a schoolteacher in mourning who has retreated to a small New England town –“a town that would have pink cheeks if a town could have cheeks,” as Jen puts it – only to find it anything but peaceful. Is this skittish, unwelcoming, beleaguered America, still America? The American Experience now is one of narrowed possibility and reduced scale; this is a challenged America, struggling to regroup. And yet it is an America, still, in which regeneration and love are possible for some, and in which unlikely torch-bearers do rise to the occasion and pass on our civic torch.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen graduated from Harvard in 1977 with a BA in English and earned an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1983. Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fulbright Commission, as well as from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where she was a fellow in both 1986-7, when it was the Bunting Institute, and 2001-2. She received the Lannan Literary Prize for Fiction in 1999, and in 2003 was awarded a Harold and Mildred Strauss Living from the American Academy of Arts and Letters -- a five-year stipend that is not only the most lucrative literary honor in America but was in her year granted by a special centennial committee composed of John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Don De Lillo, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Jen's writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times,and The New Republic, among other publications, and has been anthologized in dozens of textbooks and collections. Among these is The Best American Short Stories of the Century , which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1999 and edited by John Updike
She has taught at Harvard University, the Shandong Coal Mining Institute, Beijing Normal University, the University of Hong Kong, and Brandeis University, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009 .