[LITERATURE] Gish Jen's Fresher Defintion of Identity
- A fresher definition of identity
Chinese American novelist Gish Jen embraces the U.S.'
By Min Lee, Associated Press
HONG KONG For author Gish Jen, Chinese Americans have gone from
misfits to regular suburban teenagers to fully assimilated locals
who don't speak Mandarin and who marry whites, and in the process,
redefined the meaning of identity.
A major theme in Jen's work is that identity is fluid and that
traditional definitions of identity based on skin color and
geographical origin no longer apply in today's America.
Jen, who recently finished a writer's residency at the University of
Hong Kong, says America has evolved from a society in which
minorities try to bury their ethnic traits to one where they display
their customs proudly.
"You have your holiday. You have your food. You are American," she
said in a recent interview.
Jen herself is part of a multiracial family. Her husband is Irish
American. They have two children.
In her first novel, "Typical American," published in 1991, the
Changs are outsiders manipulated by a suave businessman. Years
later, Mona is part of a tight group of mainly white suburban
teenagers in "Mona in the Promised Land." By "The Love Wife,"
released two years ago, Jen's concept of community is all-inclusive.
Within a single family, Blondie, the Irish American wife, speaks
Chinese; Carnegie, the Chinese American husband, doesn't. Their
children are Asian but adopted.
Another message in "Mona," however, is that, with diversity comes
Referring to the end of the book where the entire family rallies
around an ill Carnegie, Jen says, "The peace that they have sitting
there in that waiting room, you do have a feeling of both how earned
it is, and how difficult it has been to get to that place for them."
English literature scholar Jeffrey Partridge calls "The Love
Wife" "post-multicultural" because not only does it present a
picture of diversity, but it also demonstrates the futility of
defining individuals with ethnic labels.
In a review published in the summer 2005 edition of MELUS, a journal
on multiethnic literature, Partridge points out the lack of meaning
in Carnegie's ethnic bond to his Chinese relative Lan, the absurdity
of "Carnegie's desire to find himself through genealogy instead of
looking for his identity in the family he and Blondie made."
Others believe Jen may be overly optimistic about the state of race
relations in America.
"I like Jen's vision but find that she sometimes paints a bit too
rosy a picture," said Daniel Kim, associate professor of English at
Jen's vision is partly shaped by a positive upbringing. Born to
Chinese students who were studying in the United States, she was
raised in Yonkers, N.Y., and upscale Scarsdale a "classic" pattern
of immigrant upward mobility, she says then educated at Harvard
University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa.
She has particularly fond memories of Scarsdale, a New York City
"If you were going to be like my family, the only Chinese family in
town, you couldn't have picked a more congenial place than
Scarsdale," Jen said. "It was extremely welcoming and extremely
Jen was named after silent screen star Lillian Gish. The 50-year-old
Jen's only giveaway to her age is her graying hair. She laughs
frequently and speaks at a rapid pace and throws in teenage speech
patterns like "you know" and "you know what I mean."
Another prominent Chinese American writer, Maxine Hong Kingston,
author of "The Woman Warrior," calls Jen a kindred spirit: "We're
both literary pioneers, and more alike than different in our ear
for Chinese and American voices, in our telling of true-to-life
stories, in our humor."
While Boston-based Jen has explored Chinese American identity in the
context of the U.S., she has also examined her Chinese identity,
spending stints teaching in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong
more than 20 years ago and more recently in Beijing in 2003, besides
her recent residency at the University of Hong Kong.
A distant relative of Chinese writer Mao Dun, Jen said she speaks
and reads a little Chinese and has found in China the same outlook
of resourcefulness with which she was raised.
She's amused by the high fashion of cosmopolitan Hong Kong
professional women, who are always impeccably made-up and dressed.
"I'm just not sure I'd survive in Hong Kong. I just don't think I
could wear high heels all the time," she said.