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[LITERATURE] Gish Jen's Fresher Defintion of Identity

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  • madchinaman
    A fresher definition of identity Chinese American novelist Gish Jen embraces the U.S. multiculturalism. By Min Lee, Associated Press
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 5, 2006
      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
      inevitable tension.

      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
      Brown University.

      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.
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