The latest short story book by award-winning author Gish Jen, Thank you, Mr. Nixon, opens in 1972 with President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China and ends with the current COVID-19 pandemic. This collection not only tells the story of an immigrant experience, family dynamics and what it means to be caught up in history, it tells the larger story of China and America.
In a conversation with Open workshop‘s Jared Bowen, Bowen asked Jen what made her look at this 50-year period of history (1971-2022) that she traces in her book.
“I started writing right after China opened up,” Jen said, recalling the 1970s when diplomatic relations between America and China began to thaw.
The first time she went to China was in 1979 with her family. She returned in 1981 to teach English to coal mine engineers in Shandong Province, then returned to the United States, earning an MFA in 1983 at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. .
“I had all these impressions about China,” she said, “and wondered what it all meant.”
Jen said she didn’t leave with that collection of stories in mind, but the pieces came together during the pandemic.
“I sat down during COVID and I think I should really do a collection that tells those stories,” she said. “All of a sudden I realize we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s first visit to China. . I realized I had a recording of that. It’s my job, to record how people feel, what the families are like and what’s going on.
Jen, who wrote Thank you, Mr. Nixon as anti-Asian hate crimes increase in the United States, said she did not deliberately write this book to address this issue.
“When I sit down, I don’t sit down to address a social issue. But when I wake up, I realize that my work has a place in this whole picture,” she said. “I feel like we’ll be better served if we better understand other cultures and other people. I think in my book, you are confronted with human beings who have different cultural values from yours. I feel like in this book, that’s my contribution.”
The humanity that Jen brings to her characters is heightened by her humor. Thank you, Mr. Nixon opens with Tricia Sang who, as a young girl, met Nixon during his visit to China in 1972. Years later, from her perch in heaven, she writes to him and addresses the letter to “Mr. Richard Nixon, Ninth Ring Road, Pit 1A.”
“I think I have my dad’s sense of humor,” she said. “My father has always been very amused by incongruity – a person in one reality interacting with someone else in theirs. This particular type of humor is extremely useful for an immigrant who is operating among many realities.
Jen went on to say that she doesn’t use humor as a defense mechanism to get through dark or difficult times. On the contrary, she finds humor in everything.
“The potential for something to be funny is always there. It’s still there because we take ourselves far too seriously.