How Covid got Gish Jen thinking about China


Gish Jen fans can take comfort when they finish one of her books: characters can reappear in the next one they read.

The protagonist of her 1996 novel, “Mona in the Promised Land,” about the daughter of Chinese immigrants who converts to Judaism, first appeared as a child in Jen’s 1991 debut, “Typical American”. A character from his 1999 “Who’s Irish” collection of stories, Duncan Hsu, is the focus of a story in his latest book, “Thank You, Mr. Nixon,” due out Tuesday from Knopf.

“It’s not like I sit down and say, well, what are they doing now?” Jen said. “What interests me is that people change. I myself have changed a lot. »

Jen, 66, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, is the author of nine books and often explores the intergenerational dynamics of Chinese-American families in her fiction.

Her non-fiction books, including “The Girl at the Baggage Claim” and “Tiger Writing,” focus on what Jen sees as the fundamental difference between the “independent self” fostered by highly individualistic societies in the West, and the “interdependent self” often found in Asian cultures. “Because I have an interdependent side – it’s not all of me, but a part of me – I have a sense of obligation to share what I know,” she said in an interview. video this month.

The title story of ‘Thank you, Mr. Nixon’ takes the form of a light-hearted letter written to the former president – who, in this scenario, is in hell – by a woman he met during his visit. in China in 1972. In other interconnected stories, some written during the pandemic, others in previous years, readers meet a woman studying immigration law and, in a later story, one of his clients.

Jen discussed how China influenced her work, what she took away from non-fiction writing, and why clarifying facts is important even in fiction. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Tell me about the chronology of this book and how it fits into the rest of your work.

I had been to China in 1979 to visit my family and, interestingly, even though I was not a writer at the time, I took detailed notes. The idea of ​​being a writer had never crossed my mind, but I guess there was the writer in me.

I returned to teaching in 1981, training coal mine engineers in Shandong. And then I went to Iowa, right after that, so I pretty much went straight from China to Iowa for my MFA

When I was writing, I didn’t think I was trying to record the story or anything – it was just there.

Then I sat down during Covid and watched older stories, and you could see things happening. The story is still there – we are not aware of it, of course, no one is thinking, “I can only have this business because Nixon went to China.” (Laughs) This is a time to reflect on what happened, especially as we enter a new phase in our relationship with China.

You wrote about how the independent and interdependent aspects of yourself play off each other. How do you see this relationship affecting your writing style or your concerns as a writer?

I am an economical and efficient writer. But I didn’t notice the economy in my own work. It was a professor of Chinese literature who noticed it, and as soon as he said it, I was like, but of course. The Chinese love extreme economy – they are very good at short talk and leave out a lot of it.

I realized that for some reason – although I was born in the United States, I only speak English, I’m fully, quote, American – that aesthetic stuck with me, the same way that an interest in mixed tones and an interest in subtlety stayed with me. But it’s interesting to see these cultural remnants, and if I could tell you where I got that from, well, that would be another book.

What kind of stories did you hear from your family when you were a child?

It was quite a project to settle in the United States, and there was not much time for storytelling. I don’t remember a single minute of my childhood being spent on anything other than spending the day. My parents weren’t autobiographically minded – in the world you and I inhabit, it’s very important to tell your own story so others can get to know you. But for them there was a privilege of the unsaid – if something is important, you certainly don’t talk about it. It’s quite the reverse of how things work here.

I tried to get stories from my mother. She didn’t say much. But sometimes she said more than she wanted to.

Many writers, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, resist the expectation of being ‘spokespersons’ for the community they appear to represent. But you, at least in your non-fiction, seem more than willing to take on that explanatory role.

I think some people are afraid that if you take on this role, whether as a non-fiction writer or as a “cultural ambassador” of sorts, it will stick. But I feel more comfortable with it.

Plus, I’m established as a fiction writer – if my first book had been non-fiction, I don’t know if I could have moved on so easily. I came out of non-fiction writing not feeling stuck, but with a sense of freedom. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I wrote “The Resisters”. I went in a very different direction. And now here I am, back on ground that might seem more obvious to Gish Jen. Then we’ll see what happens after that. So I think non-fiction has helped me as a writer.

Many of your stories revolve around the differences in perspective between generations, including how they view class and race. Have you ever worried about how your characters will be received by readers, especially in a time of heightened violence against Asian Americans?

One of the problems faced by minority writers is: how many writers are there? If it’s just you, you have to be very careful. As times change and there are more voices, you can relax a bit. But there’s still a little voice in the back of my head that says, “I’m going to move forward with what I feel to be true, but I also have to be aware of how it can be read, and I have to disarm the reader if I can.” My humor has a lot to do with it.

Now there’s enough for us to write whatever we need. Some will be flattering and some will be unflattering, but all will be entirely human.

Your new book encompasses the 1970s to the present day. How do you see this book fitting in with other stories from the era it covers?

Although it’s fiction, there’s a lot of factual accuracy, and I feel responsible, especially when I’m talking about arenas where there’s no solid case, that if I was there, it matters to clarify the facts: were there mosquito nets or were there no mosquito nets? Are the ceiling fans spinning or not?

As best I can, I try to clarify these facts. But in the end, I see all these facts — all the very good work done by journalists and historians — I see them as the strings of the piano. It’s their job to make the strings and make sure they’re in tune. It’s my job to make music.


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