Gish Jen stirs up anger in Boston

November 5, 2013
Feng Xu -  Critically acclaimed author Gish Jen’s newest book is “Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self.”
Gish Jen’s newest book is “Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self.” (Credit Feng Xu)

Most authors worry that nobody will show up when they do a reading. But Monday night, Gish Jen had the opposite concern.

She was scheduled to speak at the main branch of the Cambridge (Mass) Public Library about the new edition of “The Best American Short Stories,” along with series editor Heidi Pitlor and fellow writers Joan Wickersham and Bret Johnston.

As she noted on Facebook on Tuesday, there were some unexpected fuss last night:

 

This is blowback from an essay Jen published in the Boston Globe after the Red Sox won the World Series. While celebrating that victory, she went on to refer to Boston’s historic failures and the recent Marathon bombers:

“Boston has, after all, always been as a city upon a hill, except. Except that the Sox were the last baseball team in the league to integrate. Except that Celtics legend Bill Russell had his house broken into and his bed defecated on. Except that we had all that trouble around busing. And what about our redlining of Jews? It’s hard not to recall these things and wonder: Did we fail the Tsarnaevs somehow? It’s not clear that we did. And yet for people who knew Dzhokhar especially, who had seen him at school, who had studied and partied and played sports with him, the lurking fear has been that we failed to truly open our hearts, that we accepted him, but only up to a point.”

For that bit of public soul-searching, she’s been excoriated on the radio and on social media. But fortunately the scene at the Cambridge library was far less threatening than some people feared it would be.

“Very happily, the 80 protesters who had threatened to ‘boycott’ did not show up,” Jen told me via e-mail Tuesday afternoon. “Maybe they did actually boycott? I was in any case blissfully able to return for the evening to more normal concerns.”

She says, though, that the negative reaction to her Red Sox essay caught her off-guard. Her assignment had been to reflect on what the team’s win meant to the city of Boston in the aftermath of the Marathon bombing — in just 400 words.

“I mis-read the general Globe audience,” she says, “imagining them to be much more like the Globe book section audience than they are. People were offended, not only by my putting the Marathon bombing in the context of Boston xenophobia, and daring to raise the question of whether such xenophobia contributed to the Tsarnaevs’ alienation, but my opening the piece with a reference to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ I, of course, was only trying to convey efficiently the miraculousness of the Sox turnaround. But people were livid that I used archaisms like ‘lo!’ and ‘forsooth,’ taking them as a kind of superiorspeak. Ditto for my saying things like ‘Those who had been smooth of cheek now were strangely bearded’ instead of ‘They grew badass beards.’ How this adds up to my being a ‘white-hater’ and my visage ‘the face of human garbage’ who should be ‘sent to Siberia’ . . . .that remains a mystery.”

Dan Riviello, a spokesman for the Cambridge police, confirmed that there was no trouble Monday night at the Cambridge library. “There were rumors that there was going to be a protest,” he told me, “so we sent cars just to make sure everybody was going to be okay.” But when they arrived, it quickly became apparent that nothing was happening, and the police cleared out in 30 minutes. “There’s no story here,” Riviello said.

I’m not so sure.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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