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Off the Page: Gish Jen

Gish Jen
Award-Winning Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2004; 1:00 PM

Gish Jen, the author of three previous books including the award-winning stories, Who's Irish, will talk about her new novel, The Love Wife.

Jen is a sharp and witty observer of the immigrant experience--of the Chinese Americans that populate her work, certainly, but of immigrants in general. The crotchety Chinese mother in the title story of Who's Irish reminds me of my Irish-American grandmother, struggling to understand why people don't do things the old way.

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In her new novel, another difficult Chinese mother tries, beyond the grave, to influence the life of her wayward son (wayward for marrying "Blondie," an American) by sending a female relative from China to take care of their kids--the wife she thinks you should have married, Blondie says.

Jen was online Thursday, Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. ET to answer questions about her work. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: How did the story for The Love Wife come about? Gish Jen: It's not like you have one flash and the whole story appears. But I had some amiable irritants--you know that Philip Roth term? He says that every writer needs amiable irritants. I think he means we need certain things that provoke us into action. Because let's face it, writing a book is a lot of work and nothing holds you to the keyboard like irritation. In my case, I myself am in a biracial marriage, and I have a biracial child. I have two children, and my younger child is very fair. I had an au pair, my one and only au pair, and she wasn't like Lan. My au pair was German, blonde, 6 foot 2, basketball playing. Wonderful, I will say. but we would be out, and people often thought that she was the mother, and I was the nanny. And there is a way in which I was of course aware of this gaze on me and my daughter. And there's a way in which I wanted to gaze back. What is that about? And you can see the preoccupations of the book: What is a famiily? What is "natural?" You can see how those preoccupations would naturally arise. And in the current global context, I think you can see how naturally the question, What is a nation, would follow.

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Washington, D.C.: Are your books published in China, and if so, what is the reception there?

Gish Jen: Yes, they are published in China. It's been a wonderful experience for me. Certainly when I was writing my first novel especially, Typical American, I could not imagine any audience, much less an international audience. Of course I still try to portray Chinese culture as accurately as I could. And it's a thrill many years later to have Chinese leaders come from me, and say, You really understand the Chinese. It's been quite a gift. They always say to me, especially about the characters in Typical American, "Now they are typical Chinese."

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Carole Burns: I noticed you were a Fulbright scholar. How have your trip/s to China influenced your work? (for eg., did the taxi scene from The Love Wife occur on a visit?) Gish Jen: I was a Fulbright, two years ago. My trip was cut short because of the SARS crisis. But this was just one of many trips that I've made. There's no question that without these trips to China, there would be no books. For one thing, I certainly could not have written the character of Lan without firsthand knowledge of contemporary Chinese and how they think. There's a way in which, while I of course believe in artistic freedom, I try to take special care when I'm writing about people from another culture to represent them as accurately as I can. I don't believe the imagination is sufficient. I believe it behooves the author to do some research.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Who are your favorite writers, classic and contemporary? And are there any Chinese writers that you draw on for inspiration?

Gish Jen: Among classic writers, certainly Shakespeare, Jane Austen are very important to me. I think you can still see in my new book the impression the Shakespearean soliloquy had on me. There's a lot of soliloquizing in this book. Of course, you can still see my interest in tone from Jane Austen. Among contemporary writers, my great current love (my love du jour) is V.S. Naipaul. The Love Wife is a hybrid form. It's somewhere between drama and the novel. And there's a way in which the chutzpah to be writing in such a hybrid form came from Naipaul's work, which is also hybrid, bridging as it does fiction and nonfiction. I'm also endlessly impressed with his terrible candor, which I so admire. And of course, formally, he's more willing than anyone I know to go right off the cliff.

I haven't been so much influenced by Chinese writers writing in Chinese, although I will say that Mao Dun, who was one of the great early 20th century writers, is a distant cousin and did study with my grandfather. So there may be some influence there of which I'm unaware. In terms of the Chinese American writers, I think I have been influenced by them in the sense I have written against writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston. I adore her as a person, but she was, in Harold Bloom-ian terms, a strong poet that I had to throw over. I do mean that as a compliment.

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Carole Burns: In the Post review of your book, the review found that in Asian American literature, "All too often writers are saddled with the anxiety of ethnic identity and feel compelled either to address it or be accused of bad faith." Do you feel this anxiety?

Post reviewGish Jen: I'd like to say first of all that I don't know who would accuse me of bad faith if I didn't write about identity. I would say the external pressure on me is zero. I will say that I do write about identity, because I am a bicultural person, and the writer in me understands that to be a tremendous gift. I understand I have been blessed with a lens through which I can look at the world, American identity, what a nation is. The nature of nations. Huge, huge questions. I think I am no different than the inventor of the telescope. Once you realize you have a telescope, you just want to know everything you can do with it. I'm aware that this lens is not as exciting for some people as it is for me. Certainly, if they are more excited about horse-racing, they should write about that. But I am fascinated by cultural difference, and the role that ethnicity has in shaping our whole 21st century reality. It's everywhere. Look at Yugoslavia. It's everywhere. I feel very lucky to be able to be part of a conversation that can address these pressing matters.

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Washington, D.C. : What do you like writing better, short stories, or novels?

Gish Jen: I love the novel, I have to say. It's the difference between having an affair and being married. The story is fun because you can anywhere, you can write about anything. I think in my stories you can see that there's a slightly giddy air to them. I think you can see I'm on holiday. But there's a way in which you can put everything that you know as a human, including the texture of your life, into a novel. That's one of the things I was trying to do with this book, to capture the quality of life as I understand it, the chaotic feeling of the book. I was trying to capture something about what I've experienced, and it's an exciting challenge.

It's the fact that you can be done in a reasonable amount of time. I spent five years on this book. In a short story, the end is in sight. With a novel, the end is never in sight.

There is a way in which I don't think I could write novels without writing stories. Inevitably, over the course of writing a novel, one develop side interests which are better kept out of one's novel. You can pursue your little side interest via the story, and that enables you to make a more coherent novel. People say that people have affairs in order to save their novels. In the context of writing, there is something to be said for the affair.

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Washington, DC: I read and loved your book "Mona in the Promised Land." I thought that you did a really excellent job of portraying not just Chinese culture, but also the Jewish characters. Speaking as a former Jewish-youth-group member, I thought your picture of the youth group, for example, was right on target. How did you come by that knowledge? Did you grow up in a very suburban-Jewish area, like Mona?

Gish Jen: Yes, I grew up in Scarsdale, NY, which does bear a resemblance to Scarshill, in the novel. But I did have to do some research too. But I was not myself in such a group. I should say too that as a writer, I have never felt more proud than when I was asked at the publication of Mona what I was doing for the high holy days. It is also true that when I answered, as I had to, "Nothing," I felt guilty and lapsed. Not sure whether it was Jewish guilt or Chinese guilt, but it was guilt.

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Carole Burns: O.K., so what's with all the difficult grandmothers/mothers? Gish Jen: Are there any mothers that are not difficult? Now that I'm a mother myself, I understand not only what it is to have a difficult mother, but to be a difficult mother. And I understand too, that even the difficult mother is at some level blameless. My son has just turned 13, and he went to the dentist, and he was told that he's supposed to brush his teeth after breakfast, whereupon he turned to me and said in the most accusatory tone, "You told me to brush my teeth before breakfast! I've been doing it wrong all these years!" And all I could think was, This is a mother's fate.

I have to say that Mama Wong (from The Love Wife) is my very most favorite character. I am always greatly dismayed when someone says something like, She's overbearing. Of course she is overbearing, but I feel offended on her behalf anyway. I just adore her. I don't want anything to say anything mean about her, even if it's true. My mother loved this book, including Mama Wong. She thought Mama Wong was great, and, I must add, right.

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Washington, D.C. : Did you go to an MFA program? Have you ever taught at one? And do you recommend them?

Gish Jen: I went to an MFA program, I went to Iowa. For me it was a wonderful experience. To begin with, it was two years of support. And also, it was a chance to learn not only from one's own mistakes, but from the mistakes of others. So you're spared having to make all the mistakes yourself, which is very time-consuming. I don't know that MFA programs are for everyone, and I think a lot depends on who's teaching. But for me, it was a great experience.

I studied with James Alan McPherson, Bharati Mukherjee, Ted Hoagland, and Jack Leggett, among others. These were fine writing minds, from whom I learned an enormous amount.

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Carole Burns: I particularly love the humor in your books. Do you have any tricks for making it work? Any pitfalls you have to watch? Gish Jen: I don't have any tricks for making it work. For whatever reason, the humor seems a genetic trait from which I could not escape if I wanted to. I do worry sometimes that I am too funny, and in the editing process, I'm often working to bring out other tones, because the humor can be like a very very bright light, that blanches out everything else. I try to filter it.

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Falls Church, VA: Ms. Jen: I don't really have a question, but wanted to tell you about how much your books have influenced my life. I actually wrote my Harvard senior thesis on several Chinese-American novels, including "Typical American" (which turned out to be the best chapter of my thesis). "Mona in the Promised Land" educated me enormously, and ultimately I have a greater sensitivity to my in-laws Jewish heritage and faith.

Just wanted to say: "Thank you."

Gish Jen: Thank you!

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Carole Burns: And we're out of time. I hope readers can see what a wonderfully lively and funny interview this was. Thanks to Gish! And see you all "Off the Page" in two weeks.

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