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Author Profile: Gish Jen [in Notable Asian Americans]

Typical AmericanGish Jen cites her husband, David O’Connor, as “the liberator” who helped her write again. Newly married after completing her master’s degree in fine arts, Jen had put her writing aside to become, as she said in an interview with Terry Hong, “a dutiful wife,” a role that eventually frustrated and enraged her. The turning point came when she and her husband were preparing to move from San Francisco, California, to the East Coast. “We had this set of fancy glasses that I had just finished packing up to bring to California and now I was going to have to pack them all up again to bring to Massachusetts. And I didn’t even like them! But they were a wedding gift, and I felt I had to do it. So my husband just picked up one of the glasses and threw it out the window. It was such a liberating experience. Then we had a huge garage sale and got rid of all these things that were tying me down, and I started to write again,” Jen remembered. “I wrote a short story, ‘In the American Society,’ which later became Typical American,” Jen’s first novel. It was published in 1991 and was a resounding success. It was a finalist for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Time magazine called it “an engaging tale of one immigrant family’s pursuit of the American Dream.” From the San Francisco Chronicle to the New York Times Book Review to the Boston Globe, Jen was praised and lauded for Typical American.

The Dutiful Daughter
Born in Queens, New York, on August 12, 1955, to immigrant parents from Shanghai, China, Lillian Jen was the second of five children. She would later adopt the name “Gish” –  as in the actress Lillian Gish – while in high school. “It was part of becoming a writer,” she told the New York Times in 1991, “… not becoming the person I was supposed to be.”

From her earliest memories, Jen was the one person in her family with an insatiable interest in books. “My parents were very academically inclined. My mother was a schoolteacher and my father a professor of civil engineering. But we were a very aliterate family. We didn’t even get any magazines at home. Although my parents were educated, they were struggling so much as newcomers in this country that there was no room in their lives for leisurely things like reading. I think my book was the first non-technical book that my father ever sat down to read.”

Growing up, Jen moved from the predominandy working class neighborhood of Yonkers, New York, to the more affluent town of Scarsdale. She quickly discovered that the Scarsdale school library had far more titles to offer than the limited Catholic school library in Yonkers. She told Hong, “I felt like a kid in a chocolate factory. I must have read every book. I read indiscriminately, whether it was Albert Camus or Walter Farley. They all made me say ‘wow.'” …[click here for more]

Profile: “Gish Jen (1955 – ), Writer,” Notable Asian Americans, edited by Helen Zia and Susan B. Gall, Detroit: Gale Research, 1995

Readers: Adult


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