Novelist Gish Jen Finds Literary Voice Outside Harvard Identity

Courtesy OF Gish jen

As Gish Jen ’77 sits at her cedar kitchen table, cradling a mug of green tea and reflecting on her career, it is difficult to imagine her as anything other than a novelist, educator and mother.

Framed black and white photos of her children, ten-year-old Luke and three-year-old Paloma, line a white pillar behind her wicker chair. As Jen sits, her husband of nearly 20 years organizes their photo collection of recent family trips to Egypt and Vietnam.

But Jen writes about identity and, like the protagonist in her 1996 novel Mona in the Promised Land, much of her life has been a struggle to define herself.

Though Jen does not like to be labeled an Asian-American author, her stories and articles predominantly focus on the experiences of Chinese immigrants in America. They have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Republic, as well as in numerous textbooks and collections.

Most notably, John Updike chose one of her pieces for The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

Jen’s other honors include fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. She is slated to receive an Alumni Recognition Award from Harvard this week.

Currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Jen is working on her third novel at her home in Cambridge.

The second of five children, Jen was born to Chinese immigrant parents as Lillian Jen in 1955.

She grew up in the affluent town of Scarsdale, NY, which would later appear as the setting for one of her novels.

Jen wrote her first story in fifth grade, and in junior high, developed a strong interest in poetry. In high school, she was the literary editor of her school magazine.

At this time, Jen decided to adopt the last name of actress Lillian Gish as her pseudonym; she says Lillian was too stuffy for her.

Harvard Expectations

The newly monikered Jen headed off to Harvard in 1973, anticipating a parentally sanctioned career as a doctor or lawyer.

Then, junior year, she enrolled in English 283, a class on prosody taught by the late Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory Robert Fitzgerald, and “the possibilities offered by literature were opened up to her.”

A class on 19th century verse was similarly inspiring for Jen.

“[The professor] read Dover Beach to the class,” she recalls, “and I was woken up in a way that was new to me. Literature became so much more alive and exciting.”

It was then that she first realized law and medicine might not be the right careers for her.

As Jen relates, “after looking at my paper on ‘Prose Rhythms and Henry James’, Professor Fitzgerald nodded and nodded and nodded and nodded and finally asked, ‘why are you a pre-med?’ I told him I didn’t know.”

So Jen opted for a degree in English.

“Now, no one talks about medical school anymore,” she quips. “That’s probably a good thing, especially for my potential patients.”

Despite those few inspirational classes, Jen says she found that Harvard’s academic environment was often “less than nurturing.”

“It was a great place for people who knew how to go to school, to ask professors questions,” she says. “I never wanted to bother my professors.”

Jen attributes her reticence during class to Chinese-American parents who raised her “not to make any trouble.”

But Jen was shy only in the classroom. When it came to extracurricular activities, she “never did anything halfway,” says friend and fellow Kirkland resident Barbara L. Pearce ’76.

Despite her small stature, Jen became a member of Radcliffe’s varsity crew team.

Former Harvard crew coach Peter Raymond, who trained Jen for a semester, says he underestimated her when the two first met.

“I assumed, naturally, that she was a coxswain, and made some comment in which my assumption was embedded,” Raymond says. “Gish responded emphatically, but with great good humor, ‘I am NOT a coxswain!’”

Raymond says that “the ferocity of this young woman was demonstrated with her oar; in all other respects she was a beacon of humor, balance and goodwill whose smile and laughter brightened everyone in the boathouse.”

Pearce says Jen was also popular at parties.

“At 5’ 1”, Gish was a person any jock could pick up with one hand,” she relays. “So she spent a lot of time upside down.”

‘Something With Words’

With talents in a variety of fields, Jen never settled on a career in writing while at Harvard. By the time she graduated, she had not taken any fiction classes or written any short stories.

“I didn’t actively think of myself as a writer in college,” she says.

Upon graduation, Fitzgerald found her a job with DoubleDay Publishing.

After missing her House graduation ceremony for national crew heats, Jen went to New York to follow Fitzgerald’s suggestion that she “do something with words.”

During her year in the city, Jen formed a literary society of sorts with friends Louise R. Radin ’76 and Jonathan D. Weiner ’76. They attended poetry readings and made frequent trips to Gotham Bookmart, while Jen took writing classes at the New School.

Radin describes their time in New York as “remarkably optimistic, energetic, and heady,” but says she saw in Jen a “large struggle against parental expectations.”

Her three brothers would embark on careers in business, and her sister, who graduated in 1979, was set to become a doctor.

“Out of a need to do something practical,” and with law and medicine ruled out, Jen entered business school at Stanford.

“That’s where I had my first fiction class. Really, all I went to were my fiction classes, not the rest of them,” she chuckles. “I basically did everything wrong.”

Jen says she got by with the help of her classmate and husband-to-be, David O’Connor, who “would sit me down before my exams and tell me, ‘these are the three things you need to know. And I would pass.’”

Her struggle with her parents’ expectations, and their opposition to her writing, ended when she finally decided to drop out of business school at the beginning of her second year.

“I realized my life was my own, that I was making the decision to listen to my parents,” Jen says. “It sounds morbid, but I realized that I would die, and that the moment before, I would reflect on myself and think, was I happy?”

So Jen chose again to “do something with words.”

After spending a year in China teaching English at a coal mining institute, Jen enrolled in the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she earned an MFA in 1982.

She married O’Connor the following year.

Her Own Voice

Jen says her first novel, Typical American, came out of her time in China, when she “began to understand what it meant to be Chinese, and to realize what part of who I am came from my parents.”

She wrote the book, a tale of three Chinese immigrants in search of the American dream, when she returned to Radcliffe in 1987 as a Bunting Institute Fellow. It immediately garnered critical acclaim and national attention at a time, Jen says, when multiculturalism became a popular theme in literature.

The 1996 sequel that followed, Mona in the Promised Land, continued the story from the perspective of the family’s teenage daughter as she converts to Judaism.

“I was jotting down story ideas, and I came up with Chinese-American becomes Jewish,” Jen says. “And I said, ‘Oy!, can’t write about that!’ Then I realized I liked the way it made me laugh. I asked myself, why is that so funny? It led to many discoveries.”

Jen’s unique take on the conception of ethnicity and American identity seems to parallel her struggle to find her own niche.

She says that she sees the issue of identity as “incredibly complex.”

“I find the degree to which literature contends with these complexities to be interesting and exciting, and the degree to which it relies on old ideas about ethnicity to be boring and unfortunate,” Jen says.

Mona, then, a novel about “the invention of ethnicity,” displays Jen’s ability to turn the expected on its head.

Jen’s fascination with identity and ethnicity translates readily into her love for travel, though she goes only “where we can take the kids.”

Jen explains that “you need to see firsthand how people are.”

Jen will be returning to Harvard next year to lead a writing workshop through Harvard’s women’s studies program.

With a focus on fiction writing and hybrid form, she says she plans to mold the seminar to her students’ work, contributing to what she now sees as a “much more nurturing environment” at Harvard.

“Basically,” Jen says, “I’m offering the sort of class I wish I had taken when I was here.”

Jen’s most recent creation is a collection of stories entitled Who’s Irish?.

Her upcoming novel, about a Chinese-American family with both adopted and biological children, will likely come out in a few years.

Jen says that, despite years of experience, the writing process can often be arduous.

“It’s hard to hear your own voice and concerns, find which of those are interesting to the world, and tell a story with meaning,” she says. “In the end, you have to find that voice yourself, and there’s not one way to do it. Maybe, just put your hands on the keyboard, leave them there, make your hands move and stay there for many hours.”

—Staff writer Ishani Ganguli can be reached at ganguli@fas.harvard.edu.