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.