The Multitudes of Gish Jen
Gish Jen has spent a lifetime navigating internal cultural conflicts, yet the best-selling novelist has found peace with a personal East/West divide that could serve as a model for all.
- [Narrator] Of course Gwen's team the Lookouts
were hardly a tidy bunch at any time
ranging in age from 14 to 23,
they were not only every possible color, shape and size,
but had noticeably wide ranging ideas
about appropriate baseball attire.
People sported, sweatshirts, and jeans,
but also a bowler hat, a Cape, a dashiki,
and it kilt.
Still, all accepting as they were, they made a good team
and anyone could see that there in their midst,
Gwen felt, for once in her life that she belonged.
- The Resistors is the 8th book, the 6th work of fiction
from the best selling author Gish Jen.
A woman, intimately familiar with the struggle to belong
on the page she has dissected from every imaginable angle.
The battles that have waged within her first-generation
Chinese American for decades,
the group versus the individual,
tradition versus change, East versus West.
- I do come from a different cultural background
than a lot of artist in the United States, you know?
So they grew up, with everyone asking,
what do you think, how do you feel about this?
You know what I mean? What is it that you want?
I didn't have any of that.
So it's not like I have this loud voice that's coming forth
and I just need to kind of get myself
to have the nerve to express it.
It's much more like I had to be very quiet
so I could hear what it is that I think
and then it's just there and I just write it down.
- From an early age, Jen was outspoken,
opinionated and driven all these that would serve her well
as an American that they were unbecoming of the dutiful wife
for traditional Chinese parents,
Norman and Agnes hoped she would become.
- I was frequently told that I had too much to say,
I mean, my mother told me that every day.
I was the bringer of News from the outside World
into the households, you know?
So the president has been shot,
my mother said to me, you're crazy.
So that was, that was a very tough moment for me
because I wasn't crazy
because president really had been shot
and all these, a million ideas about,
things that were okay for girls to do okay,
for girls to wear pants.
You know pants to school.
Oh, and there's, so there's a lot of,
there's definitely a lot of rub the whole way,
especially for me as a girl.
The girls were supposed to be this
that you go speak graceful.
Girls were not supposed to talk so much
all those kinds of things.
- Outside the family home things weren't much easier.
In Suburban Yonkers, New York, the Jen's stuck out.
Gish and her four siblings were ostracized and tormented
by neighborhood kids,
who would throw rocks disguised as snowballs.
But this didn't break Jens' spirit.
Reading became an escape.
She found allies in her favorite authors, Isaac Asimov,
Louisa May Alcott, Albert Camus.
In high school she changed her name from Lilian to Kish,
Honoring Lillian Kish the first lady of American cinema.
Yet the more, the young Gish tried to find herself
the more difficult it became to live the kind of life
her parents envisioned for her.
Years later she would learn that her internal struggle
came down to two radically different notions of Southwood.
The pit-self of the West, centered on the individual
versus the flexi-self of the East
dedicated to serving the group.
- Your job as a person your imperative is to be flexible
and to respond to the needs of others,
as opposed to in the West where we imagine ourselves
as kinda like avocados with a big pit inside of us.
And your imperative is to be true to that pit.
So these are two very different things so,
but it's not that everybody gloms together
and everybody thinks alike, It's not that.
However, kind of in this kind of struggle between,
so, I want to be a writer.
That's a very kind of pit like thing to do.
If that's at odds with, my duties as a daughter,
as a mother, from the point of view of my parents,
that would be, but of course your duties come first.
You know what I mean?
So this idea that you should realize yourself is,
is not really, that's just not paramount.
It's not that you can't do it, but it doesn't come first.
And so here in America, of course,
your first obligation is to realize yourself,
you have to be true to that pit.
they don't have that idea.
- When the time came for Jen to attend college,
she nurtured a private love of writing,
but wouldn't give up hope of one day pleasing her parents.
At Harvard she studied Law and medicine,
but couldn't commit to either
in a last ditch effort to secure a future
her mom and dad would approve of.
She enrolled the Stanford business school.
That was a disaster.
She hated every minute of her first year
and dropped out early in her second.
- I will say that my parents did not speak to me.
My siblings, nobody would speak to me.
I mean, everybody was so angry at me.
My mother didn't talk to me for over a year.
And I know it was hard.
It was the full court press on the part of my sibs too.
I mean, it was just so unacceptable for somebody basically
to take off in this very Western individualistic direction.
But it was something that I had to do.
I mean, it's almost honestly,
I think if I could have made myself go to Business School,
get a nice job.
If I could have made myself do it,
I would've made myself do it, but I couldn't.
- But just as her family was turning away from her,
Jen was falling in love with a star
of her business school class, David O'Connor.
He supported her unconditionally first in her choice
to drop out of Stanford.
Then in her decision to spend a year in China,
ultimately cheering on her move to the Midwest
to pursue her longstanding dream
at the Iowa writer's workshop.
In 1983, they wed and Jen's parents were so relieved to see
their headstrong daughter married at all that they welcomed
the pair back into the fold.
But the best part for Jen was the being with David,
never felt like a compromise.
- I still think that was kind of a magical thing,
I mean I can't, I mean it truly,
it was this really kind of depressed person
who wanted to do this thing
that she didn't really was not very at all clear
about what that would look like.
He never asked me like, kind of like, well,
what would that look like?
What would success look like?
Or how do you think, do you think that you would ever
get a teaching job?
Or he never asked me any of those questions.
When we got married, we're given tons and tons of crystal.
And we had Julie pack them all up and brought them all out
West to Stanford, right?
And then we're coming back and, I'm just like,
what, I, Oh my God,
I'm so overwhelmed by these kinds of duties,
the sense that we had to take care of all these items.
David opened a window, took a glass and he threw it out.
And that was that and we had a very huge garage sale
that Saturday we got rid of all of it, it was just David,
but he was so wonderful that way.
It was just like, forget it, boom, gone.
- O'Connor's, self-assuredness rubbed off on Jen.
And so to quiet the chorus of other voices in her head,
the threatened to drown out her own ideas.
She followed his example by throwing distractions away.
- When I first sat down at my desk,
I would make like a little visual icon
of anybody whose voice I did not want to hear
and I would take them and I would move them
and I would put them in the hall.
So starting with, of course my mother, right, bang.
My editor, early on certain people in my writing class.
So I didn't want to hear,
I would remove the more just so that I can hear myself.
- And the more she listened, the more she found,
she had to say about families like hers.
Newcomers to the West, walking your precarious line
between old and new world values,
between being a good Chinese daughter
and achieving in America and much of her fiction,
grandparents, parents, and children clash about
what they owe to each other versus
what they want for themselves.
In 1991's typical American,
the protagonist to Chinese grandfather,
Ralph resists assimilation.
- [Narrator] He refused to be made of an American citizen.
He thumbed his nose at the relief act meant to help him
as though to claim his home was China,
was to make China indeed his home.
And wasn't it still,
even if his place and it was fading like a picture
hung too long in a barbershop.
Even if he didn't know where his family was anymore
or was it exactly because he didn't know
where his family was?
For certainly he felt more attached to them
for their having turned abstract,
missing them more than he had liked them.
The missing being simpler.
- Much like Ralph, Jen's own parents
were reticent to build a life in America.
They came to the U.S separately in the 1940s
for graduate school and they always planned to return home.
But once communism took hold in China,
they weren't allowed to go back.
A generation on Jen has reconciled her Eastern roots
with our Western surroundings.
And to a great extent resolved her own
bi-cultural identity crisis.
Today, she understands the forces that play
within her own spirit and has come to cherish the values
her parents instilled in her.
- Today as an adult.
I feel that kind of like the richest parts of me
are not those, I mean, yes, that hard one individualism,
which I certainly have in the end, as you know,
I did what I wanted.
I became this writer that my family did not want me to be.
And yet I would say that kind of that the older,
this older self,
that I fought so hard to kind of get rid of.
I would say that boy,
if I could do something to the world,
I would somehow give it to all my individualistic friends
who I think are just suffering, frankly,
from the levels of individuals
that they've been brought up on.
Because I see so much isolation,
I see so much protection of the pitch to the degree
that they're very anxious.
And I want to tell them,
you know what?
if you actually brought up with this other self,
it's fine to be ordinary.
You know not everybody has to be extraordinary.
It's like a, not in a bad way.
Like you're not extraordinary, but like you're really fun.
It's really fun for you to meet your extraordinary.
- Nevertheless, Gish Jen is extraordinary.
Her latest book, 2020s, "The Resistors" is in some way,
a radical departure from her earlier works.
But at its core it tells a familiar story
of a strong willed outsider who survives
by finding a way to live on her own terms.
Not because she's selfish,
but because it's what she must do to survive.
And today at age 65, Gish Jen has discovered
how to be exactly who she needs to be, a writer.
- It's my home, I'm a fish in Waterland.
That's what I was put on earth to do.
- Isn't that a lovely idea though, that you've.
- I think its hell.
It's caused me no end of difficulty, but.
- But While you're in the action of doing it.
- But while I'm doing it.
It's just, it's simply what I was put on earth to do.
- Well, long may you stay and do.
- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.