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Gish Jen goes from novels to nonfiction

Gish Jen, author of the new book, "Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self." Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Here in Cambridge’s Neighborhood Nine is your typical American house, a two-story affair in cadet grey; winters have tarnished its wrought-iron fence, the gate of which is fixed open; a flagstone path leads from there to the door. Inside, you’ll find a mixture of old and new: at one end of the kitchen, a squarish black Jotul stove, at the other, a stainless-steel fridge. Then there is Gish Jen.

Standing barefoot in the kitchen, she looks as though she could be only slightly taller than the doorbell out front. Since 1991, she has published four acclaimed novels and a prize-winning collection of short fiction, to say nothing of the fellowships she has held, the grants she has received. In a town filled with literary giants, among them Alice Hoffman, Ha Jin, and Jennifer Haigh, Jen stands tall.


“What’s most unique about Gish’s voice is that it’s humorous,” says Jennifer Ho, associate professor in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Department of English and author of the forthcoming “Understanding Gish Jen.” “There’s a certain type of witty irony that she employs. She also has a generosity of spirit toward all of her characters, even the ones who aren’t particularly likable.”

In February, Jen made her nonfiction debut with “Tiger Writing,” an accessible work of scholarship that, without expressing a preference, contrasts the Eastern narrative with the Western, the interdependent self with the independent. On Wednesday, she will discuss the book, subtitled “Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self,” at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge.

She has gone by Gish Jen for some time, but she was born Lillian Jen. You might say that the name change was a kind of rebirth. Today everyone knows her, save her siblings, as Gish, and Gish alone, but the name began as a pseudonym when she was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the ’80s.


In a recent essay of hers included in “Why We Write,” she explains that, under the new guise of Gish, she was freed, finally, from the cultural strictures placed on Lillian, a dutifully “nice Chinese girl.” Other things were sloughed off with the name Lillian, too, including her neat — too neat — Catholic school handwriting.

Lately Jen has undergone another, more substantial rebirth; this one, she attributes largely to midlife.

At a certain point in adulthood, she says, you invariably begin to question your past. She sees that hard reality played out in, of all places, the latest James Bond film, “Skyfall.”

“There’s a way in which Daniel Craig, because of things that happen in the movie, has an opportunity to walk away from it all,” she explains, “from the whole spy business, with all of its messiness. So you realize that there’s been a lot of compromise involved in being a spy. It’s not a bunch of good guys; it’s all gray, gray, gray.”

The bad guy in the movie, she says, is someone who’s been hurt by the business, in turn becoming bitter, angry. Whether or not Bond will end up that way, too, is unclear.

“I don’t think I’m as disenchanted as this guy — this rogue agent — you know, nobody in publishing has tried to kill me or anything,” she says, laughing. “But there is a way in which I think that all people in midlife have this question of: Would you remarry your spouse? [Jen is married with two children] Would you, now knowing everything about your profession that you know, sign up again? [James Bond] answers affirmatively, and I do, too. But it’s been a process.”


Often, characters in Jen’s novels will experience rebirth, says Ho.

“At about 16 years old, Mona [in ‘Mona in the Promised Land’] decides to become Jewish, to the horror of her mother, who insists that she can’t change,” Ho says. “Here, Gish is playing with notions of identity and ethnicity. She’s also illustrating the challenges of selecting identity versus assuming your family’s identity.”

Jen began her career convinced, she says, that it would only be a matter of time before she was as accomplished as Jane Austen or George Elliot. In her late 20s, she admits, “I just thought that everything about writing was noble and good. I didn’t realize that you had to do so much publicity. I didn’t realize, as with anything else, the politics of it.”

Having come to terms, at length, with the messiness of her own industry, she is no less certain of her passion. “And that is the acid test,” she says with a smile.

The kitchen is bright, lit by the sun through sliding glass doors, and you can see, plainly, the constellations of freckles on her nose, her cheeks. Her face, framed in short black hair, is defined by a long, knowing brow, which, judging by one of the photos in “Tiger Writing,” she inherited from her father, a first generation Chinese-American. In the first of three chapters in that book, she holds up a personal narrative of his, an unpublished work, as a prime example of interdependent thought.


In some ways, her own personal narrative splices the East and the West. On the one hand, she is able to view with empathy the big literary picture: “I didn’t realize, to the degree I might have, how tied up it is with class,” she says, referring to the establishment, “how tied up literature is with maintaining class lines that, in my heart of hearts, I don’t believe in maintaining.”

With a resigned shake of the head, she adds, “You see really worthy books not get the attention that they should; you see trashy books get a lot of attention. Suddenly, the whole thing seems just like any other profession. And you start to think: Well, there’s really no difference between being a writer and a plumber, is there?”

These days, she finds herself open to writing in genres across the board, even to freeing herself from genre altogether, as she seems to have with “Tiger Writing”: a work of scholarship, but also an intellectual autobiography, to steal a phrase from the book, and a text she hopes can inspire younger writers to feel comfortable with their points of view. Likewise, she doesn’t care anymore if fiction that she reads, hers or someone else’s, is technically — line-by-line — perfect, only that it is moving.


Already, she has begun to explore different methods of communication. “What you sort of see is that I’m a different writer than I used to be,” she says. “I didn’t used to do PowerPoints — and now I do! And I’m sure there’ll be more.”

Peter Cocchia can be reached at Peter.
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Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for Gish Jen’s book talk. The reading will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge.