The Beatrice Interview

Gish Jen

"So, aren't you going to ask if I'm Jewish?"

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Gish Jen speaks of ethnic identity as one of the many hats that we can wear as Americans, and the protagonist of her second novel, Mona in the Promised Land, tries on quite a few hats during the course in the novel. Living in Scarshill, a fictional upscale New York city, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mona, a second-generation Chinese-American (first seen as a small child in Jen's debut novel Typical American), becomes fascinated with the Jewish community surrounding her and, to the shock of her parents and her friends, decides to convert. That's the impetus for comic interaction between Chinese, Jews, and blacks, often centered around the diner that Mona's father owns. Through it all, Mona seems remarkably level-headed, even when beating her head against the brick wall of other characters' smallmindedness. I met with Jen during her book tour to discuss the novel and the ways in which her own ethnic and cultural identity were shaped during that era.

RH: This is a continuation of the story from Typical American, but with a number of differences.

GJ: It's very different in tone and feeling. The characters from my first book do appear, but the emphasis is on the younger generation. The first book is more tragic- comic, while Mona in the Promised Land is more purely comic.

RH: Was it something that you had in mind as you were writing your first novel, or shortly after that?

GJ: I think there was a time when I was writing the first book that I realized the potential for two books, and that the second book would be about the second generation of this family, but I can't say that I knew this is what it was going to be. Then, about 3/4 of the way through Typical American, I was kind of stuck, and I went down to a reading in Soho, and it happened that the person taking tickets at the door was from my high school. Something about seeing that person jogged my memories, and I went home and wrote the short story that became the first chapter of this book in about three days (which is very quick for me). I knew then that this would be my next novel, and so in some ways it was difficult for me to go back and finish Typical American, because I had a new voice and new concerns, and I knew that I was going to be writing a very fun, very loose, very fast book.

RH: It chronicles what was not only an exciting time for you personally, but for American culture as a whole.

GJ: I wanted it to be about than the Asian-American experience and intergenerational conflict, though those things are there in the book. From the beginning, I wanted it to address broader concerns about the nature of ethnicity, so I did set it quite pruposefully in the late 1960s, when ethnicity was being invented, because it occurred to me when I looked back on my high school years that I had been a witness to that process of invention, on the heels of the civil rights movement, when blacks were turning blacker, and young Jews were becoming more Jewish, partly because of the Six-Day War, but also following the model of black people, reëmbracing their Judaism in a way that was quite astonishing to the older generation: returning to temple, learning Hebrew, things that their parents had gone to great lengths to avoid.

It encouraged me that that's the model that's being used by Asian-Americans and other groups today. From our latter-day perspective, the invention of ethnicity is an interesting thing to look at, because in our time it seems so obvious that one is essentially (fill-in-the-blank)-American, when twenty years ago there was no such label. It's a very recent and very American construction.

RH: Did these experiences influence you earlier on to become a writer in the first place?

GJ: That's very hard to say. Probably I became a writer by the process of elimination -- I was a literary type, interested in writing in a casual way in elementary school and high school, but it wasn't until college that I really tried to write. I fell into it by accident; I was a junior, an English major, and I felt that I still didn't understand why poetry had to be written in these little lines. So I took a course in prosody with Robert Fitzgerald(*). He said that we'd have a weekly assignment, which I took to mean a paper, but he meant a weekly assignment in verse. I immediately fell in love with it, and told my roommate that if I could do this for the rest of my life, I would. But I'm the daughter of immigrants, and I'd completely internalized all their practical ideas, so I didn't even consider for a moment becoming a poet. It was just not something anybody I knew did. But I had the feeling in me, and as I went from one career plan to another -- I was pre-med, pre-law, in business school, thought about being an architect, a contractor, an antiques dealer -- it become clear that there was one thing that I loved, and that none of these were it. But I had to try them all before I realized that I was going to have to write.

RH: Getting back to the earlier point about the construction of ethnic identity, I want to explore the connections between your identity as a writer and your identity as an Asian-American.

GJ: The funny thing about it is that I was one of the earliest of this wave of Asian-American writers, but I can't say that being a writer is an extension of my being an Asian-American. Quite the contrary. My life as a fiction writer is directly related to my assimilation, particularly to the Jewish community in Scarsdale where I grew up, which is very much like the Scarshill in the book. That was a community that greatly esteemed fiction writing, which is how I first got interested in finding my voice and expressing myself. In my Chinese heritage, scholarship is greatly esteemed, but fiction writing is not considered scholarship. So as an "Asian-American" writer, the "Asian" is linked to the "writer" part by being an "American".

RH: Yet there's a shorthand in literary criticism, particularly at more mainstream levels, where a writer can get identified early on as "(fill-in-the-blank) American".

GJ: Of course you hope that the identification doesn't end up becoming a pigeonhole. I have to say that that hasn't been my experience, though I did bristle early on at being labelled an "Asian-American writer," because I think every writer likes to be seen as a universal writer. But today, I look at how many of my writer friends are greatly talented and hugely unknown, it occurs to me that we live in a culture where if you're not labelled you disappear. So as much as I hope I'm not limited by that moniker, and that people will use it as a starting point to think about my work rather than an ending point, I now see that I'm lucky to have the label, ironic as it may seem. I'm probably pigeonholed with respect to the press, but among general readers and universities I seem to have gotten out of that small cubicle.

RH: Are you working on a third project?

GJ: I don't plan until I sit down. I'm a really intuitive writer -- no plan, no end point -- so I can have all the ideas in the world, but until I sit down at the keyboard, I have no idea whether I've got a live fish on the line or not. I wait for my books to write themselves; the conscious mind doesn't really know much about getting that to happen on a schedule.

RH: Who are some of the fiction writers that were held in high esteem when you were growing up?

GJ: It depends on what age you're talking about. In high school...Bellow, Mailer, Philip Roth, Singer, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley: these writers were like gods to me. I continue to greatly esteem these writers, and to admire what Roth has called "red-face literature", a literature that is out there emotionally, not quite so restrained...So, aren't you going to ask if I'm Jewish?

RH: I don't know. I thought I might try to avoid asking some of the things you've probably been asked a dozen times already.

GJ: Oh, well, nobody's asked me yet if I'm writing a new book.

RH: I just hate reading interviews full of questions like "So how autobiographical is this novel? Did this really happen to you?"...Fine. Are you Jewish?

GJ: I'm not Jewish, but I thought about it a lot as a teenager, and reëxamined a lot of those thoughts while writing the book... who I am is a person who assimilated a great deal of the Jewish culture I grew up in, as I think everybody who lives in the New York area has. The fact is that you can't grow up in New York without learning some Yiddish, without the culture leaving its mark on you. In the parts of this book that were consciously controlled, I did want to honor that. One of my friends from childhood described the novel as "a love letter to Scarsdale."

In this time of huge, public embracing of ethnic roots, I wanted to show how our lives are more complex than what we're born with. While our ethnic roots are very important to us, I think that anybody who is interested in their identity would do well to learn about the place they grew up in, and learn about its culture. We make ourselves in this country; even people who are racial and ethnic minorities transform themselves. The different groups have spent a lot of time rubbing elbows, rubbing off of each other, and while the melting pot model of assimilation was unhealthy, with its one way melting of people into generic Barbies and Kens, the idea of assimilation is still with us in ways that we don't necessarily have to be afraid of. We rub elbows with each other, and learn from each other, and this is a wonderful thing. It's not like we abandon our own roots, we just know more things and allow them to change our lives.

One of the reasons that I steered the interview around to the "Are you Jewish?" question is that I want to question why it's funnier for an Asian-American woman to consider switching identities like that than it would be for, example, an Irish-American. There's some racist component to that formulation. Nobody asks an Irish-American if he knows Gaelic, or if she celebrates Saint Patrick's Day, and if you don't, you're not seen as a fallen Irish. But for Chinese, it's different -- how is it that people who don't even know us very well feel free to tell us about our identity and how we're living up to it?

RH: Why are Chinese being held up to a higher standard of cultural integrity?

GJ: And why do people consider it appropriate to even raise the issue? Asian-Americans are held up to a different standard in that regard than Caucasian Americans, and there's an assumed power differential there that I want to question.

RH: At the same time, white people can experiment with Asian culture in any number of different ways and don't get asked about how unwhite they're being.

GJ: Exactly. It's not as much of a joke for a white person to try Buddhism as it is for a Chinese person to try Judaism. People have found the book hilarious, from what they've been saying to me during the tour, but there are also serious issues there that I hope they'll consider as well.

BEATRICE More Beatrice Interviews
Amanda Davis | Joy Nicholson

All materials copyright © 1996 Ron Hogan