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How Covid made Gish Jen think about China

Gish Jen’s fans can take some solace as they finish one of her books: The characters may appear again in the next book they read.

The main character in her 1996 novel, “Mona in the promised land“About the daughter of Chinese immigrants who converted to Judaism, first appearing as an infant in Jen’s 1991 debut,”Typical American. “A character from her 1999 collection of stories”Who is Irish?“Duncan Hsu, is the focus of a story in her latest book, “Thank You Mr. Nixon,” released Tuesday by Knopf.

Jen said: “Didn’t I sit down and say, what are they doing now? “I care about people changing. I myself have changed a lot.”

Jen, 66 years old, daughter of Chinese immigrants, is the author of nine booksand often explores the intergenerational dynamics of Chinese-American families in her novels.

Her non-fiction books, including “The Girl Who Claims Luggage” and “Tiger Writing, “Focus on what Jen sees as the fundamental difference between the “independent self” encouraged by highly individualist societies in the West and the “interdependent self” commonly found in other cultures. Asian culture. “Because I have an interdependent part – it’s not all of me, but a part of me – I really have an obligation to share what I know,” she said in an interview. video this month.

The title story of “Thank you Mr. Nixon” takes the form of a gentle letter written to the former president – ​​who in this scenario is hell – by a woman he met during his 1972 visit to China. In other linked stories, some written in times of pandemic, others in previous years, readers meet a woman studying immigration law, and in one later story, one of the her client.

Jen discussed how China has influenced her work, what she has gained from writing nonfiction books, and why it’s important, even in fiction, to get a straight understanding of the truth. real. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Tell me about this book’s timeline and how it fits into the rest of your work.

I went to China in 1979 to visit my family, and interestingly, even though I was not a writer then, I took a lot of notes. The idea of ​​becoming a writer never crossed my mind, but I guess there is a writer in me.

I returned to teaching in 1981, teaching coal mining engineers in Shandong. And then I went to Iowa, right after that, so I went straight from China to Iowa for my MFA

As I write, I don’t think I’m trying to record history or anything like that – it’s just there.

Then I sat down in Covid and watched some of the older stories, and you can see everything that’s happening. History is always there – of course we don’t realize it, no one thinks, “I can only have this business because Nixon went to China”. (Laugh) This is a time to reflect on what has happened, especially as we enter a new phase of our relationship with China.

You wrote about how the independent and dependent aspects of self affect each other. How do you see that relationship affecting your writing style or your preoccupation as a writer?

I am a frugal and efficient writer. But I don’t mind the economics of my own work. It was a professor of Chinese literature who noticed, and as soon as he said it, I liked, but of course. The Chinese love extreme economics – they write great lyrics and leave out a lot of things.

I realized that for whatever reason – even though I was born in the United States, I speak only English, I am completely, quote no, American – that aesthetic has stayed with me, like like how caring about mixed tones and caring about subtleties has stayed with me. But it’s interesting to see these cultural highlights, and if I could explain to you where I get it from – well, that would be a different book.

What stories did you hear from your family when you were growing up?

It’s a fairly established project in the United States, and there isn’t much time to tell the story. I don’t remember a minute of my childhood dedicated to anything but spending the day. My parents weren’t autobiographical people – in the world you and I live in, it’s very important to have your autobiography so that others can get to know you. But for them, there is an unspoken privilege – if something is important, you definitely don’t talk about it. It’s the exact opposite of how things work here.

I was trying to get some stories out of my mom. She doesn’t talk much. But sometimes she will tell more than she wants.

Many writers, especially disadvantaged ones, resist the expectation that they are “speakers” for whatever community they seem to represent. But you, at least in your non-fiction books, seem more willing to take on this interpretive role.

I think some people fear that if you take on this role, whether it’s as a non-fiction writer or as a “cultural ambassador” of some kind, it will stick. But I feel more comfortable with it.

Also, I’m considered a fiction writer – if my first book were non-fiction, I don’t know if I could have moved out so easily. I have emerged from writing non-fiction books not from feeling stuck but with a sense of freedom. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I write “The Resistance. “I went in a very different direction. And now here I am, back on the pitch that would probably be more obvious than Gish Jen. Then we’ll see what happens after that. So I think non-fiction books have helped me as a writer.

Many of your stories revolve around differences of opinion between generations – including how they view class and race. Do you ever worry about how your characters will be received by readers, especially at a time of increased violence against Asian Americans?

One of the problems that minority writers face is: How many writers are there? If it’s just you, you have to be pretty careful. As times change and there are more voices, you can relax a bit. But there’s still that little voice in my head that says, “I’m going to go with what I feel is right, but I also have to be aware of how it can be read and I have to disarm people.” read if I can.” My sense of humor is a big part of that.

Now there’s enough out there that we can write whatever we need to write. Some of it will be flattering and some of it won’t be pretty, but all of them will be purely human.

Your new book covers the 1970s to the present day. How do you see this book aligning with other accounts of its time?

Although it’s fiction, there’s a lot of truth to it, and I feel a sense of responsibility, especially since I’m talking about arenas that don’t have a strong track record, that if I was there, that It is important to understand the frank truth: Are there mosquitos without a net or without a mosquito net? Is the ceiling fan spinning?

As much as I can, I try to fix those facts. But in the end, I see all those facts – all the very good work done by journalists and historians – I see them as strings. Their job is to make the strings and make sure they’re in tune. My job is to make music.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/29/books/gish-jen-thank-you-mr-nixon.html How Covid made Gish Jen think about China

Fry Electronics Team

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