Gish Jen

Award-winning Novelist

“Absolutely indispensable.” —Junot Diaz

“Gish Jen is outstanding both as a novelist and as a spokeswoman…She writes about great public themes without fanfare or pretension.” – Elaine Showalter, Princeton University

“I am proud, proud, proud to share ancestors, the novel, and the world with Gish Jen.” – Maxine Hong Kingston

Gish Jen is the author of numerous award-winning novels, including World and TownMona In the Promised LandThe Love Wife, and Typical American, as well as a collection of stories, Who's Irish? Invited by Harvard University to deliver the Massey lectures in American Civilization--a distinction she shares with Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow, and Maxine Hong Kingston--Jen will be publishing those lectures in March 2013.  Entitled Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self, they piercingly address the profound difference in self-narration that underlies the East-West gap and have large implications for our study of literature. Harvard Professor Amanda Claybaugh, in introducing the third of the live lectures, announced, "[F]rom now on I’ll place Jen alongside Hegel and Lukacs as a theorist of the genre, and her father’s narrative alongside Bronte’s and Joyce’s as a fascinating alternative of how to narrate a life.”

Introduction to the 3rd Massey Lecture by Amanda Claybaugh

And yet the lectures are more than just literary.  Provocative, honest and personal, they use Jen’s own beginnings as a writer as well as her father’s autobiography about growing up in China to illuminate phenomena from American individualism and American art culture to the success of Asian Americans on standardized tests—the outward focus of Asian storytelling, too.

Jen has been bringing insight, humanity and humor to issues of culture and identity for over two decades. Her novels portray individuals, families, and entire communities struggling with questions of race, religion, choice, and change—asking us, among other things, what it means to be American.  Her first novel, Typical American, audaciously redefines Americanness, for example.  "As soon as you ask yourself the question, 'What does it mean to be Irish-American, Iranian-American, Greek-American,'” says Jen, “you are American.” Later novels, such as The Love Wife, explore phenomena like the new American family. Is a biological child more real than an adopted child? Is an adopted family a real family?  How much of ourselves do we choose? This is a theme explored in a different key in Mona in the Promised Land, which asks, Can a nice Chinese girl turn Jewish? even as it looks at the invention of ethnicity, American-style.  And Jen’s most recent novel, World and Town, transposes her concerns once again. Is post-9/11 America still a place where we can be reborn?  In a novel as much about science culture and religious culture as ethnic culture, Jen explores just how much depends on vision—every form of vision involving a form of blindness.

That these sorts of concerns are raised in the course of great storytelling is testimony to Jen’s gifts.  As Ron Charles wrote in The Washington Post, “Jen knows how to create thoughtful characters who can talk and think about complex issues without making us take notes.” Cynthia Ozick echoes this praise: “Jen’s characters are so alive,” she says, “that one can hardly call them ‘characters.’” The New York Times Book Review, meanwhile, has focused on Jen’s prose:  “No paraphrase could capture the intelligence of Gish Jen’s prose, its epigrammatic sweep and swiftness,” wrote A. G. Mojtabai.  “The author just keeps coming at you, line after stunning line.”

Read the Profile on Gish Jen by The Boston Globe

Boston Globe Review of Tiger Writing

Elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009, Jen is the recipient of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. In 2003, an American Academy of Arts and Letters jury comprised of John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Don DeLillo, and Joyce Carol Oates awarded her a five-year Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award.

Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and dozens of other periodicals and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike.  It was also featured in a PBS American Masters’ special on the American novel.

PBS Video on Typical American

A natural performer and a natural teacher, Jen connects as easily with general readers and with students as with professors.

PBS Interview with Bill Moyers

Gish Jen is the author of numerous award-winning novels, including World and TownMona In the Promised LandThe Love Wife, and Typical American, as well as a collection of stories, Who's Irish?. Her Harvard University lectures were recently published in a book entitled Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self. She is the recipient of the Lannan Award in Fiction as well as a Strauss Living Award, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Drawing on a rich array of sources—from paintings to cognitive studies to her father’s striking account of his childhood in China—this accessible book not only illuminates Jen’s own development and celebrated work but also explores the aesthetic and psychic roots of the independent and interdependent self—each mode of selfhood yielding a distinct way of observing, remembering, and narrating the world. The novel, Jen writes, is fundamentally a Western form that values originality, authenticity, and the truth of individual experience. By contrast, Eastern narrative emphasizes morality, cultural continuity, the everyday, the recurrent. In its progress from a moving evocation of one writer’s life to a convincing delineation of the forces that have shaped our experience for millennia, Tiger Writing radically shifts the way we understand ourselves and our art-making.

About WORLD AND TOWN (Novel, 2011)

World and Town is lavish with acutely drawn incidents and characters…an imaginatively questioning and shrewdly written novel of our times” —Boston Globe

“How happy I am to read a book by a woman that’s so big and ambitious.  I love it when women writers dare to take on the great themes of history and national identity… You will find yourself swept up and completely absorbed by this polyphonic and immensely moving novel.” – Allegra Goodman


Hattie Kong has, in her fiftieth year of living in the United States, lost both her husband and her best friend to cancer. It is an utterly devastating loss, and also heartbreakingly absurd: a little, she thinks, “like having twins.” Two years later, she moves to the town of Riverlake, where she is soon joined by an immigrant Cambodian family and a just-retired neuroscientist ex-lover named Carter Hatch. All of them are, like Hattie, looking for a new start in a town that might once have represented the rock-solid base of American life but that is itself challenged by cell-phone towers and chain stores, struggling family farms and fundamentalist Christians. What Hattie makes of this situation is at the center of a novel that asks deep and absorbing questions about religion, home, America, what neighbors are, what love is, and, in the largest sense, what “worlds” we make of the world.

Gish Jen's website