Book Talk: Gish Jen on identity, belonging and home

TOKYO Thu Nov 17, 2011 10:19am EST

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Into a traditional northern New England town under pressure from chain stores and cell phone towers, its old family farms struggling, comes Hattie Kong, half-Chinese and newly widowed.

Soon she is joined by the teenaged daughter of a Cambodian immigrant family on the run from their past, as well as a former love from her youth -- all, in their own ways, seeking new lives in the novel "World and Town," by Gish Jen.

Evangelical Christians, globalization and Asian youth gangs -- inspired partly by Jen's visits to a court near her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- come into play as Hattie and the other characters try to figure out where they fit in the world.

Jen, who looked at family identity in her previous book, "The Love Wife," spoke to Reuters about difference, perspective and outsiders.

Q: There are a lot of layers of difference and insiders/outsiders in the book, what are your thoughts on this?

A: "In the stereotyped idea of the 'immigrant novel,' it's the immigrant who's different, and it's enough to have come from China -- you're Chinese and you came to America, that's all we really need to know about you. Then there's monolithic white America. But I think neither is true. It seems to me that many Americans have a sense of difference, and I think most people actually feel marked in one way or another. If it's not by widowhood, it's by their being a single woman, or here in Cambridge it's being from the Midwest or the South.

"There are many ways in which people actually do feel both inside and outside, so it reflects my perception of what America is. I think there's a tendency in a book about an immigrant to think that only the immigrant feels like an outsider, but my observation has been that that is just not the case."

Q: In "The Love Wife" there are also a lot of questions about what makes a family, and identity.

A: "Well, I'm very interested in the construction of identity. That includes the construction of individual identity,

and also national identity. And if you're interested in the construction of national identity, especially if you're coming as I do from a background of China, you have to ask yourself: is identity a matter of choice, or a matter of blood? Of course, identity as a matter of blood was a given, up until recently, in China, and identity as a matter of choice defines America.

"Once you become interested in that, it's a natural thing to look from these constructions of nationhood, to constructions of family. I guess that's to say that I saw a family with mixed biological and adopted children as very much an American phenomenon, which is both something that you would only find in America. When something writ small is emblematic of the whole."

Q: How do you work?

A: "I'm a very intuitive writer. I know that sounds funny because, when all's said and done, there's a lot of echoing. Everything relates to everything else on several levels, but I don't really know myself how that happens. I guess rewriting.

"Gertrude Stein said that the artist always works by locating the world within himself. I always wish that she had said 'herself' -- but there is a certain truth to that. We internalize the world, and as we internalize the world we develop nerves in response to that. I try to look for a nerve in myself, and if I find one it'll frequently generate stories of its own accord. So I try to write those stories down."

Q: Do you tend to start from a scene, or do you start with a character that starts speaking to you, or does it vary?

A: "It varies. But I will say that at some level, there's something that I can't let go of. So there's some kind of base commitment. In this book, I think the base commitment was to those kids in that courtroom. 'The Love Wife' started because I had a child who's very fair, her father is Caucasian. We would be out and I had a German nanny, and everyone thought the German nanny was the mother, and I was the nanny. They would ask me, 'do you have any free hours?' I wrote partly out of a sense of amusement -- wow, here's material -- but there's no question that at some level I wrote in defense of that child. I am writing this book to make the world a better place, that my child can live in it."

Q: Have you ever been pigeonholed because of ethnicity?

A: "I think there is a way in which I feel it has been a tremendous advantage to me as a writer, because I have a different perspective and I have a revealing perspective. But I hate it when that gets turned into 'you're just an Asian-American identity.' I have a perspective on Asia that Asians themselves don't have, and that I have a perspective on America that many Americans don't. It's the insider-outsider thing.

"I think that when you get pigeonholed it seems that therefore your dominant narrative is about trying to belong. I'm not exactly sure that's what Asian-Americanness means to me. To me, it's about this whole vision, which I would not trade for the world. When they say 'oh, you're a Chinese-American writer,' well, I am a Chinese-American writer, but I'm not sure that Chinese-American writer means the same thing to me as it does to the people who are labeling me. To me, Chinese-American writer means you're used to looking at things a little differently. To me it's almost like a way of being in the world.

"It's a lot more than how do I fit into white America and am I being discriminated against, questions that do not interest me at all. It goes right up to the American level -- is America still a place where we can start over? This was the great land of rebirth, and is it still that for these people? Everyone has come to this town to start over, but can they start over? Can they make the town their own? That's the big American question."

(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)

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