Tales from home and abroad by Gish Jen


The characters of Thanks, Mr. Nixon (Knopf, January 2022), Gish Jen’s expansive new collection of superconnected news, is choppy. They leave China for America and come back, leave America for China and come back, traveling between the two countries and cultures like through a revolving door. Jen, like Second Generation Americans in her book, understands what it is like to be “hybrid” and the inherent tension that forces its characters to engage in frequent acts of translation – linguistic, cultural, and generational. – whether they wish it or they wish it. not.

Born on Long Island in 1955, Jen says she came of age “at the height of multiculturalism, when I was supposed to write about my Chinese roots.” But growing up in Scarsdale, NY, she learned more Yiddish than Chinese – an experience she used for her very funny second novel, 1996’s. Mona in the Promised Land, about a Chinese girl converting to Judaism.

“Once this was published, a lot of people were convinced that I must be Jewish,” Jen tells Zoom from an office at Harvard, her alma mater, where she is a visiting professor of English. “So much so that I started to feel positively lost in the fall, when I didn’t keep the Great Holy Days.”

Ever since she started publishing short stories in the 1980s (most of which were shortlisted for Best American Series), Jen has a reputation for writing vivid, intelligent, and often humorous portraits of second-generation Chinese Americans. . She has long been interested in hybridity and has lectured and written on hybridity, most recently in her 2017 non-fiction book, The girl at the baggage claim: explaining the cultural gap between East and West.

Thanks, Mr. Nixon could itself be called a hybrid: 11 stories strung together so carefully that they become as interdependent as they are independent, almost romantic. Jen calls connectivity a “very complicated network.”

In a sense, the book is simple: the stories unfold chronologically, starting with the title tale, a letter sent from heaven to hell. In it, a deceased Chinese woman thanks the disgraced US president for what he triggered during his 1972 trip to China. This missive sets in motion the dramas and concerns of the book (the symbiosis of capitalism and communism, for example), and presents the two families – the Hsus and the Koos – whose various links give the book its romantic scope.

“With the stories, there is a suggestion that there is so much more than what we see on the page,” Jen says. “We get a glimpse here, a glimpse there, we see they’re connected, but whoa, there’s a big, big, big thing underwater that will probably take another century to figure out. “

This Leviathan is China’s role in the world. There’s the country Jen herself came to know as a “foreign expert” in 1981, teaching English to students at mining institutes who had never seen a refrigerator – and the country that has become, a generation later, an economic and geopolitical power.

“Who could have seen the meteoric rise? Jen said, still in awe of the change. “I don’t think the Chinese even saw it.” Her stories trace that rise – what she calls, “that kind of low-level rumble under the life” of her characters.

By choosing to include in this book “Duncan in China” (from his previous collection, Who is Irish, published in 1999), Jen makes the Hsu family a star, their presence seen or felt in every tale. (Second-generation Chinese-American brothers Duncan and Arnie Hsu move with particular fluidity between the United States and China.)

“Frankly, today I wasn’t going to be able to write a new story about this time period that captures it as well as my old story,” Jen explains. “I was there. The material looks so different in this context. Now we understand that this was just one step in this huge process.”

In these stories, globalization is both poignant and hilarious. Readers of Who is Irish Young Duncan will be remembered for his exploits as a foreign expert, running into his vigilant boss and spending more time showing off his bathroom than teaching English. When he falls in love with an older student, a report is written and she disappears, only to surprise him later with a life-changing offer. The full impact of her gesture is only felt several stories later, in “Amaryllis,” about a single middle-aged, mixed-race, second-generation Chinese-American woman working for the Koos in Manhattan and occupant of Duncan Hsu’s aging. father in east Brooklyn. Mr. Hsu’s nomadic children and grandchildren have largely abandoned him. Lonely Amaryllis wants a connection but only finds it when she stops looking.

Amaryllis is only four years into the collection’s long and powerful second story, “It’s the Great Wall! She left with her Sephardic Jewish grandparents from the Caribbean while her parents took her Chinese grandmother, Opal, to China for the first time since immigrating to America decades ago. As a member of an organized group of mostly Western tourists, Opal grows weary of translating for the struggling guide, but his understanding of the guide’s “heart” helps him navigate the People’s Republic in a way that others do. , including his own daughter, cannot. This makes possible a clandestine reunion with the Opal family left behind, an unexpected turn that takes the story in an overwhelming and poignant direction.

The Hsus and Koos are intertwined in “Rothko, Rothko,” in which Rich Lee, a broke creative writing teacher with a novel in a drawer, hopes to cash in on the forgeries of a talented Chinese artist, despite warnings from his lawyer wife, Arabella.

In “No More Maybe”, the following story, Arabella now represents a Chinese family whose visa status has expired; this story, which takes place during the Trump years, vividly evokes the growing anxiety of undocumented immigrants in America.

And in the long, hilariously funny “Gratitude,” Rich’s former student, Bobby Koo, tries to keep the distance (8,000 miles) she put between herself and her parents. Unhappy with their “number one daughter” who ghosts them, the Koos thwart her: they plan to buy her apartment through an agent (Duncan Hsu’s brother, Arnie), to fly from Hong Kong to America and surprise it at closing. The reunion does not go as they had hoped.

“I felt a responsibility to really understand the details,” Jen says of the book, and many stories contain startling details of a China that no longer exists; she drew many notes from a family trip in 1979 and from her stint as a foreign expert two years later. “I was there,” Jen said again. “I was a witness, and I take this seriously.”

His mastery of detail makes Thanks, Mr. Nixon authentic and captivating; her vision makes her unique and vital. “I wrote all of these stories in this changing world that involves immigrants from the continent, stories that would not have been possible 30 years ago,” Jen says. “Because there were no immigrants. They wouldn’t have been here, let alone law school.

She puts her hands up and laughs. “I am very, very, very lucky that my career has coincided with these changes.”

Mike Harvkey is the author of Over the course of human events and was the researcher / journalist for the bestselling True Crime book All-American murder.

A version of this article appeared in the 10/25/2021 issue of Editors Weekly under the title: At home and away


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