American Literature Gish Jen
Kyoko Amano
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0129


Gish Jen was born Lillian Jen on 12 August 1955 in New York City to Chinese immigrant parents from Shanghai, Norman and Agnes. They met in the United States and initially planned to return to China, but they remained due to the communist takeover in 1949. Jen, the second of five children, grew up in Yonkers and Scarsdale. While in high school, Jen adopted the name Gish after an actress, Lillian Gish. She started out to be a pre-med and pre-law student, but she graduated from Harvard University majoring in English in 1977. After working for a year in New York City, she entered an MBA program at Stanford Business School but left Stanford to teach English in Shandong, China. She enrolled at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and received an MFA in 1983. She married David O’Connor and moved to Silicon Valley in California, where David worked. His work moved the family to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and after failing to find a secretarial job at Harvard, Jen was awarded a fellowship at Radcliffe’s Bunting Institute. It was during this time that Jen worked on her first novel, Typical American (1991). The New York Times recognized the novel as a “Notable Book of the Year,” and it was one of the finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Jen’s second novel, Mona in the Promised Land (1996), derived from her short story, “What Means Switch?” and is a sequel to Typical American. Jen’s next book, Who’s Irish? (1999), is a collection of eight short stories, and two stories from the collection were selected for the Best American Short Stories anthology. John Updike chose “Birthmates” for The Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999). Jen’s next book, The Love Wife (2004), departs from the Chang family and focuses on the new American family that consists of multiethnic members, including Asian, Asian American, and white American. Jen published World and Town in 2010, and her most recent work is Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Independent Self (2013). Jen is a recipient of various fellowships, including the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1988).

General Overviews

Despite critical acclaim, a book solely devoted to Gish Jen’s life or works is yet to be published. “Gish Jen” in Contemporary Authors Online provides the most updated information on Jen’s works, including World and Town. Among three editions of Contemporary Literary Criticism, the 2008 edition includes excerpts and reprints of articles about Jen’s works from various sources and is useful (“Gish Jen (1955–)”). Feddersen 2001 is useful for students interested in an analysis of Jen’s short stories; Simal 2005 briefly summarizes critical articles on Jen’s works. See also Reference Works.

  • Feddersen, R. C. “Gish Jen.” In A Reader’s Companion to the Short Story in English. Edited by Erin Fallon, R. C. Feddersen, James Kurtzleben, Maurice A. Lee, Susan Rochette-Crawley, and Mary Rohrberger, 196–208. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.

    Includes biography, an overview of criticism on Jen’s first novel, Typical American, and an extensive analysis of Jen’s short stories. See also Short Fiction.

  • “Gish Jen.” In Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012.

    Most up-to-date source, but very thin on biographical information. Available online by subscription.

  • “Gish Jen (1955–).” In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 260. Edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, 80–182. Detroit: Gale, 2008.

    Useful source because it provides excerpts and reprints of critical articles, including interviews and reviews. Available online by subscription.

  • Simal, Begoña. “Gish Jen.” In Asian American Writers. Edited by Deborah L. Madsen, 144–154. Dictionary of Literary Biography 312. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

    A biographical essay with critical assessment of past criticism on Jen’s works, from Typical American to The Love Wife. Simal also summarizes the plot of Jen’s works, including short stories published in Who’s Irish? “Further Readings about the Author” lists interviews and references. Available online by subscription.

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