Book Talk: Gish Jen on identity, belonging and home

Thu Nov 17, 2011 10:19am EST
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By Elaine Lies

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.   Continued...