Horror Has Become Normal: An Interview with Gish Jen




BORN IN 1955, raised by Chinese immigrant parents in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Scarsdale, New York, Gish Jen started writing poetry in seventh grade. By high school, she’d become literary editor of her school magazine — and after fellow members of the creative writing club nicknamed her after the groundbreaking silent-screen actress Lillian Gish, had replaced her given name, Lillian, with Gish.

None of these moves was predictable. Later, three of her brothers became businessmen; her sister became a doctor. And Jen seemed headed, too, in a conventional direction even after her poetry professor asked why she was pre-med. She should, he said, be a writer. It wasn’t until she found herself at Stanford Business School — where she was taking creative writing on the side — that she finally heeded her professor’s words, earning her MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1983.

Despite her parents’ trepidations and her own, today no one could call Gish Jen’s career choice a mistake. She has published seven works of fiction and nonfiction. Her short stories have appeared in venues including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and four editions of The Best American Short Stories, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Her work has earned several top awards, including the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Radcliffe fellowship, and a Strauss Living from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The Resisters is Gish Jen’s eighth book and her most ambitious in many ways. Although she’s never shied away from controversial, socially engaged content, in this novel Jen uses the device of baseball, that most patriotic of American rituals, to plunk her readers down in an imaginatively constructed Brave New World called AutoAmerica — a nation that bears a hilarious and eerie resemblance to America today.

¤ 

MEREDITH MARAN: Wow. Just wow. You’ve created an incredibly captivating, fantastical, yet terrifyingly believable version of America in this novel. Tell me about your decision to use the dystopian form.

GISH JEN: I’m hardly the first literary writer to try a dystopia. In fact, a few years ago, in The New Yorker, Jill Lepore pronounced us all to be in a state of dystopia fatigue. Yet how else to express what it feels like to live today?

There are many uses of dystopian fiction, but the use that interests me most is its ability — ironically — to return the human to the foreground. This has not been much exploited. But realistic depictions of our current moment that include, say, climate change and the weakening of democracy — just two of the issues we’re struggling with — demand that the characters react to these things. And that reaction is the story.

In a dystopia like the one in The Resisters, in contrast, the horror has become normal. Which is part of my point, of course — that what was once abnormal in America has become normalized. And the confronting of that is still part of the story. But the sort of everyday dystopia I’ve written allows more foregrounding of mundane matters, like a girl’s struggles with her best friend — matters that reveal how human affairs are both completely the same and completely changed.

So Ann Patchett was right in calling this a cautionary tale?

This is a book that asks where we are going and if that is where we want to go.

It makes the potential change in lived experience palpable.

I hope so. 

In its review of The Resisters, Entertainment Weekly said, “Jen reveals how America became AutoAmerica, one seemingly tiny but cumulatively fatal development at a time,” and also that, given your interest in America, “it feels inevitable” that you would “find [your] way into the dugout.” Do you agree? 

Finding my way into the dugout felt nowhere near inevitable to me. I was the sort of kid who never actually managed to hit the ball; if I wasn’t parked on the bench, as I preferred, I played left field, praying the ball would never be hit in my direction. But as I was thinking about how to represent all that might be lost if America continues on its present course, baseball did seem the perfect metaphor.

Baseball, the national pastime.

As Walt Whitman put it, baseball has always had the “snap, go, fling” of the American atmosphere. And it has so many democratic ideas built into it. We take the idea of a level playing field for granted, as well as the idea that everyone should have a turn at bat. But as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I’m aware of how strange these ideas can seem to people from other countries.

When you first decided to create this dystopian world, did you realize how much detailed imagining it would require? Did you already know a ton about AI and baseball, or did you learn a ton to write the book?

Do we ever know how much work a novel is going to be? Luckily, I like investigation of every sort, and I was able to study up on both technology and baseball as I wrote. Luckily, too, I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I’m surrounded by expertise. The MIT Technology Review very generously allowed me to sit in on their EmTech conference twice. And I was able to consult with people like Ted Williams’s biographer, Bill Nowlin.

What was happening in the world when you started writing this novel? Did those events affect the novel’s creation?

In 2017, when I sat down to The Resisters, there were a record-breaking number of terrifyingly intense hurricanes, and a record-breaking number of wildfires. Of course, they influenced my depiction of the ocean and the weather. Around the same time, Facebook chatbots had begun communicating their own nonhuman language, freaking people out about AI. Then there was Trump, pushing his border wall and his Muslim Ban; he might as well have sponsored the program I call Ship’EmBack in my book. Happily, inspired by Colin Kaepernick, NFL players were kneeling during the National Anthem; they were resisting. And the early part of the year had seen a record protest turnout at the Women’s March. I will never forget that sea of pink hats.

Obviously, the pandemic wasn’t yet upon us when you wrote the novel. It was just appearing as your book was published in February. In hindsight, now, how does the world you invented for the novel resemble and differ from the world the pandemic has wrought?

Sadly, the elderly and people of color disproportionately affected by the coronavirus — viewed as expendable by all too many — could easily be referred to by the same term I used for the underclass in my book, “the Surplus.” Sadly, too, they are effectively being “winnowed” — another term from my book. And though they are receiving a minimal stipend, just as in my book, the government — just as in my book — is not much interested in paying this indefinitely.

In my book, too, interestingly, some people have taken refuge in books and gardening and home exercise regimens. There is a distinct sense that the world outside the house is dangerous — so much so, that the family at the center often seems practically in quarantine.

Has the pandemic changed the way we see dystopian fiction?

Dystopian fiction once seemed highly artificial, and perhaps more paranoid than insightful. Now, horrifyingly, it often seems more insightful than paranoid.

Talk to me about being a female writer of color in the Trump era. Does it affect your sense of responsibility to your readers, or to the country, or the world?

In an earlier work, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, I wrote about what it means to have been born into a culture — the Chinese culture — in which the individual is not assumed to be the fundamental unit of society, and one’s obligations to others are primary. Having grown up in America, of course, I’m halfway between that culture and mainstream, individualistic American culture. I’m not Chinese Chinese. Still, I have a pronounced sense of responsibility to my readers, the country, and the world, which I don’t attribute so much to my gender or color as to my non-Western-European cultural background. That’s to say that while I’m hardly the only writer to feel she had to say something about where this society could be headed if we stay on our current path, I felt it acutely.

Ditto the #MeToo era?

I didn’t feel that I particularly needed to expose the sexual predation that goes on. Ronan Farrow, Chanel Miller, and others have done that powerfully. However, I sadly believe it could still be an issue in the future.

Your novel not only encompasses many social issues; it crosses many genres. It’s a dystopia, and a baseball novel, with elements of science fiction. How did that happen? 

I didn’t deliberately set out to blur boundaries. That said, I’ve always experimented with form. The Love Wife looked like a Socratic dialogue on the page. World and Town is written in sections that suggest infinite possible alternate narratives. And in my last book, The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap, I talk about the differences between the interdependent self — what I call the flexi-self — and the individualistic self that dominates in the West. I’m actually a hybrid with both interdependent and individualistic sides. But I do think that writing about the interdependent self, with its disinterest in all things fixed and boundaried, may have primed me to write The Resisters.

You accept certain genre elements like the big game to which all baseball novels build. And yet you use them to your own ends. Was that hard? 

Yes. First, that big game is tricky. It’s hard to surprise even the reader who has read a million baseball novels leading to a million big games. And then to make it resonate in a new way — it’s a challenge.

If the novel does what your wildest dreams entail, what will happen as a result of its publication?

My wildest dream would be to have the financial security to go on taking risks.

¤

Meredith Maran is a widely published book critic, essayist, and the author of The New Old Me, Why We Write, and a dozen other books.

 

RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT
The Los Angeles Review of Books is a reader-supported nonprofit. Tax-deductible, matching donations help light the path toward nuanced and vital conversations online, on the air, in print, and through our groundbreaking workshop.