How Covid Got Gish Jen Thinking About China

Gish Jen’s fans can take some solace when they finish one of her books: The characters might reappear in the next one they read.

The protagonist of her 1996 novel, “Mona in the Promised Land,” about the daughter of Chinese immigrants who converts to Judaism, first appeared as an infant in Jen’s 1991 debut, “Typical American.” A character from her 1999 story collection “Who’s Irish,” Duncan Hsu, is the focus of a story in her latest book, “Thank You, Mr. Nixon,” due out Tuesday from Knopf.

“It’s not like I sit down and say, well, what are they doing now?,” Jen said. “I’m interested in people changing. I myself have changed a lot.”

Jen, 66, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, is the author of nine books, and often explores the intergenerational dynamics of Chinese American families in her fiction.

Her nonfiction books, including “The Girl at the Baggage Claim” and “Tiger Writing,” center on what Jen sees as the fundamental difference between the “independent self” encouraged by highly individualistic societies in the West, and the “interdependent self” often found in Asian cultures. “Because I have an interdependent side — it’s not all of me, but part of me — I do have a sense of obligation to share what I know,” she said in a video interview this month.

The title story of “Thank You, Mr. Nixon” takes the form of a lighthearted letter written to the former president — who, in this scenario, is in hell — by a woman he met during his 1972 visit to China. In other interconnected stories, some written during the pandemic, others in previous years, readers meet a woman studying immigration law, and in a later story, one of her clients.

Jen discussed how China has influenced her work, what she has gotten out of nonfiction writing and why it’s important, even in fiction, to get the facts straight. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Tell me about the timeline of this book and how it fits in with the rest of your body of work.

I had gone to China in 1979 to visit family, and interestingly, even though I was not a writer then, I took extensive notes. The idea of being a writer had never crossed my mind, but I guess there was the writer in me.

I went back again to teach in 1981, teaching coal-mining engineers in Shandong. And then I went to Iowa, right after that, so I went pretty much straight from China to Iowa for my M.F.A.

When I was writing, I wasn’t thinking that I was trying to record history or anything like that — it was just there.

Then I sat down during Covid and looked at some older stories, and you could see things happening. History is always there — we’re not aware of it, of course, no one is thinking, “I can only have this business because Nixon went to China.” (Laughs) This is the moment to reflect on what’s happened, especially as we enter a new phase of our relationship with China.

You’ve written about how the independent and interdependent aspects of yourself play off one another. How do you see that relationship affect your writing style or your preoccupations as a writer?

I am an economical and efficient writer. But I did not notice the economy in my own work. It was a professor of Chinese literature who noticed, and as soon as he said it, I was like, but of course. The Chinese love extreme economy — they’re very good in the short lyric and leaving a lot out.

I realized that for whatever reason — though I was born in the United States, I only speak English, I am fully, quote unquote, American — that aesthetic has stayed with me, the same way that an interest in mixed tone and interest in subtlety has stayed with me. But it is interesting to see these cultural holdovers, and if I could explain to you where I got that from — well, that would be another book.

What kinds of stories did you hear from your family when you were growing up?

It was quite a project getting established in the United States, and there was not a lot of time for storytelling. I don’t remember one minute of my childhood being dedicated to anything but getting through the day. My parents were not of an autobiographical cast of mind — in the world that you and I inhabit, it’s very important to self-narrate so that others can know you. But for them, there was a privileging of the unspoken — if something is important, you definitely don’t talk about it. It’s quite the reverse of the way that things work here.

I did try to get some stories out of my mother. She didn’t say a lot. But occasionally she would tell more than she meant to.

Many writers, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, resist the expectation that they are “spokespeople” for whatever community they seem to represent. But you, at least in your nonfiction, seem more than willing to take on this explanatory role.

I think some people are afraid that if you take on this role, whether it’s as a nonfiction writer or as a “cultural ambassador” of some kind, that it will stick. But I feel more comfortable with it.

Also, I am established as a fiction writer — if my first book had been nonfiction, I don’t know if I could have moved out so easily. I’ve emerged from writing nonfiction not feeling stuck, but with a feeling of freedom. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I wrote “The Resisters.” I went off in a very different direction. And now here I am, back on turf that maybe would seem more obviously Gish Jen. Then we’ll see what happens after that. So I think the nonfiction has helped me as a writer.

Many of your stories revolve around the differences in perspectives between generations — including how they view class and race. Do you ever worry about how your characters will be received by readers, particularly in a time of increased violence against Asian Americans?

One of the problems that minority writers face is: How many writers are there? If it’s just you, you’ve got to be pretty careful. As times change, and there are more voices, you can relax a little. But there is still a little voice in the back of my head that says, “I will go forth with what I feel to be true, but I must also be cognizant of how it may be read, and I must disarm the reader if I can.” My humor is a big part of that.

Now there’s enough out there that we can write whatever it is that we need to write. Some of it will be flattering and some of it will be unflattering, but all of it will be entirely human.

Your new book encompasses the 1970s through the present day. How do you see this book fitting in with other accounts of the time it covers?

Though it’s fiction, there’s a lot that is factually accurate, and I do feel a responsibility, especially when I am talking about arenas where there’s not a strong record, that if I was there, it’s important to get the facts straight: Were there mosquito nets or were there no mosquito nets? Did the ceiling fans rotate or not?

As best I can, I do try to nail those facts down. But in the end, I do see all those facts — all the very good work done by journalists and historians — I see them as the strings of the piano. It’s their job to make the strings and make sure they’re in tune. It’s my job to make the music.