Gish Jen is an American novelist born on August 12, 1955 in Long Island, New York. Her mother and father were both born in China, so she grew up in a household that embraced Asian culture. As a teenager, her parents hoped she would pursue a pre-med track in college, but she ultimately majored in English at her alma mater Harvard University. She then enrolled at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop to earn her master’s degree in fiction. In 1991, Jen made her foray into the literary realm with the publication of her debut novel, Typical American.
Typical American tells the story of Ralph Chang, a Chinese immigrant who moved to America with the rest of his family in the early 1950s. At first, they attempt to maintain the values of traditional Chinese culture, and succeed in doing so for a long period of time. However, as Ralph matures into a young adult, he becomes one of the “typical Americans” he once scoffed at in his childhood. This novel addresses issues of cultural assimilation, racial discrimination, and conformity to societal norms.
Upon its publication, Typical American garnered positive reviews from critics and audiences for its incredibly realistic portrayal of the Asian-American experience. Richard Eder of The Los Angeles Times states that “Jen’s writing has a power of unexpected attack as if the English language had been engaged in useful stretching up to now so as to ready it for this Chinese-American voice.” Since the release of her debut novel, Gish Jen has authored many more works, including Mona in the Promised Land, The Love Wife, Who's Irish?, and World and Town.