New Novelist Tries To Break the 'Ethnic Box'

WITH publication of her first novel this month, Gish Jen is a writer in demand. Last week, reporters wanted to interview her. This week, she begins a crowded schedule of readings and signings across the United States. Still, her energy is boundless. Zipping from one topic to another - talking quickly, laughing often - Ms. Jen talks about work, race, and optimism.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen grew up in suburban Scarsdale, N.Y., graduated from Harvard, dropped out of Stanford business school, moved to China to teach English, and returned to attend the Iowa Writer's workshop. She did not put fingers to keyboard, however, for several years, until she received a fellowship at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute in Cambridge, Mass. There, Jen says, the "atmosphere of expectation" worked wonders: She started a novel and finished it four years later.

Her short stories have been included in Best American Short Stories of 1988, Norton 1989 Anthology, and Atlantic Monthly. The New Yorker has run portions of her first novel, "Typical American."

"On some level, the story is based on my experience. But as [poet] John Ashbery says, you write out of your experience, not about it," she says.

Readers, however, don't always think this way. "The funny thing about fiction is people are always trying to get at the original experience. To me, the transformation is everything. I mean, you don't look at a C 142>zanne and say, 'What kind of apples are those?' or 'Wonder what tree they came from,' she says, cocking her head, contemplating an invisible painting. "It's what he's done with the apples that's interesting. I think the same is true of fiction."

Worse, she says, are the critics, who immediately categorize her with other Asian-American writers. "I think it's a way of keeping Asian Americans in this little box, and it's not right," she says. Jen would rather have her work compared with other tales of immigrants, or other first novels.

"One of the points, if you will, of my book, is we need to expand our idea of what a 'typical American' is," she says.

While scorning categories, Jen says she loves the "humor and heart" of her favorites, the "Jewish Americans" - Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud. She also admires the way they have transcended their "ethnic box" - the distinguishing mark that propelled their works into the literary limelight of the 1950s - to the level where their writing is judged for its literary worth.

Now, as that limelight shines on Asian-American writers, Jen hopes they, too, will transcend the ethnic category.

By her book, optimism is the stuff of Americans. So is "imagineering," something her character Ralph does to find his fortune. Jen says she didn't realize how truly unique to America this self-help notion until her squash coach blamed her poor skills on her bad attitude.

At the same time, Jen notes the limitations of optimism, and of her hopes for a more inclusive definition of "American." One of her female characters observes: "To be nonwhite in this society was indeed to need education, accomplishment - some source of dignity. A white person was by definition somebody. Other people needed, across their hearts, one steel rib."

The steel rib, Jen says, is a metaphor for a strong sense of self, a hefty dose of accomplishment needed by minorities before they can have access to the "American Dream" of equal opportunity.

"The good news about this country is that our ideal is a good ideal. In other countries, they don't even have this ideal of equality. The bad news is that we veer from that, we don't meet that ideal all the time. I think white people enjoy a kind of status that minority people don't enjoy, unless they have some kind of little peg that says, 'I'm extremely educated and useful.' And then they get into another category."

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