On September 20, Gish Jen stopped by The Bookworm to read from and discuss her latest book, World and Town.
World and Town features Hattie Kong, the daughter of an American missionary and a descendant of Confucius, as one of a ragtag cast of characters, including an Cambodian refugee family on the run from their past and Hattie’s retired neurosurgeon ex-lover, who escape to the refuge and fresh start offered by a small Vermont town.
After presiding over a discussion that covered everything from how much it costs to move your grandmother’s bones to whether or not Tiger Mothers were producing a generation of super children, Jen sat down with The Bookworm’s Mengfei Chen for a short discussion about her book and her plans for the future.
How did you decide to write about a Cambodian family?
A lot of it was just serendipitous. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is quite close to Lowell, Massachusetts, where there is a large Cambodian population, which I have always been interested in. It just happened that I was walking around Halloween with my daughter, my daughter’s friend and my daughter’s friend’s mom and the mom said she had a friend who was a juvenile court justice. I had just finished my last book and I asked if I could sit in on this court.
As soon as I walked in [to the court], I saw boys who looked a lot like my son coming in in handcuffs. And this was only 20 minutes away from where my son was studying Latin. I asked, what is going on? Why are these kids already in trouble? So a lot of why I wrote the book was a sense of responsibility to these kids. I understand what is going on and because I understand, I should write about it
What is going on?
It was the families, what immigration does to the family.
And what does immigration do to the family?
First, I don’t like generalizations. But, in a general kind of way, parents often lose their parental authority. Instead of the parents guiding the kids, it becomes the kids guiding the parents. Everything the parents knew about how to be in the world is devalued by the kids and it’s hard. The kids often feel a kind of psychic orphanhood because parents can’t do the things that parents are supposed to do. Of course, a lot of factors affect this: how old the parents are, can the speak English, whether they were from a rural or urban background.
Why did you want to set the story in a small town?
I spend time in a small town and I could see that the town that I saw was not the town that I saw in literature. A lot of towns in books, like [Sinclair Lewis’s] Main Street, are claustrophobic places, places you escape from. I think a lot of people are actually moving to the small town. They are trying to get out of the city. It’s impossible to raise your children there.
I am also interested in the town as an American institution, in how globalization is going to affect these places. These little farmers in Vermont have to deal with beef prices in Argentina. It’s a lot to deal with.
World and Town is written to include many different languages and dialects. Why did you choose to include them?
English is being spoken in different ways. It’s just what I hear. As someone who is cares about voice, it’s interesting. But just, with the other languages, you also see what things they have words for. For example, Khmer has all these different ways to say father. There are a lot of ideas, a lot of culture imbedded in language.
What are you reading right?
Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright. I’m only half way done and it’s wonderful.
Are you working on anything now?
I’m giving a series of lectures at Harvard next year. The Massey lectures. I’m working on that right now. I can’t say too much. It’s about writing and ethnicity.
As you continue with your book tour, is there any question that you wish someone would ask you but no one does?
No. My audience has asked me every single thing I have ever thought of and then some. I mean, I can’t imagine. It’s amazing how many things people come up with.