Gish Jen on Language and Connections

Gish Jen
Gish Jen (Kate Bohler)

WASHINGTON, April 23, 2010 - Gish Jen listened intently as the pipa virtuoso Yang Wei played the famous Chinese melody The Ancient Battlefield (十面埋伏). She then broke into a big smile as Yang switched to picking his pipa banjo-style for an uproarious rendition of Home on the Range.

Jen sighed, noting that music can easily transcend cultural and other barriers. "Why do we use words? Language is such a shackling thing," she said, half seriously.

Jen was keynoting the National Chinese Language Conference, and was among nearly 1,000 people who, like her, supported multilingualism in America. Speaking to the audience, she continued, "we all know that without shackles, one cannot be unshackled."

With those words, Jen read a short story titled "Duncan in China" from her highly acclaimed collection Who's Irish? It's a story about an American teaching English in China, and who falls in love with one of his students. Duncan finds that he--like his student--is having trouble finding words with which to express himself. The short story emphasized Jen's earlier point that where language falls short, people-to-people connections need not.

Gish Jen's is the best selling author of the novels Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land and The Love Wife. Who's Irish? is a collection of short stories. Her short fiction has also been featured in Best American Short Stories.

She spoke before the National Chinese Language Conference, organized by Asia Society and College Board.