Horror Has Become Normal: An Interview with Gish Jen

Has the pandemic changed the way we see dystopian fiction? But realistic depictions of our current moment that include, say, climate change and the weakening of democracy — just two of the issues we’re struggling with — demand that the characters react to these things. In an earlier work, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, I wrote about what it means to have been born into a culture — the Chinese culture — in which the individual is not assumed to be the fundamental unit of society, and one’s obligations to others are primary. Her short stories have appeared in venues including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and four editions of The Best American Short Stories, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century. And Jen seemed headed, too, in a conventional direction even after her poetry professor asked why she was pre-med. Ronan Farrow, Chanel Miller, and others have done that powerfully. Your novel not only encompasses many social issues; it crosses many genres. ¤
Meredith Maran is a widely published book critic, essayist, and the author of The New Old Me, Why We Write, and a dozen other books. I was the sort of kid who never actually managed to hit the ball; if I wasn’t parked on the bench, as I preferred, I played left field, praying the ball would never be hit in my direction. Was that hard? 
Yes. Dystopian fiction once seemed highly artificial, and perhaps more paranoid than insightful. JULY 8, 2020

BORN IN 1955, raised by Chinese immigrant parents in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Scarsdale, New York, Gish Jen started writing poetry in seventh grade. Still, I have a pronounced sense of responsibility to my readers, the country, and the world, which I don’t attribute so much to my gender or color as to my non-Western-European cultural background. But the sort of everyday dystopia I’ve written allows more foregrounding of mundane matters, like a girl’s struggles with her best friend — matters that reveal how human affairs are both completely the same and completely changed. There are many uses of dystopian fiction, but the use that interests me most is its ability — ironically — to return the human to the foreground. This has not been much exploited. That’s to say that while I’m hardly the only writer to feel she had to say something about where this society could be headed if we stay on our current path, I felt it acutely. You accept certain genre elements — like the big game to which all baseball novels build. Just wow. Yet how else to express what it feels like to live today? Around the same time, Facebook chatbots had begun communicating their own nonhuman language, freaking people out about AI. In a dystopia like the one in The Resisters, in contrast, the horror has become normal. Talk to me about being a female writer of color in the Trump era. But I do think that writing about the interdependent self, with its disinterest in all things fixed and boundaried, may have primed me to write The Resisters. World and Town is written in sections that suggest infinite possible alternate narratives. My wildest dream would be to have the financial security to go on taking risks. In hindsight, now, how does the world you invented for the novel resemble and differ from the world the pandemic has wrought? There is a distinct sense that the world outside the house is dangerous — so much so, that the family at the center often seems practically in quarantine. And the confronting of that is still part of the story. We take the idea of a level playing field for granted, as well as the idea that everyone should have a turn at bat. I didn’t feel that I particularly needed to expose the sexual predation that goes on. But as I was thinking about how to represent all that might be lost if America continues on its present course, baseball did seem the perfect metaphor. Now, horrifyingly, it often seems more insightful than paranoid. I will never forget that sea of pink hats. You’ve created an incredibly captivating, fantastical, yet terrifyingly believable version of America in this novel. This is a book that asks where we are going and if that is where we want to go. That said, I’ve always experimented with form. And that reaction is the story. Then there was Trump, pushing his border wall and his Muslim Ban; he might as well have sponsored the program I call Ship’EmBack in my book. But as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I’m aware of how strange these ideas can seem to people from other countries. By high school, she’d become literary editor of her school magazine — and after fellow members of the creative writing club nicknamed her after the groundbreaking silent-screen actress Lillian Gish, had replaced her given name, Lillian, with Gish. Luckily, too, I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I’m surrounded by expertise. Although she’s never shied away from controversial, socially engaged content, in this novel Jen uses the device of baseball, that most patriotic of American rituals, to plunk her readers down in an imaginatively constructed Brave New World called AutoAmerica — a nation that bears a hilarious and eerie resemblance to America today. Her work has earned several top awards, including the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Radcliffe fellowship, and a Strauss Living from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Happily, inspired by Colin Kaepernick, NFL players were kneeling during the National Anthem; they were resisting. Having grown up in America, of course, I’m halfway between that culture and mainstream, individualistic American culture. And then to make it resonate in a new way — it’s a challenge. GISH JEN: I’m hardly the first literary writer to try a dystopia. She has published seven works of fiction and nonfiction. None of these moves was predictable. The MIT Technology Review very generously allowed me to sit in on their EmTech conference twice. It’s hard to surprise even the reader who has read a million baseball novels leading to a million big games. It wasn’t until she found herself at Stanford Business School — where she was taking creative writing on the side — that she finally heeded her professor’s words, earning her MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1983. I’m not Chinese Chinese. As Walt Whitman put it, baseball has always had the “snap, go, fling” of the American atmosphere. In my book, too, interestingly, some people have taken refuge in books and gardening and home exercise regimens. So Ann Patchett was right in calling this a cautionary tale? When you first decided to create this dystopian world, did you realize how much detailed imagining it would require? ¤ 
MEREDITH MARAN: Wow. The Love Wife looked like a Socratic dialogue on the page. First, that big game is tricky.   It makes the potential change in lived experience palpable. And it has so many democratic ideas built into it. Luckily, I like investigation of every sort, and I was able to study up on both technology and baseball as I wrote. Obviously, the pandemic wasn’t yet upon us when you wrote the novel. Baseball, the national pastime. Tell me about your decision to use the dystopian form. How did that happen? 
I didn’t deliberately set out to blur boundaries. Later, three of her brothers became businessmen; her sister became a doctor. Did those events affect the novel’s creation? It was just appearing as your book was published in February. Despite her parents’ trepidations and her own, today no one could call Gish Jen’s career choice a mistake. I hope so. 
In its review of The Resisters, Entertainment Weekly said, “Jen reveals how America became AutoAmerica, one seemingly tiny but cumulatively fatal development at a time,” and also that, given your interest in America, “it feels inevitable” that you would “find [your] way into the dugout.” Do you agree? 
Finding my way into the dugout felt nowhere near inevitable to me. And yet you use them to your own ends. I’m actually a hybrid with both interdependent and individualistic sides. And the early part of the year had seen a record protest turnout at the Women’s March. Ditto the #MeToo era? Did you already know a ton about AI and baseball, or did you learn a ton to write the book? If the novel does what your wildest dreams entail, what will happen as a result of its publication? However, I sadly believe it could still be an issue in the future. Does it affect your sense of responsibility to your readers, or to the country, or the world? In 2017, when I sat down to The Resisters, there were a record-breaking number of terrifyingly intense hurricanes, and a record-breaking number of wildfires. Sadly, the elderly and people of color disproportionately affected by the coronavirus — viewed as expendable by all too many — could easily be referred to by the same term I used for the underclass in my book, “the Surplus.” Sadly, too, they are effectively being “winnowed” — another term from my book. Of course, they influenced my depiction of the ocean and the weather. And in my last book, The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap, I talk about the differences between the interdependent self — what I call the flexi-self — and the individualistic self that dominates in the West. In fact, a few years ago, in The New Yorker, Jill Lepore pronounced us all to be in a state of dystopia fatigue. And I was able to consult with people like Ted Williams’s biographer, Bill Nowlin. Which is part of my point, of course — that what was once abnormal in America has become normalized. The Resisters is Gish Jen’s eighth book and her most ambitious in many ways. What was happening in the world when you started writing this novel? It’s a dystopia, and a baseball novel, with elements of science fiction. Do we ever know how much work a novel is going to be? And though they are receiving a minimal stipend, just as in my book, the government — just as in my book — is not much interested in paying this indefinitely. She should, he said, be a writer.