Gish Jen, A Great American Novelist from Scarsdale

Scarsdale can boast of at least one great American Novelist. Gish Jen moved to Scarsdale with her family in time to attend 5th grade at Greenacres Elementary School. She graduated from Scarsdale High School in 1973. Gish has published four novels, a book of short stories and two works of non-fiction. Her most recent short story No More Maybe was published in the New Yorker last month. Ms.Jen’s second novel, Mona, in the promised land was a New York Times Notable Book in 1996. Although Gish makes it clear during interviews that her work is not autobiographical, she does not hide the fact that Scarshill, the fictional town in Mona, in the Promised land, is Scarsdale in all but name. As she explained to Bill Moyers during a 2003 interview for NPR available at her website GishJen.com:

it’s a very, very, very, very different kind of community. For one thing. Scarsdale is predominantly Jewish. I think probably it was really maybe 40 percent Jewish. But there were enough Jews so that it was felt to be quite a Jewish community. And so they were acquainted with what it meant to be a minority. So, this was a place where a minority was sort of the majority. And of course, as a community, it was completely committed to being open and embracing and so on. It was still awkward there too in many ways. But always in well-intentioned ways. People would sort of say, “We’d love to hear more about your traditions.” Maybe I didn’t really want to talk about my traditions. But in any case, it was never mean. Nobody ever threw anything at us.

The fact that there was no violence directed at Gish and her brothers in Scarsdale was a welcome respite from their experiences in their previous Yonkers, N.Y. neighborhood. Gish’s brother was beaten up so often by bullies that their mother had him take Judo lessons. Kids sometimes threw rocks at the Jen children. This welcome change is reflected in the opening chapter of Mona, in the promised land. Gish Jen compares Mona Chang’s Chinese family and Scarsdale’s Jewish population:

For they’re the New Jews after all, a model minority and Great American Success. They know they belong in the promised land. (Jen, Mona, in the promised land 6). 

Here is a quote from Gish Jen’s Harvard University Massey Lecture on Art and Culture  in 2013 that speaks to the author’s actual experience of Scarsdale as a newly arrived fifth grader:

“And whereas the library at my old school, St.Eugene’s in Yonkers, New York, had been a donation library-a windowless one-room affair with dark, sagging shelves and listing, soft-edged discards-the library in Greenacres Elementary School had glass and air, and level, stout shelves packed with new, vertical books, every single one of which I read that first year after our move, including Albert Camus’s The Stranger– the cover of which I can still recall, with that thick-spoked  Algerian sun. (What, I remember wondering, are inexorable cries of hate?).” (Jen Tiger Writing 101).

At Scarsdale High School Lillian Jen was the editor of The Literary Review. She took the name Gish after the silent film star Lillian Gish while taking a film class at Scarsdale High School. Gish attended Harvard University and then Stanford Business School. She temporarily became the black sheep of her family when she dropped out of business school to pursue writing. Her parents did not speak to her for several months. Things improved when Gish was written up in the Chinese language newspaper The World News. Gish is married to David O’Connor. They have 2 children. She has lived in Cambridge, MA for many years. Gish credits her time in Scarsdale with helping her to become a writer:

Certainly, there were a lot of views about what a nice Chinese girl did and that did not include becoming an author, I hardly need to point out. There was a way that, if I had not grown up in Scarsdale, New York, in a culture where writing was this great thing, I don’t know that I ever would have thought to pick up a pen. So, in that way, I’m deeply grateful to the mainstream culture. (Gish Jen.com Interview with Bill Moyers).

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