Gish Jen’s World and Town, a Female Bildungsroman Novel of Postmodern Humanism


  • Katherine E Echols University of Houston


The importance of Gish Jen, a contemporary Chinese-American writer best known for novels that trace the impact of immigration and the acculturation process on Asian-American families, has been downplayed by scholars who favor well-known Asian American writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. While Jen’s recently released World and Town (2010) is easily a story of immigration and assimilation, I argue that she breaks the traditional female Bildungsroman mold to create a Bildungsroman novel of postmodern humanism that couches the rebirth of a sixty-eight year old Chinese American female protagonist in her own immigration and assimilation experience as well as that of others. More importantly, Jen’s latest novel, set against a post-911 backdrop, situates itself as a postmodern humanist text that reconfigures the ways in which individuals consider themselves in relation to a larger postmodern world of “social and economic implications that . . . alter . . . existing notions of identity” even as it demonstrates the importance of “interpersonal relationships between the self and others [in the] immigrant transformation,” topics explored by Todd F. David and Kenneth Womack in Postmodern Humanism in Contemporary Literature and Culture: Reconciling the Void (2006) (102, 103). At this time, no critical studies exist on World and Town, therefore, I presume to consider this novel as one that breaks with the traditional rebirth fiction and encapsulates postmodern humanism. I will apply the work of David and Womack, cultural scholars, Zhou Xiaojing and Samina Najmi, scholars of Asian American writings, and Maryellen T. Mori and Phillipa Kafka’s studies of gender and contemporary Asian American women writers, among others.

Traditionally, the bildungsroman begins chronologically with the protagonist’s birth and ends at maturation while it asserts the importance of community over isolation as relevant to the character’s development. Jen’s novel not only traces the self realization process of a mature Chinese American woman, but it also highlights the evolution of her multiple identities. In fact, the novel illustrates the necessity of participation within a community as an empowering agent that makes this act of discovery possible, especially in a postmodern world. Having lost her husband Joe and best friend Lee to cancer within a short period of time, Hattie struggles to make meaning of her world while she navigates the complexity of her Chinese and American identities—as a widow, mother, scientist, community member, and finally, lover. When the World and Town converge on her doorstep in the form of her Cambodian neighbors—struggling to assimilate—Hattie assumes a role that will change her position within her community and help her find fulfillment. As a result, Hattie’s social and political, or communal, acts reconfigure the way she sees the world and the way the she is seen by her community. Finally, her ethic of care is a mobilizing force and altering and empowering agent of change. Consequently, Hattie’s ethics and fairness, as part of her humanist philosophy and inherent Confucianism, are characteristic of the postmodern humanist position Jen takes up in her novel.