with Gish Jen about The Love Wife
The Love Wife is your third novel. How might this book
surprise readers of your previous novels, Typical American and Mona
in the Promised Land? What surprised you?
The Love Wife is not about the Chang family, for one thing. Also this book is, I hate to say more middle-aged, but that's probably the truth. I've lived through more, and it shows.
At the same time, what really surprised me about The Love Wife was, paradoxically, how young I felt, writing it. In my non-writing life, I felt tired and stressed and a shadow of my younger self in most every respect. In my writing life, though, all of that seemed to fall away: This novel wrote itself and wrote itself as if it did not realize its author got no sleep and no exercise and could barely remember what year it was. I could not have been more amazed and grateful.
The novel is told in the different voices of the Wong family. Why did you decide to write the novel in this form?
The novel came to me this wayas if told by the various Wongs at a very long family therapy session, only without the therapist, and with license, it seems, to soliloquize. I don't exactly know why this happened. In life I rarely witness stories unfolding in the way they conventionally do in fiction. I mostly hear what's happened to so-and-so over coffee, or on a walk. A recounted story has perhaps come to seem more "real" to me than a recreated story, rich with dynamics I recognize, and full of the information I would seek from a friend.
Other times I think that something about the complexities of our time makes me want to hear every voice I can hear. Having grown up with immigrant parents, I have always heard many voices, and understood many points of viewso many that for most of my writing career I have been concerned with trying to make out what in that chorus might be my own voice. More recently, though, I've finally become confident that my voice will never leave me, and I seem to want to absent myself, that I might inhabit others. In truth, I am not wholly absent from this book, and back when I was "finding my voice," I never lost sight of other points of view. But I strike a different balance in The Love Wife than I did in my earlier works.
Was there a particular image or idea that inspired you as you began writing this novel?
I have two biracial children, the older of whom has straight black hair like mine, and is usually "read" as Asian American, the younger of whom has fine light hair, and is usually "read" as Caucasian. From the time she was born, people have looked at my daughter and asked if she was mine, which has been, for me, both a pain and a gift. Philip Roth has written about writers needing "amiable irritants" to fuel them; I have had no shortage in this regard, and at the time I began this book, my supply was particularly abundant. This was thanks to the beautiful, blond, 6-foot-2-inch basketball-playing German au pair we had thennot that she was herself in any way distressing (aside from being a dead ringer for Julia Roberts, that is). However, she wasto our mutual dismayoften taken for my daughter's mother, and I, sometimes, for my daughter's nanny. This was food for thought.
In my novel, of course, the racial breakdown of the family is completely different. And the Wong family is not my family. But the questions raised by my real life experiencequestions about what a "real" family is, and about what's "natural," and about what choice we have in these mattersdo inform the book.
Carnegie Wong (Chinese-American) and Janie "Blondie" Wong (WASP-American) adopt their first daughter when she is abandoned at a local church. Nearly seven years later, they adopt a second daughter, from China. And eventually they are surprised with the birth of their biological son. A neighbor of the Wongs calls them "the new American family." Do you agree with this assessment, and how did that affect your writing?
I thought of Tiger Woods a lot as I wrote The Love Wife; he seemed a cousin of the Wongs, and like them, the tip of a very large iceberg. For we are seeing more and more families that fall outside of the Dick and Jane mold these daysmixed race families, blended families, adopted families, and so onas is very much in keeping with the idea of America. How very natural it is, after all, that an invented nation based on shared ideals rather than on blood and inheritance should be full of families brought together on a similar principleby choice rather than by circumstance and biology. And yet, for all of its naturalness, how challenging this new phase of the American experiment, too.
When Lan arrives from China to help the Wongs with child care, alliances begin to form within the family. (Who is most like whom? Who belongs to whom?) Do you think this is a typical response to a new nanny? Is it a matter of "culture clash"? Do you think it might have more to do with the ages of the Wong daughters (pre-teen and teen)?
I think that, just as toddlers of a certain age simply must climb every stairway possible, preteens and teens are driven to seek out whatever it is they need developmentally. If a nanny is of use to their project, she will be enlisted. And of course, different nannies will respond differently to this. Lan, far from home, uncertain of her relationship to the family and to America, needs the children and their love; family is important to her. At the same time, what she means by "family" is not always what the Wongs mean; so yes, there is culture clash.
Can you tell us about your choice to have Mama Wong suffer from Alzheimer's? The condition seems to precipitate a change of identity, or at least a shift in family roles.
I am, like many people, horrified by the cruelty of Alzheimer's, of which my mother-in-law died some years ago. I wrote about it partly because I needed to write about it and partly because it brings to the surface a great fear shared by Carnegie and Blondiea fear, not so much of loss of life, as loss of identity. Carnegie, for example, has spent most of his life rebelling against Mama Wong and her Chinese ideas. But the more she forgets, the more he strives, belatedly, to remember, record, recover, revive. The irony and vanity of this is not lost on him, and yet he cannot help himself. The anxiety precipitated by Mama Wong's Alzheimer's becomes a preoccupation with ethnic identity, and this, in turn, has repercussions in the novel as in the world today.
Though the Wongs are grappling, like any family, with serious matters, their lives are full of comedy. (For instance, they have a goata goat!in their suburban backyard.) How do you manage, as a writer, to make your characters' lives so funny even as awful things happen to them?
I do not manage to make them funnythey simply turn funny, usually at the most inappropriate times.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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