Course Spotlight: Telling Stories with Gish Jen

Gish Jen

Gish Jen writes novels, short stories, and non-fiction about identity, culture, and the American experience. Her first novel, Typical American, was nominated for a National Books Critics' Circle Award. When asked by the Times Magazine, John Updike named her his successor in the 21st century. This semester, Jen is teaching a course titled “Intermediate Fiction - Story Structure” at NYU Shanghai.

“The basis of fiction is compassion,” Gish Jen says to the nine students in her bi-weekly Story Structure course. The day’s topic is authorial distance, and how a first-person perspective can elicit sympathy for unsympathetic characters.

Jen references her short story, Who’s Irish?, which is narrated by an immigrant grandmother who has attitudes about child rearing that are unfathomable to her daughter and her son-in-law’s family. From a distance, the complex character may be hard to understand, but Jen believes “it’s [the writer’s] job to imagine perspectives that other people can’t see.”

“What do you do when your character does something that a reader from another culture would judge harshly?” she asks. “You might try moving in.”

In thirty minutes, the class has covered point of view, the tenses, verbal irony and their uses in creating narrative complexity. While elaborating on rhetorical devices, Jen draws from her career of four decades, sharing techniques from other writers that she has found useful -- from Grace Paley to Flannery O'Connor to Anton Chekhov.

When students lament the cutting of an evocative image from a classmate’s story, Jen is sympathetic, but firm. “That’s what Chekhov meant when he said 'kill all your darlings,’” she says. “You leave lines and images on the cutting room floor, but they’re still there. You can use them in something else later.”

Jen has been a familiar face at NYU Shanghai since she taught a J-term course about China, the arts, and identity in 2015. She has also been involved in the Literary Reading Series, an ongoing effort by the Writing Program at NYU Shanghai to feature acclaimed writers from around the world in on-campus readings.

However, this is her first time teaching a seven week course on narrative structure. Focused tightly on the rhetorical and structural foundations of successful narratives, the course, Jen says,  “gets right to the heart of what a short story is.”

Shenyang native Ava Hu ‘19 says the course has helped her gain a better sense of Western storytelling conventions. “Western stories follow a clear structure, with a beginning, rising conflict, climax, and resolution,” says Hu, who has been writing fiction in Chinese since middle school. “Chinese stories don’t follow such a distinct pattern, so it’s been interesting to learn the other side.”

The class meets twice a week. On Tuesdays, they discuss narrative craft and analyze readings such as Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” Guy DeMaupassant’s “The Necklace,” and Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova.” They pick apart the stories sentence by sentence, identifying which techniques have been employed and to what end.

On Thursdays, the students workshop each other’s stories. “[Jen] is direct. She points to exactly where we can improve, which is very useful,” says Hu. “She and my classmates helped me figure out how to create conflict in my writing, which makes my stories more interesting to the reader.” At the end of the seven weeks, the students will have written and rewritten one original piece.

Like the student population at NYU Shanghai, Jen’s class is also half international, half Chinese. “They’re much more aware of culture. So to me, they’re much more fun,” says Jen, noting the value of NYU Shanghai’s cross-cultural setting. “It’s a privilege to be exposed to culture like this. Whatever they write will be incredibly rich and relevant to our world.”

A second generation Chinese-American, Jen says she is interested in “expanding what Asian American literature can be.” Reflecting on her writing career, she says that writing “across cultural differences” is now very fertile ground for her. “Maybe at the beginning it was an ‘amiable irritant’ that drove me to write a la Philip Roth, but now, it feels like a candy shop. There’s just so much to say.”

Some of that writing is being done from her office at NYU Shanghai. Between classes, she works on her next book, entitled Resisters, which Jen describes as a “feminist baseball dystopia.”

“It’s surprising [to many] that I should be writing about baseball,” says Jen. “But in another way it’s not at all surprising because I have been concerned with America and the American experiment from day one.”