Book Club

8 takeaways from the ‘Thank You, Mr. Nixon’ discussion with author Gish Jen

“When I hear that voice that says, ‘You can’t write that,’ that is the very voice that I must heed,” Jen said.

As she sits down to write, author Gish Jen makes a list of everyone that might have an opinion on her work and puts it out in the hall. Jen finds this to be a very useful exercise, especially for budding writers. Even if those who show up on this list are people you love and respect (the author’s list includes her editor and late mother), writers must clear everyone away to hear themselves think. “All those voices—you must get rid of them because you have a job to do and they’re in your way,” said Jen.

The author’s ritual was no different when she began her latest work (and this month’s Book Club pick)—a short story collection entitled “Thank You, Mr. Nixon,” which takes stock of life in the 50 years since the opening of China. Last week, we hosted a discussion with Jen about the book. Moderated by Meghan Hayden, owner of River Bend Bookshop in Glastonbury, Conn., the talk covered how to know if a story is worth telling, how a story collection comes together, China’s life-altering geopolitics, and more.


Read our takeaways and watch the discussion in the video below.

The collection’s titular opening “just came” to the author

The author already had a clear vision for the collection—to begin with the former president’s visit to China and go through the present day. And she had quite a few stories from when she began writing in 1981, but none about the moment Nixon made his famous visit in 1972. So, Jen woke up one day and just started writing a letter from the perspective of a little girl who was captivated by first lady Pat Nixon’s red coat, giving the collection a clear beginning and capturing what she feels to be a collective memory of many Chinese people at the time. 

Jen believes her job is to speak to the ways geopolitics alter our inner landscapes

Most of all, she’s interested in how the political can creep into even the most intimate settings, even within families. Jen seeks to answer the following in her work: “What does it do to us? What does it do to our families? What does it do to our possibilities? And what do we carry forward from the old world—like it or not—and what can’t we stop when we get to the new world?”

Due to China’s intense censorship, Jen feels she cannot return to the country

“I have really been a big voice for cultural difference and respecting that the Chinese have a different way,” said Jen. “I think the Chinese have gone too far in their censorship…I am aware that because of ‘Detective Dog’ [which sheds light on the violent protests of 2014] I can’t go back to China anymore. I think I had to write it—it was the truth, but now I can’t go back because it was in the New Yorker.” Jen is hoping China can see that they’re alienating even friends of the country such as herself through this attempt to control what can be said even in America.

Jen abides by the advice ‘write what is forbidden’ when it comes to fiction

She was told this in graduate school, to write about things that you realize you shouldn’t say, but you know to be true—that her job as a writer is to represent those unspoken things. “When I hear that voice that says, ‘You can’t write that,’ that is the very voice that I must heed,” Jen said.

The story collection came together serendipitously 

Jen built out the collection (and wove the stories together so seamlessly) by reusing the same characters throughout. But it wasn’t an intentional choice, per se, but rather other projects coming about while certain characters were still on her mind (and her printer). For example, she was working on the collection’s second story ‘Duncan in China’ when she got a chance assignment from the New York Times asking her to write a piece, so she used the same characters to create a new, very different work.  

The stories and characters mirror the author’s experience in noticing how people are connected in strange ways

“Pretty soon these characters were all connected,” said Jen. “I will say, in choosing to put them all in a collection, I though it represented something about the way that I experience the world—which is that everybody is kind of connected in these very unexpected ways. … When you see [these characters] again, they’re also very changed and you don’t know the whole story of how they’ve changed. … And I thought that’s true to life, too. We only really glimpse these things.”

Why social media is a necessity for authors, but shortens attention span for readers

With Amazon forcing book prices down, writers are now called on to do more than in the past. For example, it’s simply not an option these days for an author to not be on social media. “I hate having to post about my books and my reviews all day long,” says Jen. “We have to do it and I just don’t like to be ‘look at me’ day in and day out.” She also worries that social media is shortening the attention spans of readers, causing them to not think as deeply—studies have shown we don’t read or imagine as well when reading on a screen versus a page. But nonetheless, Jen is incredibly thankful for her solid readership she’s maintained in spite of it all. 

Among the handful of young Asian American authors Jen is reading, this is who she recommends

Her current recommendation includes “The Evening Hero” by Marie Myung-Ok Lee—a page-turning novel following a Korean immigrant pursuing the American dream.


Buy “Thank You, Mr. Nixon” from: Bookshop | River Bend Bookshop