112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Killing Chickens: Violence and Assimilation in Gish Jen's Typical American

Nina Ahn, California State University, Northridge

In Gish Jen’s Typical American, violence – particularly against women - is articulated as an inseparable and deeply problematic part of the assimilative process. I argue, in fact, that the “accident” at the end of the novel is no accident at all and is instead an attempted murder, a culmination of Ralph Chang’s desperate attempt to assert control over his family and punish his sister for supplanting him as patriarch. 

 

Proposal: 

In Gish Jen’s Typical American, the assimilative process from Chinese to American results in a loss of familiar signifiers for Ralph Chang, a Chinese student who comes to the US on a student visa only to be trapped in America after the fall of Chiang Kai-shek. This loss destabilizes the markers upon which Ralph is attempting to establish his subjective presence, resulting in what he experiences as an erasure of identity. Ultimately, that identity loss – that interior experience of emptiness – is exacerbated by his alienating attempts at assimilation vis-à-vis consumerism. His attempts to acquire the American dream through force of will, however, prove only that the fabled American Dream is itself not rooted in the material reality of American life, which excludes and emasculates his racialized body. His repeated inability to acquire typical Americanness through this myth of American individual progress, therefore, causes Ralph to enact a series of overcompensating gestures of masculinity, which include an increasing move towards violence. Violence – particularly against women – is thus articulated in Typical American as an inseparable and deeply problematic part of the assimilative process. I argue, in fact, that the “accident” at the end of the novel is no accident at all and is instead an attempted murder, a culmination of Ralph’s desperate attempt to assert control over his family and punish Theresa for supplanting him as patriarch. 

While Jen’s novels have been both critically acclaimed and popularly consumed, her debut novel Typical American has been largely overlooked by the Asian American scholarly establishment. The humor and subtlety of Typical American masks the novel’s underlying and sharply critical portrayal of the American experience, and this perhaps accounts for this scholarly gap. Rachel C. Lee, however, has written an expansive analysis of the novel’s critique of the racialized and gendered codes of exclusion inherent in the myth of America. Lee deftly argues that the Chang family’s participation in “the progress narrative of limitless expansion” (45) becomes “a gendered critique, with women’s bodies and perspectives instrumental to Jen’s depiction of what is trampled upon and suppressed in the pursuit of self- and economic limitlessness” (45). In her analysis, Lee in fact suggests that violence buttresses the Chang’s aspiration to the American Dream, but she does not ultimately substantially address the way in which Jen “renders visible the hidden violences” (66) done to women in the novel.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Race and Representation: Literature and Politics in Asian America, on the other hand, does not discuss Gish Jen’s work, but he offers a helpful analysis of how Asian American male experiences of emasculation are "remedied" in Asian American writing through violence against women and denigration of the feminine. According to Nguyen, Frank Chin, in particular, represents the Chinese American man as “trapped within social conditions that negate his masculinity and seemingly demand an equal negation of the female body” (Nguyen 97). This analysis is helpful in many ways in examining Ralph’s character in Typical American. Indeed, in this paper, I account for the looming violence expressed in the text by tracing the way in which this violence is explicitly linked in the novel to Ralph’s manic assertion of his patriarchal role and the inability of Ralph to successfully acquire “typical” Americanness. Unlike Frank Chin’s male characters, however, Ralph ultimately does not experience violence as regenerative. In fact, the novel’s positive portrayal of the women in the novel, as well as the clear connection between violence and the destructive process of assimilation repudiates misogynistic violence as explicitly degenerative. Typical American thus problematizes both the assimilationist project and the misogynistic violence that it engenders.