Gish Jen, whose new book, “The Resisters,” is her fifth novel and her first in nine years, is sitting in her home office in Cambridge, Mass., and describing it with writerly precision. “Cambridge, this time of year, does not have a lot of light, but I do have windows on two sides, so every bit of light available in Cambridge is right here in my office,” she says. She’s particularly proud of a library ladder for her two walls of bookshelves. “We all want one, don’t we?”
We are speaking by phone, or I might have already climbed that enviable ladder. It’s just as well, because “this little perch,” as Jen calls her office, affords her the space to feel no one is watching. “When we write, there are so many things we must fight against, and one of them is self-consciousness. It’s about making sure that when you are in this space, the one person that you hear is yourself. We don’t know where this stuff comes from, and it’s precious and fragile.”
The author of the novels “Typical American,” “Mona in the Promised Land,” “The Love Wife” and “World and Town” feels her work is a little less fragile now that her two children are grown: “It’s like I’m 22 again, but I appreciate the freedom in a way I wouldn’t have at 22.” Her kids were still in school the last time she published a novel, but she did write two other books in the interim.
Her turn to nonfiction was accidental; in 2012, Harvard asked her to deliver a series of lectures, which became the book “Tiger Writing,” about the gap between Western and Eastern notions of art and identity. It was “essentially written for Harvard professors,” but then she expanded those ideas, “almost as a service,” into a more generalist book, “The Girl at the Baggage Claim.” “But I knew I would be getting back to fiction.”
Over that near-decade, her fiction seems to have transformed. “The Resisters” is set in a near-future America, narrated by a man named Grant; he has a wife, Eleanor, and a daughter, Gwen. Citizens are now sorted into categories of “Netted” — working, producing — and “Surplus” — unemployed and relegated to floating “Flotsam Towns.” Grant and Eleanor try to live off the grid, growing their own food because the free provisions doled out by the surveillance state (“Aunt Nettie”) may be laced with sedatives or other drugs.
Gwen is a talented pitcher, and when her throwing arm draws the attention of the establishment, she’s offered a chance to attend “Net U” for free, forcing the entire family to make some tough choices. “The bad news is that they are the underclass,” Jen says, “but that’s the good news too, you know? This family has a lucky niche in the world I created, one they’ve done a lot with, which weirdly makes Gwen kind of — privileged is the wrong word — but [it] allows her to think differently.”
For a writer of realistic novels, dystopia may be a timely turn, having become a popular literary genre in the years since Jen last wrote fiction. But for her, the impetus was equal parts political and personal.
“While the headwaters of every novel are always mysterious,” she says, “I think I turned to the future because I’d just had a daughter go off to college, and at orientation you hear the word ‘future’ every 15 seconds. But it would have been on my mind anyway, since in 2016 the inconceivable happened in our country. I’m really worried about where America is going. We don’t recognize our own reality. Why not write about a different one?”
Jen relished the freedom of imagining the future — freedom from reality and freedom from anger. “If you try to write about our present moment, you might get caught in outrage. By setting ‘The Resisters’ farther in the future, I was able to make it less driven by reaction. I could focus on what it might mean to live in a world resulting from the consequences of our present decisions. Ironically, I’m better able to describe the human experience.”
There were opportunities for optimism too, at least in terms of race. “I thought, We’re not necessarily going to be on the same racial continuum that we are now. ‘Black’ and ‘white’ may not mean what they do today,” she says. Grant is Caribbean American and Eleanor Chinese Irish American, making Gwen “Blasian,” a term many of us will understand. “It’s difficult to know, of course, but there may be well be ever more people who are multiracial like my children and not just, say, Chinese American like myself.”
I can’t resist bringing up the current literary controversy over “American Dirt,” a novel about Mexicans written by a white woman. Is Jen concerned that she will be criticized for writing about a character of a different race? “This book is set in the future,” she says. “I am not appropriating anyone’s culture. Neither am I pressing racial buttons to provoke fear, compassion or outrage. You can say that I made my narrator a black man — or you can say that I made him a complicated person with roots in a world that we recognize but that is different than ours.”
While these characters may have complex ethnic identities, their relationship to national identity, in an authoritarian state, is rooted in fear and rebellion. That, and the title’s nod to dissent in the era of Trump, shows that Jen hasn’t left realism entirely behind. “I saw my characters as part of a large tradition of resistance,” she says. “Both Grant and Eleanor have parents who resisted. They’re not the first, and they’re not going to be the last. I wanted readers to see them passing the baton to the younger generation.”
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
Knopf: 320 pages; $26.95