Gish Jen on her Dazzling New Book, The Resisters

Acclaimed writer Gish Jen has returned to fiction after two non-fiction books, and her new novel, The Resisters, is a stunning and utterly captivating story set in a all-too-believable dystopic future. But as the title indicates, it is also a story of resilience and hope. Despite the omnipresent surveillance of “Aunt Nettie” (a future version of the internet), and a population sharply divided between the upper class and the “surplus,” she shows us some human experiences and values are imperishable — the love of parents for their children (and the way they worry), the devotion (and sometimes hurt feelings) of friendship, the dream of something bigger and better, and, perhaps surprisingly, baseball. In an interview, Jen spoke about finding the right voice to tell the story and finding herself at home in the world she imagined.

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When you think of a story like this, what goes into your decision about the narrator? How did you settle on a father?

Readers often imagine that writing involves a lot of conscious decision-making, but much of it is intuitive, and this decision largely fell into that category. I am generally apt to try something and leave it alone if it’s working. I only get out my flashlight and look under the hood if my engine has stalled.

At some point, I did realize that I had a headstrong pitcher and a headstrong lawyer on my hands, and simultaneously realized that someone in the story would have to be an ordinary mortal. And I suppose the rebel in me instinctively rejected the idea of an ordinary mortal mom supporting her noble husband and star athlete son — reflexively opting for an ordinary mortal dad supporting his noble wife and star athlete daughter.

As for why the ordinary mortal dad might make for the best narrator, at least one reason is that getting the reader to believe that someone is a pitching phenom — much less that a young girl is a pitching phenom — is tricky. It is far easier for a witness to establish this than the phenom herself.

That’s interesting about the difficulty of portraying your girl pitcher phenom. But what was with the baseball to begin with? How did it figure your story?

I was looking for a proxy for what, in this dystopian world, is under threat. Walt Whitman described baseball as having the “snap, go, fling” of the American atmosphere, and it’s still true. It embodies the balance between the individual and the collective we feel to be ideal; and it reflects so many democratic ideas, from the notion that a set of rules to which all consent can allow us to realize ourselves, to the idea that a playing field should be level and that everyone should have a chance at bat. In short, it is a metaphor for the soul of America. And it is indeed the soul of America that is at stake in this book.

Are you a baseball fan?

No, but I grew up surrounded by baseball fanatics. My brother was a star pitcher in his youth — good enough to have been written up in the local paper — and a significant percentage of my family of origin-–including my mother — are diehard Yankees nuts. (The others are Red Sox nuts.) So I have learned a little by osmosis.

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Why did you include knitting in the book?

As a sometime knitter myself, I have long been fascinated by the way knitting can be an act of resistance. So many women use knitting as a way of being present and yet not wholly present — as a way of keeping to their own agenda regardless of what other agenda is set for them. And I love the various forms of knitting activism we have these days — from the knitting of pink hats for the Women’s March to the encasing of trees to the making of mittens for koalas in Australia. All activism has caring at its core but activist knitters make us aware of that in a special way.

One thing I especially love about this book is the way that in the midst of so many differences from our lives today in terms of technology and social structure, there are clear, imperishably consistent elements as well: friendship (and its stresses as well as strengths), parenting (also both), competition, race, class, ambition. Were you trying to show that some things are unchangeable?

The recognizable elements arose of their own accord. I found that I myself felt quite at home in this new world so perhaps it’s no surprise that my characters did, too — a good thing and a bad thing, I think. When we use the phrase “the new normal” we capture our own enormous adaptability — the way we will adjust our baseline and continue on much as we always have even when circumstances have changed dramatically. Does that lull us into accepting what we should really resist? Perhaps.

What does this concept of the future tell us about the elements of technology that may encourage us to overlook the more pernicious impacts?

When we think of surveillance, we think of Big Brother. But the face of surveillance today is far friendlier. We are not coerced into surrendering our privacy; we are seduced. The surveilling entity in my book is called Aunt Nettie — an AI-empowered internet rolled up with Automation into a kind of iBurrito. We might think of it, not as the 4G internet most of us have today, or the 5G being rolled out, but a 9 or 10G internet that mediates everything. Its power derives from all the data it has about us but also from the fact that we have trained it to do our jobs, write our emails, and more. People do these things, in my book, for the sake of convenience; they are, as my narrator recalls his mother once putting it, “lazy as a rock at the bottom of a hill.” As in our present day lives, they do not think about the consequences of what seem to them small decisions until the consequences are upon them.

One of your characters advises another to assume the best about other people: “Try to distinguish ignorance from malice.” Is that advice you would give the young?

I wouldn’t advise the young to forgive all ignorance. At the same time, I would advise them to distinguish between people who actually mean them ill and people who do not, and I would certainly have advised my young pitcher, Gwen, to do so, as her parents do. She is in such a difficult situation. She cannot squander her emotional resources if she is to survive. She does need her rage but she needs an intelligent rage — a targeted rage.

Was this book fun to write? For all the dystopic elements here, the tone is surprisingly bright.

It was indeed a lot of fun. I was writing a book quite unlike anything I’d done before and astonished at how much it wanted to be written. I don’t know if I’ll ever experience anything like it again.

You will.

I hope so but truly — a writer never knows. It’s up to my muse.

Movie critic, corporate critic and shareholder advocate, critic/editor at @ebertvoices @moviemom, and #corpgov #movies and editor at @miniverpress

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