Life in a Freewheeling, Buoyant Dystopia (With Baseball at Its Center)
Gish Jen Talks to Mimi Lok About The Resisters and More
Gish Jen’s new novel The Resisters is set in a near-future dystopia called Auto America—where half the land is under water, the Internet (aka “Aunt Nettie”) is part AI overlord, part surveillance technology, and where the population is divided into the angel-fair “Netted” and the disenfranchised “Surplus”—the novel centers on a Surplus couple and their daughter Gwen, who is born with a golden arm. The Resisters is Jen’s eighth book. She spoke with Mimi Lok, the author of the story collection Last of Her Name and the cofounder of Voice of Witness, a nonprofit that amplifies the voices of marginalized people through an oral history book series and a national education program.
Mimi Lok: This book is quite different from your previous works of fiction. I think it’s safe to say you’re not known for your dystopian, science-fiction writing, or for fiction that focuses so heavily on sport! As you were working on The Resisters, were you thinking at all about what the reception for it would be? Or is that something that you try to put into a box, and not think about at all?
Gish Jen: No, I was not thinking about it. I was mostly aware that I had taken quite a left turn in my work, and so I was a little protective of the project—I didn’t want to tell anybody about it. When I first told my editor, for example, I did make sure she was sitting down. She asked me something like, “What are you working on?” And I said something like, “Well, it may not be what you’re expecting.”
ML: It’s so interesting hearing you talk about how it felt like a left-turn, or maybe even a little bit risky in the early stages. But when it’s done and it works it’s easy to say, “Oh yeah, what a great idea that was!”
GJ: Now that it’s written, it’s clear that I could write it. But as I was working, I did not know that or even where this thing was coming from, really. I just knew it was coming; and as a writer, as you know, if it’s coming, you just stick with it and keep your fingers crossed.
ML: So, on that, I want to take a few steps back and ask you about the impetus for the book. Can you talk about where you were in your life when you started writing it?
GJ: After 28 years of the writer-mother juggle, I was suddenly an empty nester. What’s more, I had just sat through freshman orientation, and if you have ever sat through freshman orientation you know that the word “future” comes up every fifteen seconds. Was this why I began to write about the future? Perhaps. Also, like every parent sending a child off to school, I was concerned—partly about my daughter in particular, of course, but also about the world that the young are entering. And I think you can see that concern on the page, as well as my great hope that the young are going to do something about the problems that plague us. People have characterized the book as a kind of buoyant dystopia, and there’s a certain truth to that.
ML: And why did you decide to center the novel around baseball?
GJ: I don’t know when it occurred to me that baseball was the perfect metaphor for much that is threatened in this country. I mean, baseball at the Little League level, with the parents bringing healthy snacks and so on, has always seemed to me a wonderful institution. And, of course, baseball is the American sport. It strikes a balance between the individual and the collective that speaks to us, and it’s fundamentally democratic in spirit—involving as it does a level playing field, and assuming as it does that everybody should have a chance at bat. And as a writer, I knew I needed some way of dramatizing my concern about the world—that concern is fine but that it’s not a story. I can’t remember the moment at which I connected the two—when I thought, “Oh, I know.” But suddenly, I knew.
ML: How long did it take you to write the book?
GJ: I wrote it quickly, which is unusual for me. For decades, I have been four or five years between books. But this book I wrote in under a year, partly because for the first time in my writing life I not only had control over my schedule, I had a clear year. That just never happens.
ML: That sounds like such a luxury.
GJ: It is. I am at a point, too, in my career where I don’t make as many mistakes as I used to; I know when I’m barking up the wrong tree and waste less time. And part of my speed may have been an anxiety to get the writing over with—to see whether I really had a book or not. In any case, I wrote around the clock in a way I haven’t written since I was, say, in my twenties. And then there it was.
ML: Something that I really appreciate about how you open the novel is how you drop the reader right in. There’s a lot that the reader’s just expected to pick up through context, and the fact that things are moving so quickly story-wise. I really appreciate that trust in the reader, but also this kind of tough love pace, where it’s like, “Well, you better keep up or you’re gonna get left behind, and this Auto America world is just gonna eat you up.” I think sometimes with dystopian, science-fiction or fantasty novels there can be a tendency to over-explain, almost as if the author doesn’t quite believe in the world that they’ve created, or that they’re worried the reader won’t believe in it. Could you talk a little bit about your process in conjuring this world? Was it a kind of piecemeal, meticulous crafting together, or did this vision of this world just hit you fully formed?
GJ: It came to me whole hog. I did not do any world-building exercises, or anything like that. And when I was done, I myself was struck by how easy it had been to invent this world, though I remembered then that I’d actually read quite a lot of science-fiction and fantasy when I was younger. This was when I was in junior high school. I read a lot of Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein, and so on; so maybe that was a factor. I think some part of the ease, too, was related to the fact that I could write uninterrupted, so it wasn’t as though I had a dream, then had to wake up, then had to try to remember what I was dreaming. I could just dream.
ML: I bet you’re going to get a lot of questions like, “Do any of your kids play baseball?”
GJ: Of course. But neither of my children plays baseball. In fact, neither of them has any hand-eye coordination whatsoever.
ML: I mean, the number of times I’ve been asked about my book, “Oh, so do you know kung fu?” and I just say, “It’s fiction.”
GJ: Exactly. The daughter in my book is nothing like my daughter. But I can relate to the amazement felt by the parents in my book—the way they look at their child and ask themselves, Where did that come from? For example, I can’t do a handspring, my husband can’t do a handspring, and yet my son can do a handspring. It’s astonishing.
ML: Yeah, I was shocked when people in our family revealed an aptitude for science or math. I thought we were all flaky artists!
GJ: The parents in my book are in fact a little slow to even recognize their daughter’s gift because they think that all children are like their children. And frankly, they’re not alone in their slowness. I had a friend who was a wonderful singer, and who even at two years old was standing up in her crib, belting things out. But her parents didn’t realize that that was unusual until the daughter went to preschool. Then they were like, “Hmm, not all the kids are singing arias from Aida.”
ML: That ignorance can be for better or worse in different ways. Earlier you mentioned how the world just came to you, pretty much fully formed. I have to say I so enjoyed all the terminology specific to Auto America, which for me really added texture to this world. It was quite brutally direct at times (ShipEmBack) and at others blatantly euphemistic (Cast Off). I imagine you had some fun thinking up those terms?
GJ: I did.
ML: There’s this kind of freewheeling feel to the whole book.
GJ: I think, interestingly, that after telling my daughter, “Go, explore, take risks, have fun!” I myself sat down and started to explore, take risks, and have fun.
ML: Can you talk about the character of Grant’s mother a little, and how her presence helps to situate the novel?
GJ: I saw the roots of The Resisters as being in our time, and its issues as related to issues that have been with us for a while. Grant’s mother is from the Caribbean; her family’s in the history textbooks, when they write about the uprisings on the sugar plantations. And reading about her, you realize that Grant does not come out of thin air. At the same time, I did not want the book to be so tethered to history that it suggests “because-of-this-then-this”—though, of course, capitalism is implicated in both—and I certainly did not want a slave uprising to be somehow conflated with resistance to Aunt Nettie.
ML: I think one of the reasons the world of your novel is so affecting and unsettling is because it very much feels as if it’s in the realm of possibility, that we’re not too far away from it. And that feels terrifying. I also appreciate the way that you imbue this dystopian world with nuance and complexity. With the enforcers, for example you don’t fall back on a reductive good/ evil divide. You have the character of Mimi—which, by the way, great name—and characters like her that are seen as part of the problem, but who actually have different textures and shades.
GJ: We’ve seen this in many repressive regimes—people who are essentially middlemen, and in a complicated position vis-à-vis the overlords. That’s not unique to my book, that’s just the world. There was a story just recently, about a Jewish graphic designer in Auschwitz who was so valuable to the Nazis that she could sometimes save people, and managed to save her lover several times. But of course, she couldn’t save everyone; there were always terrible tradeoffs.
ML: The portrayal of this kind of complexity is particularly important in these times, where people are often so quick to reach for outrage.
I think something that’s consistent with a lot of your books, at least for me, is that I usually have a very conflicted relationship with your male protagonists. They’re very engaging and charming and intriguing but also I just want to shake them! I felt the same about Woody the coach. What was your journey like with him?
GJ: If certain of my characters seem complicated and blown off course by their circumstances, it is perhaps because I simply see that that happens—that sometimes people end up making choices they don’t want to make. Anybody who’s had a job knows that there can be compromises involved. Woody has something that he really loves, and finds that protecting it has a price.
ML: It was inevitable that he would be so complicated?
ML: So you’ve talked about how you wrote this really fast but also mentioned there were moments of anxiety throughout the book. Can you talk broadly about that or were there any specific aspects that were challenging for you that you had to overcome?
GJ: Well, I had to do a lot of research to write those baseball sequences. The Resisters is not really a baseball book, but it’s a book that involves baseball, and I was aware that as a girl in boy territory, I had to get everything right—that should I make one slip I was going to be hung. Of course, every game in the book involves something emotional; it’s not just a game. The plot is always advancing—and that stuff is tricky to manage. But it was not particularly fraught. The actual pitches, meanwhile, the plays—it was like the Khmer in my last novel, World and Town. I looked at certain passages again and again, and was thrilled when the book passed muster with people who really know sports—Jane Leavy, for example, who has written biographies of Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, and Babe Ruth. When I finally met her at the Key West Literary Seminar, I confessed that I can’t actually pitch—which I thought would shock her. Her reaction, though, was to immediately insist, “Oh, I’m going to teach you to throw a ball.” To which, I responded, “Jane, I cannot throw my shoulder out. Not now, just before my book comes out.” I could just see myself making the rounds of the bookstores in a sling.
ML: Talk about putting you on the spot!
GJ: [laughs] At another time I might have taken her up on it. Because I had so much vicarious fun, imagining the pitching in the novel. It was even more fun than a house that cleans itself up.“Once you’ve ‘succeeded,’ what do you owe your community, especially if it’s one that’s marginalized, disenfranchised?”
ML: Maybe the house would have been more fun if it weren’t listening in on everything while it was cleaning.
GJ: No doubt.
ML: So earlier on, we were talking about how there are some parents who just have no idea that their kid is gifted. Might that be a blessing sometimes because it delays that decision of what to do with that—what’s their responsibility to their child, and to the gift?
GJ: Gwen’s parents, happily, take up their responsibility cheerfully. But here is a very gifted girl with no league to play in. And I do draw connection between her and figures like Satchel Paige, who may have been the greatest pitcher we ever had, though we don’t know because they didn’t keep stats in the Negro League. (Paige was pre-Jackie Robinson, and only got to play major league ball at the very end of his career.) As for the issue about whether individuals like Paige and Gwen can realize themselves in America, that is very important to me. I don’t ask whether Gwen will be supported or not by her parents so much as “Do we now have a country, and will we continue to have a country that can accommodate everyone? Or are we going back to a country where a lot of people don’t get to play ball, so to speak?” And by the way, the irony that “America’s game” is very much a man’s game is not lost on me.
ML: Right. Also, Gwen’s journey makes me think of the question of, once you’ve “succeeded,” what do you owe your community, especially if it’s one that’s marginalized, disenfranchised? At Voice of Witness, we’ve just finished putting together a book of oral histories about Native American rights called How We Go Home. There are a couple of narrators who grew up in poverty and went on to have Ivy League educations, and one of the things they’re faced with is the question of what they do with that privilege afterwards. One of the narrators, who went to Yale, decided to work on creating economic opportunity within his community. But he says it’s an ongoing struggle because people who manage to “get out” often don’t want to come back. So I loved that Gwen didn’t have this straightforward journey. I couldn’t help but draw those parallels between those two situations. That wasn’t a question, that was just an observation!
GJ: Thank you. Your observation touches on the question of whether fiction should be inspiring or exemplary in some way. While many writers are champions of the anti-hero, I feel that we don’t have to only write about people who are un-exemplary—that we need our share of Atticus Finches as well. But who would read books if everyone did the right thing? We’re much more interested in figures who wrestle with themselves, as does Ondi, certainly, and Gwen, too—indeed, as do all the characters in The Resisters.
ML: Totally agree.
The Resisters by Gish Jen is out now via Knopf.