The figurative language of Gish Jen…

Reading time: About 2 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about similes and metaphors from Gish Jen….

Gish Jen (pictured above) is a second-generation Chinese American. She graduated from Harvard University with a BA in English, and later attended Stanford Business School, but dropped out to attend the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she earned her MFA in fiction. Her birth name is Lillian, but during her high school years she acquired the nickname Gish, for actress Lillian Gish.

Her 2022 collection of linked short-stories, Thank You, Mr. Nixon is the first book of hers that I’ve read, and it left me powerfully impressed with both her sense of humour and her easy way with figurative language. Here are my favourite examples:

  • He was wearing the same polo shirt as his wife, only in a much larger size and in dark brown; it was as if her shirt was from the spring line of some manufacturer, and his from the fall.
  • His huge neck rose from his collar like a tree trunk from a ring of leaf mold.
  • Balding though he was, he ran his hand through what was left of his hair as if to reassure himself it was still there.
  • The tour director was a rosy-cheeked young woman with pigtails, black glasses, and the poignantly stoical look of a young person who had been ordered to stand still; she could have been a trombonist in a military youth band.
  • And they were crying Opal’s cry — a hiccupy sob — in an oddly contrapuntal way.
  • [He had] a loop-de-loop manner of talking with his hands, and a way of letting his cigarette dangle so loosely from his lips that it resembled a sort of burning dribble.
  • Arnie, who boasted the best attitude of everyone, wore Italian suits in colors named for vitamin-rich vegetables like eggplant and kale.
  • …You couldn’t have too many passports, they were like bracelets.
  • Outside it rained in fine perfect hairs, as if the clouds just had to show they did not have to straighten their hair Korean style, they were already Korean style.
  • Now my father-in-law hides his face in his rice bowl Only his chopsticks move. It is as if he is trying to scratch a small, small message inside the bowl.
  • And the day after that, a glass tower springs up like bamboo.
  • His question hung in the air like the kind of smog that used to drift down from the Mainland and choke them.
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