Jen, Gish

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
  • Date of entry: May-02-2006
  • Last revised: Dec-05-2006


Art Woo, thirty-eight years old, Asian-American, and a salesman in a dying industry, finds himself housed in a welfare hotel during a sales convention--the unexpected result of trying to limit travel expenses for his company. His modus operandi is to "maintain a certain perspective," so he attempts to make the best of the situation.

We learn that his wife, Lisa, has divorced him--the outcome of Art's inability to grieve along with her when, after many months of fertility treatments and two miscarriages, Lisa's successful pregnancy was medically terminated at four and a half months because the fetus was afflicted with a severe genetic abnormality. Whereas Art reacted with hope for having another child, Lisa had seen only loss. Likewise, when his boss had insulted Art with a racial slur, Art had maintained "perspective," while Lisa thought he should have quit his job.

The "birthmate" of the title is Billy Shore, four years younger, American, and a business rival. Billy is obnoxious, but has advanced to a new job. Art thinks that if Billy can get ahead, so can he. But Art's equilibrium is ultimately destroyed by an experience in the welfare hotel. He realizes that he has lost not just a job opportunity and his wife, but also his child.


This story, told in a humorous vein, is complex and difficult, but it is useful for discussion. Central to the story are the personal consequences that result from Art's inability to grieve. A related issue is the strain on a marriage when there is infertility, miscarriage, or genetic defect. The author comments, in "Contributor's Notes," on her own experience "with infertility and the termination of a much wanted pregnancy owing to genetic problems." (She is, however, married and has a child.)

Cultural attitudes in business and personal life are also at issue. Does Art's Asian background result in a behavior that doesn't work well in the American business environment, and doesn't serve his marriage well either? Themes of racial/cultural intolerance, misunderstanding, understanding, and self worth are woven in and out of the story. Art is ashamed to be in the welfare hotel, but it is the exuberance of its children, and the kindness of one of its residents--a black woman and former nurse--that finally pierce through his protective shield.


First published in Ploughshares (Emerson College, Boston, Mass., 1994). This story was selected for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, eds. John Updike & Katrina Kenison (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) 1999.

Primary Source

Best American Short Stories: 1995


Houghton Mifflin

Place Published





Jane Smiley, with Katrina Kenison

Page Count