Toward an Ethics of Witnessing: Refugee Memory and Community in Gish Jen’s World and Town

Emily Yu Zong*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review


Gish Jen’s novel World and Town (2010) questions a liberal-individualist ideal in American society into which migrants and refugees are expected to assimilate. This article draws on trauma theory to explore the ways in which this neoliberal ideal creates connection bias that prevents the witnessing and healing of minority cultural memories. The novel fleshes out the contradictions within a post-9/11 multicultural milieu by depicting a Cambodian American refugee family who paradoxically reinforces trauma and exclusion in order to survive communal apathy and state-sanctioned amnesia. Through an analysis of Jen’s creative mobilization of an independent-interdependent dialectic, I suggest that World and Town proposes a shift of community membership from a “politics of recognition” to an “ethics of witnessing.” While recognition still presumes a hierarchy of belonging, an ethos of bearing witness in Jen’s novel constructs a political subjectivity of obligation, whereby community members become vulnerable to traumatic memories that are beyond cognitive knowledge and abject differences that regenerate national meanings.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)61-72
Number of pages12
JournalCritique - Studies in Contemporary Fiction
Issue number1
Early online date8 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2023

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


Dive into the research topics of 'Toward an Ethics of Witnessing: Refugee Memory and Community in Gish Jen’s World and Town'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this