An interview with Ha Jin, the multi-award-winning Chinese-American writer. I had the good fortune to meet him when he visited Hong Kong, and this interview was subsequently published in the South China Morning Post.
Ha Jin is having a busy day. In Hong Kong for the Book Fair, he has been interacting with eager readers since the morning, and the afternoon is packed with interview slots. No wonder he looks tired. He greets me though with a pleasant smile, his face betraying none of the tedium he must be anticipating at having to regurgitate his thoughts. As we make small talk, his eyes – behind the large glasses – are alert and he laughs easily. “I have been conversing in Mandarin Chinese since morning,” he says, “and need to shift gears to talk in English with you.” His modesty is disarming. Ha Jin is a much-lauded writer, only the third American writer – along with Philip Roth and John Wideman – to have won the PEN/Faulkner award twice. This for a man who didn’t start to learn English until he was twenty-one years old!
The eldest of five children, Jin Xuefei (he took the pen name Ha Jin later) was ten when the Cultural Revolution started. His father was a Red Army officer, and his mother, a petty officer whose father owned a small parcel of land, was persecuted. At fourteen, he joined the army and served as an artilleryman along China's border with Russia and North Korea, then moved on to the more peaceful jobs of telegrapher and calligrapher. Today Ha Jin teaches at Boston University and lives in the suburbs; he became a U.S. citizen in 1997.
It has been quite a trajectory, I remark, from a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army in China to a celebrated American author. “I have been driven by a force beyond myself, by circumstances. Of course I was also fortunate to have made the right decisions at various moments in my life. But on the whole, I feel very lucky. In the Army there were many fellow soldiers, comrades, who were extremely smart but they never had the opportunity to develop themselves. There is, however,” he insists with a deprecatory laugh, “a lot of myth surrounding my learning of English!
“I taught myself English after I left the Army in 1976.” He had remained in the army for five years before leaving to work for a railroad company. “At that time a radio programme to teach English was broadcast daily. It was very basic, “There’s a chair. This is a table.” So I started to follow it. Then in 1977 when the Chinese Universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution I took English as a major.” The 21-year-old from Liaoning applied to Heilongjiang University where he got to read the recently unbanned works of Faulkner and Hemingway.
“I love Hemingway. When I was an undergrad in my junior year suddenly American literature became very popular. But at the time many of the books were not available. One book, The Old Man and the Sea, had a bilingual edition made just for the English students in China, so a lot of people knew that book. As a result, Chinese readers talked about Hemingway. In that story there's a fight between a man and a shark. You can conquer but not defeat a man. We were taught a lot of Marxist morals. But this kind of Hemingway American mentality, at least as expressed in that small novel, was fresh to the young people at the time, so we all somehow believed in it.” He went on to earn a master's in American literature from Shandong University, writing occasional poetry in Chinese, and then traveled to America to pursue a doctorate at Brandeis University.
The initial motivation to learn English though was prompted by an obscure desire to read a book by Friedrich Engels titled ‘The Living Conditions of the Working Class’. “It was the only English book I knew,” he shrugs, “and I thought some day I might be able to read the book in original.” It was another instance when the guiding hand of fate steered him to what would ultimately turn out to be his passion and vocation. So, did you manage to read the book, I query. “No!” Ha Jin laughs. “Never. I never read it. And I won’t read it now – I am kind of superstitious about it.”
In 1988 Ha Jin had completed work on his poetry manuscript, Between Silences, and was looking to return to China when fate interceded, again – this time in the form of the Tiananmen Square massacre. “I was in shock,” he says with a shake of his head. “I had served in the Chinese Army and we were taught to serve the people, not attack them. But now everything was reversed and I couldn’t reconcile. I sat glued to the TV. I was in a daze for weeks. Couldn’t function normally. Later my son arrived and I realized that he must be American.” A brief pause, before he resumes. “I saw the violence in the massacre served no purpose. There has been so much destruction in Chinese history that has served no purpose. It was as if there was a cycle and I wanted my son to get out of that. My immediate purpose was to make this new land his country. Which meant that I had to stay on.”
Since China was ruled out, Ha Jin had to find a way to live in the US and earn a livelihood. “I had friends who had 2-3 books under their belt and I thought that if I continued to write, and managed to publish a couple more books, even I would get a job like that. Securing a decent permanent job was my immediate concern.” To extend his student visa, he applied to Boston University to learn creative writing – even though he had already completed his Ph. D. It was to be another in a series of happy coincidences for Ha Jin. Between Silences was published in 1990. Nine years later, Ha Jin’s first novel Waiting, about a Chinese doctor who keeps trying to divorce his wife so he can marry his sweetheart, won the National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner award. To date, Ha Jin has published three volumes of poetry, three collections of short stories and four novels.
Over this period of writing, the setting of his books has changed from the fictional Muji city on the Russian/Chinese border to Korea and finally the US. Of his novels, Waiting is set in China, the action in War Trash takes place in Korea, and A Free Life, his latest novel, is located firmly in the US. His novels, it appears, are mirroring the writer’s transition from China to America, from being a Chinese to becoming a Chinese-American.
“Yes and No. Every book for me is a departure. I am still in the process of being a certain kind of writer – I myself don’t know what kind. Therefore the changing of location is natural. Step after step, gradually, my fiction has come to be set in the US. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t set it in China again. Though,” he shrugs, “my major preoccupation currently is with the immigrant experience in the US.” A Free Life follows Chinese poet and intellectual Nan Wu, along with his wife, Pingping, on the rapid journey from tentative new immigrant to successful Atlanta restaurateur and homeowner to discontented U.S. citizen hungering for a more intellectual life.
Nan Wu, in his pursuit and achievement of the American dream, is perhaps a doppleganger for Ha Jin’s own experience, I suggest. “No,” he gives a decisive shake of his head. “I haven’t reached the American dream.” Yet there are several elements in the narrative of his latest novel that reflect Ha Jin own’s life. “You cannot separate the dance from the dancer,” Ha Jin concedes. The novel opens with Nan and Pingping traveling from Boston to San Francisco's airport to greet their young son, who had been living with his grandparents until the parents got settled – just as Ha Jin's son did in the 1980s, after Ha Jin and then his wife moved to America. Nan also struggles whether to write in English, becoming more facile with the language as he gets more Americanized. Nevertheless, his insecurity with expressing himself in English remains – a sense that Ha Jin shares acutely. In one of his poems, he sums up his ambiguous relationship with English thus: The English which I love but wish not to use.
“I think usually when a writer adopts another language there are a lot of motivations: necessity, ambition, estrangement. Estrangement is a big part of it, and I think that may be the reason why I wanted to leave China in my writing – contemporary China, that is – and write about the immigrant experience. On the other hand, it creates a kind of distance with China and enables me to write more objectively. Despite all that, I feel I won’t ever be at home in English – the question is how to use that to my advantage.”
On a wry laugh, he continues, “Writing is suffering. Nabokov said writing in English is a private tragedy. I couldn’t understand then, but now I do. Teaching oneself a language different from your first, gaining mastery over it – it involves a lot of disappointment and suffering. That is why I never encourage anyone to write in their second language.” Ha Jin frequently cites Conrad and Nabokov, two writers who come to English from other tongues, as his literary influences.
A question about success and its ramifications makes Ha Jin almost squirm. “I feel a lot of pressure. Every time, it gets harder. It is akin to a sprinter’s dash: he takes twelve seconds to do a hundred-meter dash, next time he wants to do it in eleven. Every time you want to do better. It is frustrating. But I have to do it. It is the way to live my life. Awards are not a motivation. At some point in the beginning, some awards were important – more for job security. After that a writer has to value his own work: you know how much you have succeeded or failed.”
When Ha Jin left China it was with the intention to return. However, he has never been back since. Despite the critical acclaim his books continue to be unavailable in mainland China. Waiting was published briefly before being withdrawn. No wonder the prodigal son’s relationship with China is ambivalent. “It makes me uncomfortable. When your books are banned, it is as if your children were banished – you feel unwelcome.”
Film director Peter Chan bought the film rights to Waiting – however, making the film seems to have literally become a case of waiting as the pre-production has taken years. “I don’t know what stage it is at now,” Ha Jin answers with a mystified look. “He has been working very hard on it. He wants to make it available to mainland audience.” There is a weighty pause, the mystified look deepens – I decide to venture in with a related question. Would Ha Jin look at writing the screenplay? He shakes his head, “I am not a scriptwriter,” before breaking into a guffaw. “I don’t think Chan wants me too involved!”
In A Free Life, Nan Wu wins a ticket to go to Beijing. In a book that seems to mirror Ha Jin’s immigrant experience, the return trip to homeland comes across as a case of wishful thinking. “Not exactly. China has changed and so have I. China has become a richer country, with a much higher living standard. But at the same time, a lot of things are not as good as before. Education is a big problem, environment is another major issue, and the landscape has changed entirely. People haven’t made effort in this direction.”
The coordinator is cueing time-up – the next interviewer is in queue – and I squeeze in my last question: does he see himself writing a novel in Mandarin? “Having struggled to write in one language, then shifting tracks to write in another serves no purpose. My first language is Mandarin Chinese but I have only written small pieces in it, not a novel. It seems too difficult and life is too short,” he ends pragmatically.