32-Jan-Feb-2008
By: 
Patrick Smith

The National Book Award-winning author writes his first "American" novel.

Ha JinHa Jin, author of the National Book Award–winning novel Waiting (1999), has written his first "American" work. Though he had moved to Boston in 1985, his writing remained focused on his native China. Now, with A Free Life (see our review on page 25), Jin explores assimilation in a new country—the United States—as Nan Wu and his wife struggle and sacrifice to make a life there. The novel "embodies a continuity, which means that I have migrated to America and will have to go a long way," Jin writes from his office at Boston University, where he was named professor of English after teaching at Emory University. Both Boston and Atlanta figure prominently in the author’s fiction. "In terms of style, A Free Life is closer to Waiting, because it is also a love story in a way. But the style is somewhat ‘Americanized’ and may not mean anything to the Chinese anymore."

Jin has come a long way—both from a literary and a geographical perspective—from his native China. Born Xuefei (Shoo-fay) Jin, he was raised in a large military family and came of age during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. At 14, Xuefei volunteered for the People’s Liberation Army and spent six years on the triangular tip between China, the Soviet Union, and Korea, reading literature and waiting for what many thought would be inevitable, catastrophic war. His masterpiece Waiting reflects his army service.

After leaving the army, Xuefei worked as a telegrapher, learned English, and earned a master’s degree in English at Shandong University. At the encouragement of American scholars in China, he enrolled in an American literature program at Brandeis University in 1985 and then studied creative writing at Boston University.

While he studied, Xuefei worked a series of menial jobs and suffered the disappointment of rejections from literary journals. Fortunately, one of his early poems caught the eye of Paris Review editors; when it was published, he took the pen name Ha Jin. "The poem in the Paris Review actually was my first attempt to write something in English, though that was half-hearted since at the time I thought I would return to China in a few years," Jin writes, leaving unspoken the impact of Tiananmen Square that—in an irony that would be savored in one of his own novels—he watched helplessly on a television in Boston. "I have never felt comfortable in English and may never be at home in this alphabet," Jin writes. "But I have to work in this language wherein I can strive to exist." Much of the power of Jin’s prose comes from its subtle ebb and flow, sometimes comforting, often disquieting, always disarming. The words, written in another’s tongue, beautifully frame the author’s expression of profound yearning—for lost love, for a better way of life, for dignity, for identity. "The work can be all those," Jin agrees. "But it is also a yearning for survival."

The direction of Jin’s life focused considerably in April 1989 when he witnessed the brutality of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Knowing that he would never realize his dream of returning to China to teach (Jin was reunited with his six-year-old son, who had stayed in China with family, only a few weeks after the massacre), he continued to write. In 1990, Jin published Between Silences: A Voice from China, a collection of poetry exploring the pervasive effects of the Cultural Revolution and introducing themes that appear repeatedly in the later work. Set in the same Chinese provincial town of Dismount Fort as the short story collection Under the Red Flag (1997), In the Pond, Jin’s first novel, was well received. Still, the ripples that book set off in 1998 hardly predicted the tidal wave of critical acclaim that Waiting generated a year later.

Little more than a decade after he began writing in English, Ha Jin has become a household name in literary circles, a prize-winning short story writer and novelist whose work reflects a keen awareness of the short distance between the poles of freedom and confinement. It is a literature of experience—much of it unpleasant—tempered with an irrepressible, almost childlike hope.

The Award-Winning Breakthrough

Waiting (1999)

Award Star National Book Award, PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Jin-WaitingJin opens his most important book to date with Tolstoyan flair: "Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu." The author’s passion for poetry gives his understated prose a lyricism that accentuates the novel’s themes—desire, free will, unreasonable ideological demands, and the inertia that keeps the characters from moving forward. At the time of publication, Jin had been writing in English for little more than a decade.

The Story: Dissatisfied with his arranged marriage to Shuyu, Lin Kong, an army doctor, returns each year to his home village to divorce her. She serially refuses. Lin has feelings for Manna Wu, a nurse, though the two cannot consummate their relationship until Shuyu grants the divorce. The charade continues for 18 years, at which time Lin discovers that time’s passing may have dulled both his resolve and passion.

"In the book’s final section, we discover—after a series of turns that seem at once inventive and inevitable—that the conventional wisdom about the consequences of answered prayers is dishearteningly valid in any language. … Character is fate, or at least some part of fate, and Ha Jin’s achievement is to reveal the ways in which character and society conspire." Francine Prose, New York Times, 10/24/1999

"Waiting begins with the kind of economical but perfectly turned sentence that abounds in Jin’s work … and it casts a spell that doesn’t break once over the course of the book’s 308 pages. … If the lucidity and focus of Waiting puts you in mind of Russian masters like Gogol and Chekhov, that’s no accident." Dwight Garner, New York Times, 2/6/00

The Banned Book

The Crazed (2002)

Jin-CrazedThe atrocities perpetrated against university students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 profoundly effected those who witnessed it—no less so for a viewer who had worn the soldier’s uniform as a young man and who still had family in the country. In The Crazed, Jin puts a face to oppressive government. The book is still banned in China.

The Story: In the days leading up to the massacre in Tiananmen Square, Chinese graduate student Jian Wan cares for Professor Yang, his literature professor and future father-in-law. Having suffered a stroke, the delirious old man divulges information about his own subversive past. What begins as a story of hope for Jian Wan becomes a heart-wrenching search for identity in a violent and rapidly changing world, as he comes to envision China "in the form of an old hag so decrepit and brainsick that she would devour her children to sustain herself."

"By conventional wisdom, scholarship is the noble path and government the way of the materialistic and corrupt, but as The Crazed progresses, such simplistic categories are broken down, given depth and complexity through the sympathy with which Jin takes apart the motivations of his characters." Francie Lin, San Francisco Chronicle, 10/27/02

The Documentary

War Trash (2004)

Jin-WarTrashAs much hard research as novel, War Trash intentionally departs from the lyricism of the earlier novels. Instead, Jin’s protagonist Yu Yuan writes, "I’m going to [tell the story] in English in a documentary manner so as to preserve historical accuracy." That story indicts the insidious influence of competing ideologies and the insatiable desire for freedom that may not exist.

The Story: After a lifetime of reliving his nightmare as a Chinese soldier fighting Americans in Korea, retired English teacher Yu Yuan breaks his silence. Despite having signed a pact to die in the service of China, Yu was captured by the Americans and imprisoned off the coast of South Korea. He survived as a translator. His struggle between the small possibility of seeing family again is set against the relative freedom that he might find in Taiwan upon his release from the camp.

"The slightly stilted, temperate tone runs all the way to the last word, and the cumulative effect is deeply moving. … [War Trash is] a timely story about discarded survivors whose lives are more complex and more pitiable than the ideology on either side would have us believe." Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor, 10/12/04