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Writing Without Borders


January 14, 2007

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Since moving to the United States from China in 1985 for graduate studies, Ha Jin has published three volumes of

poetry, three collections of short stories and four novels, and has won some of the highest literary honors. His first two short story collectionsOcean of Words and Under the Red Flag, both set in Northeastern China during the 1960s and 1970s, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, respectively. In 1999, he won both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Waiting, a novel also set in Northeastern China during the cultural revolution. Last year he won the PEN/Faulkner Award again for his novel, War Trash, which is based on historical documents from the Korean War and told from the perspective of a Chinese POW.

Each of his books is written in his adopted English.

In a departure, the setting of his latest novel, due later this year, will not be Northern China, but North America. And will no doubt transform the landscape of American literature once again.

Ha Jin recently collaborated with composer Tan Dun on the libretto for the opera The First Emperor, which debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in January of 2007.

The conversation that follows between Ha Jin and Chris GoGwilt, professor of comparative literature at Fordham University, took place at the University on November 16, 2006. What follows is an edited transcript of their talk.

Chris GoGwilt: Can you recall when you knew you were going to become a writer? Perhaps a defining moment in your five years of service in the Chinese army?

Ha Jin: In the Chinese army we did write a lot, but we mainly produced propaganda. I didn’t think I wanted to be a writer at the time. I finished the poetry manuscript [for Between Silences] at the end of 1988 and soon

that manuscript was accepted for publication, but even at that time I was not serious [about writing] because I thought I would return to China. But later, because of the Tiananmen Massacre, I could not return, and I had to

figure out how to survive. I had a few friends who were teaching writing, had a few books under their belt, and I thought that if I continued to write, maybe if I published another three books, I might get a decent job. I asked my wife, “Can you wait for me eight or nine years?” And she said, “Okay.”

For a long time I couldn’t decide whether to write in English because I knew there was this tradition: Conrad and Nabokov, those giants there.

Chris GoGwilt: You say you were not serious, even when you published Between Silences, but in that book, in the prologue, you make a very eloquent statement about your commitment as a writer.

Ha Jin: I said that, as a fortunate person, I wanted to speak for those unfortunate people who had created history, but at the same time were fooled by history. But that was not the kind of ambition a writer in my situation

could fulfill because I didn’t plan to write in English. What I meant at the time was just for that book.

Chris GoGwilt: Clearly Tiananmen Square dramatically altered things for you. How did that change your sense of commitment as a writer?

ha_jin3.jpg Ha Jin: I served in the Chinese army, and the army was called The People’s Army, so we were from the people and supposed to serve the people and protect the people. I was shocked that the field armies would go into the city and really suppress civilians. Then my son arrived. That was a turning point. It was clear that he would be an American. At the airport, at the sight of him, I thought of his future. For me it was not clear, but for him to be an American, that also implied that I would have to stay for many years. Forget about the commitment. I realized there was nothing of that kind anymore: no grandeur, no rhetoric anymore.

Chris GoGwilt: No speaking for the oppressed or speaking for the silenced people?

Ha Jin: Certainly what I faced was a matter of survival. Once I decided to stay in the States, I had to start a different kind of life, as an individual like everybody else.

Chris GoGwilt: So in a sense you’re saying that the moment when you really found that you had to write was when you discovered that your son was committed to America, not yourself?

Ha Jin: Yes. But at the same time it was a matter of existence, not just to bring food to the table. I really wanted to make the best use of my life, and one thing I discovered… for a long time I couldn’t decide whether to write in English because I knew there was this tradition: Conrad and Nabokov, those giants there. There was a well-known Russian critic who wrote to Chekhov. At the time Chekhov was not writing his most ambitious work, but

just stories for newspapers. And the critic said, “You know, you should cherish your talent, and you should be more ambitious. You should write in more complicated forms.” At the end of the letter, the critic said, “I don’t

know about your income. If it’s small, starve. We all started that way.” But I realized that in the United States, that might not happen. As long as you are in good health, and you do some work, you can survive.

When a writer adopts another language there are a lot of motivations: necessity, ambition, estrangement.

Chris GoGwilt: Which you did. Your stories and novels present a number of different locations, from “Dismount Fort,” in “Under the Red Flag” and In The Pond the novel, all the way to the Korean War zone landscape and POW camps of War Trash. You create a unique world, not unlike Faulkner’s Mississippi,

Hardy’s Wessex, Joyce’s Dublin… there’s an almost mesmeric sense of location that’s in one sense very fixed in time and space, but also hallucinated and imagined. Maybe the most obvious example is the case of Waiting where there are two locations: Muji City, where Lin Kong is an army doctor next to his girlfriend, and Goose Village, where he returns every year, in a kind of tragicomic story, to try to divorce his wife. Are Muji City and Goose

Village real locations?

Ha Jin: No. But my father was a low-ranking officer, so we moved a lot with the army, so I knew the countryside very well. I very well could imagine, in fact, I did imagine a place, and created a village like that.

Chris GoGwilt: A sense of home for all your characters seems very problematic.

Ha Jin: Yes. In fact, for Chinese, home always refers to your village, your origin. When I was young [home] was clear because I spent my childhood in a small town in Liaoling Province. In fact, it’s a model for Dismount Falls.

So I did have a lot of affection for that town. But later, when I grew up, I returned, and the town was very different. And because my father was an officer, and we moved a lot, I didn’t have a sense of a fixed place for

“home.” Because I grew up in the Northeast of China, at most I would say “that is a place I am from.” But the word in English, “homeland,” has two meanings. One is a place of origin and the other refers to where your home

is. Conventionally the two are very easy to reconcile because there is very little division between the two meanings. But now the dichotomy is more obvious, and more meaningful in a way. So now when we talk about home, it’s an issue of return. It’s also a matter of arrival. If a home can be created, can be made, then home is in the process of becoming, instead of [being] fixed in the past.

For a long time I couldn’t decide whether to write in English because I knew there was this tradition: Conrad and Nabokov, those giants there.

Chris GoGwilt: The name “Dismount Fort,” you explain in one of the stories, comes from it being a transfer post in the expeditions from China to Korea. In what sense is the whole landscape, and your sense of home, in fiction, in some ways a transfer post between China and Korea, China and Russia, even China and America?

Ha Jin: The setting of my books changed from the Russian/Chinese border to close to Korea and some other parts of China. Eventually I would leave China. That’s why War Trash is set outside China. It is a transitional place, a step towards the United States.

Chris GoGwilt: So as you write these stories, you’re writing to transfer to America?

Ha Jin: With the early books, no, but I think with War Trash that was clear. I never thought about this… not until you asked the question.

Chris GoGwilt: You’ve mentioned Conrad and Nabokov, two writers who come to English from other tongues. In your case, when did you learn English?

Ha Jin: I remember clearly, that was 1976, the year after I left the army. The city where I lived started a learner’s program on the radio, a half-hour a day in the morning, from 5:30 to 6:00. It was very simple, “There’s a

chair; this is a table.” But I followed it for a year. And when the entrance exams were reinstated, we could take the exams and go to college. Before that, all colleges had been closed for a decade.

When a writer adopts another language there are a lot of motivations: necessity, ambition, estrangement.

Chris GoGwilt: So just at the end of the Cultural Revolution?

Ha Jin: Yes, and because I knew a little bit of English I put down English

as a choice.

Chris GoGwilt: That you were still “half-hearted,” as you put it, about writing, comes through in your poetry with respect to English. “The English which I love but wish not to use.”

Ha Jin: Yes [laughs].

Chris GoGwilt: There are two poems from Facing Shadows that seem to give opposing views on the use of English. One seems to allow you to forget China: “after losing a land, and then giving up a tongue, we stop talking of grief.” But then the very next one you remember a dream about your grandmother speaking to you in English, saying, “save this for the kids when they need it.” Does the English language distance you from China or does it bring China closer?

Ha Jin: There’s no doubt there’s a kind of alienation. 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, and write about the United States, the immigrant experience. On the other hand, I think it does not really sever my relationship with China. It creates a kind of distance. In a way, it enables me to write more objectively. I grew up in China, and I lived there for

twenty-nine years. That’s part of my past. It would be insane for me to negate my past.

Chris GoGwilt: I’m surprised at how many characters carry around dictionaries.

Ha Jin: Not just my characters. I think that’s a common experience for many immigrants and many exiles. For instance, Nabokov’s Pnin always carried a big Webster’s. It was also a painful experience for a lot of people.

Chris GoGwilt: Well, in War Trash the first mention of a dictionary is as a weapon.

Ha Jin: Yes, well, I think it’s not like that anymore in China. It used to be that whenever a book appeared, you’d have to buy it, or it would be gone. I spent my childhood in several cities, and I never saw a public library. So

that’s why, if you had a book, a rare book, a good dictionary, that was really a piece of property at the time.

Chris GoGwilt: In the case of War Trash, not only a piece of property, but also the internalized knowledge is a double-edged sword.

Ha Jin: Yes, the dictionary and the knowledge of another language empowered the protagonist and also alienated him from his comrades. A lot of things he has learned, he cannot tell his comrades, so as a result, he

really became a stranger to them. On the other hand, it was also a kind of power, and really he became more rational. So as you said, it’s double-edged.

But when we write historical fiction, there is always a danger to be trapped in history. So the question is how to leap from history to literature.

Chris GoGwilt: In one of your poems from Wreckage, called “The Script,” you describe the Chinese script as “atemporal, a stone lyre among the chorus of living tongues.” I’m wondering, is there a parallel between the unifying power of the Chinese script as you see it in that poem and the unifying power, or globalizing power, of English?

Ha Jin: The two languages became the most used languages, but I think there’s a huge difference here. The dominance of English is sustained by other powers—not just the language—financial, political, even military. Let’s face it, there’s a long history of colonization. But Chinese is slightly different, especially the written word. In the beginning it was really fixed by the first emperor because all other kinds of writings were wiped out. It has a very clear, political, violent origin. Of course, throughout Chinese history there is a moment called the “Rectification of Words.” You can’t write the written words randomly, that would be a crime; so there was a constant effort to keep the written word accurate, precise, especially in forms. But somehow, once the written word was created, it was able to sustain itself, for instance, Cantonese, Shanghainese, all these languages, dialects, they are foreign languages to me. But once we come to the page, we have the same thing, we can read, and I think that has been the case for thousands of years.

Chris GoGwilt: Most of your fiction is concerned with contemporary China. Occasionally you see ancient China coming into perspective, but mostly you shy away from that long history, and I’m wondering why.

Ha Jin: When we write poetry or fiction, it’s not just that we know people or we do a lot of research and then create an interesting story. You have to have a physical sense of a place, physical sensations, a lot of texture, a lot of concrete, tangible details. I haven’t written about ancient China, and that doesn’t mean I cannot, but when we write historical fiction, there is always a danger to be trapped in history. So the question is how to leap

from history to literature. That is very hard to do, but there are great examples, for instance, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and the Japanese writer, Shusaku Endo’s Silence.

But when we write historical fiction, there is always a danger to be trapped in history. So the question is how to leap from history to literature.

Chris GoGwilt: One of the places where the historical past does come into your fiction is in terms of literary tradition. The title of The Crazed refers to the narrator’s professor and father-in-law to-be, who has just suffered a stroke. How seriously are we meant to take Professor Yang’s thesis about the function of poetry in expressing and preserving the self? In its simplest form it’s that Chinese poets speak as themselves whereas in Western cultures the poet adopts the artifice of a persona to shield and enrich the self.

Ha Jin: We have to take him as a madman, but there’s always a glimpse of truth in his drivel. In fact this was my first book, but I didn’t have the skill to really pull through. Not until I published The Bridegroom, my sixth

book, did I feel confident to finish this one. It’s based upon a real event. When I was a graduate student, a professor who specialized in existentialism, a very kind, rational person, suddenly collapsed; he had a

stroke. I was assigned to attend to him for two afternoons. He began to talk all kinds of nonsense, and he smiled and grinned. I could see the madness, really the suffering of the real person. I remembered at the time some words

written by Balzac: “Our heart is a treasury in which a lot of things are stored. But if you spend them all, then you’ll be broken, you’ll be broke, and nobody will forgive you.” So I think this was a case where all the treasures, in the mind, in the heart, suddenly were scattered everywhere. As a result, he was basically bankrupt.

Chris GoGwilt: And of course, you chose that as the subject, the story, that addresses the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Ha Jin: Sure. Because I couldn’t finish the novel; I had many drafts, and then later the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened, and that was another kind of insanity, madness, more violent. So I was determined to combine the two—personal madness and national madness.

Chris GoGwilt: But that sense of the individual both in Chinese classics and European classics, does that have anything to do with the human rights crisis of Tiananmen Square?

Ha Jin: Not directly, but in a way it is the same historical force that drove the person to madness and the nation to violence.

Chris GoGwilt: At the end the narrator says that it’s personal interest that motivates the individual and therefore generates the dynamics of history. Of course, your narrators are never entirely reliable, but that’s a moment when he connects the problem of the individual.

Ha Jin: Yes. I think that’s his insight. Suddenly he realizes a lot of bad things happen to others not only because of bad policy but because each person has his or her own interests.

Chris GoGwilt: In a wonderful story from The Bridegroom, “A Tiger Fighter is Hard to Find,” the actor asked to act the part of the tiger fighter in the TV series “Wu Song Beat the Tiger” is given Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as a kind of model for what a hero should be. How seriously should we take this comparison between an American literary heroic ideal and the Chinese martial arts heroic ideal?

Ha Jin: 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, because it was a short book and was written in clear, very lucid, English, 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. But when I was working on The Bridegroom, I was much older by then, I really wanted to give some comic touches instead of tragic. That’s why I made the narrator unable to remember Hemingway’s name.

Chris GoGwilt: By the same token, some of your characters have internalized a lot of Russian writers without being able to remember who wrote this or that novel.

Ha Jin: When we were in China, most of the Russian authors were not banned; but because they were not banned, we wouldn’t read them. Because American literature was not available, we were eager to study it. But the

older generation grew up with Russian literature, especially Soviet literature. But I don’t think that they understood, the literature was shaped by propaganda as well, so that’s why sometimes the titles are gone, and the reader may have distorted a book, even.

Chris GoGwilt: I want to make a transition to allow you to talk about the upcoming opera production, The First Emperor. I understand you’ve just come from rehearsals. How’s it going?

Ha Jin: It’s quite overwhelming to see a room with over a hundred musicians playing and all the subtlety and the power of the music. When we started, we just worked on the page, and I wasn’t sure if it was going to be

produced, even.

When we were in China, most of the Russian authors were not banned; but because they were not banned, we wouldn’t read them.

Chris GoGwilt: In a story you’ve written very recently for Zoetrope called “A Composer and His Parakeets,” you have the composer character reflect on the difficulty of an inflexible librettist. Can you talk about what you learned from the process of working on this opera with Tan Dun?

Ha Jin: You’ve read everything! The composer was supposed to sing for a group of people to show the music, and without working on this project, I would never have known of this kind of procedure. Without the experience of working with Tan Dun I would not have been able to write the story at all.

Chris GoGwilt: Is it true that your next novel coming out next year is set in America?

Ha Jin: I’m not supposed to talk too much about this. It’s called A Free Life. It’s set in the States, partly in Boston, partly in New York, partly in Georgia. It’s about an immigrant family, basically an immigrant man, and

he was a businessman, but later he decided to write poetry. He had to change his life in order to do that.

Chris GoGwilt: “A Composer and His Parakeet” opens with a reference to the composer’s girlfriend going off to Thailand, and she’s Indian. I’m wondering if you’re exploring a new sensibility of Asian-American writing.

Ha Jin: Every book is kind of a departure. As a writer, I’m always in the process of becoming… I would be happy to be an Asian-American writer. It’s a good thing for me because, as I said, I lived for almost thirty years in

China. That’s part of my heritage. So the hyphen is good for me, but that also means, eventually, I do want to become an American writer. That identity can only be earned in my case by actual work. If a book or books are valuable to the American experience, then I will be given that identity.

Chris GoGwilt: As you’ve been writing this novel to come, have you found other affinities between the Northeast China landscape and the Northeast America landscape?

Ha Jin: I grew up in a kind of similar climate, so even the American landscape, the Midwest, is very familiar to me, even the smell of the place. My character wants to be a poet, and he has to create a space for himself.

It’s not just a physical space, it’s also a cultural space. That’s why I attached a volume of poems to this novel. The last poem is called “Another Country,” and it begins “You must go to a country without borders where you can build your home out of gallons of words.” I think he understands his situation.

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