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[LITERATURE] Ha Jin's Inexperience with America

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  • madchinaman
    American Inexperience He became a great novelist by writing about his communist homeland. But can Ha Jin find the same success writing about his adopted
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 15, 2006
      American Inexperience
      He became a great novelist by writing about his communist homeland.
      But can Ha Jin find the same success writing about his adopted
      By Doug Most

      READING THE FIRST LINE of a great novel is like peering inside the
      author's window. Sometimes the window is only cracked open, so you
      have no choice but to read on to get a better idea of where this
      story is going. Call me Ishmael. Other times, the window is so wide
      open that by the time you're done with the first line, you might as
      well kick off the shoes, lie back, and forget about dinner and sleep
      and idle conversation for a while. If you really want to hear about
      it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was
      born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were
      occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield
      kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to
      know the truth.

      Melville, Salinger, they had no way of knowing when they crafted
      their lines that they would become their most memorable words, no
      matter what they had written before or what would come after.

      Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife,

      For seven years now, this line from the bestseller Waiting has
      defined the writing career of Ha Jin, a stocky and shy creative-
      writing professor at Boston University who left his wife and baby
      behind in China in 1985 to come to the United States and get his
      PhD, intending to return home and work as a teacher. But he decided
      to stay. That decision, while heartwrenching, launched a brilliant
      career. That line about Lin Kong, from Jin's second novel, not only
      gave the world a character, a Chinese doctor full of sadness who for
      18 years could not bring himself to leave the woman he never loved,
      it also introduced a talented Chinese-American author who writes so
      beautifully in English that it's hard to believe he speaks the
      language so haltingly. "I spend more time on the page," says Jin,
      who learned English in his 20s. "Talking, I have to come up with the
      words instantaneously. On the page, I get to go back and try again."

      And go back he has. He has been prolific, putting out four novels,
      three short-story collections, and three books of poetry, all in
      English, all in the two decades since he came here. (His wife and
      son joined him years ago.) He has won two PEN/Faulkner awards,
      putting him in a group with writers like Philip Roth and John Edgar
      Wideman. He is 50 now, with silver and black hair and oval-framed
      glasses. He stands 5 feet 9, and he has a meek handshake and slight
      slouch. Small paunch aside, he looks to be in good shape. But inside
      he's nervous. Though he has shown tremendous range as a writer,
      moving effortlessly from bawdy and naughty to graphic and violent,
      all of his works, while written in English, were about China. That's
      the land he knew best. But he can't say that anymore

      His fifth novel, the draft of which he finished last winter, is due
      to be published a year from now, and it will be his first that's set
      here, in the country where he's lived for the last 21 years, not
      where he lived for his first 29. "My heart's not there," he says of
      China. "It's here."

      HA JIN IS, BY ANY MEASURE, ignorant of American pop culture - he
      hardly watches TV, he can't remember the last movie he saw, and the
      first Celtics player he thinks of is Larry Bird. Which partly
      explains why this book, to be called A Free Life, has taken him six
      years, and counting, to finish. It has been a slow process, as he's
      had to learn some mundane, even trivial details about our culture
      that were no challenge when he was writing about his homeland: how a
      will is prepared, where Chinese restaurants get their packets of soy
      sauce, and how elementary school classes work. In China, for
      instance, elementary school children have a different teacher for
      each subject. Here, of course, as he discovered, young children have
      one teacher. "Before this novel, when I was writing, everything was
      set in China, a lot of certainty," he says. "I had a lot of freedom.
      Now I have to reference at every turn. You can't say a Wal-Mart in
      downtown Boston. There are a lot of references I have to pay
      attention to to make my characters convincing."

      This is what has him so worried, wondering how this next book will
      be received. "I hope it will be a read American novel," he says in
      his awkward English. "If it's not good enough, I might have failed
      in making the transition."

      No one expects that, of course. "Let us not worry about him writing
      about America or any other subject he chooses," says Leslie Epstein,
      the novelist and longtime chairman of Boston University's Creative
      Writing Program, who first saw enough promise in Jin to allow him to
      audit courses and later invited him back to teach. "The best is yet
      to come."

      Perhaps, but Jin's insecurity reflects the challenge immigrant
      authors from Vladimir Nabokov to Chang-rae Lee have faced in trying
      to understand America without losing the advantage of an outsider's
      perspective. The Korean-American Lee's latest best-selling book,
      Aloft, for instance, revolves around a 59-year-old white guy from
      Long Island.

      "If anything," Epstein writes by e-mail, "indifference to the
      detritus of our popular culture only reinforces Ha Jin's fundamental
      moral seriousness. I'd tremble if I saw him watching MTV or getting
      a tattoo. And I say this knowing he has a satirical impulse, and the
      most profound sort of humor, that might make our woebegone culture
      grist for his mill. He is better off, and therefore we are better
      off , if he continues to see through us without distraction."

      Don Lee, a Korean-American novelist who edits the literary journal
      Ploughshares at Emerson College, says Jin made his mark as an Asian,
      rather than Asian-American, writer, and that that will make his
      transition more difficult. "I think he'll be fine there, but if you
      look at Asian-American literature these days, a lot of writers are
      moving away from race and politics," Lee says. "People feel they are
      done with it. They want to be recognized as writers first and Asian-
      Americans second."

      If Jin can do that, if he can show an American audience that a
      middle-aged Chinese man who served in the People's Liberation Army
      as a teenager, who struggled to learn English, who didn't come to
      this country until almost 30, can produce a genuinely American
      novel, then that will be his greatest achievement. Greater even than
      the success Waiting. And if it fails?

      "Every book, at any moment, can be a big flop," he tells me one
      afternoon as we sit in the basement of a vine-covered castle on the
      campus of BU, across the street from where he teaches. Outside it's
      95 degrees, which is why we're cheerily inside this pub with our
      cold bottles of Twisted Tea, a drink that neither of us realized was
      alcoholic until we took our first sips. "You have to take the risk.
      I don't think too much about the readers. If it's a flop, let it be
      a great one."

      BEFORE THERE WAS HA JIN THE MAN, there was Xuefei Jin the boy.

      Xuefei (shu-FAY) Jin was born in 1956 in an ancient seaport city on
      China's northern coast called Jinzhou. When he turned 7, with his
      mother often working away from home, his father, a military officer,
      shipped him off to boarding school. He studied there for two years,
      until 1965. The year after, Mao Zedong ordered China's schools
      closed, stopped the publication of all new books, and allowed old
      temples and monuments to be destroyed, marking the beginning of a
      decade-long period that came to be known as the Cultural Revolution.
      At home, Jin watched as the Red Guards burned his father's books in
      the yard. The interruption of his schooling meant he didn't become
      literate in Chinese until his late teens.

      Jin was 14 when he lied about his age and volunteered to join the
      People's Liberation Army after rumors began circulating that Russia
      was going to attack. It never happened, but it was too late. He was
      a soldier.

      He bought his first classic Chinese novel at 16. But laboring
      through each page took hours. Only when he finally cracked the
      dictionary, studying it for hours and days and weeks, did he grasp
      enough words so that he could go back and read the novel. Finding
      books proved difficult, especially for those working the Siberian
      border, as Jin did. He was transferred from the front lines to a
      base in a nearby city, where he had more access to books. He found
      an illustrated version of Don Quixote, as well as two texts with
      ancient Chinese poems, which his parents sent him and he read over
      and over until he had memorized each line

      At 19, Jin was discharged. He landed work as a telegraph operator, a
      job that allowed him to read whatever he could get his hands on and
      listen to a radio almost daily, tuning in to a program that taught
      English with phrases like "This is a table" and "Long live Chairman

      Mao Zedong died in 1976, and a year later the Cultural Revolution
      ended and China's schools reopened. Also at this time, a mass exodus
      of Chinese intellectuals eager to see the Western world began. For
      the authors who came to this country, it took more than a decade for
      them to blossom, as they needed time to learn English (at least our
      alphabet has only 26 letters, compared with the 6,000 symbols used
      in the Chinese language). But by the mid-1990s, a number of them had
      written rich memoirs about their struggles growing up during the
      Cultural Revolution. There was Anchee Min, who came to America in
      1984 and whose memoir, Red Azalea, and last book, Empress Orchid,
      were roundly praised, and Ji-li Jiang, whose memoir, Red Scarf Girl,
      won a Parents' Choice Gold Award in 1998. Their books sold here,
      even though back home in China, these writers were largely
      invisible, some of their works banned. Even Waiting, which has been
      translated into Chinese, has been discouraged by officials in China.

      Jin was still unsure of his own career path when Heilongjiang
      University in the northern city of Harbin accepted him in 1977 as an
      English major. He spent four years there, devoting himself to
      English tapes and discovering an American master from
      Mississippi. "I loved William Faulkner," Jin says. "I read all his
      books." The pen name he would later take, Ha Jin, comes from the
      town of Harbin. But it was during his next stop, at Shandong
      University, that his life took its most dramatic turns.

      "It was a small graduate class," recalls Beatrice Spade, a history
      professor at Colorado State University at Pueblo, who was teaching
      American literature at Shandong at the time. "All of the students
      were just really outstanding. [Jin's] spoken English was probably
      the worst of the bunch. His pronunciation was not good. But he could
      write like nobody's business." The class dissected novels chapter by
      chapter. "You could tell, his writing, his intellect, he had
      everything. He was just waiting to happen."

      It all did happen, as luck would have it, at Shandong. It was there
      that Jin earned his master's degree and met a mathematics teacher
      who would become his wife. It was there that he encountered American
      scholars like Spade, who urged him to travel to the West and study,
      which the Chinese government encouraged as long as he left his wife,
      Lisha Bian, and their baby, Wen, behind as collateral to ensure his
      return. And it was there that he first heard a true story about a
      Chinese doctor who had waited 18 years to get a divorce.

      Jin said to himself: "This would be good for a novel. I am going to
      write a novel based on this."

      IN AUGUST 1985, a 29-year-old Jin landed at Logan and went straight
      to Waltham to begin studying at Brandeis University. "Beautiful
      weather" is how he remembers his first impression. "The pollution
      was less. The sky feels closer. The moon is bigger. You can see the
      ring around the moon." He also saw squirrels and mushrooms around
      the big oak tree outside his dorm room. "In China," he says, "we
      would have checked if the mushrooms were edible."

      Leaving China was difficult, since it meant saying goodbye to his
      wife and toddler son. But his plan was to work toward his doctorate
      in modern poetry and then, degree in hand, return home to China. He
      worked as a waiter, busboy, even night watchman while studying and
      writing. In 1987, Bian left Wen with her parents in China and joined
      Jin in Boston. Then, one spring day 1989, students, activists, and
      intellectuals in China could no longer contain their frustration
      toward their government and demonstrated in Beijing. Jin and Bian
      sat terrified in their Boston apartment, watching on television as
      the Tiananmen Square protests unfolded, knowing their young son was
      stuck there while they were safe here. The couple scrambled to bring
      him to Boston. "Miraculously, all his papers went through right in
      the middle of it," Jin says. "He got a visa two days before the
      massacre. He came over."

      The boy was 5. He had not seen his mother in two years, his father
      in four. They met him at the San Francisco airport, because he was
      too young to transfer planes by himself. "He was the last one on the
      plane," Bian says, still teary-eyed at the image almost two decades
      later, "and he recognized me, but not him." She points to Jin,
      sitting next to her on their couch. Today, Wen is 23 and has just
      graduated with a master's degree in American history from the
      University of Chicago.

      The Beijing protests dragged on for two months. When they were over,
      when the rebel in the white shirt and black pants had played his
      unforgettable game of chicken with the tanks, when the bodies were
      buried (estimates ranged from the government's claim of 23 to the
      Chinese Red Cross's tally of 2,600), Jin knew he could never go
      back. "I was in a daze. I could not work. I was devastated.
      Suddenly, I realized I had heard about all these atrocities, but now
      I realized all of them must be true."

      Resolved to live in America, Jin turned his focus on his career.
      Around 1990, he published his first book of poetry and audited some
      writing workshops at Boston University. After getting his doctorate
      at Brandeis, he moved with his family to teach poetry at Emory
      University in Atlanta. He remained there until Epstein, his friend
      and mentor (and also the father of Red Sox general manager Theo
      Epstein), recruited him back north to teach. Jin's first collection
      of short stories, Ocean of Words, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN
      Award for first fiction in 1996. He became an American citizen the
      following year, by which time he was also well into writing Waiting

      With the success of Waiting, which has sold close to half a million
      copies and won a National Book Award, came pressure. He continued to
      write about his homeland in his next book, War Trash, a fictional
      memoir about a young Chinese POW held captive in the Korean War who
      is forced to defend the communist cause. The subject matter alone
      assured Jin that present-day China would never welcome him
      back. "I'm a troublemaker," he says. "I've written books that are
      offensive to authorities. The subjects are completely off-limits."
      Imagine being allowed to write about anything in American history -
      except, say, slavery, the Vietnam War, and the First Amendment. Jin
      can't imagine. He has to write what he knows. That used to be China.
      Now it's America.

      Most of the time I write longhand and then put in the computer," he
      says. "When I put it in the computer, it's a rewrite. I work at the
      computer a long time." His computer doesn't exactly provide him with
      solitude. It sits in his home office just off the main entrance of
      the house in Foxborough, and the floor is a testament to his
      voracious appetite for literature. At one point, he says, he had
      collected about 4,000 books. On the day I visit, it looks as if half
      of them are in this one room. One stack is topped by Joseph Conrad,
      another by V.S. Naipaul, a third by Gore Vidal. In the corner is a
      mountain of paper, the drafts of his next book. "It has to be
      trimmed," he says with a smile. "It's about 700 pages."

      Waltham writer. Years ago, when Jin was a graduate student, she told
      him of a Chinese man she knew who came to this country and managed a
      restaurant but harbored dreams of being a poet. "I was touched by
      this," Jin says. But as he describes the story line to me in greater
      detail, I can't help but think that Nan Wu, the protagonist, sounds
      a lot like Ha Jin, the author. Chinese man comes to the United
      States. Dreams of being a poet. Lives in Boston. Works hard for his
      family. I ask Jin if this book is really his autobiography,
      disguised as a novel. He laughs.

      "He returns to China," Jin tells me. "I never returned. I'm really
      more fortunate than this guy. This book is about the American dream,
      a house, two cars. But a lot of people come here for fulfillment. I
      lived in the States 22 years as an immigrant. It is a soul-opening
      experience, the immigrant experience, like a tree uprooted and
      planted someplace else."

      A few weeks later, on the day I drive to his home, he greets me
      outside, walking gingerly. Throughout our interview on his living
      room couch, Jin keeps slouching, only to have his wife lean in,
      propping a pillow behind his back to keep him sitting straight. As
      our interview ends, Jin insists on giving me directions out of his
      property, which is buried deep in the woods, even though I am sure
      of finding my way. His wife runs to get a map and lays it out on
      their coffee table. A petite woman with streaks of silver in her
      otherwise straight black hair, she affectionately drapes her arm
      over her husband's shoulder, rubbing gently, as she helps navigate
      the route.

      "I hurt my back lifting a bag of mulch," Jin explains.

      Mulch. It's such an American fascination. We use it to control our
      weeds and retain water in our gardens and turn our properties into
      the envy of our neighbors. That Ha Jin - the nerdy, soft-spoken,
      bespectacled Chinese-American writing professor who became an
      overnight sensation with his second novel seven years ago - strained
      his back carrying a bag of mulch is as sure a sign as any that he is
      ready for the literary transition on which he is about to embark.
      Even if he doesn't believe it.

      "He's suffering from second-book syndrome. Except delayed," says
      Lee, the Ploughshares editor. "Perhaps because of the subject
      matter. Most writers feel that pressure after success. I don't think
      his anxiety is warranted, but we shall see."

      Jin says he is too close to his book to praise it. But he does have
      one wish: "I view myself as a Chinese-American writer. I need the
      hyphen. I lived in China for 29 years before I came here. I can't
      lose my past. It would be impossible. But nationality is not that
      important to me. I want to write beautiful books about the American
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