An Interview with Ha Jin

Henry Ace Knight

Xuefei Jin, better known by his nom de plume Ha Jin, is a literary improbability.

The son of an officer in the People’s Liberation Army, he was born in 1956 in the Northeastern Chinese city of Jinzhou. For two years he attended a military boarding school, but his primary education was cut short by the onset in 1966 of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which closed schools nationwide so that students could devote themselves to “revolutionary struggle.” Home bored him, so at thirteen he lied about his age and enlisted in the PLA. He was deployed to the Russian border, where tensions with the Soviets ran high but never boiled over.

Against the Ministry of Culture’s ban on foreign literature and the Chinese classics—the enaction of which Ha Jin witnessed firsthand when PLA soldiers burned his father’s personal library—some of the officers at the front occupied themselves with illicit copies of Tolstoy’s novels and Whitman’s poetry. As an enlisted soldier, Ha Jin was privy to this underground book culture but too low ranking to partake. When he arrived at the border he was “basically illiterate,” so the opportunity that his rank denied him was at first moot. Tensions with the Soviets ebbed several years later, and Jin began to consider how best to become a “useful person living in peace.” Autodidacticism was his answer. He studied the dictionary until he was capable of struggling through whatever books he could get hold of: propaganda novels at first, then Don Quixote, which fascinated him but which he never finished, and, perhaps most formatively, “some ancient poems . . . the best literature I could read at the time.”

His sights set on college, he left the military at nineteen and worked for three years as a radio telegrapher before China’s universities reopened. Often saddled with night shifts at the station, he would read into the early morning and tune in to an English learning broadcast for half an hour every day.

In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, he finally had access to formal education. He hoped to become an engineer but was not well versed enough in chemistry and physics, which proved more challenging subjects to self-study than politics and literature. English was far from his humanities major of choice. He ranked it last—a distant fifth after philosophy, classics, world history, and library science—on his list of preferred concentrations when he took the Chinese university entrance exams. It seems an act of kismet that Jin was assigned to the English department at Heilongjiang University in Harbin. He was placed into the bottom level of the “slow class” and found pronunciation practice so physically exacting that he and his classmates took painkillers for it. “I considered the language only a tool,” he told The Paris Review in 2009, “good for reading instruction manuals, not a source of real knowledge.” It wasn’t until his junior year, when he discovered American literature, that he fully committed himself to the study of English.

In graduate school at Shandong University, the poetry of Whitman, Frost, Plath, and Roethke resonated with him. “I was very drawn to the music,” he tells me. So much so that he came to the United States in 1985 to earn a doctorate in American literature at Brandeis University. As he polished his dissertation in 1989, he watched the Tiananmen Square democracy protests unfold on live television. The massacre of peaceful demonstrators perpetrated by an institution so enmeshed with his family’s history exploded his plans to return to China to pursue a professorship and drove him to write instead. Jin lamented, “I saw a mother that ate its children.” His first poem in English, titled “The Dead Soldier’s Talk,” composed for a poetry workshop that he audited at Brandeis, was featured in The Paris Review. A year later, University of Chicago Press released “Between Silences,” his first book of poetry, written primarily during the night shifts he worked as a watchman at a Massachusetts chemical factory. At the behest of one of his Brandeis professors, Jin applied to the creative writing program at Boston University, where he now serves as director. For his MFA workshop he produced two story collections, “Ocean of Words” (1996) and “Under the Red Flag” (1997), garnering the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction respectively. Jin is the decorated author of seven novels, the first of which, “Waiting” (1999), won both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

He manages all of this in his second language, one chosen for him by the Chinese state, far removed from the Sinitic language family, picked up well past the neurological prime for language acquisition, despite the pain and humiliation it initially caused him. It is a dizzying testament to his gift for language that he has overcome so much inertia to become an essential writer in English.

We corresponded by email about his writerly origins, creative suppression by the Chinese state, and linguistic migration.

In a conversation with Eliot Weinberger at the 2005 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature you said, “[Tiananmen] really shaped my life, changed my life. For me, it’s personal, not public trauma.” Your father was an officer in the Red Army. You enlisted during the Cultural Revolution at the age of thirteen and spent several years at the Soviet border as an artilleryman and a telegrapher. Both of your wife’s parents were PLA doctors. Can you describe what it was like to witness from afar an institution so enmeshed in the fabric of your family perpetrate a massacre of peaceful demonstrators?

We were always told that the People's Army was from the people, and must serve and protect the people. Now everything was turned upside down. It was a huge blow to me within, since I had never imagined them attacking unarmed civilians.

Where were you when you first heard of the massacre?

I was at Brandeis University finishing my dissertation. From the start of the demonstrations, I followed the news on TV every day.

Can you describe what was going through your mind as you watched the events of Tiananmen unfold? What did you imagine China’s future would hold at that time?

I was enraged. I had served in the People's Army. Now the army became butchers. That made me determined not to serve the Chinese government anymore. Of course, at the time I could not envision China's future at all, but I saw a mother that ate her children.

You ranked English last—a distant fifth after philosophy, classics, world history, and library science—on your list of preferred college majors when you took the Chinese university entrance exams. As an undergraduate you were sorted into the lowest level of English taught at your university. Pronunciation practice was so physically exacting for you and your classmates that it drove you to take painkillers. So in past interviews, the question has naturally arisen time and again, why do you write only in English? You’ve pointed to the plasticity of the language, its separation from Chinese state power, and its dialogic advantages. But even still, it must be a compromise for you. What do you give up by writing in English rather than Chinese?

When I took the national entrance exams in 1977 I was already twenty-one, so I thought it might be too late to learn a foreign language well. There are advantages to writing in English, the biggest of which is freedom—free from censorship and entirely on your own. But there are a lot of losses too, such as the absence of spontaneity and the feeling of uncertainty. What's more, you have to become a solitary traveler. To many Chinese writers that could be an accursed state but for me that is a blessing.

Can you explain further why, as you articulate in the essay “The Spokesman and the Tribe” from The Writer as Migrant, you were deeply moved by Derek Walcott’s line “either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation”? What does that line mean to you?

I was moved by his confidence in the union of his own life with his country. That is a great union. But I cannot view myself that way. I am alone as an outcast. If I had Walcott's vision of the self, that would be suicidal.

Do you believe now, as you did when that volume was published, that “Writers do not make good generals, and today literature is ineffective at social change”?

I believe that literature is powerless in directly confronting the evil, but it can be subversive and effective in shaping readers' sensibilities and changing their way of seeing things. It is a slow process.

In that same essay you laid out your case for the importance of literature— “Yes, to preserve is the key function of literature, which, to combat historical amnesia, must be predicated on the autonomy and integrity of literary works inviolable by time . . . the writer should be not just a chronicler but also a shaper, an alchemist, of historical experiences.” What are you trying to preserve in your work, what historical amnesia are you trying to combat, and how do you choose the historical experiences you seek not only to chronicle but also to shape?

Fiction has to create its own order, which comes from the writer. Any literary narrative is an artistic creation, through which historical experiences can be preserved. That’s how fiction fights historical amnesia.

In another essay from The Migrant as Writer called “The Language of Betrayal,” you consider the tension between particularity and universality that the migrant writer must negotiate in their relationship to language—between “cracking jokes that are not translatable for his native people” and striving for “the kind of ‘universal literature’ that is entirely translatable.” You conclude that “he may have to sacrifice his mother tongue, while borrowing its strength and resources, in order to accomplish a style in his adopted tongue,” but that “the writer who adopts English . . . should also imagine ways to transcend any language.” How have you borrowed from the strength and resources of Chinese to carve out a niche for yourself in English?

I used some Chinese idioms, reshaped to make them acceptable to the English ear, in my writings. I also try to avoid standard American idiom so as to make my fiction slightly foreign in language, especially when a Chinese character speaks. In my poetry, I rewrite my Chinese poems to make the lines sound different in cadence and music.

Some of your fiction has been translated into Chinese and is available in Taiwan. Do you work closely with your Chinese translators?

A major principle in my work is translatability, which means that my writings must be truthful when translated into Chinese. So far I can say that Chinese readers do find my work truthful and meaningful to them as well.

Most of my books have been published in Taiwan. I worked closely with the translators. I also translated two story collections into Chinese by myself. Last year I published a book of poems directly written in Chinese in Taiwan.

Would you have approached learning English any differently had you known earlier that you would become a writer?

Yes. During my freshman and sophomore years I didn't work hard on English, believing it was just a tool, not real knowledge. I should have worked harder from the beginning.

Can you describe your experience with the MFA workshop at Boston University?

In 1990 I sat in Leslie Epstein's fiction workshop for a year. Two years later I enrolled as a graduate student. The first time I wrote most of the stories in Ocean of Words, and the second time I wrote most of the stories in Under the Red Flag. I was somewhat less engaged than the other students because I had to keep a library job to support my family.

Was spoken English still challenging for you at the time?

Yes, partly because I had learned a mixed English—some of our English teachers at college were Russian teachers originally and then switched to English in the later 1950s and early 1960s.

In an essay for The New York Times titled “Exiled to English,” you said of your decision not to write in your native tongue, “I was also aware that I was forgoing an opportunity: the Chinese language had been so polluted by revolutionary movements and political jargon that there was great room for improvement.” Are there any contemporary Chinese writers whom you admire for attempting this improvement?

I cannot think of anyone. Maybe some poets in Taiwan, but their influence is limited.

What kind of work do you think it would take to make that improvement?

I would have concentrated on writing poetry and tried to explore possibilities of the language, including getting rid of the meaningless elements added to it by recent history.

How do you think your early poem “Because I Will Be Silenced” dovetails with the current state of publishing in China?

Censorship is a fateful problem in contemporary Chinese culture. It has crippled most talents and suppressed artistic creativity. Every time a book of mine was published in mainland China, some words and phrases were cut. As a result, I felt that the teeth of those books had been pulled.

In a review of Mo Yan’s Pow! and Sandalwood Death, my Asymptote colleague Dylan Suher wrote, “Being treated as an author of literature instead of a political symbol is a privilege, it seems, reserved for Western writers.” What did you make of the controversy precipitated by Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize in 2012? What do you think of this standard, that for their literary merit to be considered contemporary Chinese writers must find room in their work to undercut the state? Do you agree with Suher that it risks further entrenching this notion of Chinese literature as an instrument of politics?

First of all, I believe that Mo Yan deserves the Nobel. We tend to think too much of the prize, treating it as a big medal of championship. But in reality, the prize is given to a writer of distinguished achievement. So by that standard, Mo Yan is qualified. I believe that literature must engage the world and history, so it is hard, or impossible, to judge a literary work purely on its literary merit. Look at The Grapes of Wrath, or A Farewell to Arms, or A Bend in the River. Of course, Mo Yan's fiction has not achieved that level of literary accomplishment, but again the Nobel Prize is not a competition but a recognition.

What do you admire about Mo Yan’s work?

He is a visceral and passionate writer. He writes about people at the bottom of society with a lot of sympathy and precision.

Do you correspond with any fellow writers who remain in China?

Regularly, though not with many. I have been in touch with Yu Hua, Yan Lianke, and several others.

What kind of literature were you exposed to at a young age? What stories do you remember from your childhood?

A lot of revolutionary stories. There was a kind of picture book—abridged novels with drawings in them—which children read. I read many of them. They were not good literature at all, but most literary books were banned.

I was struck by the density and diversity of literary allusions in Waiting. In many ways literature seems like the fulcrum of the novel’s plot. It begins with Lin Kong thumbing through “a dog-eared Russian dictionary he had used in high school,” one of several mildewed books he’s attending to during his annual visit to his home village. His romance with Manna Wu originates in her appreciation of his personal library, which houses the likes of War and Peace. Lin Kong curries favor with the hospital higher-ups through conversations about Russian socialist realist novels like How Steel Is Tempered. After his first failed attempt at divorcing his wife, he cloisters himself away from Manna Wu in the pages of the World War II memoir Remembrance and Thoughts. The closest Manna Wu comes to escaping her “old maidhood” before she marries Lin is the interest she draws from Commissar Wei, who is impressed by her purported love of Anna Karenina and requests from her a written analysis of Leaves of Grass.

I’m wondering if the omnipresence of literature in the novel is meant only to accentuate Lin’s intellectual overdevelopment and emotional stunting, or also to show your readers that the Cultural Revolution was not a time in China devoid of artistic flavor.

I wanted to portray Lin Kong as a cultured, intelligent man in contrast to his emotional retardation, as if the two were in an inverse relation. I meant to stress the psychological damage to the man's soul. In the Chinese army at the time, there was an underground book culture. All the titles I mentioned in Waiting did exist in the army. I saw some officer friends read those books. Of course, as an enlisted man, I had no access to them.

How has traditional Chinese poetry influenced your work? Have you felt that “the cold passion of [these] poems / is penetrating through my arm,” as you wrote in your poem “To an Ancient Chinese Poet”?

I didn't go to middle school, so memorizing ancient Chinese poems was part of my self-education. The ancient poetry shaped my sensibility. I hope I have some kind of cold passion in my work, especially when I handle very emotional stuff.

Your description of the professor who inspired your character in
The Crazed recalled for me Lu Xun’s “Kuangren Riji”: “He’d talk a lot of nonsense, but there was so much truth in the nonsense that I couldn’t tell to what degree he was irrational.” Was that story a conscious influence?

If there is some influence, it was not a conscious one. I was familiar with Lu Xun's stories and perhaps the influence was unavoidable, especially in Under the Red Flag.

What initially drew you to American poetry?

When I was a grad student at Shandong University, I heard American professors read aloud American poems—Whitman, Frost, Plath, Roethke. I was very drawn to the music of the poetry. Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” blew me away. The poem has remained one of my favorites.

I read somewhere that at Shandong University you also became obsessed with Faulkner. What do you think it was about his work that resonated so deeply with your generation in China? Why did he exert such great influence over the writers and literary critics of the root-seeking and avant-garde movements that arose in the eighties?

I did read most of the Faulkner novels when I was a grad student. I was fascinated by his focus on his locale. He didn't have to wander outside of his hometown to write about universal truth. That might also be the reason for the root-seeking Chinese writers, who emphasized working on their own history and places. Faulkner was mainly a spirit for us, because stylistically it was almost impossible to write like him.

Were you influenced at all in your construction of the fictional Muji City by Faulkner’s “apocryphal county,” Yoknapatawpha? As with Faulkner, if one reads enough of your work one gains a special understanding of its textual geographies.

I was familiar with Yoknapatawpha, but the influence was not a conscious one. I combined two cities, Jiamusi and Yanji, into the fictional Muji, because Jiamusi had no army hospital but the novel needed an army hospital.

Nabokov, often billed as one of your writerly analogs, once said that “there are three points of view from which a writer can be considered . . . as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter.” What intangible qualities do you believe a great writer must have?

I have been a teacher for many years and I write poetry, so I hope I can become all three of them. That might be too big an ambition, but we cannot separate them from one another.

What is your approach to teaching fiction? Which writers do you most enjoy teaching?

I have been teaching the longer form. I tend to focus on the narrative structure and on how a story is told. The writers I often discuss as models in my class are V. S. Naipaul, Ruth Jhabvala, Nabokov, Shūsaku Endō, Graham Greene.

You’ve said that you see yourself as a short fiction writer more than as a poet or a novelist. What attracts you to the short form?

It’s mainly because of the way I live. I teach full-time and it is less difficult to get into a story after an interruption. Poetry often depends on luck, so I cannot will a poem into existence.

Which of your short stories are you most proud of?