on The Writer as Migrant, essays by Ha Jin (University of Chicago Press)
Ha Jin would seem to have every reason to feel securely anchored in his adopted American home. He arrived from China in 1985 as a twenty-nine year old student of American literature to pursue graduate studies at Brandeis University. Just five years later, his first book of poetry, Between Silences, was published. In the post-Tiananmen massacre years, the American literary world marveled at this immigrant’s facility with English. In 1999, after publishing another book of poems, two volumes of short stories, and a novel, Ha Jin won the National Book Award for his novel Waiting. Three more novels followed, plus new poetry and short stories. Meanwhile, he joined the English department faculty of Boston University. A Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN/Hemingway and PEN/Faulkner awards, the Flannery O’Connor Prize for short fiction – all of these came his way from an embracing literary establishment. Not bad for a young man from Manchuria who had served with the People’s Republic Army on the Russian border.
But it is clear from the three essays in The Writer As Migrant that he is both grappling with his status as a “migrant” writer, and seeking a strategy for further development of his work. With his trademark concision, Ha Jin not only depicts the situation of the writer whose ambition leads him to an alien audience and language, but also presents the topic with terse complexity, showing the many ways in which a writer may relate to his former homeland, employ his new language, and make estrangement the subject of his writings. He discusses Conrad and Nabokov, paradigms of exiled innovators who created their own sounds in English. Solzhenitsyn, Lin Yutang, Kundera, Cavafy, Sebald, Naipaul, and others represent various postures and attitudes. But the panda in the room is Ha Jin himself, considering every angle behind the screen of his prose. He wanders observantly through his subject as if looking for a resting place or an analog for his own situation. The modesty of his approach belies the size of his ambition – and hints at a blurry self-doubt.
Ha Jin alludes to his own position in his first essay, “The Spokesman and the Tribe,” which weighs the extent to which exiled writers attempt the role of spokespeople of their native countries. Here he tells two stories – first, about the American experience of Solzhenitsyn and his anticlimactic return to Russia, and then about Lin Yutang who was invited back to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek in 1966. “In truth, other than slaking the writer’s nostalgia, the writer’s physical return to his native land has little meaning,” Ha Jin writes. “The pages of literary history are studded with the names of exiled titans whose works, despite the authors’ inability to go back to their native lands in person, were eventually embraced by their peoples.” Restated, these sentences formulate an ambition: to be freed from nostalgia for one’s divorced homeland, while achieving fame back there anyway.
Of course, Ha Jin’s novels have not been embraced in China. The Crazed and War Trash, both portraying modern Chinese history, are especially reviled by the censors. In an article on Chinese censorship in The American Scholar, he says, “Numerous official newspapers spread the word that my books had no market value in China.” In the 1990s, Ha Jin had thought of himself as a spokesperson. “I viewed myself as a Chinese writer who would write in English on behalf of the downtrodden Chinese,” he writes in “The Spokesman and the Tribe.” “I was unaware of the complexity and infeasibility of the position I had adopted … Indeed, too much sincerity is a dangerous thing. It can overheat one’s brain … For most migrant writers today, displacement makes them more vulnerable and their existence more haphazard, since they cannot fall back on any significant past and must struggle to survive in new places.” Nevertheless, his fictions and poetry have largely been situated in China as if his mission is to speak for (if not to) his native culture. At the same time, he seems to disparage spokesmanship as a too expedient way for some transplanted writers to work:
“On several occasions, I said I would stop writing about contemporary China. People often ask me, ‘Why burn your bridges?’ or ‘Why mess with success?’ I would reply, ‘My heart is no longer there.’ In retrospect, I can see that my decision to leave contemporary China in my writing is a way to negate the role of the spokesmanship I used to envision for myself. I must learn to stand alone, as a writer.”
The restive energy of these essays is generated by the unmet challenge he has prepared for himself – to stand alone, to make the writing itself his cause.
His latest novel and the first one set in the United States, A Free Life, was published last year to mixed reviews. The protagonist of A Free Life is Nan Wu, an immigrant Chinese poet trying to find success and stability for himself and his family. When a magazine editor asks, “Can you imagine your work becoming part of our language?” Nan snaps back, “I have no answer to that xenophobic question, which ignores the fact that the vitality of English has partly resulted from its ability to assimilate all kinds of alien energies.” But Ha Jin knows that creating innovations that “become part of our language” involves more than being warmly received, as he certainly has been. Criticizing Lin Yutang for “prose that feels crude and unfinished,” he says, “Just as a creative writer should aspire to be not a broker but a creator of culture, a great novel does not only present a culture but also makes culture; such a work does not only bring news of the world but also evokes the reader’s empathy and reminds him of his own existential condition.” The frivolities of Nabokov’s usage of English, joined with his unique vision of human relations, not only presented but created culture. Conrad and Naipaul also play at this level, Ha Jin’s standard of excellence. The slap at Lin Yutang is a warning to -- and assessment of -- himself.
The response to A Free Life must have stiffened his spine. John Updike in The New Yorker called the novel a “relatively lumpy and uncomfortable work … Unfortunately, the novel rarely gathers the kind of momentum that lets us overlook its language.” Ruth Franklin in Slate said, “First there is the dominant narrative voice, at times fluid and evocative, but also idiosyncratic and clunky … A Free Life is loose and baggy, with episodes that lead down dead ends and digressions that amount to little.” Similarly, Walter Kirn in The New York Times said, “Jin’s simple sentences, familiar sentiments, and uneventful chapters that typically end with such pulse-suppressing non-cliffhangers … appear to derive from a highly refined aesthetic of anti-excitability.” Yet these reviewers back off from following the indictments to severe sentencing. Far from experiencing xenophobia, Ha Jin has received a pass despite the extremely narrow and conventional range in which he works. His essays rummage for models among the exiles.
“The Language of Betrayal,” the second essay, considers migrant writers for whom “necessity, ambition, and estrangement usually come to bear at the same time.” Here the subject is Joseph Conrad, harassed by his Polish countrymen. “He was in a painful but original position,” Jin writes. “There is no way to prove the writer’s loyalty to the Polish nation if his subject matter has no bearing on Poland, not to mention being written in a language the Poles cannot read, so the most Conrad can say … is that he has something interesting to tell the English in their own language.” The puzzle before Ha Jin is how the writer copes with being hampered linguistically, “lacking the natural idiom,” yet manages to tell the English-speaking world something interesting in a manner and with a point of view they haven’t heard before. He quotes Stanislaw Baranczak’s perspective, “In literature, a new thought cannot emerge except from a new way of speaking: in order to say anything relevant, you must break a norm. And this is precisely what an outside cannot afford, since if breaking is to make any sense at all, you may break only the norms that bind you, not those that bind someone else.” Jin finds this “disheartening,” and with reason. In Nabokov’s Pnin he finds an example of a writer whose “alien perspective on English” inspired playful, telling distortions and solecisms: “These verbal feats are not puns that mostly operate on phonetic echoes, nor are they kind of wisecracks that a native speaker can bring off easily. They are unique to a nonnative speaker … easily amazed by the most common features of his adopted language.” Nabokov “is a supreme example of how to adapt writing to the circumstances of displacement, how to imagine and attain a place in the adopted language while still maintaining an intimate relationship with his mother tongue, and how to face an oppressive regime with contempt, artistic integrity, and individual dignity.” Since linguistic adventurousness clearly isn’t Ha Jin’s inclination or talent, in describing Nabokov he is mentally checking him off the list of potential models. Yet he insists on idealistic prescriptions: “Therefore, the writer who adopts English, while striving to seek a place in this idiom, should also imagine ways to transcend any language.”
The third essay, “An Individual’s Homeland,” returns to the subject of the relationship with the place of one’s birth, again suggesting Ha Jin’s disquietude. “In addition to nostalgia, there is also our innate but unreasonable belief that success means much more if it is appreciated by the people of one’s native land.” Why unreasonable? While it may be obvious in one sense that “one cannot return to the same place as the same person,”
it is unclear why such personal evolution lessens the desire to be recognized back home. Jin simply claims it to be so as part of his desperate desire to move ahead.
Earlier asserting “I must learn to stand alone, as a writer” (a solemnly jejune rationalism), he now takes up the seriousness of such aloneness. “We often talk about exile and solitude as two modes of existence that are not only inseparable but also intensity each other,” he writes. “What the episodes from Dante and Tennyson suggest is that exile must be an individual, private experience that is so personal that solitude ought to be its ethical condition.” Yet in his first essay he discusses “why very few Chinese exiles in North America have lived in isolation and why most of them have been city dwellers.” Perhaps here Ha Jin is wrestling with the dare and prospect of aloneness as an ingredient for the work that lies ahead.
Certainly the reader can appreciate these thoughtful essays without ever wondering about Ha Jin’s situation. But it’s hard not to take the bait. In the final essay, he spells out “a universal and perennial question – how to realize one’s selfhood under the shadow of the great men of one’s tribe?” He is referring to the character of Salim in Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. The great men of Ha Jin’s tribe are Conrad, Nabokov, and Naipaul. His exquisite understanding of these authors and their works suggests he has taken everything he can from them – and perhaps should stop measuring himself in their penumbrae, quit worrying about “selfhood,” and write.
In the poem below, published in the late 1980s, Ha Jin seemed to be telling himself how to gather his strengths for the long haul. He has achieved a great deal since. One wonders now what new glory Ha Jin envisions – and how long he will wait.
AN OLDER SCHOLAR’S ADVICE
For me the most practical thing to do now
is not to worry about my professorship.
So many lecturers are not qualified for it
until they are qualified for retirement
or for death. I just ignore it for the time being.
In the morning I practice Tai Chi.
In the evening I watch TV and go to bed early.
I have quit smoking but drink two cups of wine
every day. Wine can warm your blood.
Don’t indulge yourself in sex.
It will weaken your young kidneys.
As long as you are in good health,
as long as you live longer than others,
eventually you will get your professorship.
You can wait for that.
[Published November 1, 2008, 96 pp., $14.00]