Interviews

Ha Jin, The Art of Fiction No. 202

Interviewed by Sarah Fay

Ha Jin is known by his legal name, Xuefei, to friends and colleagues. In contrast to the dark tenor of discontent that distinguishes his fiction, he is a genial man, at home in his own skin. He is almost ebullient as he gives a tour of his suburban house in Foxboro, Massachusetts, explaining that his wife urged him to buy the place because it borders a state forest preserve. “We have fresh air,” he says, laughing. “We have a lot of sunlight. For her, that is important.”

Jin describes the interior of the house as “functional.” The kitchen is clean, and the living room sparsely furnished with only a chair and sofa, both of which are covered by sheets to protect the upholstery. His study is set off from the rest of the house. It too is “functional.” There are two desks: one low to the floor, on which Jin keeps manuscripts and books, and one at which he sits to write. There is a chair and a stool. A single window looks out onto the yard. 

Jin’s short stories share something of the spare, open quality of his home. He has produced four story collections (Ocean of Words, Under the Red Flag,
The Bridegroom, and A Good Fall ), which are marked by biting description and fierce irony. His novels—In the Pond, Waiting, The Crazed, War Trash, and A Free Life—are more subtle, and in them the male protagonists often find themselves in precarious situations, forced to act within a moral vacuum. Written in English but, with the exception of A Free Life, set in China, Jin’s novels move at an unhurried pace that seems to make his stark prose more vivid.

Jin was born in 1956 in Liaoning Province in northeast China, but he moved around as a young boy whenever his father, an officer in the Red Army, was posted to a new province. Jin was ten when Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution, which shuttered schools across the country and enlisted Chinese youth in a campaign to eradicate intellectual diversity from the revolutionary landscape. For others of Jin’s generation, the trauma of the Cultural Revolution was the central event of a lifetime. Jin was less fazed: the experience of repression seems only to have made him hardier. 

Jin came to the United States in 1985, on a student visa, to study American literature at Brandeis University. After his scholarship ran out a year later, he worked menial jobs—as a night watchman, a custodian, and a busboy at a Friendly’s restaurant. After a year and a half, his wife Bian joined him in America, working various jobs and teaching herself English by watching soap operas. 

Jin began writing seriously in English only after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, which he has called the beginning of his life as a writer—“the source of all the trouble.” He wrote his first English-language poem, “The Dead Soldier’s Talk,” for a poetry workshop at Brandeis. The professor, the poet Frank Bidart showed the poem to Jonathan Galassi, then the poetry editor of The Paris Review, who immediately accepted it for publication. With Bidart’s encouragement, Jin enrolled in the MFA program in fiction at Boston University. He went on to teach at Emory University in Atlanta, where he wrote the stories and novels that have earned him a PEN/Faulkner Award, the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the National Book Award.

Most of our interviews took place at Jin’s office at Boston University, where he now teaches literature and creative writing. We met in his small office four times for several hours each day, always in the afternoon. Not once did Jin reach for a bottle of water or seem to desire refreshment of any kind.

 

INTERVIEWER

What do you remember most about your arrival in the United States?

HA JIN

There was a chemical smell here. It was very alien, very overwhelming. Also a lot of people wore perfume. I know a woman who came here from China and said she couldn’t stop vomiting. 

INTERVIEWER

Were you hesitant about the trip?

JIN

No. I was training to be a translator, and I needed to continue my education in English. In China I had studied American poetry at Shandong University. Beatrice Spade was a Fulbright professor there, and she suggested that I go to Brandeis to study American literature. It was simply a part of the process. I had heard a lot of people say they wanted to study in another country, but I was not especially interested in that. I didn’t plan to live abroad for long.

INTERVIEWER

What did you bring with you?

JIN

One suitcase and one duffel bag. Some clothing. A few books. One or two dictionaries. 

INTERVIEWER

How long was it before you returned?

JIN

I haven’t returned. 

INTERVIEWER

Never?

JIN

Never to mainland China. I’ve only been to Taiwan and Hong Kong. In the beginning, I was very eager to go back to see friends and family. I tried so hard. But for seven years I couldn’t get my passport renewed. I couldn’t travel outside of the States. Then I became a citizen, and I got jaded. Imagine your books are banned—you can go back but your books are not allowed. I wouldn’t feel comfortable accepting those terms. 

INTERVIEWER

Why are your books banned?

JIN

I write about taboo subjects: Tibet, the Korean War, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square incident. After the Tiananmen massacre I became very outspoken. The Crazed, A Free Life, War Trash—these books offend the authorities in China. I’ve never intended my writing to be political, but my characters exist in the fabric of politics. That is to say, it is impossible to avoid politics, especially in China. And of course, the Chinese authorities are afraid of truthful stories told from an individual’s point of view.

It’s also because I am a misfit. I’m too outspoken. I write in English, which is viewed as a betrayal of my mother tongue. I came to America. I don’t serve the party’s cause. To them, I’m a very negative example.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever wanted to return to China to read your work?

JIN

No, there are no public readings there. Some book fairs have had authors read, but that’s recent—only in the past two or three years. There is a tradition of poets who would chant their poems, but for many years people couldn’t even express themselves that way. When I lived there, I never heard anybody read in public. 

I’ve lived outside of China for years and have developed a personality that’s very open and outspoken. If I went back to China now I’d have to exercise caution constantly. I might develop a kind of mental fatigue. Mentally, psychologically, it would be very hard to return, harder even than physical hardship. 

Politically, China really is a true police state. Mail—everything—is checked. Phone calls are still tapped. For more than a decade, maybe fifteen years, I have not been able to send books to China. They were always intercepted by a government examiner. We used to send them under my wife’s name but now that doesn’t work either.

INTERVIEWER

Are none of your books available in China?

JIN

Only Waiting. After a while, I began to feel that it was hopeless to get my books published there, so I gave up. Even with Waiting—they published it, but then they suspended publication. And what they published, they edited. 

INTERVIEWER

What would you have done if you’d stayed in China?

JIN

I would have become a translator. That’s clear. Maybe I would have worked my way up to be an English professor.

INTERVIEWER

Would you have written?

JIN

No, no, no.

INTERVIEWER

Did you already know English when you decided to major in it as an undergraduate?

JIN

I only knew a few words. Before taking the entrance exams, I had followed an English learner’s program on the radio for a year, but I’d never met a person who spoke English. Each examinee had a choice of five majors. I put English last, but whoever had listed English as any choice at all had to sit for the test. In the city where I lived, Jiamusi, which had a quarter of a million people, there were only sixteen who took the English test. I barely passed, but I must’ve done better than most of the others—that was how they assigned me to study English. I considered the language only a tool, good for reading instruction manuals, not a source of real knowledge.

INTERVIEWER

Was it difficult to learn the language?

JIN

Speaking was painful. My jaw hurt, my tongue hurt, my throat hurt. Some of my classmates took painkillers because their mouths hurt so much. It was not easy. But I also didn’t work very hard. I stayed at the lowest level throughout. It was humiliating. Then, after the third year, I knew I wanted to study American literature, and in order to get into a good program I had to take a very big English test—that was the basic requirement. Once I realized I wanted to study Hemingway and Faulkner, I began to work hard on the language.

INTERVIEWER

How long had you been in the United States before you started to think in English?

JIN

There was a long period when I would think half in Chinese, half in English. Then two or three years after I arrived in the States, I began to think more in English. When I was rational, I thought in English. As a nonnative speaker, I’d have to think harder and be very careful about word choice. But when I’d get emotional a lot of Chinese words would pop up. Today, if I write in Chinese or read the newspaper in Chinese, I will think in Chinese. When I’m teaching, I can’t read too much Chinese because it just gets me confused. It’s just better to immerse myself in English. But I still feel much more confident when I write in Chinese. Chinese is still my first language.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you decide to write in English?

JIN

I wanted to separate myself from Chinese state power. The Chinese language has a lot of political jargon. You can talk at length without saying much, because these pieces of jargon become like formulas for public speech. And those expressions become a part of people’s consciousness. Very often people don’t question the meaning of what they’re saying.

When I first began writing in English, I’d written poetry in Chinese, and one or two short stories, but I hadn’t been published. And if I continued to write in Chinese, where would I have been published? I’d have to be published in mainland China and propaganda officials would censor my writing. I’d send in a manuscript, and I wouldn’t be able to interfere with the editing process. I would be completely at the mercy of censorship. 

INTERVIEWER

What are the main differences between the two languages?

JIN

English has more flexibility. It’s a very plastic, very shapeable, very expressive language. In that sense it feels quite natural. The Chinese language is less natural. Written Chinese is not supposed to represent natural speech, and there are many different spoken dialects that correspond to the single written language. The written word will be the same in all dialects, but in speech it is a hundred different words. The written language is like Latin in that sense; it doesn’t have a natural rhythm. The way people talk—you can’t represent that. The accents and the nongrammatical units, you can’t do it. You can’t write in dialect, like you can in English, using a character to represent a certain sound, because each character has a fixed meaning. 

When the first emperor wanted to unify the country, one of the major policies was to create one system of written signs. By force, brutal force, he eliminated all the other scripts. One script became the official script. All the others were banned. And those who used other scripts were punished severely. And then the meanings of all the characters, over the centuries, had to be kept uniform as a part of the political apparatus. So from the very beginning the written word was a powerful political tool. 

INTERVIEWER

When did you begin to write?

JIN

After the Tiananmen massacre, I decided to stay in the U.S. but was at a loss to know what to do with my life. I looked for jobs related to Chinese, but for every job teaching the language or translating for newspapers there would be hundreds of applicants, most of whom had degrees in Chinese. All my degrees were in English! 

I wanted to write in English, but it took me about a year to decide to do it wholeheartedly. I was intimidated. To be a literary writer does not mean just to write books—you need to look for some space in a language and find your niche in it. That was what intimidated me. Beyond the practical reason of earning a livelihood, there was the desire for a meaningful existence despite the forces that mean to reduce and silence you. In this sense, for me, to write is to suffer, but there is so much meaning in it that I must fight my battles on the page.

INTERVIEWER

What did you write at first?

JIN

My first work in English was for Frank Bidart’s poetry workshop at Brandeis. I was a graduate student in American literature, not allowed to take Frank’s workshop for credit, and because of a time conflict with another class, I could attend his workshop only every other week. But I was supposed to hand in homework. That was how I began to write in English. My poem “The Dead Soldier’s Talk” was my very first creative effort in English, and it was published by The Paris Review. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel you were writing those early poems for a particular audience?

JIN

John Berryman was asked whom he wrote for, and he said, “for the dead whom thou didst love.” For poets, that’s very clear—you have an audience that isn’t really there.

INTERVIEWER

How did you begin to write fiction?

JIN

In writing my first book of poems, I realized that some of the material that didn’t make it in would be better presented in prose. I was not very serious about writing fiction, I just thought I could make use of some leftover material and write maybe one book of stories. Fiction, for me, is still a big struggle. Every book can fail at any moment.

INTERVIEWER

Did you workshop your fiction, as you had your poetry?

JIN

Yes. Jhumpa Lahiri and Peter Ho Davies were in my class. They were younger. I had a family, and I was focused. I wanted to write a book. I had to rush to work in the library afterward, so I couldn’t join them when they played soccer or went to a bar to listen to music and have a beer. 

INTERVIEWER

I read that your stories sometimes caused a ruckus in that class. 

JIN

Especially the one called “Resurrection.” Some of them didn’t know how to read it. It’s an ironic story—a satire. A guy has an affair with his sister-in-law. He’s detained by officials, and they force him to write pornography. But he’s afraid to humiliate his family and his relatives. Eventually, the only way out is to castrate himself. And then he’s treated as a model man, a hero of sorts. Some people read it as a dirty story. Jhumpa Lahiri and a few others liked it. Some hated it. Others were confused. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your novels are brutal?

JIN

When I spent time in Europe some translators would complain to me. They said, Why do you write so much about the dirty stuff, the brutal facts? But the brutality reveals the quality of the life of characters. The rape scene in Waiting—that is justified because it shows how Manna becomes a victim. It also shows Lin’s passivity. The Grapes of Wrath—that is a brutal book. But it shows the harshness of life. 

INTERVIEWER

Your stories have been compared to those of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Vladimir Nabokov, and Joseph Conrad. Do you see these influences in your writing?

JIN

I’ve been reading Singer’s novel Shadows on the Hudson. It’s a great novel. But, you know, he wrote in Yiddish. I can share the experience he described, but Nabokov and Conrad are different—they wrote in English. They were nonnative speakers and yet they are essential writers in the English language. I am part of that tradition. But of course, each writer has to find his own way.

INTERVIEWER

Have your parents ever visited you in the United States?

JIN

No. My wife and I invited them once, but they felt they were too old to travel, and they were comfortable there. My father in particular was taken care of, because he joined the army and the revolution very early. 

INTERVIEWER

What do you remember most about your father from childhood?

JIN

He used to wear an army uniform all of the time, and he had a dark-green woolen overcoat. He was a major before all of the ranks were eliminated in the Chinese army. He never had a chance to wear his major’s uniform officially. But he kept it. He was not that cheerful. He had been in a traffic accident in Korea, and he had a head injury. But he was very intelligent, and he read a lot. Once, there was a literacy test in his army division and he came out number one.

INTERVIEWER

Did your mother work?

JIN

Because my father was transferred to different places, she didn’t have a stable profession. I grew up mainly in Liaoning Province, in the northeast of China, but I spent years in different provinces. In each new place my mother just did whatever work was available. She worked on a neighborhood committee. She worked as a saleswoman for a while. She worked in a small police station in charge of residency matters. Her father was a landowner, so during the Cultural Revolution she was criticized—punished. She became a garbage collector, briefly, because of her background. 

But I went to an army boarding school after kindergarten, so I didn’t spend much time with my parents and my siblings—four brothers, one sister. I would stay at the school for a whole fortnight and come back home only every other Sunday. That’s why I don’t feel that kind of closeness. In the beginning, I really missed home. I hated it. But after a few weeks, I got used to it. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you get used to it? 

JIN

I stopped crying. Or I got tired. Or I stopped trying. 

INTERVIEWER

Was there anything you liked about it?

JIN

It was a very fancy school, and it was very expensive. There were twenty-five students in each class, and there were music teachers, painting teachers—very fancy. Soon, however, the Cultural Revolution started, the schools closed, and I had to return home. But home was not always home. My parents would often be away, working, and my siblings and I would be put with another local family. These families were like nanny families. We would go to a neighbor’s house, and they would take care of us. 

There was one old family in particular we became very attached to—more attached than we felt with my parents. We spent so many years with them, and I have so many fond memories of that time. Once, the daughter of the family—she was ten years older than us—brought in a huge parcel of firecrackers. I suddenly felt so rich. I had more firecrackers than anybody on the street. It was like I’d won the lottery. 

INTERVIEWER

How old were you when you joined the army?

JIN

The requirement was to be sixteen years old, but there was a group of army kids I knew—children of officers—who were joining. I was younger than them, but I wanted to go with them. I was a few months short of fourteen. I wanted to leave home. There was nothing to do there.

INTERVIEWER

What was life like for such a young soldier?

JIN

I was sent to the border, where there had been skirmishes between the Soviet Union and China. It was very tense and extremely cold. You had to be very careful. It was very easy to get frostbitten. When you went out you had to cover your nose with a piece of fur. There was no preparation for the winter during the fall, so we didn’t have enough food. Many soldiers developed stomach problems because often we didn’t have the time or opportunity to eat. Most people ate very fast. You were supposed to finish in a few minutes. So, whenever there was food, people ate too much. We didn’t know when the next meal would be available. I knew a guy who wasn’t able to eat with his family when he came home—he’d finish everything in less than two minutes. 

Physically it was hard, but mentally it was OK. If there was a battle, you would fight. You knew you were supposed to fight for the country. And if necessary, you would die. That was clear. 

INTERVIEWER

Were you a combat soldier? What was your assignment?

JIN

At first I was an artillery man, mainly carrying shells. Later I was a telegrapher. They’d send telegrams, and I was supposed to sit there and listen for the signal: dee-dah, dee-dee-dah, dah-dah-dee. Sometimes I’d have an exchange with the other side: Repeat line five, block three—something like that. The messages were all in code and only the officers had the classified codebook. They deciphered the messages; I just related them. I was not always occupied.

INTERVIEWER

What did you do with your free time?

JIN

I read. A girl in my company had a copy of Don Quixote. I was fascinated by it, but I didn’t have time to finish it. And a friend of mine, a junior officer who had a room to himself, was reading Leaves of Grass. I thought that was wild. Of course, I was caught reading again and again. 

INTERVIEWER

Were you reprimanded?

JIN

A few times, yes. If you were engrossed in your own work and you missed a signal that could be disastrous. There was someone who missed a signal once and men froze in the snow because of it. The message was to abort the battle, to retreat, but he missed it. Also, we were supposed to follow instructions and avoid books written by foreign authors and old Chinese texts that had remnants of the old culture and customs. And not just books. If you sang an old movie song, someone would report you. 

INTERVIEWER

Was the intellectual culture outside the army any more hospitable?

JIN

No. There were book burnings—I remember one bonfire in the middle of my parents’ yard. And the colleges were all closed. They were closed when I got out of the army, and they had been closed for ten years. Until I was twenty, I had never seen a public library.

INTERVIEWER

How did you continue to educate yourself?

JIN

I worked as a radio telegrapher, and I had a room to myself. A lot of night shifts, and the night gave me time to read. My parents sent me some high-school readers, some middle-school textbooks, and I would read them. 

At the time I knew I wanted to go to college; that was very clear. I tried to teach myself systematically but there were a lot of gaps, a lot of holes, in that kind of education. A lot of people were like me. A whole generation taught themselves. 

INTERVIEWER

I read that your goal was to read, in English, Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England.

JIN

I didn’t know any other books available in English! I imagined that someday I might be able to read it. Many years later, in the United States, I bought the book, but I haven’t read it yet. Maybe I’ll never read it. I am kind of superstitious about it.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel stifled by the Communist regime at the time?

JIN

No, I was brainwashed too. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you become unbrainwashed?

JIN

It was a long process. At first, I couldn’t imagine the world beyond the border of China; like most young Chinese, I became very patriotic and believed in the righteousness of the revolution and the party. But while I was in the graduate program at Shandong University I started reading a lot of American literature in the original, and gradually I realized there were different ways of communicating, that there were people who lived differently. And writing in another language, of course, changed me. 

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t think of yourself as a writer while you were in China?

JIN

No. My first book was The Crazed, which I began in 1988, in the States. But I couldn’t finish it—I didn’t even mean to finish it, I just couldn’t get the story out of my head, and I had to write to calm myself down. 

The novel was based on the relationship I had with a professor I looked after briefly when I was at Shandong University. At the time, most hospitals didn’t have enough nursing staff so they sent students to take care of patients. I was disturbed by this professor. Basically I just tried to stop him from moving because he often wanted to get out of bed. When he wanted to relieve himself we gave him a bedpan, and we also gave him water and juice—that kind of thing. He had been a very gentle, rational person but suddenly he lost his mind. 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. He spoke a lot about how most people were liars. He would talk about a lot of things we weren’t supposed to talk about—about his past. He became very arrogant, talking about how he could do whatever he wanted. Suddenly he became a different person, with a different personality. I didn’t know whether this was the true person inside him that had never gotten out. The lock to his heart was open and his mind was smashed and everything just spilled out. I was obsessed with that kind of experience, to imagine what would happen to a guy who has lost everything, whose mind is an open safe. Because you have to guard your heart, your mind.

That book was a long struggle. I didn’t have the ability I needed to write it so I put it aside and returned to it again and again and again. I had started writing it in 1988, but I didn’t finish it until 2002. It became my eighth book.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever felt like you were coming undone or losing your grip on reality?

JIN

At some moments, yes. I have slips of tongue, overstate or understate things. But usually I can catch myself, or my wife catches me. 

But after the Tiananmen Square massacre, I was lost for some time. I was going through a lot of psychological torment. I was very sick. I was in a fevered state for several months. I was often mean to my family. I didn’t really laugh. When I saw my family laugh, I just said shut up. 

INTERVIEWER

Is that when you decided to remain in the United States?

JIN

Yes, after Tiananmen Square I realized it was impossible for me to return because I would have had to serve the state. I might’ve become an academic, but every school in China was owned by the state. I just couldn’t do it. The massacre made me feel the country was a kind of manifestation of violent apparitions. It was monstrous. The authorities said they tried to contain the riot, but you don’t use field armies, tanks, and gunfire against unarmed people. That was older people trying to hold on to power at the expense of younger lives. From their point of view, it was a technical mistake. But at some point a mistake becomes a crime.

INTERVIEWER

When you first came to the States, what was most shocking to you about American life?

JIN

It was all very eye-opening. I had worked with a number of American professors and knew something of the American kind of openness, but in China, you don’t just say what comes to mind. Very often, you have to lie to survive. You have to wear a kind of mask when you’re at work. It’s dangerous to speak honestly. Starting in elementary school, kids have to swear loyalty to the party, to the country. Of course, at home they’d hear different kinds of talk, so there’s this discrepancy between the public life and private life. 

I’d also never heard of life insurance. Life insurance, health insurance, house insurance. The Chinese think about the future, but it’s very hard for them to think as individuals. The country cannot be violated for the sake of the individual. That’s why capitalism has been so bad for China. It’s more extreme than in America because in China they don’t have other value systems. For many decades religions were banned and a lot of people developed religious feelings for the country. The country alone was deified. In the United States, political changes don’t have to reshape your sense of values. You have your love life, you have your church. In fact, many value their church more than their country. 

In the States, you buy a house and you own the land it is on. In China, the land is not yours. The land is owned by the state. You may have the right to use it, but only for a period of time. Here, the attitude toward the land is different. The land itself is nourishing to people—that’s why there are so many descriptions of landscape in early American immigrant literature. And people here have a different kind of relationship with nature. They fish for fun and some don’t keep the fish. For the Chinese that would be very hard to imagine. 

INTERVIEWER

How long were you separated from your wife and son? 

JIN

My wife came one and a half years after me. She couldn’t bring our son with her. He stayed behind for another two and a half years with her parents in a small town called Qufu that’s in Shandong Province—Confucius’s hometown. This was not so uncommon. A lot of people went through a similar process. I know a couple who went to Los Angeles to meet their son, but they didn’t remember the day he was supposed to arrive. The five-year-old boy had arrived alone a day earlier, and the parents weren’t there. 

INTERVIEWER

Did your wife work when she arrived from China?

JIN

Of course. She did all kinds of work. She couldn’t speak English in the beginning, but she did a lot of things—babysitting, restaurant work, laundromat work. She also made bonsai trees for a while. That was hard work, very hard work.

INTERVIEWER

And what about your jobs?

JIN

It was easier for me because I could speak English. I worked as a custodian, in restaurants, in libraries. I worked as a night watchman in a factory—that was my favorite. You get a lot of time to read.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing the most important thing in your life?

JIN

Gradually, it has become the most important thing, but in the beginning I was always halfhearted. At every turn, I thought I would fail. That’s why it’s good for me to have a regular job. A good book doesn’t always sell. It can be a failure commercially. But because I have a job, I don’t care about that. I don’t think about how a book will do in the market whatsoever. I just write the things that I want to write. For me, that is entirely necessary. Otherwise, if the book didn’t sell, I’d feel guilty and responsible to the publisher and then I’d think about how to make a book sell and that’s too much. It’s too much.

INTERVIEWER

Is it better for a writer to be out in the world working rather than in an academic setting?

JIN

It really depends on the individual. Some people prosper in a working environment, some people don’t. But I think for a poet, teaching is a great profession. Because you don’t have to spend a lot of time on poetry, you can get stimulated by interacting with others. For fiction writers I think it’s hard because a novel takes so much time, so much energy, and often that’s the time and energy you spend on the students’ work, on teaching.

INTERVIEWER

Is life more difficult for a poet than a fiction writer?

JIN

In a way, yes, but most fiction writers have to exist alone. Poets live in cliques and help and even protect each other. The poetry world they live in is harsh so they create a circle for themselves in order to survive. Fiction writers are different; usually they have to stay away from each other and concentrate for long periods of time. The nature of the work is very different.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself as a poet first and a fiction writer second?

JIN

I’m more a short-story writer—most at home with short fiction. But short stories don’t give you a sense of independence because you have to send them out and depend on anthologies and editors. Also, conventionally most fiction writers think of short fiction as a minor form, but for me it’s the most literary form. Because of the nature of teaching, I’m more comfortable with short stories. I can spend a few hours a day on a story and then teach. And if it doesn’t work I can just abandon it and start another one. But with a novel you can’t afford to do that. You can’t just abandon two years of work. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you enjoy teaching?

JIN

I think so, now. For many years I didn’t like it, but gradually it became part of my life. I became nourished by it. I couldn’t have written A Free Life—a novel like that—if I hadn’t taught a class called Literature of the Migrant. I read and thought about a lot of immigrant issues, and that really opened me up.

INTERVIEWER

Do you often read other writers to influence the novel you’re writing?

JIN

Yes, they’re a source of nourishment. And they’re also the standard. With Waiting, I knew I was writing a love novel. So what are the best love novels? Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary—European love novels were behind that book. For The Crazed, I read all the major novels by Dostoyevsky. Originally, I had planned In the Pond for the collection Under the Red Flag—as a longer piece in that collection. But the first draft was more than a hundred and twenty pages long. Apparently it was too big, it had to stand alone. Because it was a comic novel, I read a lot of Gogol. War Trash was relatively simple. I focused on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Dead House, based on his imprisonment. 

But A Free Life is an American book, and it came from trying to find the right texts for that class, Literature of the Migrant. We read twelve novels, such as Pnin, The Grapes of Wrath,  My Ántonia—classics, high literature, great literary works. Basically, we want to see how the book was made, how it begins, how it ends, why some things were repeated, why a character never appears but is still a presence in the book. We talk about techniques and take the books apart and put them together again to see how they’re made.

INTERVIEWER

In A Free Life, Nan, an aspiring poet, struggles to adapt to an immigrant culture inhospitable to literary ambition. Is the novel the story of what would have happened to you if you hadn’t become a writer?

JIN

I gave the story a lot of my personal experiences in order to keep that kind of intimacy, but I can’t call it autobiographical because I’ve had a different life. Spiritually and maybe mentally I could identify with Nan here and there, but really I had a different story. A person’s autobiography or personal story is like a reservoir. A lot of books and stories might come from it, but eventually you run out of things to give. I could understand logically Nan’s frustration, his psychology, sure, but I have had a very fortunate life by comparison.

INTERVIEWER

I read that Waiting grew out of a story you heard while visiting your in-laws.

JIN

Yes, the first time I went to visit my wife’s parents, we saw a man from a distance—the man was quite tall—and my wife told me he had waited eighteen years to marry his second wife and the second marriage didn’t work and the wife was dying. I wasn’t prepared to write the story at the time. I just thought, This is good for a love story. 

Later, I couldn’t get my second book of poems published. It was not that difficult to publish my first book, but I didn’t know I was supposed to promote it—I didn’t give any readings. I’d planned to return to China and thought of it as a side project. Because the first book hadn’t sold enough copies, my second book was turned down by every publisher. Finally, the editor for Three
 Continents Press, a small publishing house in Colorado, said he wanted a hundred pages of prose. So I wrote Waiting as a novella to accompany the poetry, and he accepted both. Later, the poetry manuscript was accepted by a press in Brooklyn on its own, and I took the novella back and expanded it into a novel. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever worry that the story of Waiting would strike readers as just hopeless?

JIN

At one point, I really did. I couldn’t see how people could relate to this book. I didn’t see in what way it could be meaningful. I wrote so many drafts I got lost. Then I read an interview given by a navy officer’s wife—there was trouble in the marriage and the INTERVIEWER said, Do you think that he’s having an affair? And the woman said, Affair? I wish he could have affairs, so that he could prove that he is capable of loving a woman. At that moment I realized that there were American men like this as well. So I got my confidence back. If Lin had lived in a normal social environment he could have developed into a man capable of having an emotional life or a love life. But his life was so harsh that he suppressed himself and gradually he lost the instinct for love. 

INTERVIEWER

Suppression—and how it damages people—is a major concern throughout your work.

JIN

I don’t think writers are supposed to give answers or explain characters fully. We are supposed to describe and expose problems. You don’t have to name the character’s problem, just describe its effects. That makes the wounds more resonant, more suggestive, so people can relate to them.

INTERVIEWER

How would you describe the narrator in A Free Life and Waiting. Is it omniscient?

JIN

Not exactly. It’s third-person limited, but the point of view can shift between different characters. Every novel I’ve written is told from one person’s point of view, but occasionally that narrative perspective might shift a little bit. In A Free Life, for instance, I had to give a little bit of Pingping’s psychology. If everything was told from Nan’s point of view, it would be too confined. The shift creates a kind of balance.

INTERVIEWER

How does that kind of shift differ from a point-of-view slip or an error?

JIN

If you do it smoothly, the reader very often doesn’t feel the change. In the Bernard Malamud short story “The Magic Barrel” there is a description of the protagonist, Leo, and there is a description of the moon that starts from his point of view, but by the end of the description it has switched to the marriage broker’s point of view. As long as the shift does not create a break in the narrative, it is justified. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep a journal when you’re writing a book?

JIN

I keep notes—ideas, details. I put them on index cards and file the cards by keyword. Occasionally I return to the file, to the notes, and use them. I didn’t start A Free Life until 2000, but I conceived of it in 1992. In the meantime, I kept notes on misusages in English. For instance, when Don asks Nan why he left his last job, Nan says, “My bawss was sacked so we got laid all together.” He dropped the word off. I had heard someone say that and kept a note. I filed it under “lay off.” 

INTERVIEWER

Did you follow the same system while writing your other books?

JIN

It depends on the book. I keep cards but for different reasons—different scenes, how to figure out events, details, what order would make better sense or be more effective. War Trash was different because there were so many historical materials, photos, and other things. For me the cards were a way to figure out all the episodes and incidents. And I had a bibliography—because it’s a historical novel. I had to read a lot of books and look at a lot of photographs.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write a full draft and then go back?

JIN

I’m always aware that I have a limited period of time. Generally, when I write a first draft I’m writing the structure. I try to get the black on the white as soon as possible. It’s quite an intense experience. Then I can do the revision and editing by hand. Revision for me is where the book is made, because the process of revision is not just about making the prose more polished. While revising the manuscript, I begin to be aware of the nuances, the possibilities. So it’s a kind of interpreting process. 

As a student, I worked with Frank Bidart, and he was obsessed with revision. When I worked on my second book of poems, Facing Shadows, at the final stage, after many, many revisions, I thought that everything was done. I put the poems in order and I showed it to him. He said, Well, you’ve got all the poems in the right order. He still found six or seven spots to fix. I was very frustrated. I said, I worked so hard on this manuscript. And he said, If you spend two weeks just fixing one spot, one thing, it’s worth it.

Now, I print out the hard copies and work on those. I use different pencils, different colored pens. That way I can remember what revision I made the last time. And I’ll repeat this many times—many, many times. It’s crazy. 

INTERVIEWER

How do you know when this process is done?

JIN

Usually after thirty drafts I feel that I can present it to my agent and my editor. Sometimes even then I know it is far from finished. And if my agent tells me to think about something else, then I have to go over it again. But that’s OK, that’s the process.

INTERVIEWER

Thirty drafts?

JIN

By drafts I mean the revisions. In each hard copy I have between three and five revisions. So that’s seven or eight hard copies. It’s crazy, I know. Writing is stupid. Writing should make you money, with the labor you have to put in. That’s why I never encourage my students to become professional writers, unless they feel they can’t do other things. To be a professional writer—it’s like becoming an athlete. You have to perform constantly. You have to jump higher and higher, although you know that it’s impossible. You can write a book or two to make your life richer, that’s fine. But to write with total devotion and with all the energy summoned up from the depth of one’s being, that is a very hard life. 

INTERVIEWER

Is it worth it?

JIN

Without writing, what would I have become? Nothing. In China the individual used to be treated as a screw or a small cog in the revolutionary machine. I wanted to be a human being with a voice.

INTERVIEWER

Do you wake up early to write?

JIN

I get up at seven and work for an hour or two. My wife cooks breakfast, and I always eat it and then go back to work. Usually by late afternoon I will say I’ve done enough writing. At night, I read and answer e-mails. I go to bed late at night—usually at one or two, sometimes three.

INTERVIEWER

That’s not very much sleep!

JIN

If I’m tired, I take a nap.

INTERVIEWER

I noticed that there isn’t a door to your study.

JIN

I want to have a door, but my wife says she wants to keep the air circulating. She’s very tough, very stubborn. She’s very outspoken too.

INTERVIEWER

In your fiction, people marry out of convenience and often marriages don’t work out well. Is there such a thing as a happy marriage in real life?

JIN

Friendship is a big part of it. If you really know each other and understand and appreciate each other, eventually the love gets stronger and stronger. Luck is also a big part of it. It’s very unusual for two people to really suit each other. After many years, you might find the other unsuitable, or you might find a better choice. A neighbor introduced me to my wife. We courted each other for half a year, then we got married. But in China, a lot of people get married after two or three meetings. 

I’ve been very lucky. I couldn’t find a job after I finished at Brandeis, and I told my wife that it may take eight or nine years for me to publish three books, and then I might find a job teaching English. She said, I can wait.

INTERVIEWER

In A Free Life, Nan owns a restaurant, but really he’s a poet—and quite a good one. Did you often come upon immigrants who were forced to hide their artistic side?

JIN

I’ve met some who are not necessarily hiding it, but they don’t have the opportunity to develop artistically. Many just get frustrated. I know a waiter who has published more than fifteen books. Materially speaking, he has done well because he has been waiting tables in a very fancy restaurant for his whole immigrant life in San Francisco. He owns a house or an apartment, something like that. But meanwhile he has been working on his writing.

When I was a graduate student, Jennifer Rose, a poet and the managing editor of AGNI, gave me a book of poems written in classical Chinese form. She had eaten at a Chinese restaurant, and the owner of that restaurant asked what she did and she said she was a poet. The guy said, I’m a poet, and he gave her the book. He had started writing poetry when he was a college student. I was very touched by it. I thought it was a good example of an immigrant who came to this country not just for material opportunity, but also for the spiritual dimension. That was the beginning of A Free Life

INTERVIEWER

Why did you decide to include Nan’s poetry journal at the end of A Free Life?

JIN

Basically, it’s a writing journal, but it’s also poetry criticism. That’s a Chinese literary form. Going back to the twelfth century, many Chinese poets kept journals. In them, they put down their thoughts and comments about writing from other poets, plus any material for poetry. Over the centuries, these writings became an essential part of the tradition. 

INTERVIEWER

Are you more influenced by American poetry than Chinese poetry?

JIN

British poets have had the greatest influence on me. Some American poets too. I love Frost. His action, his sense of his surroundings, the dark parts of them on the surface. His poetry is pastoral, but there is always a dark serenity in his poems. But because I worked on British poetry for my graduate work, I was influenced by poets like George Herbert and Thomas Hardy. 

For my doctorate, I worked on Yeats and Auden and Pound and Eliot but basically I focused on the Chinese materials they use in their poetry. I thought it would be more valuable when I returned to China. Pound borrowed so much from Confucianism, and I do feel there might be a connection between his fascism and Confucianism. He talks so much about the ratification of words—to keep names, words right. Words must name things. There should be as few abstract words as possible in the language. But I don’t think he was aware of the dark history of that in Chinese politics. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you do any translations of Chinese literature?

JIN

Recently, I have begun to translate my own work into Chinese. It took me a long time to decide to do so. I went back and forth. Eventually I decided that it’s dangerous to completely sever my work from the Chinese language, to cut myself off from my roots. Sometimes the past should be abandoned, yes. Life is a journey, and you can’t carry everything with you. Only the usable baggage. But if I didn’t keep any connection, that would have been suicidal in the long run. And I firmly believe that my work means more to Chinese readers—that’s why the books are banned in mainland China but well received in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Time will prove that I’ve been doing a significant service for China.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself as a Chinese writer, or a Chinese American writer?

JIN

A Chinese American writer—I’m more comfortable with that. I don’t think of myself as a dissident, and I’m more of an immigrant than an exile. An exile has a significant past: he often lives in the past, and has to define himself within the context of political power. But an immigrant gets to start from scratch. The past is not essential. He formulates his own frame of reference.

INTERVIEWER

Do you regret anything about coming to the United States?

JIN

No, it’s hard to uproot yourself and really become yourself in another soil, but it’s also an opportunity, another kind of growth. The United States is a great country. I’ve been able to survive as an individual and live as a relatively free man. I’ve been left alone to do my own work, to live my own life. 

But I live in the margin as a writer—between two languages, two cultures, two literatures, two countries. This is treacherous territory. If I’d written War Trash or even Ocean of Words in Chinese and published them in Chinese originally, those books might be embraced as genuine literature in China. But because I wrote them in English they were banned. A writer in my situation has to have a body of work, not just one or two books, to become significant. And in every book I have to find a new style. I would feel more at home if I wrote in Chinese, that’s clear. But I’ve been doing it in English for so long I can’t switch. Life’s just too short for that.