Ha Jin in 2004.

 

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 WordsUnder the Red Flag,
The Bridegroom, and A Good Fall ), which are marked by biting description and fierce irony. His novels—In the PondWaitingThe CrazedWar 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?

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 CrazedA Free LifeWar 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.