October 2011

Terry Hong


An Interview with Ha Jin

Ha Jin has lived through difficult, defining events: the Cultural Revolution in his native China, military service that began when he was a young teenager, immigration and subsequent separation from home and family. On the page, he has vividly reproduced the repression of the Cultural Revolution, the brutality of the Korean War, and most recently the horror of the Nanjing massacre. His literary reputation is built on tight, exacting prose that captures the minutiae of daily lives often trapped in challenging -- if not downright tortuous -- circumstances.

I admit to being quite surprised -- most pleasantly so -- to finally encounter Jin the writer in real time, when he answers his phone. He doesn't seem to mind at all that I've kept him waiting (shameless, I know!). He takes a quick moment to close the window of his office at Boston University, where he was once an MFA student and has been teaching literature and creative writing for almost a decade. His voice is welcoming and animated (and instantly forgiving). He laughs easily and often sounds like he's smiling. While his speech belies his Chinese mother tongue, his answers reflect the same spare precision that defines his writing.

Choosing English as his literary language set Jin on a deliberate journey away from China, and yet Jin remained attached to the China of his memories by recreating his birth country in his earlier titles, including his first three short story collections, Ocean of Words (1996), Under the Red Flag (1997), and The Bridegroom (2000), and his three first novels, In the Pond (1998), Waiting (2000), and The Crazed (2002). With War Trash (2004), Jin took a step away from China into Korea, with a brief prologue set in Atlanta.

His penultimate novel, A Free Life (2007), was Jin's first book to be set in his adopted land, and marks a clear delineation in his career. His opening dedication, "To Lisha and Wen, who lived this book," suggests similarities to Jin's own immigration story. His latest collection, A Good Fall (2009), continues his American observances.

Now with his newest, Nanjing Requiem, Jin returns to a China before his birth. In an introductory letter, Jin announced his intent to reclaim American missionary Minnie Vautrin's heroism during the 1937 Nanjing massacre: "She suffered and ruined herself helping others, but she became a legend. At least her story has moved me to write a novel about her. If I succeed, my book might put her soul at peace."

While many were fleeing Nanjing as it came under Japanese attack, Vautrin opened Jinling Women's College to ten thousand mostly women and children and repeatedly risked her life to save refugees from the atrocities the Japanese military inflicted on Chinese civilians during the Sino-Japanese War. As if to distance himself from the unspeakable terror of the historic tragedy, Jin filters Vautrin's experiences through the perspective of her fictional Chinese assistant, who records both Vautrin's courage and her agonizing demise over the victims she couldn't save.

I felt that Nanjing Requiem had a different style from your previous titles... There's a jarring bluntness that doesn't appear in your other works. Was this intentional?

I think this kind of story requires a different kind of narrative. I didn't exactly design it this way, but this is a story that couldn't be entertaining or lighthearted. Yes, I was aware of the different style, but it happened automatically.

How did you keep nightmares at bay while you were writing Nanjing? Did you have a detox plan at the end of a writing day?

Not really. Because I spent so much time writing, it was hard to keep any distance. I tried to get distant from the book after I finished writing. But while I was immersed in it, I had no way to get out. It was actually a very depressing project.

And why Nanjing? How did you pick that subject? 

It was a very important historic moment. And one of my granduncles was killed by Japanese soldiers, not in Nanjing, but in Shandong. It's hard to tell a story like that -- artistically it's very hard, very challenging. That was probably the main reason.

So this means you must enjoy challenges? 

In a way, yes. The challenge here became an obsession. I gave up writing the book twice, but couldn't help returning to it. Each time, I was just feeling so bad, I couldn't do anything more. Then after a few weeks, I had to go back again; I felt like I wasted so much time.

Will you perhaps use your next book to balance some of the sadness you experienced while writing Nanjing? 

Psychologically, yes. The new book is much lighter in style. I'm writing about present experiences, and it's not heavy at all. The book will take years; I don't know when it will be done. Maybe two or three years still? I'm deep into it now.

When you gave up returning to China after Tiananmen Square, how did you decide to write only in your adopted language? 

I wanted to create work only in English. I wanted to try and be a writer in English. I couldn't write in both languages at the same time; I felt it would be very hard to keep the integrity of the work if wrote in Chinese.

And you also adopted a pen name. Why?

In the beginning, I didn't want people to know I'd been writing. My first name begins with an X -- it's Xuefei -- and I think it's very hard to pronounce.

How did you decide on "Ha"?

It's from Harbin, my favorite city in China.

So what was that process first like when you began to write only in English? Did you think in Chinese first and then translate into English when your words appeared on the page? Or did you always create in English first? 

I have to think in English first. I have to feel the emotions of the words as I write them. So I couldn't think in Chinese, then translate, although I think Chinese is always in the background. When my characters speak, however, they speak in Chinese, and sometimes they use Chinese expressions that I can't always translate completely.

If I have Chinese narrators, then I can't suppress their language completely. I have to just let them speak, and I pick up the most communicable elements. The English needs to come out fresh. How to keep that distinction is the hard part -- between the native versus non-native speakers. I can get lost easily.

I understand that you've started to translate some of your own works into Chinese. Do you think you might write first in Chinese someday? 

Perhaps short pieces. Maybe. But long pieces, no. I have to live in the language, in the environment of that language, so a long piece would be very hard.

Do you still think in both languages?


Do you dream in English or Chinese? 

Both. When I get too emotional, then the Chinese comes up. In that sense, Chinese is still my first language.

Which language do you speak with your family? 

With my wife, mainly Chinese. With our son, mostly English. It just happened that way. My son can speak Chinese, but he can't read it. We didn't ever impose a language on him. If I speak Chinese to him, he always answers back in English, so it's easier to just use English. With my wife, she couldn't speak English when she first came to the U.S. So she speaks half Chinese, half English with our son.

When you moved the setting of your writing from China to the U.S. for the first time in A Free Life, was that a decision you had to prepare for? Was it a conscious choice that you decided one day, "Now I'm ready to write about my adopted country..."? 

I prepared for it, yes. I don't live in China anymore. I can't write exclusively about China all the time. Eventually I had to look for my own subject matter. I had conceived the idea for A Free Life a long time ago as a graduate student. But I realized I couldn't write it then; I had to live through the experiences first. I finally started writing it very late, 2002 or 2003, I think.

Your protagonist Nan Wu goes back briefly to China in A Free Life. Was than an extension of your own wish to return, at least temporarily, to China?

I tried to get a visa recently. But I can't go because the Chinese consulate won't give me the visa. They say it's because of a lot of technical problems. I think the real reason is political.

Because most of your books are banned in China?

Waiting is available there. And Nanjing is coming out next week; it's not banned. That's the irony: I can't go back, but some of my books can.

If you were given the opportunity, would you return to China?

For a visit, yes. My mother has been ill, so I'm very eager to go back and see her. But at the moment, they won't give me the visa. It's impossible to even see my mother. My father died some years ago, and my mother now is too ill to travel. At one point, we tried to invite my parents to immigrate to the U.S., but they wouldn't. They said life was more comfortable there. All my siblings live in the same city -- they are all in Jinan in Shandong province -- so they are able to help each other.

Is Jinan the real-life Muji City from your fiction?

No, Muji is a combination of Harbin and Jiamusi.

Even if you can't go back to China, your writing has returned to China with Nanjing Requiem.

Nanjing is different because it's set in the past, about a time that even contemporary Chinese are not familiar with. It's an alien, strange space in that sense.

Many of your novels, in fact, are grounded in historical events: In the PondWaiting, and The Crazed during the Cultural Revolution and turmoil of early Communism, War Trash in the Korean War, and now Nanjing. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to history and imagination? Do you see your novels as a search for historic understanding and perspective? 

History is not my major concern. My objective is to make a story more believable, more interesting, more nuanced. A story needs to be grounded, which is why I look for historical moments. But I only use history as context. The final purpose is to go beyond history to literature.

And how do you prepare for creating that historical context? 

The preparation varies from book to book. With War Trash, I wrote out the whole structure of the novel first, then returned to do the research. I discovered all the historic details to make the novel believable. With Nanjing, the process was very different. I had read most of the books on the subject first, so I had most of research done before I did any writing. Waiting and The Crazed were different, too. I lived through that time.

If you had stayed in China, do you think you might have become a writer?

Maybe a more scholarly writer. A translator for sure. Maybe a literary critic. I wouldn't be a creative writer. I would have to be a different kind of writer; definitely not a fiction writer.

Have your family and friends in China been able to read your books? 

Yes, they can buy most of my books in Hong Kong and Taiwan. They're available in Chinese translation there. Ocean of Words -- my wife and I translated that book together. And A Good Fall -- I translated that one. Those are the only translations I have done.

You've written in many media, poetry, short stories, novels, non-fiction, the libretto for an opera with composer Tan Dun. Do you have a preference? Do you have a different process with each?

I like short stories a lot. The novel is a physical form for me. When I'm really old, I won't be able to write novels because they are more demanding, more challenging; the longer form requires more physical and mental strength. The short story suits me better, personality wise.

I can't do two things at the same time. So when I'm working on a novel, I can't write short stories. The long form requires different muscles, a different performance. When I was writing the stories for A Good Fall, it took a while for me to get back into the short form because I hadn't been writing those for years.

When I wrote poetry, I did so under some kind of pressure. I was hired as a poetry teacher for eight years [at Emory University], so I had to publish a lot of poetry to stay in the field, to get tenure. My graduate work was in poetry.

When I wrote The Writer as Migrant, that was actually a series of lectures I have given. When I'm asked to give a talk, they ask me for topics, and then decide on one from a list. These are those lectures, so this is not my regular work. Although they were hard, too, to write; I had to do a lot of research.

How does teaching fit into your writing life?

I don't see a balance there. Teaching takes the same kind of time and energy as the writing. Teaching helps me see better, understand better; it's hard to say that because I know more, understand more, I can write better than before.

Nowadays, books don't sell as well as they used to. I need the regular income of teaching. That's why I keep a regular job, so I don't have to think commercially when I'm writing. Waiting was commercially successful, but the other books had very average sales. Selling books is very hard now. We accepted a student this year into the graduate program who was already a bestselling author, who had been on Oprah. She dropped out at the last minute.

Can any Boston University student take your classes, or must he or she pass prerequisites before enrolling? 

That depends. For my literature class, anyone can take it. For the writing class, only the graduate students in creative writing. I teach the longer form, so they need to do be prepared and committed to writing something.

How do you know when a student is promising? Do you encourage the most gifted ones?

I do encourage my students. I really hope they will persevere and get published. But in the long run, talent doesn't help that much. In fact, the best writers in class don't continue somehow. It's usually the middling ones that continue and finish a book and actually get published.

Why do you think the best ones don't keep writing?

Perhaps they have more things to do. Maybe they have more opportunities because they are more capable of doing more things. Also, I think the most talented are also the most fragile, and they get frustrated easily and give up.

Do you read others' books when you're writing?

I read quite a bit. What I read depends on the project. But yes, even when I'm writing, I always read others' work. I have no way to avoid that since I'm teaching writing.

Besides reading the things I'm obligated to read, I read writers I really like. For example, Mavis Gallant and Carol Shields. I don't want to lose my own voice, but I have to stay related to great books. I often read a passage from a great book to regain my own sense of writing. For instance, Anna Karenina or One Hundred Years of Solitude. I use both that great writing and the obligatory reading as inspiration.

The publishing industry is changing at a rapid rate, not just with technology, but with the dissolving of many borders. Nationalities and cultures and histories are more fluid than ever. How do you see the literary landscape changing as we all become more global citizens, and therefore global readers?

The readers are there, but maybe they're not reading books anymore, they're reading different kind of texts. Books will survive, although maybe the readership will be smaller. Ironically, in China, the readership is getting bigger. Maybe in Korea, too? The number of readers in Asia is not shrinking as seriously as they are here. Maybe they have more access to books since books are cheaper there? Maybe for cultural reasons, too. Many Americans don't read books. In Asia, books are traditionally more respected. A culture of reading still remains there.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.