December 2008

Aysha Somasundaram

nonfiction

The Writer as Migrant by Ha Jin

Ha Jin’s The Writer as Migrant is a slim, unassuming volume consisting of three essays: "The Spokesman and the Tribe," "The Language of Betrayal" and "An Individual’s Homeland." In the Preface, the author describes his objectives -- even detailing the rationale prompting the choice of the word “migrant.” His selection of the word is intended “…to be as inclusive as possible -- it encompasses all kinds of people who move, or are forced to move, from one country to another, such as exiles, emigrants, immigrants, and refugees.” Jin continues, explaining that, “By placing the writer in the context of human migrations, we can investigate some of the metaphysical aspects of a 'migrant writer’s' life and work.” Perhaps humbled by the daunting, if self-imposed, task Jin sets for himself, ultimately, he ends his preamble by stating that his observations are his alone. He is, however, hopeful that his work “can shed light on the existence of the writer as a migrant.”

Rarely does a preface -- especially when a scant page and half -- better elucidate the charm or ephemeral quality of the writing that follows. The grandiose scope of Ha Jin’s ambition seems somewhat incompatible with either the brevity or relative modesty of the manner in which he composes and shares his contemplations. Each of the three essays is tightly focused in subject matter and content. In "The Spokesman and the Tribe," Jin acts alternately as biographer and literary critic; the essay largely revolves around Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Lin Yutang. Jin views these men from disparate cultures as having the shared experience of exile. Both “viewed themselves as spokesmen of their countries, their visions shaped by nostalgia and by their efforts to rejoin their peoples after many years in the United States.”

Jin’s discussion of Yutang’s cultural “spokesmanship” and its constraining impact upon his literary works is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the essay.  As Jin eloquently observes, “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.” Jin seems to suggest this journalistic impulse to document compounded by a possible inclination to sanitize a culture for public or global consumption can undermine a novelist’s creative impulse. It is a subtle, nuanced point.

Much of "The Language of Betrayal" is devoted to Joseph Conrad, but also Vladimir Nabokov. The essay hones in on the writer’s adoption of a foreign language. Referencing the motives for the resort to an unfamiliar language in lieu of one’s mother tongue as observed by Joseph Brodksy, Jin states, “In a writer who migrates to another language, necessity, ambition, and estrangement usually come to bear at the same time.” While acknowledging the ambivalence and challenges inherent in such linguistic "migrations," Jin convincingly -- relying upon an analysis of two extraordinarily deft authors as examples -- posits that the adoption of another language is ripe with possibility. Jin then recasts the perceived "handicaps" of a foreign writer -- unfamiliarity with cultural or linguistic references and consequent inability to be spontaneous or playful with language -- as strengths that animate Nabokov’s writing. “Nabokov kicked the strictures against playfulness to pieces. From the very beginning, he used English with little regard for rules.”

Finally, "An Individual’s Homeland" begins with a poem “Ithaka,” the kingdom Odysseus recovers in Homer’s epic. This is most meditative and abstract of Jin’s essays; in it he is loathe to map “homeland” as a geographical or temporal destination. Instead “homeland” looms like cloud cover -- nostalgia inducing, unattainable and shifting.

It might be myopic to view The Writer as Migrant as a self-justifying exercise but the book does appear indelibly infused with Jin’s emotion and experiences grafted onto the persons of similarly situated writers. Also, while quietly powerful, Jin’s keenly observed essays provoke slight, but palpable dissatisfaction because of their sparseness.

The Writer as Migrant by Ha Jin
University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 978-0-226-39988-1
94 pages