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Week of 3 December 1999

Vol. III, No. 16

Feature Article

Eminent émigré

Alumnus Ha Jin wins National Book Award

By Eric McHenry

Ha Jin was in his early twenties when he began learning English, his early thirties when he began writing fiction in English, and his early forties when he won the National Book Award for Waiting (Pantheon Books, 1999), a novel written in English.

Accepting the $10,000 prize at a November 17 ceremony, the Chinese expatriate and BU Creative Writing Program alumnus expressed gratitude of the first order to his second tongue.

"Above all," he said, "I thank the English language, which has embraced me as an author and provided me with a niche where I can do meaningful work."

The embrace has been mutual. Ha Jin (GRS'94) came to the United States in 1985 for graduate study in English literature at Brandeis University. Shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre, he decided not only to remain here, but to make English the language of his creative work. Since 1990, he has brought out two collections of poetry, two collections of short stories, and two novels. Writing in English, he says, is a practical choice. It enables him to publish in the United States, and has other benefits that are less tangible but even more important.

Ha Jin signs copies of his National Book Award-winning novel, Waiting, for his friend Zhu Hong at a recent Barnes & Noble event. Photo by Andrea Raynor

"Besides the difficulties -- all the labor -- there are of course advantages" to writing in a second language, he says. "I think I'm very conscious of possibilities; I don't take things for granted."

"He sweats over every word, to get it just the way he wants," adds Zhu Hong, CAS visiting professor of modern foreign languages and a friend of Ha Jin's. "The story [in Waiting] was hibernating in him for about 10 years. He wrote it first as a novella. Then he destroyed it. He thought it was not right -- it was material for a novel. He has been writing it as a novel, off and on, changing and correcting, for four years. He's very meticulous, very conscientious about every word he uses.

"When he thanks the English language," she says, "he means it."

Ha Jin, who based Waiting on a real situation, writes with an austere, highly nuanced style that on the surface seems almost reportorial. He sets forth his principal character's dilemma in the book's first sentence: "Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu."

Lin Kong, a military doctor, is in love with a colleague named Manna Wu. But the mores of post-Mao China make the relationship impossible to consummate. Lin Kong is bound to Shuyu Liu, a good-hearted but simple-minded woman whom he was coerced into marrying by his parents. His petitions for divorce are repeatedly denied by disapproving judges, or foiled by circumstance.

When he finally prevails, his love for Manna Wu seems weakened by its own legitimacy. Ultimately, Lin Kong sees his years of waiting yield only to other sorts of waiting.

"The last 30 pages of the novel bring tears to the eyes," says Leslie Epstein, professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program, with whom Ha Jin studied for two years. "It's wonderful."

Ha Jin, who has taught English at Emory University since 1993, received the Hemingway/PEN Award for his first collection of short stories, Ocean of Words (Zoland Books, 1996), and the Flannery O'Connor Award for his second, Under the Red Flag (University of Georgia Press, 1997).

Prior to the National Book Award, however, he has tended to be viewed as an emerging writer. Epstein says the accolade will help bring Ha Jin the attention his work warrants.

"I think this is a quantum leap forward from where he had been," says Epstein. "He's going to be a national figure from now on. One never knows about commercial success. Merit and commercial success are not linked. But he will be a national figure, and everything he writes will be taken note of and reviewed and appreciated. That's for sure."