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Week of 13 September 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 3


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Award-winning novelist and alum Ha Jin returns to Bay State Road

By Tim Stoddard

When Ha Jin left Boston University nearly a decade ago, he was an emerging writer with a promising portfolio of fiction. He returns this fall as a national figure and a full professor in the GRS Creative Writing Program, where his writing career took off.

  Ha Jin joins the English department faculty this fall as a professor of creative writing. Photo by Vernon Doucette

A winner of an enviable list of awards, including the National Book Award for his 1999 novel Waiting, the Hemingway/PEN Award for his first collection of short stories, Ocean of Words, and the Flannery O'Connor Award for his second, Under the Red Flag, Jin (GRS'94) has taught poetry, fiction, and English literature at Emory University since 1993. His accolades are all the more impressive considering that the native of China began learning English in his early 20s and writing fiction in English in his early 30s. He received the National Book Award less than a decade later.

Jin's rapid literary ascent began at 236 Bay State Road in 1991. When he applied to the Creative Writing Program that year, Leslie Epstein, a CAS professor of English and the program director, could not accept him because his English was not quite fluent. But Epstein was impressed by Jin's determination to write and his sincere intellectual curiosity, and allowed him to audit the courses, the only time this has happened in the program. "There were some difficulties for him at first, especially with spoken English," Epstein says. "But before a month went by, he was correcting my English. I could tell even before the first year was over that this wasn't a person just writing stories; he was someone contributing to literature." Indeed, all the short stories in Ocean of Words were written during that audit year, including the first story he ever wrote for Epstein. When Jin reapplied to the program a year later he was accepted as a full-time student.

This fall, Jin is teaching a fiction workshop open only to graduate students and a new English department course called Fiction of the Migrant, which is open to undergraduate students as well. "I don't know anybody who has taught sucha course," he says. "For me, this is really something new." As an expatriate who's written extensively about his homeland in an adopted language, Jin is uniquely qualified to guide students through the metaphysics of human migration.

At Emory, Jin became a popular teacher and was something of a celebrity on campus. "He was a wonderful learner and is a remarkable teacher," Epstein says. "His presence here will attract many students - among them Asian students - who might not have considered the program before."

Epstein had been talking with Jin about coming back to BU for many years, but Jin was at first reluctant to leave Emory. "He's a very loyal person," Epstein says, "and Emory did everything it could to keep him." While it was difficult to leave his students and colleagues at Emory, Jin says, returning to Boston was a kind of homecoming. "My wife says I'm very at home here in Boston," he says. "I love this city, and BU is a great school. I grew up in northern China, so in terms of climate it's very similar to the Northeast. I really feel a part of the landscape here. In the south, I just felt I couldn't blend in, because of the heat and the thick vegetation." Moving to Boston has also allowed Jin and his wife, Lisha Bian, to be closer to their son, who is beginning his sophomore year at Princeton University. "As a family, we want to stay closer to each other," he says.

Born in 1956, Xuefei Jin (Ha is a pen name) was a teenager when China was entering the Cultural Revolution. He joined the People's Liberation Army at fourteen; Waiting is based on his experiences during five years in the Red Army. His bookishness and academic aspirations were scorned by his military comrades, but they fueled his academic career. He earned a master's degree in American literature at Shandong University, and in 1985 he traveled to Brandeis to begin doctoral work on modern American poetry. He planned to return to China after four years, but in the turmoil following the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he and his wife stayed in the United States.

Jin was determined to write, and was increasingly interested in fiction. In China, he had written several unpublished short stories, but following Tiananmen, he decided to make English the language of his creative work for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Writing in English allows him to publish in the United States, and, he says, it opens possibilities that he didn't have writing in his mother tongue.

As a graduate student at Brandeis, Jin adopted a pen name that would be easier for Anglophones to pronounce. Ha is the first character of Harbin, a city in northeastern China, where he went to university. "I like that city a lot," he says, "and, at the time, writing for me was a private thing. I didn't want people to know that I was doing it. And there were also the Chinese authorities that I needed to be careful of."

Ironically, the name that gave Jin anonymity in the 1980s has attracted considerable attention in the last half decade. He has now published six books in English (two collections of short stories, two books of poetry, and two novels) and recently finished a forthcoming novel, The Crazed, due out in October. He is working on another novel set during the Korean war, and he hopes to someday write one about immigrating to the United States. Like all of his fiction so far, the setting of The Crazed is China. It focuses on a professor and a graduate student involved in the Tiananmen Square protests. "It was actually the first book I attempted to write," he says. "I tried, again and again, but for many years, I just didn't have the skills to finish it."

Jin's ability to finish is clearly no longer in doubt. Even so, he still regards the act of writing with characteristic humility and gratitude. "Above all," he said at the reception for his National Book Award in 1999, "I thank the English language, which has embraced me as an author and provided me with a niche where I can do meaningful work."


13 September 2002
Boston University
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