novelist and alum Ha Jin returns to Bay State Road
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.
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
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