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By Dana Mikaelian
CAS Creative Writing Professor Ha Jin didn’t plan on being a fiction writer. He moved to the United States from China in 1985 to study American Literature. He always intended to return to China, and didn’t give a writing career much thought. However, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 forced a change of plans. Since then, he has become a successful contemporary poet, novelist, and short story writer whose work has earned him the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Hemingway Prize, and, most recently, an invitation to join the prestigious Academy of Arts and Letters. In a recent interview with CAS News, the decorated author discussed how his experiences during the Cultural Revolution in China, and his subsequent years in the United States, have influenced his work and career.
CAS News: Tell me a little about where you grew up and what inspired you to become a writer.
Ha Jin: I grew up northeast of China and didn’t think I’d become a writer. My father was a [military] officer, so I went to the Chinese Army quite early to serve; I left after five years. I then worked at a railroad company for three years, and then I went to college. During the Cultural Revolution, no colleges were open. So for 10 years we couldn’t go to college—hence the big interruption. After that I became an English major and continued to study American literature. I got my Master’s at Shandong University in China and then I came to the United States to attend Brandeis University. [In 1989] the Tiananmen Incident took place [in China], so I couldn’t go back. That’s why I stayed here and began to write in English. It was almost like all the different forces drove me to become a writer.
What made you want to study American literature?
In the early ‘80s, Faulkner and Hemmingway and the Jewish writers became very popular. Very few people had access to the original works, so even the professors would give us lectures by borrowing ideas from different sources. I thought someday if I worked hard on [the English language] I could eventually read the originals. That was the very basic reason why I wanted to study American writers.
You mentioned that you really didn’t begin writing until you came to the U.S.
I’d been writing, but not seriously. Even in the States I wasn’t that serious. Before I became to BU I published a book of poems in English, but I thought I’d return to China to teach American literature—that would be my profession. I was half-hearted. Not until Emory University hired me to teach poetry writing in 1993 did [writing] become a profession, so I had to become really devoted. I had to study the craft and also had to keep publishing to survive in academia.
Did teaching at Emory develop your love of writing?
I always liked writing, but I didn’t know my direction. I didn’t know how long I’d be in the States, whether I should eventually write in English or Chinese. But in the early ‘90s I realized I couldn’t go back [to China] so I decided to write in English. It was a quite rational switch. I’d been writing in English for a while because I had to do dissertations, so I also wrote poems in English. But I couldn’t see the big picture at the time.
Is there a difference between writing in English and Chinese?
In China, most full-time writers often write for their bosses… There is a lot of leisure, but more limitations and restrictions. In the US we don’t have that. You have to earn your own publishings. You have to write what you really love, and invest so much energy and life in it. The approaches to writing are very different.
Also, there is a big difference in style. Chinese is a language more “French” than French. The separation between speech and the written word is very clear. There are hundreds of dialects spoken in China, but when you come to the page it’s the same language. It’s a very different literary language. So, if I wrote in Chinese I’d have to echo that; I’d have to be aware of the weight of the tradition. But English is different. Any dialect is acceptable. It upsizes the coziness of the natural speech. So English has more vitality; it’s more inclusive.
Though you write in English, most of your work takes place in China. What is it like writing about this place where you grew up, that you can’t return to, in the US?
I haven’t returned to China for almost 3 decades; I haven’t even seen my parents since then. So it means that in the recent decades I may not be familiar with small details—material sensations, everyday life. The big picture is clear since I follow the news, but these small details and texture of daily life are absent. So in a way I’ve been forced to look for different subjects and different kinds of topics. They often [take place] between China and the US, or in the past or somewhere else. For instance one of my books is set in Korea, which is a neutral space.
During the Cultural Revolution, China repressed free speech. Do you think that’s influenced your writing at all?
Of course, but even now freedom of speech is a big issue [in China]. There is a censor. People have more freedom, but you can’t criticize the government or the leaders of China in public. You can in private, but not in public. In my case, I do it for the freedom in English. When I write in English, I don’t worry about what will be censored. It’s just a matter of taste. I cherish the freedom. English also creates a better esthetic; it makes the wording more elegant and clear.
Your work is sometimes described as “brutal” or “dirty.” Do you agree?
Maybe in my early work because those take place in the countryside of China, where I was from, so there was a lot of feeling for that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have spent the time working hard on those [pieces of work]. Maybe, if it’s brutal, then the story itself is brutal. Life is brutal. It’s justified. But in recent work I don’t think [the stories are] as brutal. For instance, “A Free Life” is about immigration. The story wasn’t brutal, so it deserves a different type of treatment. The drama itself justifies the presentation.
Why is your newer work less “brutal” or “shocking”? Does it stem from, perhaps, personal growth?
Because of my situation, I need to look for stories in between two cultures, two languages. In other words, my life has input into the experience of a person who is living away from their native home. This kind of life is different—it’s not as if you are in the midst of the Revolution. Also, China is different than it was three decades ago. It’s still a brutal place, but in a different way. It’s not so much physical now but mental. There’s more characteristic pressure and economic competition.
A lot of the themes in your work deal with suppression, immigration, sometimes even exile. Yet your work is fiction. Are the stories truly fictional?
The centers of some stories are real. As a fiction writer I try to make the drama more interesting, but I do feel a story or novel should have meaning. And the meaning often exists in the author—the drama in the details. It often embodies my perception of the world.
What is your perception of the world?
It’s changed a lot since I’ve lived in the States for almost 30 years. Gradually I…really appreciate life and I feel others should hear the truth. A piece of literature should be a piece of art. As a result I lead a different kind of life. It doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned China; I still follow the news and I still write about it, but from a different perspective. I do believe the written word is important, and human reason should give order to the world.
How do you think you have evolved as a writer since you began?
As a writer, I think I can bare more uncertainty now. In the beginning I didn’t know how far I could go, or if I could even finish a project. If everything is certain, maybe it’s not that good. Risk is always part of the creative process. So I guess now I am more at peace with the process.
You also started in poetry, but have since written novellas, novels, short stories, etc. Do you still consider yourself to be more of a poet than a novelist or storyteller?
I would consider myself both. I started with poetry and also received my graduate degree in poetry. But poetry was so hard to get published. Almost by chance a publisher wanted some pages of prose, so I wrote a novella. Later the poems got published as a book, so I took back the novella and expanded it to the novel Waiting. I’m still in the process of becoming some kind of writer (laughs).
You graduated from the Creative Writing Program at BU, and you’ve been teaching here since 2002. What has being a professor at BU taught you about writing? About yourself as a writer?
I also teach literature, which is a great help. It shows you what the great books should be like. There’s a sense of a standard in my mind. Also, every great piece of literature has a lot of lessons. Every time I read a book, I learn something new—it makes me feel enriched. As for [teaching] fiction writing, it’s rewarding to see students become accomplished. Many have published books and novels, so it’s fulfilling to see these people struggling and ending up with a book.
You were recently elected into the Academy of Arts and Letters, which The New York Times describes as “one of the highest honors in the arts.” What went through your mind when you found out?
I didn’t know it was a highest honor when I received it, but for me it is a great honor to be in the same ranks as the other artists, writers, composers etc. They have a limited number of members. Beyond that, you don’t have to pay! [To be part of] many societies you have to, and I never felt comfortable among the rich. So this is different—it’s purely an organization for artists. I’m very pleased with that.