Ha Jin Ponders the High Cost of Freedom
In BU prof’s latest novel, A Song Everlasting, a Chinese immigrant endures setbacks and challenges in his quest for artistic autonomy
In his latest novel, award-winning author Ha Jin returns to familiar ground, exploring the struggles and sacrifices many Chinese immigrants endure in their quest to build a new life for themselves in the United States. But this time, Jin (GRS’94), a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English and of creative writing, focuses on one immigrant’s pursuit of artistic freedom and the lengths he’ll go to to achieve it. The novel is also one of Jin’s most political, an unsparing look at a contemporary China whose government oppresses and exploits its citizens.
Yao Tian, the protagonist in A Song Everlasting (Pantheon, 2021), is a well-known Chinese opera singer who has no intention of emigrating to the United States at the novel’s outset. While on tour with his ensemble in New York, he agrees to take a side gig performing in a concert for Taiwan’s National Day celebrations to help earn money for his daughter’s school tuition. The offer of a $4,000 paycheck—nearly a quarter of what Tian makes in a year in China—is too tempting to pass up. But when he returns home, the politically naive artist soon finds himself in the crosshairs of the Ministry of Culture. He flees to New York, leaving behind his wife and daughter and a promising career.
Constructed in short chapters and told in spare language, the novel matter-of-factly describes the setbacks and challenges, personal and professional, Tian endures in his quest for autonomy. Accustomed to performing in big concert halls, he finds himself reduced to cleaning offices, working in construction, and eventually, singing in a casino and as a busker. And at every turn, he is threatened by the Chinese government. They cancel his passport, making it impossible for him to return home to see his family and to attend the funerals of his sister and his mother. Yet Tian remains resolute in his quest to live life on his own terms, reinventing himself as a teacher and songwriter when illness makes it impossible to continue performing.
Tian’s life bears some similarity to Jin’s own. Jin had traveled to the United States to earn a PhD in American literature at Brandeis in 1985, with plans to return to China to teach. But after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, he felt it was impossible to go home. He enrolled in BU’s Creative Writing Program and embarked on a career as a poet and novelist (A Song Everlasting is his ninth novel).
Bostonia spoke with Jin, a William Fairfield Warren Professor, who numbers among his honors a National Book Award and two PEN/Faulkner Awards, about the book, the ways his protagonist’s story mirrors his own, and the advice he offers students embarking on a writing career.
With Ha Jin
Bostonia: At its heart, A Song Everlasting is about artistic integrity and the price one is willing to pay to achieve it. What was it about that subject that interested you?
Ha Jin: For about a decade, I couldn’t view myself as an artist. During my eight years teaching at Emory University, I never used the word “artist” when referring to myself. It was a long process for me to learn there was a different kind of existence, one which can transcend politics. It’s not easy for an artist to survive, even in the United States and in this language, especially for a new immigrant.
Bostonia: How much of your own life and experience as an immigrant did you draw on in creating Tian?
Ha Jin: Very little. I share his pain. When my parents passed away, I couldn’t go back to attend their funerals because I was unable to get a visa from China’s consulate. I was told I was on a blacklist. I am bitter about this.
Bostonia: The novel is a stinging portrayal of the Chinese government as one of corruption, oppression, and vindictiveness. Does this reflect your own view of what’s happening in China right now?
Ha Jin: It is awful. Despite its economic power, China is still medieval in its political system. Now it has become the source of global suffering. The country has to change. If it cannot change by itself, it is our responsibility to make it change. Otherwise, humanity will suffer from such a monstrous power.
Bostonia: Has it become any easier for artists to find self-expression and freedom in China since you left in 1985?
Ha Jin: Not really. In recent years—since Xi Jiping came to power—suppression has become very severe. Artists can hardly survive in China, where the “red culture” is becoming prevalent again.
Bostonia: What reaction do you anticipate A Song Everlasting will receive in the Chinese press? Will it be censored? Do you expect that you will be criticized for your depiction of the government?
Ha Jin: No publisher on the mainland dares to touch such a book, but the translation for a publisher in Taiwan is underway. I have been censored by the Chinese government all the time. Recently, an Asian American literary scholar had her book translated into Chinese, but her mainland publisher cut a whole chapter about my writings and my name was struck out throughout the book. I don’t expect that will change unless the country changes politically.
Bostonia: You’ve said that you are both immigrant and exile. What do you mean by that?
Ha Jin: When I came to the United States to do graduate work, I didn’t think of immigration. But after the Tiananmen massacre, I couldn’t get my passport renewed—I was practically forced to immigrate. I became a refugee. In that sense, I am an exile and an immigrant—different from an exile, who usually lives in the past, I have always worked like a regular immigrant to earn the keep for my family and myself. It is a liberation, mentally.
Bostonia: A Song Everlasting unfolds in spare, lean prose and short chapters. How do you decide on the structure and tone of a novel?
Ha Jin: The spareness might have something to do with the fact that I also write poetry. It is a lengthy novel, so the short chapters provide some kind of inner briskness. As for the structure, I followed the unfolding of the story itself, which required a lot of patience. I also wanted the tone of the novel to remain somewhat neutral, not satirical, but lyrical at moments. I hope I’ve realized what I imagined for the novel.
Bostonia: As a writer of both short stories and novels, do you find one genre more challenging than the other?
Ha Jin: Novels are harder, of course. A novel needs more concentration and brain power. If a short story doesn’t work, you can abandon it and start a new one. But with a novel, you cannot afford to do that, and you have to spend years on it. A short story is close to poetry in impulse and needs a burst of energy. A novel is a long-distance run.
Bostonia: What advice do you offer young writers who aspire to be novelists or short story writers?
Ha Jin: Write your heart out, but don’t expect success in the short run. Treat it as a kind of existence.