Ha Jin’s second-floor office, on a tranquil tree-lined street, in Boston University’s English department is far removed from the grim landscape of provincial China during the early 1970s. He was called Xuefei Jin then, a teenage soldier who joined the People’s Liberation Army at 14, and he read voraciously for five and a half years while waiting for the schools closed by the Cultural Revolution to reopen.
Yet the poems and fiction he has published in America bring Jin’s distant homeland close to Western audiences. Waiting (1999), his poignant tale of a doctor forced to wait 18 years to free himself from an arranged marriage, won both a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Prize, well-deserved recognition of his ability to reveal universal truths about human nature and individual choice in narratives vibrant with the realities of a very foreign land. In such books as The Crazed (2002) and War Trash (2004), he delineates the personal and political conflicts of peasants, soldiers, industrial workers and intellectuals with a quiet empathy that enables readers of English—the adopted language in which he writes—to feel their kinship with people whose history and culture are dramatically different from theirs.
With Pantheon’s publication of A Free Life, Jin, 51, has turned to the American scene, charting the 10-year odyssey of Nan Wu, a Chinese graduate student studying political science at Brandeis who decides to remain in the United States following the Tiananmen Square massacre. Jin himself was studying writing at Brandeis in 1989, and the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown led him, too, to decide that he could never go back. “But the novel is not really autobiographical,” Jin says. “I never lived in New York, I never ran a restaurant [Nan does both], and I was so much more fortunate by comparison.” Though Jin held some menial jobs while completing his Ph.D. at Brandeis, he was hired by Emory University as an assistant professor in 1993, a year after he got his degree, and has contentedly combined teaching with creative writing ever since. (He moved to a full professorship at B.U. in 2002.) Nan, by contrast, spends years struggling to make a living, wondering forlornly whether he will ever write poetry again.
Different though their résumés are, both the author and his protagonist have no regrets about the choice they made, the decision to embrace the mingled perils and promise embodied in Jin’s title: A Free Life. “That’s the American experience!” he exclaims. “It took me over a year to decide on the title; I tried A Beginning, The Follower of the Heart, but when I thought of this one, I knew it was right. Most new immigrants don’t know how to handle freedom. It’s a huge gift, but it comes with a huge price that a lot of people are unwilling to pay. The price is uncertainty, loneliness and a long-term struggle; you have to travel by yourself to find your own destiny. That’s why a lot of people, if you give them the choice, might prefer security to freedom.”
Not Nan, who in the novel’s moving final pages has sold his profitable restaurant and become a night watchman, deciding “to be brave enough to devote himself not to making money but to writing poetry, willing to face failure.” And not Jin, who gave up a privileged position in Chinese society to “start from scratch” in America. “In China, where only 1% of young people could go to college, I not only went to college [after the Cultural Revolution ended], I got a master’s degree in American literature. In the whole country maybe less than 100 people could do that.” There would have been a job waiting for him when he returned from Brandeis, but after seeing the televised images of an army that Jin had been told his whole life existed to serve the people, firing on civilians in Tiananmen Square, he did not want to go back to China.
Facing the far more uncertain U.S. job market, Jin looked at the strategies of his American friends and concluded that the best way to get a teaching job was to publish books. His wife, Lisha, was willing to scrabble with him; they both wanted a free life for their young son, Wen (now himself a graduate student). The gamble paid off surprisingly quickly: the University of Chicago published Jin’s first book of poetry, Between Silences, in 1990, and that helped him get the Emory position.
“I worked hard as a poet at Emory,” he recalls. “But while I was job hunting, to fill my time I had studied fiction writing at B.U., and I gradually realized that some of the material I used in my first book of poems would be more effective in short stories; that’s how I started to write Ocean of Words.” Based on his army experiences, that 1996 collection was followed by Under the Red Flag (1997), 12 tales set during the Cultural Revolution, and by the scathingly comic 1998 novel, In the Pond, which was supposed to be part of Under the Red Flag, but “it just got bigger and bigger until it wouldn’t fit in the book. That was the transition. I began to work in longer forms.”
Waiting was Jin’s breakthrough. It brought him to Lane Zachary after years of bouncing from agent to agent. And it marked his move from nurturing small presses (most notably the now defunct Zoland Books) to his first contract with a major trade publisher. He was happy to settle down at Pantheon, where Lu Ann Walther has edited his fiction ever since. “I feel very lucky to have worked with her for so many years. I cherish the continuity,” he says. “But she doesn’t suggest topics or anything like that. She always says, ‘Write whatever you want!’ ”
Walther hardly needs to offer that advice to Jin. “I don’t think of the audience when I write,” he says. “I just try to make the story work, to make it meaningful and nuanced.” Though he was pleased by winning the NBA and the PEN/Faulkner for Waiting, “really, you can’t judge a book by awards. So much depends on all the people who published that year, and on who the judges are. It’s gratifying to have readers and to continue publishing, but what I always try to do is just to make it as good as I can, to write a piece of literature.” Despite the political aspects of writing about life in a communist country or about immigrant life in America, he says, “I am more concerned with a person’s fate, the choices he makes and why he made them.”
Jin’s most fateful choice, he believes, was to write in English. “I transported myself to another tradition, the one set up by Conrad and Nabokov. There are disadvantages. I will never feel at home in English, so the books involve so much labor and so much risk. I have to go over everything again and again, to work hard to make everything right. There’s an absence of spontaneity. If you read Conrad and Nabokov, you see it, too, but they know how to turn it to advantage; they create their own style. I don’t exactly try to emulate them, but I try to understand their logic, then find my own way.”
At the moment, his own way involves a new short story collection. “It’s difficult, because I’ve been writing novels for so many years. I had lost some of the feel for short stories as a genre. You have to have a lot of emotion in a story, because of the economy of the form, but the language can work miracles. I never wrote stories set in the States before, that’s why I wanted to do this now. I don’t mind being a Chinese-American writer: my first 29 years were spent in China; it would be insane to erase that. But my subject matter is not about China anymore; it’s about the American experience.”