Fear is the major emotion in the immigrant experience, because you left everything behind,” says Xuefei Jin, who writes under the name Ha Jin, over Zoom on a rainy April afternoon from his house in Foxborough, Mass. “Even your values are less relevant in a new place. So you are free, but there’s uncertainty, trepidation too.”
Jin is speaking of Yao Tian, the protagonist of his new novel, A Song Everlasting (Pantheon, July). Tian is a famous Chinese singer who runs into trouble with the Chinese government while on tour with the People’s Ensemble in the United States and winds up staying in the country—leaving behind a wife and teenage daughter.
But Jin is also reflecting on his own experience. The author of more than 18 books (including 1999’s Waiting, which won the National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award, and the 2005 PEN/Faulkner-winner War Trash), he was born in China in 1956 and joined the People’s Liberation Army when he was 13, during the Cultural Revolution. While he was a soldier, he taught himself how to read (using a pocket dictionary). Most of the books available were by Engels, Mao, Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. He vividly recalls spending four hours reading the first page of Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. “After that, I read everything,” he says. His parents sent him an old high school textbook, which became one of his most precious possessions; as an exercise, he tried to memorize poems from the book—by Bai Juyi, Li Bai, Su Shu, and Tu Fu.
After his time in the army, Jin passed a university entrance exam and was assigned to be an English major. He earned his BA from Heilongjiang University and a masters in American literature from Shandong University.
Jin came to the U.S. in 1985 to get his PhD in English and American literature from Brandeis, and after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 he decided to stay. “I’d planned to return to teach in China, but after that, I just couldn’t go back,” he says.
Jin couldn’t find a job teaching in America, and when he looked for other kinds of work, he also hit a wall. (He discovered that Chinese restaurants wouldn’t hire him, as most of them were Cantonese owned and he didn’t speak the dialect.) He decided to shift his focus to creative writing. He studied fiction at Boston University, where he now teaches, and his first book, a poetry collection titled Between Silences, came out while he was a 34-year-old grad student. It was inspired by his experience serving in the Chinese army. While writing it, he realized that his subject would be better addressed in fiction.
“All of his books are different, and yet the writing has this serene and wonderful quality,” says LuAnn Walther, Jin’s longtime editor at Pantheon. “He does fix your attention, and he holds you as a good storyteller does, and there is a kind of simplicity about it: the attention to detail, the little things he notices. He’s thinking about the big questions all the time—those concerning freedom, identity, artistic integrity, character and fate, and what happens to people under the cloud of oppressive regimes. It’s always about the human story. He’s also writing in a language that he learned, so he’s creating a different kind of English, as well. It’s a different kind of prose. I find it magical. Every book of his is so quietly gripping.”
In A Song Everlasting, Tian agrees to an extra performance to make some money, only to realize his passport may be revoked because the organizers of the event are supporters of Taiwan’s secession from China. He ends up going to New York City, where he’s offered $4 million to stop performing outside of China by someone who may be associated with a propaganda group in the Chinese government. After he refuses, he’s blacklisted by the Chinese government, and the novel follows his efforts to carve out a new life in America, at one point singing in a casino to earn a living.
As Jin writes in the novel, Tian reflects on how so many immigrants were, like him, “attempting to break loose from the grip of the past and to start over in a faraway place. But few of them could foresee the price for that beginning, or the pain and the hardship that came after.”
Tian’s passion for singing is what forms the core of A Song Everlasting. But the novel isn’t just about being a struggling artist; it’s also a timely story about disturbing aspects of life in both China and America today.
“Jin explains in this book not only Tian’s horror of having to live under surveillance but also the terror of his coming into America and working through the immigration system,” Walther says. “The way people are constantly afraid. It’s always been in his work, but this time out it’s strikingly relevant to the times that we are in.”
Jin was first enamored with short fiction—he includes Isaac Babel’s collection Red Cavalry as a particularly eye-opening book for him. He enjoyed the form’s ability to allow for more gray areas. “For short fiction, everything is supposed to be suggested, but for a novel, there are moments you have to be very straightforward, to give the background information,” he says. “To build your house, you have to lay the foundation, and the frame must be firm.”
Jin’s style in A Song Everlasting is often direct, describing the hardships Tian faces, including his inability to go to his own mother’s funeral. This is another parallel to Jin’s life. He hasn’t been back to mainland China since the 1980s, not even to attend his parents’ funerals. His application was dismissed, and he was later told he was on a blacklist. “I think I’m in between, both an immigrant and also an exile,” he notes. “That’s the reality, whether I like it or not.”
Jin says that only a third of his books are available in mainland China, and the ones that have been published there are censored. “The work doesn’t have the integrity anymore,” he says. “Any time they did that, I would feel, you know, the teeth of the book were pulled.” He thinks that A Song Everlasting will be banned in China, too.
“As an artist, you understand that when you write you don’t just want to condemn and criticize or expose,” Jin says. “There’s the urge within, your personal need, to make something; the basic desire of your life as a person is to create something. Most people wouldn’t view the creative work and the process as a personal need; they always perceive this as a social and a historical thing. They don’t understand there is an inner need, an impulse within. So I constantly have to wrestle with that.”
When asked how he feels about his books being censored or banned in his homeland, and the fact that he wasn’t able to attend his parents’ funerals, Jin says, “It happened to many people; many immigrants are exiles. They cannot go back just for a visit. I understand if there’s a quarantine or some other extreme circumstance, but in a situation like mine and others, it’s arbitrary—as if the government of the country is there just to create barriers, to create obstacles and suffering for you.”
Michele Filgate is the editor of the anthology What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About and a writer whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere.