Revered Chinese writer explores the writer's inner life
Jin Xuefei—Ha Jin to readers of his seven previous works of ?ction and three books of poetry—must certainly by now be part of the annual pistol duels at the Swedish Academy. That’s where the good gentlemen and ladies of Stockholm fight to decide winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
A 51-year-old native of Liaoning, People’s Republic of China, Ha Jin was formerly a teacher at Emory University and is now at Boston University. He enjoys a unique vantage point as we round the fast curve into the 21st century, standing with one leg in China and one leg in America, painting the view from up there in careful, deliberate, calligraphic brushstrokes. The dabs conjure canvases of impossibly exotic places—Chinese landscapes and communities like his ?ctional Muji City that somehow exist in our minds, as much make-believe as real.
Even Ha Jin’s own story seems fiction. Born in China as the son of a military officer, the writer-to-be served in the People’s Liberation Army before taking up university life, earning a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in Anglo-American Studies, these in mainland China.
Chasing a Ph.D., he traveled abroad on a scholarship to Brandeis University, but when the Chinese government crushed the incipient democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Ha Jin expatriated. Like two other literary masters, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, he left off publishing in his native language, choosing English for his first volume of poetry, Between Silences, and then for all of the subsequent works, which have been critically hailed (the measured and mesmerizing Waiting won a National Book Award in 1999).
A Free Life appears to convey more than a little autobiography. We read of an idealistic writer, Nan Wu, his wife Pingping and his child Taotao. Nan owns a restaurant in Atlanta that keeps him busy in the kitchen, and at home he ?tfully labors to write poetry in English well enough to feel con?dent in a writer’s life. Through Nan, Ha Jin explores American and Chinese flavors of artistic expression with the witness of a writer who has been there and done that, in both places.
The author tells stories simply and straight, without the ostentatious tricks of much modern lit—say, corpses bursting into magically realistic butter?ies, or weird waking dreams a la Murakami. Ha Jin gives us geese in slatted crates. A meal of mushrooms. A teeming streetscape. His subjects don’t need embellishment; Waiting and other works set abroad benefit hugely from the outlandishness of China’s culture to our Western eyes.
The story of Nan Wu turns this model inside out. Now, the outlandish world is America—Boston, Atlanta, New York, Iowa—seen through the eyes of Chinese immigrants. We’ve previously heard these dislocated ?ctional voices with an Irish lilt, an Italian song, a Jewish oy and so forth. The attraction of this Chinese perception—at a time when the Asian nation is superpowering, emerging as a place the West and especially America must know—fuels this work.
The central question of A Free Life, for American readers, is whether a 672-page report on the quotidian life of a Chinese family in a completely familiar world is compelling.
Some readers will decide it’s a long march. Where does it lead? It’s a book that is obsessively chronological, essentially a multi-year diary. And it’s a most familiar Everyman saga, life that’s been covered well by Updike and others: Nan Wu and his wife face marital issues and work through them. They make American friends, they lose American friends. They buy a restaurant, work tirelessly, buy a house, suffer personal tragedies, and throw hissy ?ts (at a pivotal point late in the book, Nan attacks an Asian god of wealth kept for luck near the restaurant entrance). They feel prejudice from their neighbors, they cast off some old ways and hold dear to others. They see some Chinese ex-pats disappoint themselves and friends, even as others hold steady. There are no villains, no family secrets lifted from old chests, no wizards or wands. There is only the ironic Free Life and its shackles, the sixty-hour weeks and second-guesses.
Other readers, probably most, will ?nd themselves absorbed. Ha Jin helps us see America in a way that eludes native-born citizens. Visiting a strip club or sitting with the Dalai Lama or observing a Western church service with Nan Wu, we discover—as only ?ction can teach—what it’s really like to walk a mile in another man’s shoes.
Amy Tan explores the Chinese-American experience in her worthy novels, as does Maxine Hong Kingston, and a few others. The experiences that inform Ha Jin's work have been a gift that sets him apart. He is a major literary figure at a key moment in history, his gossamer bridge of words spun between the world's oldest great culture and its newest.