The Accidental Immigrant

Exiled by political events in his native China, novelist Ha Jin, MA’89, PhD’93, H’05, discovered freedom writing in the English language.

Ha Jin, MA’89, PhD’93, H’05
Mike Lovett
Ha Jin, MA’89, PhD’93, H’05
He was 29 in 1985 when he arrived at Logan Airport from China with a suitcase and a duffel bag, a tattered assortment of dictionaries, and $30 in his pocket. He was 34 before he had much interest in writing anything but poetry. Yet following his first book of short stories, published in 1996, he went on to pen three more story collections, a book of critical essays, four volumes of poetry, eight novels and, this year, an ambitious biography of China’s most renowned ancient poet.

Today, Ha Jin, MA’89, PhD’93, H’05 — his real name is Xuefei Jin — has garnered almost as many literary awards in the United States, Europe and Asia as he has published books.

“Ocean of Words,” his first collection of stories, won the PEN/Hemingway Award for short fiction in 1996. His second story collection, “Under the Red Flag,” received the Flannery O’Connor Award the following year. His second novel, “Waiting,” published in 1999, won a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

He won another PEN/Faulkner Award in 2005, for the anti-communism novel “War Trash.” With that, Jin joined E.L. Doctorow, Philip Roth and John Edgar Wideman as the only writers to receive the PEN/Faulkner Award twice. The same year, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

By the time “Waiting” appeared, masters of fiction like John Updike believed Jin had done something few immigrant writers attempt. “A critic cannot but be impressed by the courage and intellect of the Chinese American writer Ha Jin,” Updike wrote in a 2007 New Yorker profile. “His prize-winning command of English has a few precedents, notably Conrad and Nabokov, but neither made the leap out of a language as remote from the Indo-European group, in grammar or vocabulary, in scriptural and literary tradition, as Mandarin.”

There has been a 21st-century surge in critical acclaim for a generation of Asian and Asian American writers, who are finally attaining recognition equal to that received by their European and Hispanic brethren. Yet Perry Link, a leading historian of Chinese literature, believes Jin stands alone. This is not merely because Jin has been prolific and successful, Link says. It’s because he began weaning himself from writing in his native Chinese almost as soon as he arrived in the U.S. Although Jin still translates his poetry from Chinese into English, he composes all his fiction in English.

A Foxborough, Massachusetts, resident, Jin teaches in Boston University’s creative-writing MFA program, where he first studied the art of fiction. At 63, he looks every bit the sweater-clad, slightly rumpled professor. He’s gracious and soft-spoken, sprinkling his conversation with the occasional self-deprecating laugh.

If you asked him, he would modestly explain that his rise to a lofty literary perch has been accidental. It would be hard to argue otherwise.

From propaganda novels to Plath

Like anyone born in China in 1956, Jin entered a world in which accidents lurked around every corner. Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders, looking for a shortcut to industrialization, launched the hastily conceived Great Leap Forward in 1958. By the time Jin was 6, an estimated 20 million people had died of starvation.

Four years later, the Cultural Revolution plunged China’s cities into disarray. Neighbors tattled on one another. All schools were closed. If you were suspected of having a sliver of an education, you were banished to labor in the countryside.

One day, a posse of Red Guards rolled through Jin’s neighborhood and torched his father’s library. A propaganda officer in the People’s Liberation Army, Jin’s father was ordered to hit the road to spread the disruptive messages of the time. Jin’s mother, whose father had been a small landowner, was sent to a rural farm. Before his mother left, Jin remembers her being shoved into a garbage can for humiliation’s sake. He doesn’t remember why.

Jin briefly became a young Red Guard himself, running with a gang of red-kerchiefed youth. He saw firsthand the public persecutions of the Cultural Revolution: teachers beaten, bureaucrats paraded with dunce caps on their heads, women accused of adultery and assaulted. When the government announced a war with the Soviet Union was imminent, Jin lied about his age and enlisted in the PLA. He figured it was better to fight than wait for a nuclear winter.

The army sent Jin to the frigid reaches of the northeast Sino-Soviet border. Assigned to an artillery unit, he waited for a war that never came — and for food, which was almost as scarce. When he was discharged at 19, Jin says, he was “mostly illiterate.” He wrangled a job as a radio telegraph operator near the border, where he watched PLA and party cadres try to keep tabs on each other or evade authority altogether.

PARTY LINE: Undated cut-paper image, typical of Chinese propaganda, showing Mao Zedong surrounded by beaming Red Guards.
Wikimedia Commons
PARTY LINE: Undated cut-paper image, typical of Chinese propaganda, showing Mao Zedong surrounded by beaming Red Guards.
In 1977, as the Cultural Revolution finally ground to a halt and universities gradually reopened, Jin began educating himself by reading whatever he could get his hands on, from propaganda novels to Tolstoy and “Don Quixote.” He read a lot of Chinese poetry, which he loved. Mostly, his education was limited to a very thorough study of the dictionary.

He was determined to go to school, he says, to make himself “useful in peace.” He took the national university entrance exams, listing philosophy, the classics, world history and library science as possible majors. He was denied them all and was instead assigned to his last choice: English, at Heilongjiang University, in Harbin.

Placed in the “slow class,” he plowed through pronunciation drills he despised. Regarding the English language as simply a tool (“something to read manuals with,” he says), he blundered along for two years until he discovered American literature. It was then, reading Whitman, Frost and Hemingway, that he discovered his oeuvre. When he began studying for a master’s in American literature at Shandong University in 1982, Jin was deep into Plath and Roethke. At last, he felt he was someplace he belonged.

He had no interest in studying abroad until Beatrice Spade, a Fulbright Scholar and Harvard graduate-student instructor, suggested he apply to Brandeis. Many of his classmates were going to the U.S. to study, so it seemed like the thing to do, he says. At 29, Jin said goodbye to his wife, a mathematics instructor, and their toddler son. He fully expected to return to China four years later with a PhD in hand and take a job teaching American literature.

Capitalism 101

When Jin arrived in Boston in late summer 1985, his first lesson was in how to operate a seatbelt. Seatbelts were not required in China; he couldn’t remember ever having seen one. He’d been a passenger in a few Russian cars at home, but they didn’t beep at you after the door was closed. His next order of business, after settling into his graduate residence hall at Brandeis, was learning how to navigate American banks. Spade had given Jin a $500 check to help with expenses. But it was only a slip of paper until he could figure out how to cash it.

Toward the end of his first school year in Waltham, Jin’s Brandeis stipend had nearly run out. At first, it didn’t occur to him that he’d have to look for a job. “In China, once you are in university, you don’t have to think about supporting yourself,” he says with a laugh. “I had to make an adjustment.”

Classmate Dan Morris, PhD’92, now an English professor at Purdue, offered to split his custodial job with Jin: mopping floors, cleaning toilets and running errands for nearby doctors’ offices. After a patient asked him to keep an eye on a burgundy station wagon, Jin had to ask several people to explain “station wagon.” “He noted everything, always studying people’s gestures, paying attention to the cultural semiotics most of us ignore,” Morris recalls.

In the meantime, Jin began experimenting with language. Instead of writing poetry in Chinese, he tried his hand at English. A couple of months into his second year at Brandeis, he took a chance, submitting a poem, “The Dead Soldier’s Talk,” in a seminar with Frank Bidart, who read it and immediately called Jonathan Galassi, then poetry editor at The Paris Review. Galassi agreed to publish it in the Winter 1986 issue.

Jin knew Americans had as much trouble pronouncing “Xuefei” as he had saying “this” or “that.” So, to create a simple pen name, Jin used the first two letters of his favorite city, Harbin. “Ha Jin” was born.

Of all the accidents that forced Jin to adjust his plans for the future, none had more impact than the Tiananmen Square massacre. By May 1989, what had begun the previous month as a student democracy march from Beijing University to Tiananmen Square was now a sit-in that had transformed the square into a breathtaking ocean of banners, bicycles and protesters. The sit-in sparked a nationwide protest for pluralism. Pro-democracy leaders called on the government to bring an end to Communist Party rule. Millions of students, bureaucrats, teachers, workers and visitors were amassing in other cities around China.

Like every other Chinese student in America who still had close ties to home, Jin and his wife, Lisha — who had joined him from China the year before — stayed glued to CNN. Hope swelled that China’s leaders might heed the call and show an interest in loosening the political reins.

Instead, in the early hours of June 4, a squadron of tanks and three divisions of PLA troops moved toward Tiananmen Square. Wantonly spraying bullets, the soldiers wounded and killed workers, students and hapless bystanders. As Jin says, “only the relatives know” how many thousands were killed that night in Beijing and elsewhere. But, even to those watching the carnage on a television screen half a world away, it was achingly clear that any consideration of democracy in China had been reduced to a footnote.

CALLS FOR FREEDOM: A view of the crowd in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 1, 1989, three days before the massacre.
Eric Bouvet / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
CALLS FOR FREEDOM: A view of the crowd in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 1, 1989, three days before the massacre.

No going back

Jin felt sick, utterly betrayed by the army that he and his father had belonged to. He says he felt as though he’d watched a mother eat her children: “We knew instinctively that we would never be able to go home. I couldn’t imagine that in my lifetime there would ever be real political change.”

In the weeks following June 4, Jin and Lisha’s first order of business was extricating their 6-year-old son, Wen, and, if possible, Lisha’s parents (who were PLA doctors) from Shandong. The Beijing government was blocking the return of Chinese citizens who had shown the slightest antipathy toward the regime. In turn, the families of any suspected dissident were barred from leaving China, effectively making them hostages.

But the bureaucratic chaos following the crackdown offered a stroke of luck: Chinese officials somehow allowed Wen to fly to San Francisco. But Jin’s in-laws were unable to leave. And when Jin’s mother became ill a decade ago, he could not get a visa to go home to see her. Both of Jin’s parents died without seeing their son again.

Facing a future as an exile, Jin decided to exercise his new freedom to the fullest. For him, learning to write in English was the only way to mentally and emotionally get beyond the political constraints under which he had been raised. Writing in English would help him understand the world in a non-Chinese context. Like Vladimir Nabokov, who viewed intercultural writing as a passport to be anywhere, observe anything, Jin gambled he would eventually be able to write his way out of a cultural box.

In 1990, the University of Chicago Press published Jin’s first book of poetry, “Between Silences.” It was a remarkable milestone for a 34-year-old graduate student and a creative achievement for a writer from China. Five years after arriving in Boston with his dictionaries, Jin had written an entire book in English.

Although “Between Silences” garnered critical acclaim, a year later Jin couldn’t find a publisher for his second book of poems. “Nobody told me that I had to go out and market the book myself,” he recalls with a slightly sheepish smile. “So when I went back to the publisher, they said, ‘We’re sorry. Your first book didn’t sell enough copies.’”

Encouraged by his doctoral adviser, the poet Allen Grossman, PhD’60, Jin earned a place in Boston University’s creative writing program, where his classmates included Jhumpa Lahiri. The BU program paid his tuition and gave him a stipend. Still, that wasn’t enough to feed a family of three. “We had to survive,” says Jin. “I couldn’t teach elsewhere because I didn’t have a degree in other fields. I couldn’t even teach Chinese literature.”

The next several years were not easy. In addition to his MFA studies at BU, Jin was still working on his dissertation on modern British and American poetry at Brandeis. To put food on the table, he held a series of part-time jobs, as a janitor, a night watchman and an employee at a Friendly’s. Eventually, he landed an ongoing position as a library assistant.

Jin finally earned his PhD at Brandeis in 1993. “Brandeis is where I learned to question things, to think, organize my thoughts — to do research instead of just accepting, and then to make my own decisions,” he says.

He was offered a job teaching poetry writing at Emory University, in Atlanta. Although the move south was a culture shock, the next seven years were his most productive, and his work drew the plaudits that established him as an exceptional, almost inexplicable creative force.

Playwright Frank Manley, director of Emory’s creative writing program, in a 1998 interview called Jin “the only real genius I have ever known.”

A clear window

To understand Jin’s particular shade of genius, you have to read his work. “Waiting” is a good place to start.

Updike described the novel, an alternately grim and funny tale of unrequited love and moral conflict during China’s Cultural Revolution, as “impeccably written, in a sober prose that […] capably delivers images, characters, sensations, […] bits of comedy and glimpses of natural beauty.”

Literary critics adore “Waiting.” Even China scholars regard it as a chilling yet subtle portrayal of the physical and psychological battles that shredded the fabric of Chinese society so completely that it has, even today, yet to recover.

Lin Kong, the novel’s protagonist, is a young doctor whose only constant in life is an annual pilgrimage home, during which he attempts — over 18 years — to divorce his wife and dissolve their arranged marriage. Meanwhile, Lin haplessly courts Manna Wu, a bright, charismatic nurse he thinks he loves. Under the ever-watchful gaze of superiors and shadowed by regulations that prohibit extramarital affairs, Lin wavers in his commitment to Manna. Politics govern almost all social interaction in the book. The resulting moral vacuum starves characters of the experience they need to make decisions.

EMINENTLY ACCESSIBLE: Jin reads from “The Banished Immortal,” his 2019 biography  of poet Li Bai, at Boston University.
Mike Lovett
EMINENTLY ACCESSIBLE: Jin reads from “The Banished Immortal,” his 2019 biography of poet Li Bai, at Boston University.

Twenty years after it was published, “Waiting” retains a timeless authenticity and relevance beyond China or the Cultural Revolution. Asked about the discomfort the story conjures, Jin almost winces. “I think of ‘Waiting’ as a social and sexual ‘1984,’” he says. “It is such a cruel story.”

“A Free Life” (2007), Jin’s first novel set in the U.S., draws on the drama surrounding Wen’s journey from China and his reunion with his anxious parents in San Francisco. While not entirely autobiographical, the book is an endearing look at the trials of a young émigré poet who moves between Boston, New York and Atlanta, often making ends meet by holding down several jobs to support his literary pursuits. (“Ha Jin has a special place in Chinese literature, because he has taken his writing beyond China,” says Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The New York Times in Beijing.)

Jin’s next novels — “War Trash,” “Nanjing Requiem” (2011) and “A Map of Betrayal” (2014) — are based on well-researched events that reflect a shifting historical backdrop. In “War Trash,” an utterly bleak prisoner-of-war memoir, protagonist Yu Yuan is a thoughtful, timid recruit in China’s intervention into the Korean War. Ill-equipped and barely trained, Yu’s division is gradually eviscerated by American and South Korean troops. Badly wounded by a grenade, Yu is captured and spends the rest of the conflict in two POW camps off South Korea’s coast, where he’s brutalized by thugs who lead the Nationalist and Communist prison populations. He’s haunted by a choice: Should he defect to Taiwan, or risk being executed for treason by his own Communist commanders upon his release?

As novelist Russell Banks wrote in a New York Times review, “The result is that [Jin’s] narrator, Yu Yuan, is one of the most fully realized characters to emerge from the fictional world in years.” Nor does the author spare any culture as he describes every faction’s preferred methods of torture and depravity.

The arc of Jin’s body of work offers a clear window on his education as an immigrant and development as a writer. His most recent book, “The Banished Immortal” (2019), a biography of Li Bai, the Tang Dynasty poet, bon vivant and raconteur, reaches back in time to move his writing forward. Jin jettisons the slightly stilted, non-native affect of his earlier books for a smooth, textured interpretation of a historical figure Jin clearly identifies with. A story usually relegated to dusty university library stacks becomes an eminently accessible adventure.

It seems like a departure from Jin’s usual fare. He suggests it’s just another unplanned step on a familiar long and winding road. “Sometimes circumstances prevent me from spending the time to inhabit a novel, and then I write poetry or shorter fiction,” he says.

If circumstances have etched a circuitous path in this writer’s life, in another unexpected twist he has made his way home, this time in the language of his adopted country.

And that’s no accident.

Frank Gibney Jr. is a writer and editor. He covered East Asia for Newsweek and Time during the 1980s and ’90s.