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Worth the Wait

U.S.-based Chinese writer Ha Jin was tired of waiting to land a job using his native Chinese skills, so he began writing in English. His novel Waiting took home last year's prestigious American National Book Award.

Reading the outpouring of praise in the international press for Chinese novelist Ha Jin, one could hardly be blamed for thinking of him as a passionate and politically driven exile dedicated to opposing totalitarian rule in his homeland.

Critics liken him to Russia's famous dissident writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and fans hail Jin as the new voice of underground China.

But in fact, the 44-year-old Liaoning province native, whose latest novel Waiting recently won the prestigious American National Book Award, is much more interested in simply telling a good story, particularly in English.

"There are stories I want to tell," says Jin, now living in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. "And writing is something I can do. For many years, I didn't know what I could do. But I feel most at home on the page."

Jin became an English-language writer almost by happenstance.

Fifteen years ago, he won a scholarship to study American literature in a Ph.D. program at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Although his field was modern American poetry and literature, his eye was on the Chinese job market.

"I thought I could finish the dissertation in four years," says Jin, who had been expecting to return to China by 1990. Work prospects included a research and teaching job at the Shandong University Institute of American Literature - where he had worked before leaving China.

After a year in the States, his six-year-old son and his wife, Bian Lisha, joined him. Job prospects in China were grim following the events of 1989, and there was little reason to go home so he decided to stay in the U.S.

However, there was an unexpected casualty: his career. Having devoted two decades to cultivating a Chinese research and writing career, Jin suddenly found himself armed with the wrong degree and the wrong language skills.

"I looked for jobs related to Chinese - newspapers, translation, teaching," he says in soft-spoken but heavily-accented English. "Nobody would hire me because all my degrees were in English literature. So I decided to write in English."

After completing his dissertation at Brandeis, Jin enrolled in a fiction writing course at nearby Boston University. During the course, Ha began drawing on his (1966-76) Cultural Revolution experiences.

"I think I was perhaps obsessed with the material," he says. "I felt I could do something with it. And I had read The Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel and thought maybe I could write a book like that."

Jin, who served five and a half years in the People's Liberation Army, enlisted when he was only 13 because "there wasn't anything to do at the time."

"We were told there would be a war between China and the Soviet Union," he recalls. "I thought, better to join the army rather than wait for an air raid."

In the writing classes, Jin worked on what would ultimately become two short story collections written in stark, simple prose and published under the pen name Ha Jin. The writer's real name is Jin Xuefei. He adopted "Ha Jin" because he thought few Americans would be able to pronounce his real name. "Ha" is short for Harbin, the northeastern Chinese city where Jin attended Heilongjiang University.

The first collection, Ocean of Words, takes an affectionate look at army life on the Sino-Soviet border in the 1970s. The second, Under the Red Flag, is confined to the lives of one village called Dismount Fort. However, both its tone and subject matter are much harsher than his first work, with strong echoes of legendary Chinese writer Lu Xun's The True Story of Ah Q.

Jin admits he was trying to emulate Lu, writing a "moral history about that place at that time," but says he was also trying to follow the structures often seen in Western works, such as James Joyce's Dubliners or Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio stories.

Jin's two books drew widespread praise. Ocean of Words won the 1997 PEN/Hemingway Award for Fiction while Under the Red Flag was awarded the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Accolades introduced him as a "new dissident writer." Others praised him as "the first Chinese Communist writer to make fictional use of daily life under the Party."

Jin shrugs off the political stereotypes. He's more concerned with working on his craft, and becoming a man of letters like the subject of his master's thesis - Robert Penn Warren. He has just secured a Guggenheim fellowship, affording him a sabbatical from Emory University, where he normally teaches poetry and writing classes. He plans to use the time to continue writing his third novel - about Chinese intellectuals and insanity, and to finish a third collection of short stories. If that weren't enough, he has also just completed a third volume of poems, which will be published later this year.

His achievements are remarkable, especially considering Jin first learned English from a radio program while stationed with the PLA on the Sino-Soviet border and only started writing fiction 10 years ago.

His mentor, Leslie Epstein, recalls meeting the aspiring author when he started taking writing classes at Boston University.

"When he started out, he had a poor command of idiomatic English. He was very hard to understand," says Epstein, who is the director of the creative writing program at the university.

But "he must have applied himself with the force of a tornado. I would say that he's a master of English now," says Epstein. "Every now and then, there's an idiomatic mistake. He sometimes drops from the international style and uses American-style colloquialisms like 'wow' or 'pal.' But then he sits there with a dozen dictionaries trying to work them out."

Jin conceives his stories in English, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of translating from Chinese to English. He also laughs at the suggestion that anyone helps him write.

"I never ask anybody. I'm a teacher of writing! That would be a scandal," he says. Instead, "I always look at dictionaries, at books, at other people's writing."

But Jin admits it isn't easy. "The English language is very loose. 'You go to the hospital,' but 'you go to jail.' Why does one sentence use an article, and the other not? That kind of thing, there's no logic to it," says the novelist who does most of his writing at home. "The more you learn, the more confusing it becomes. So it has to be resolved case by case. Writing is like drudgery."

Waiting, a story about a man torn between two worlds and two women, is breathtaking precisely for Jin's painstakingly crafted prose. The opening is textbook-perfect; it elicits the reader's attention while outlining the story's tension in one short sentence: "Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu."

For this, Jin credits Edith Wharton and Anton Chekhov, whose theories on starting a novel he took very seriously: "The first sentence must capture the center of the drama."

Waiting is based on a story Jin heard from his wife and in-laws. "The original story was very simple, but a love story is difficult to write. It's the most difficult subject in literature. It's hard to bring anything new to it," he says. "At first, I didn't understand the depth of the story. Eight years ago, I couldn't write such a book. It needs skill. It needs ability to develop the novel," says the writer, who began the novel in 1994 and finished it four years later.

In the end, Jin constructed not just a simple love story but what he calls an allegory of love.

"It's about a decent man who is not capable of loving others. And given different situations and a different social environment, this kind of defect could have been overcome. He could have developed into a normal human being, but he was deprived of all those choices," explains Jin.

"So it has allegorical meanings. It is not just about Chinese. I am pretty sure there are American men like that," he adds, laughing.

LuAnn Walther, Jin's editor at Pantheon/Vintage Books, agrees. "I think there's a really interesting thing going on that his subject matter is Asia (up until now), but it's written in a way that people who love the Western canon can immediately warm to," she enthuses. "It's very unusual, that he's a voice that's come out of China but what you're hearing in your head is like the classics that you've read - Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol."

Jin plans to move away from stories based only on China, and focus more on immigrant life.

"That's the life I experience and understand better than the recent Chinese life," he says. A note of urgency creeps into his voice as he continues, "There are some fundamental issues of language, freedom and insecurity there. Just imagine the passion and human desire in the immigrant experience. I think there's something noble about it. That kind of subject really moves me."

And besides, he adds, "China has become unfamiliar to me now. It's distant."

Indeed, the ties to his homeland appear increasingly tenuous. The novelist, who became a U.S. citizen in 1997, says he doesn't plan to visit his native country anytime soon, where his parents and five siblings still live. Moreover, he rarely writes in Chinese anymore and has few Chinese friends. But far from sounding estranged from his origins, Jin takes everything in stride. In characteristic frankness, he says, "I think writing in English has alienated me from many Chinese. We don't have the same interests anymore." He concludes, however, on a very Chinese note, "Language divides the saltwater and freshwater fish."


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