[(essay date 2008) In the following interview, conducted in April 2008, Jin discusses the challenges of being a Chinese American author who writes in English. Chinese characters originally in this essay have been silently removed.]
[Shan]: Your ancestors were from Shandong Province, China, but you were born and raised in Liaoning Province. Can you say something about your family background? How has it affected you as a person and as a writer?
[Jin]: My father was an officer, and we moved around a lot in the northeast of China. As a result, I don’t have a sense of hometown. This has made me less nostalgic, unattached to any place.
Your original name in Chinese “Xuefei” (“Snow Flying”) is quite poetic. How did you get that name?
When I was born, there was a big snow, a few feet deep, so my parents picked that name for me.
When did you choose “Ha Jin” as your pen name and why? Did you first have the Chinese pen name or the English one? Is your Chinese pen name with “Ha,” not “Jin,” as the surname a misnomer?
My first English poem, “The Dead Soldier’s Talk”, was accepted for publication by Jonathan Galassi for The Paris Review. My teacher Frank Bidart had read it to him on the phone, so there was no name attached to it. Later, Frank asked me what name I wanted to put to it. Because the poem was a bit political by nature and I was reluctant to let people know I had been writing, I said, “How about Ha Jin?” He said, “It sounds good, very concise.” That was how it was chosen. “Ha” is the first character of the city “Harbin,” where I went to college. “Jin” is my family name. I was unpublished in Chinese then, so my Chinese pen name is the translation of my English pen name.
You decided to join the People’s Liberation Army to protect China from Russian invasion when you were not yet fourteen. What was the historical background then? When did you begin to question this kind of patriotism and look at the possible cowardice, as expressed in your poem “Promise”?
In a way, my going to the army was out of fear. A colleague of my father’s once showed me how the Russians were poised to attack China—he drew a map and penciled out all the Russian missile units and mechanized divisions stationed in Mongolia. I understood that if a war broke out, nuclear weapons might be used. So I thought it would be better to die at the front than to be killed at home. Of course, as a young boy I was somewhat scared by war too, especially by the possibility of being taken prisoner. To the Chinese, a POW was like a semi-criminal. The fear of that is reflected in the poem “Promise”.
Could you say something about your life before you came to the U.S., including your educational background?