[(essay date 2010) In the following interview, conducted in April 2009, Jin claims to have distanced himself from the disadvantaged members of society, but Varsava notes that his “evolving perceptions of his own ontology as a writer have not in fact led him away from the underprivileged and struggling.”]
An acclaimed fiction writer, but also a Ph.D. in English (Brandeis, 1992), Ha Jin is fully mindful of operating within a number of powerful literary traditions: the writer as immigrant, as self-exile, as scholar, as human-rights advocate. As he discusses at length in The Writer as Migrant (2008), based on the 2006 Rice University Campbell Lectures, a number of celebrated writers—including Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov—have fashioned powerful idioms in English, a nonnative language for them. Both an immigrant and a self-exile, Ha Jin took it upon himself early in his career to be a spokesman in English for the downtrodden in China. Writing in the preface to Between Silences (1990), his first poetry collection, he calls himself a “fortunate one” who is speaking for “those unfortunate people who suffered, endured or perished at the bottom of life and who created history and at the same time were fooled or ruined by it.” He acknowledges that, given the collectivistic biases of Chinese culture, it initially felt “almost natural” to assume this solicitous, patronizing role vis-à-vis his fellow Chinese. Ha Jin has more recently disavowed this self-assigned role, preferring to accentuate the priority of his own independent “personal voice” and, equally, the limits of literature as “social struggle.”
Still, and the paradox is more apparent than real, Ha Jin’s evolving perceptions of his own ontology as a writer have not in fact led him away from the underprivileged and struggling, as any survey of his work confirms. It has been only recently, in advanced mid-career, that Ha Jin has moved away from narratives set in his native China in the postwar period to explore the lives of immigrants/self-exiles in contemporary America. Only two of his books—his long novel A Free Life (2007) and the short-story collection A Good Fall (2009)—are set in the United States. Indeed, far from ignoring issues of social justice, the former work depicts Chinese intellectuals frankly debating current Chinese politics from the safety of Boston, Atlanta, and points in between. The rest of his many books detail the lives of average Chinese people, living out their days under manifold pressures—wars whether “hot” or “cold,” various Maoist follies, the casual deprivations of military life, bureaucratic sclerosis, the social conservatism of Confucianism, the backwardness of rural China, (post-)Tiananmen reformist yearnings, environmental problems, and so on.
Ha Jin’s prose style suggests a constrained realism that derives largely from his early exposure to the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century—especially Gogol, Turgenev, and Chekhov, although Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky too—but also from the profound challenge of writing in a borrowed idiom. (Ha Jin has written some essays in his native Mandarin and has also, with his wife, Lisha Bian, translated Ocean of Words [1996; 2003] into...