A Little Afternoon Ha
In 1989, Chinese-born Ha Jin was studying at Brandeis University in Massachusetts when the Tiananmen Square Massacre occurred, stranding him in America. So it's not surprising that political uncertainty is a constant theme in his books and Red China a constant setting. What's a little surprising is that Jin writes out of a pragmatic desire to keep his university posts and please his publishers, rather than a burning desire to confront the strife in his homeland.
Nick Keppler: You had studied poetry as an English scholar but didn't start writing for a few years. What got you started?
Ha Jin: I was hired by Emory University as a poetry teacher and [beforehand] I had to teach myself. I had never attended a poetry workshop. I listened to other authors and learned but had to teach myself before my students.
Was it intimidating to write your first novel?
HJ: Waiting was a strange case because I wrote it as a novella for a company. A press would publish Facing Shadows [a collection of poetry] on the condition that I give them a hundred pages of prose with the poetry. But eventually I found a small company that would publish just the poetry and then I started to expand Waiting into a novel [1998's In the Pond was Jin's first novel to be published, while Waiting was published afterwards but written before].
You've said that if you stayed in China, you would not be a writer. This strikes me as strange because so many writers say that they have a need to write no matter what.
HJ: I know. But, in China, to be a writer is some kind of privilege. Writers earn a salary from the state. It's a kind of job. To be a scholar or translator of literature, that might be a better job. In China, there was a lot of propaganda work. Very people wrote for the pleasures of writing.
Would you ever go back to China?
HJ: To visit, not to live. I've been here over two decades.
Is it because of disagreement with the government or do you just feel like an American now?
HJ: It's the culture. In China, you have to bribe people to get things done. But I couldn't do it; I'm not that kind of person.
Personal turmoil created by political unrest is a constant theme in your work.
HJ: All my life in China was like that. The older generation, they live in that kind of situation as well. It was a fact.
Is your work autobiographical?
HJ: I give different parts of my life but I can not say which character is really autographical. I don't write about myself
Do you feel like you're mining your life for plots?
HJ: Sure [laughs], sometimes my life is not enough. I have to mine and do research others' life.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.