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.
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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.