The Writer as Migrant by Ha Jin
In spite of a spare not-quite 100 pages, Ha Jin’s first nonfiction – and must-read – title is filled with fascinating, challenging ideas about writers living in countries and creating in languages not originally their own. Best known for his 1999 National Book Award winning novel, Waiting, Jin is a poet/novelist/short story writer of Chinese birth creatively immersed in English.
His prodigious titles over his almost-two-decade publishing history have been set in his native China. Two years ago, he debuted his first Stateside-based title, A Free Life (2007), and he continues to write about U.S.-domiciled characters in his superb upcoming short story collection, A Good Fall.
Through three linked essays, Jin follows his own migrant trajectory with astute observations not only about himself, but his migrant predecessors, as well. “[M]y choice of the word ‘migrant’ is meant to be as inclusive as possible,” Jin clarifies in his preface, “it encompasses all kinds of people who move, or are forced to move, from one country to another, such as exiles, emigrants, immigrants, and refugees.”
In “The Spokesman and the Tribe,” Jin explores the literary lives of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Lin Yutang to examine the potential dangers of a migrant writer’s role as a literary representative of the people he or she left behind. “I can see that my decision to leave contemporary China in my writing is a way to negate the role of the spokemanship I used to envision for myself. I must learn to stand alone, as a writer,” he concludes.
In “the Language of Betrayal,” Jin grapples with “the ultimate betrayal [which] is to choose to write in another language.” While historically the individual was seen as the betrayer, Jin posits that the more pertinent argument – here Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov figure prominently – is that the country betrays the writer: “The worst crime the country commits against the writer is to make him unable to write with honesty and integrity.”
In the final chapter, “An Individual’s Homeland,” Milan Kundera, V.S. Naipaul, and W. G. Sebald appear as Jin’s migrant muses whose search for ‘home’ becomes literal. But like Odysseus, going home proves impossible. “Since most of us cannot go home again, we have to look for our own Ithakas and try to find ways to get there. Indeed, some of the Ithakas may turn out to be different from what we expected, but with such destinations in mind, we can have wonderful journeys that will enrich and enlighten us. Such a vision of arrival is, in fact, very American … ” A quarter of a century since his initial arrival in the U.S., the now Chinese American Jin is, in fact, literally home.