Work of Heart

"I'm still struggling, but things are better. I could fail at any moment," says Ha Jin, one of only three writers who have won the PEN/Faulkner twice. (By Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)
By Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 14, 2005

Ha Jin is standing in the Hotel George in Northwest Washington looking anxiously out the big picture window. He's been up since 4 a.m. to catch a train down from Boston, where he teaches in Boston University's creative writing program and English department. The train was more than an hour late, and Jin had time just to drop his bags in his hotel room and head back to the lobby.

Someone else might have tried to push back the appointment, begged off for at least a half-hour, maybe. Not Jin. He is there, ready, waiting.

He has come to accept the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for his work "War Trash," a novel about a Chinese Army veteran of the Korean War who ends up in a U.S. prisoner-of-war camp.

Jin is honored, of course, pleased that others find his work deserving. But he is not fooled either, not caught up in the flash and glitter of the literati life or any idea that winning awards -- and he's captured quite a few in the relatively short time he's been in the United States -- means more than a moment of recognition. That is not his style.

"To become a winner is by luck," he says in his soft-spoken and heavily accented English. "Among the finalists, many of them are winners of other awards. That shows [winning] depends on so many things, including the judges' tastes. But a book has to be good to become a finalist."

Jin's book was good enough to make him a PEN/Faulkner winner a rare second time. He won in 2000 for his novel "Waiting," for which he also won the National Book Award in 1999. The second PEN/Faulkner puts him in a tiny club with Philip Roth and John Edgar Wideman, the only other writers who have taken home two awards in the prize's 25-year history.

"As soon as you begin reading it, it is speaking to you on its own terms," says novelist David Anthony Durham, one of the three PEN/Faulkner judges. "We didn't go into this wanting to make him a two-time winner.

"At the end of the day it had a weight that seemed to really mark it not just as one of the finalists but as the winner."

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation confers its annual national prize for the best work of fiction by an American author. It is the country's largest peer-juried prize. Winners receive a check for $15,000. The four finalists receive $5,000. The finalists this year are Jerome Charyn for "The Green Lantern," Edwidge Danticat for "The Dew Breaker," Marilynne Robinson for "Gilead" and Steve Yarbrough for "Prisoners of War."

The authors will receive their awards at a ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library tonight, where they will read from their works.

Critics have compared Jin to Gogol and Chekov. His prose is clean, crisp and spare. He shies away from neither the harsh realities in life nor its mysterious beauty.

Tell him that he has become successful, and he will blush.

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