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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)

"I don't know about success," he says, shaking his head furiously. He touches his wire-rimmed glasses from time to time as if for comfort, or emphasis. "I'm still struggling, but things are better. I could fail at any moment." (His books have sold 700,000 copies.)

To be an honest chronicler of the lives of men is a combination of hard work, discipline and talent. To be a storyteller with a powerful story of your own, is to bring a gravitas to all that.

Ha Jin is such a writer.

He was born Xuefei Jin in 1956 in rural Liaoning Province in northeastern China, near Korea, to a low-ranking military officer and his wife. (Ha Jin is his pen name.) By 7, he was shipped off to boarding school -- a prestigious thing at the time -- but returned home when the Cultural Revolution closed all schools. At 14 he lied about his age to volunteer for the People's Liberation Army, serving some of his time on the Chinese-Russian border.

When schools reopened he studied English, received his master's degree in American literature and came to the United States for his doctorate at Brandeis University. His intention was to return to China. But Tiananmen Square changed that. He felt it would be impossible for him to write honestly if he returned home. (He does not believe his "War Trash" will be welcome in China today.)

Having been joined in the United States by his wife and young son, he needed work but had a hard time finding it. He spent five years as a waiter and a busboy, and eventually a night watchman in a plastics factory for $4.60 an hour.

"That was a good job," he says now, over lunch, shaking his head to show he really means it. There he wrote his first book of poetry, between his hourly rounds at the factory. It was published in 1990.

He only quit when the company moved away.

"There were a lot of chemicals, too," he says, laughing. "Your face would change colors. I couldn't see it but my wife would say, 'your face is green.' "

His fiction career began in earnest when he approached Leslie Epstein after a poetry reading. Epstein, a novelist and a professor at Boston University, tells the story with relish.

"When he came up to me he came up and said in a very halting English that he couldn't go back to China . . . and he was considering writing fiction and he wanted to know if he could audit our writing workshop."

Something made Epstein, who had enjoyed Jin's poetry, say yes.


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