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Work of Heart
Honored for His Fiction, Ha Jin Considers the Facts of His Life

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.

"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.

It was there that Jin wrote the short stories for his first collection, "Ocean of Words." The second year, when he became a student at the university, he wrote another collection, "Under the Red Flag." For each he won literary prizes. In all he has written two volumes of poetry, three books of short fiction, a novella and three novels.

Epstein is not surprised about the second PEN/Faulkner prize.

"There will be a third or fourth, too," he says. "He's only just beginning. He only began writing in English when he came into our program in 1992."

Until now, all of his work has been about China, but Jin says that now he is turning his head toward America, turning away from the past and toward the future. He is a year into a novel about the life of a first-generation immigrant.

"Writing in English, I didn't recognize the contradiction in my conception of myself as a writer," he says. "I would be insane to say I am a Chinese writer, writing in English. . . . I am an immigrant."

That experience, he says, is closer to his heart now.

"I have to be in the process of becoming someone new. It's a huge hurdle that I have to jump, but I don't have a choice. In my heart I have to write about the American experience. The things that are meaningful to the American experience."

His son will graduate from Princeton at the end of the month and plans to attend the University of Chicago for a master's degree in history, he says.

His wife spent time watching "The Simpsons" and "All My Children" to help her English.

He is seriously embedded in the U.S. literary canon, but, says Jin, "Although I am a citizen and I vote, it doesn't mean that I am an American. I have to earn it. . . . A writer's identity can't be claimed, it always has to be decided by your work."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company