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Off the Page: Ha Jin

National Book Award Winner
With Off the Page Host Carole Burns
Thursday, December 6, 2007; 1:00 PM

Ha Jin, whose thoughtful, precise fiction exploring the historical and social forces that shape Chinese modern life has earned him a National Book Award and other prizes, now writes about a Chinese immigrant trying to start anew in America in his latest novel, A Free Life.

He joined Off the Page on Thursday, Dec. 6 at 1 p.m. ET to talk about his new book.

A Free Life is Jin's first novel set in America, and might be, as Ron Charles points out in his review for Book World, his most autobiographical. It not only explores the world of a recent Chinese immigrant (Jin moved to the U.S. in 1985), but also examines his protagonist's desire and struggle to write in the language of his new home.

Read the transcript.

--Carole Burns

Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between, a book based on 41 Off the Page interviews by host and writer Carole Burns, will be published Dec. 10 by W.W. Norton. It is available for pre-order online at amazon, Barnes & Noble and Politics and Prose.

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Carole Burns: Good afternoon, and welcome to Off the Page. Ha Jin has found his way out of traffic, which is what delayed his interview last week... and we have many questions to answer. So we'll start.

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Carole Burns: This is the first book that you've written set in America. Why do you suppose you decided to write with that setting now, and what was it like to write the book?

Carole Burns: This is the first book that you've written set in America. Why do you suppose you decided to write with that setting now, and what was it like to write the book?

Ha Jin: This book was conceived long ago in 1992. A friend of mine, Jennifer Rose, showed me a book of poems given to her by a small restaurant owner who was a recent Hong Kong immigrant. That was a self-published book. I was very moved by this book. I thought this would be a good idea for a novel, about an immigrant who was struggling to be a poet. Because I didn't start writing it until the year 2000. That's how it really started. And after many many revisions, it became a book.

Writing a book set in American was very difficult, because a lot of details and references had to be accurate, because they had a reference to life here. A lot of the devices and techniques could not be used anymore.

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Kensington, MD: I just finished "A Free Life" and was incredibly moved by it; it is an amazing book. In terms of the format (e.g., short chapters, epilogue), did you have it in mind early on or did it develop as the characters did? Thank you.

Ha Jin: Most of the structure I had in my mind when I started working on the novel, but the poems were not. The original epilogue were extracts from the poetry journals, but after a few revisions I realized I would have to add the poems, otherwise the protagonist would appear like a crackpot. I had to show that he had talent, and that his talent was frustrated and stunted by the daily struggle and the process of becoming American.

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Carole Burns: Given that the character of this book is a Chinese immigrant who desires to write in English, I inevitably become curious about how much of the tracing of his struggles with writing, and his desire to write in English, is shared by you. Why do you write in English?

Carole Burns: Given that the character of this book is a Chinese immigrant who desires to write in English, I inevitably become curious about how much of the tracing of his struggles with writing, and his desire to write in English, is shared by you. Why do you write in English?

Ha Jin: Of course I understand his psychology, I understand his frustrations and his struggles. But when I decided to write in English, it took a year. It took him a decade to decide. His life was very different from mine--I am much more fortunate. So I understand him and have insights I can share with him. My decision to write in English was to exist. In other words, to make sense of my life. It would be suicidal for me to write in Chinese from here, because who would read them? There's always the kind of censorship if I were to have to work published in China, so it would be very hard to keep the integrity of the work.

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Washington, DC: In my own writing, I often find it difficult to make things happen. Language itself and depictions of a character's inner state seem much more interesting than whether a character loses a job or a loved one, or is hit by a bus, etc. Yet, those outer events seem necessary to get to the more interesting parts of writing. How do you think about 'things happening' when you construct your novels?

Ha Jin: I think you should have some kind of balance. A story must have some drama, and also inner life and psychology. But thoughts or perceptions should be original, always from a character's point of view. They are in the story to reveal the personality of the character. Events usually are to make the story move, and action also can reveal some parts of characters. When we write anovel, tghere has to be some perceptions and ideas--they are essential. Otherwise, they'd be very flat. But they shouldn't depend too much on either side.

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New York: Can you describe your typical work day--what time you begin writing, how long do you write for, where do you write, etc.?

Ha Jin: I teach. If I don't teach, I work in my study as long as I can. Usually, eight or ten hours a day. If I teach, I work like an hour before going to school. You have to do it every day, when you have a novel, you have to keep it warm. You can't let it get cold.

Ha Jin:

Carole Burns: I understand that you sometimes attend residencies, including the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Do you find those helpful?


Ha Jin: I go to two places. One is the UCross, and the other is VCCA. Both are very helpful. They really help me concentrate. But you must have a really clear project, then you know what you do there. The time I spent there was well used.

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New York, NY: A friend had a prepublication copy of your book so I was able to read it this past summer. I loved it. While it's clearly the story of an immigrant, I thought you raised questions about what is important in life, what brings happiness, the problems living in a free society presents, what is the nature of the serious artist. The reviews I have read have only focused on Nan's assimilation. Did I read too much into your novel?

Ha Jin: I think that's a really smart reading. The book is much more than assimilation. I think the idea of assimilation is a conservative one. The right word would be Americanization. The bookk is about so many things--iimmigration is only one part of it, there are other things, such as the cost of freedom, the life of art, the individual vs. the state. Also love, that's another subject. And language--that's another thing. People say it's a patriotic novel, those are really vulgar readings. They narrow the book.

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Washington, D.C.: I love the short stories I've read from you, and especially enjoyed "Waiting" -- although I haven't begun this book yet, I have read that it is a series of short chapters. Can you provide some insight into why you chose this style for the book -- is it a matter of bite-sized writing episodes, or does it convey something about the character, and his poetic moments to share?

Ha Jin: Because this is a long novel, in a long novel it's often better to have short chapters, so that the prose can have some kind of urgency. Look at War and Peace, that has short chapters. So for technical reasons, I really wanted the novel to have some kind of inner drive. It doesn't have a lot of action from the outside, but I wanted to have some inner drive. The short chaptgers can build that kind of drive.

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richmond, va: I actually thought "Waiting" was more about relationships than about China. Is your new book as much about relationships between people as about an immigrant in a new country?

Ha Jin: Yes, that's another theme here, about relationship I was not aware of the continuity between the two books until A Free Life was published. In Waiting, that protagonist did not grow up--he was emotionally suppressed. In this novel, the man becomes a better man. He is clear about his own feelings. It's a bit of a coming of age story, about a young man who gradually becomes more mature and he understands where his love is, and he is clear about his own emotions. Of course the social environment can make all the difference.

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Freising, Germany: In your book, "In the Pond," you describe a story about one man's struggle against bureaucracy and his life in a small factory town. Do you think that a setting in an isolated pond-like environment is still possible in China? Do you think that such a scenario could ever have occurred in the U.S.?

Ha Jin: Sure. The environment is possible, but I think the subject or struggle, that may not be the same, because housing is not a major problem anymore. But the social environment is still there.

In the United States, sure. A lot of readers will say, the setting reminds them of the situation in their company. Many readers say they like the book for that reasons, that it reminded them of that situation in their own life.

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Carole Burns: Readers are often struck by the simplicity of your language. How hard to you work at that, and why do you suppose it's so integral to your work?

Carole Burns: Readers are often struck by the simplicity of your language. How hard to you work at that, and why do you suppose it's so integral to your work?

Ha Jin: I work hard, I work very hard. All the books at least 30 revisions.
Still my writing style varies from book to book. In A Free Life, there is a kind of playfulness, and that kind of playfulness confihed to English, not translateable into any other language. For instance, there are expressions based upon misunderstandings, misuse, even distortions, so they are very hard to translate. Waiting doesn't have that problem at all. In the book Waiting, everything was alien to the audience, so I had to make it transparent.

I just don't write very elaborately. I'm not that kind of a writer.

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Ha Jin: I think there may be some influence from Chekhov and Tolstoy as well. They write straightforward sentences. For me, especially in the works set in China, the world that they described was closer to me, so that's why I read a lot of their works.

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Washington, DC : Dear Ha Jin,

Would you be interested in writing from the point of view of a non-Chinese person? Or are you a believer in "Write what you know?"

Ha Jin: It's possible. It's entirely possible to write from a non-Chinese person's point of view. I do have some ideas, but I haven't started anything like that yet. I think it's better to know, to have a sense of what you write about, but imagination can always add a lot. I'm not sure of that--sometimes the imagination can play a big part.

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New York, NY: Like you, I attended Brandeis University and was an undergraduate English major. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences there? How did you choose the school, and were there any influential people there or things that happened there that informed your writing?

Ha Jin: I went there as a graduate student. I applied to other schools, but Brandeis gave me a scholarship--other didn't. I had a wonderful time there, working with Allen Grossman, and Frank Bidart. Both were poets, so I had a wonderful time there. For me, that's where I started in the United States. It was really a good beginning.

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Carole Burns:

Thanks, Ha Jin, for a wonderful talk. And booklovers, please join us next week for an interview with Marie Arana and Richard Bausch on Monday, Dec. 10 to kick off the publication of the Off the Page book.

To get email updates about Off the Page book and new discussions, you can email me at offthepagebook@yahoo.com.

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