Conversations

Ha Jin, award-winning novelist and poet

photo of Ha Jin

WaterBridge Review: In your latest novel, War Trash, you’ve created a fictional memoir that reveals the little-known world of Chinese POWs held captive by Americans during the Korean conflict. One of the gifts given to writers is revealing little-known worlds to a reading audience. Is there a specific message you wanted to bring across?

Ha Jin: Not any concrete message. I just wanted to tell an individual’s story within the war. Many war narratives are about heroes and victories. I wanted to tell a loser’s story and reveal the underside of glory. In short, I wanted to remind people that war is the most terrible human activity.

WBR: You’ve written stories that explore difficult episodes in China’s history. Is there something about reaching back in history that gives definition to your life today?

HJ: When I started, China was the only subject I knew. Of course, through writing about it, I have gained a kind of identity as an exiled Chinese writer. In fact, I am an immigrant. By definition, an immigrant does not live in the past and has to find meaning in America. In other words, I hope I can move beyond whatever definition my writing has so far given my life. I don’t want to be defined by China’s history.

WBR: How has winning numerous writing awards, including the Flannery O’ Connor Award for Short Fiction, the National Book Award for your novel Waiting, and the PEN/Faulkner for both Waiting and War Trash changed your life as a writer? Has it made it easier or more difficult?

HJ: Of course more difficult. The hurdle has been raised, and I have to gather myself to jump. No one can jump higher and higher all the time. I can fail at any moment. If that happens, I hope I can fail better.

WBR: You have an amazing command of the English language. Have you always written in English, or do you initially write in Chinese first? Do you think it makes a great difference as to what language a story is written in?

HJ: Before coming to the States, I’d written some poetry in Chinese. Since 1990, I have written my creative work only in English. But sometimes I translate my work into Chinese and write essays in Chinese. Language does make a huge difference—a different language means different sensibility and responds to a different literary tradition.

WBR: You also write poetry and short stories. Is there a particular genre you enjoy working in most?

HJ: I feel I’m a better short story writer than a novelist. But to write a novel, you need a lot of strength and I want to write some novels before I’m old. As for poetry, it’s much harder, often depending on luck.

WBR: You’re currently teaching writing at Boston University. With your busy teaching and writing schedule, how do you find peace of mind in your everyday life?

HJ: In fact, peace of mind is hard to find when I teach. That’s why I try not to travel during summer and winter breaks, so that I can write a draft of something, which, when I teach, I can edit and revise.

WBR: What are you working on right now?

HJ: A novel set in America, about an immigrant family.

WBR: What are some of the books waiting for you on your bedstand?

HJ: They change from time to time. Right now, novels by Tolstoy and some poetry books by Whitman, Frost, and Auden.

WBR:.If you could choose, who would be your favorite hero or heroine of fiction?

HJ: "Pnin" in Nabokov’s eponymous novel.

WBR: And what character in a book most resembles your own personality?

HJ: I have no idea. I guess I may have to write such a book. The truth is that I don’t even know what I’m like.

WBR: While under the spell of so many different characters, is there a specific talent you would most like to have?

HJ: To know many languages and to have traveled to many places, and of course, all without any financial worries.

WBR: Is there a particular author, past or present, who has influenced your writing?

HJ: Chekhov and Gogol. That sounds like namedropping. What I mean is that they have more influence than others on my fiction. Actually many, many writers, such as Shusaku Endo, Lu Xun, V.S. Naipaul, Henry Roth, have influenced me, and also friends, writers like Frank Bidart, Gish Jen, and Wayson Choy. Even some of my students.

WBR: Other than traveling the world through books, is there anywhere you
would like to travel to?

HJ: I like Canada and Europe a lot. I love cities on the West Coast too, such as the Bay Area, San Diego, Seattle, and even LA.

WBR: What’s the last movie you saw?

HJ: The movie Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. Wasn’t she breathtakingly beautiful? I wonder how a man could function normally if he was married to such a gorgeous woman.

WBR: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?

HJ: I don’t know. Maybe a dermatologist, I guess.

WBR: How do you spend your time when you’re not writing?

HJ: Shopping and going to the health center, not to work out but to use the sauna. I also walk in the woods.

WBR: And lastly, what is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

HJ: To write in English.