Ha Jin was born Xuefei Jin in Liaoning Province, China. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution, served in the army, and eared both his BA and MA at Chinese institutions before arriving in the US on a student visa to pursue a PhD in English at Brandeis University. His dissertation was on Modernist poets such as Pound, Eliot, Auden, and Yeats because, as he told Dave Weich of Powell’s City of Books, “Those four have poems which are related to Chinese texts and poems that reference the culture. My dissertation was aimed at a Chinese job market. I planned to return to China.” Jin and his wife decided to stay in the United States after seeing what happened at Tiananmen Square on television. Before receiving his degree in 1992, Jin had already published his first book of poetry in English, Between Silences (1990). Another book of poetry, Facing Shadows (1996), appeared a few years later. His most recent collection, A Distant Center (2018), explored the artistic process and meditated on philosophies of home. According to Publisher’s Weekly, “the poems, originally composed in Chinese, are often addressed to a ‘you,’ which can take the form of a ‘little rascal’ wren attempting to build a nest above the author’s door or a schoolchild who is unwilling to practice Chinese calligraphy. But most of the time, Jin’s ‘you’ is aimed as much at the self as it is the reader.”

Unlike his poetry, Jin has written all of his many novels and short story collections in English, including most recently A Map of Betrayal (2014) and The Boat Rocker (2016). Writing about Jin’s idiosyncratic style in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Albert Wu and Michelle Kuo remarked “critics suggest that Jin’s flat style results from either the fact that English is not his first language or his desire to convey an effect of translation, so that a reader grasps an “authentic” China. We don’t disagree, but we wonder if a third reason is at work as well: Jin’s ambivalence about his own status as a writer-in-exile mutes his prose.”

Jin’s early novels and short story collections, like his later work, deal with the experience of Chinese citizens, particularly under Communism, immigrants, and displaced persons. Paul Gray in Time noted that “Ha Jin… offers his characters choices that are incompatible and potentially destructive and then dispassionately records what they do next.” Jin’s first novel, In the Pond (1998), is the tale of a talented artist, Shao Bin, who must spend his time working at a fertilizer plant to support his family. After being assigned inferior housing, Bin protests by drawing a series of cartoons that criticize his supervisors at work. After a series of conflicts with the supervisors, spurred on by more cartoons, Bin eventually receives a promotion to the propaganda office. A writer reviewing In the Pond for Publishers Weekly found that Jin “offers a wise and funny first novel that gathers meticulously observed images into a seething yet restrained tale of social injustice in modern China.” The reviewer also noted the complexity of the book’s characters and concluded that the novel goes beyond its setting of Communist China to “engagingly illustrat[e] a universal conundrum.”

Waiting (1999), which Jin told Weich was based on a true story, generated considerable critical attention. “[A]deliciously comic novel [told] in an impeccably deadpan manner,” observed Gray, again writing in Time. The plot of Waiting centers on three individuals: Lin, a medical student who later becomes a doctor; Shuyu, the woman his ailing parents force him to marry so they will have someone to care for them; and Manna Wu, a nurse with whom Lin falls in love. According to communist law, a couple must be separated for eighteen years before they can legally divorce. The novel covers twenty years, including the eighteen during which Lin and Manna maintain their relationship but decide to wait until they can marry before they will consummate it. Francine Prose of the New York Times Book Review noted: “Character is fate, or at least some part of fate, and Ha Jin’s achievement is to reveal the ways in which character and society conspire.” Jin’s novels have continued to receive praise for their tragi-comic portrayals of communism’s repressive policies, and the human beings who struggle against them. In works such as The Crazed, War Trash, and The Good Life, Jin displays “a fine sense of the human scale of history and an eye for the absurd,” according to Sarah A. Smith in the Guardian. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called War Trash “another brilliant installment in Ha Jin’s history of modern China.”

Jin once told CA: “Because I failed to do something else, writing in English became my means of survival, of spending or wasting my life, of retrieving losses, mine and those of others. Because my life has been a constant struggle, I feel close in my heart to the great Russian masters, including Chekhov, Gogol, and Babel. As for poetry, some ancient Chinese influences are Tu Fu, Li Po, and Po Chu-I.

“Since I teach full time, my writing process has been adapted to my teaching. When I have a large piece of time, I write drafts of stories, or a draft of a novel, which I revise and edit when I teach. Each draft is revised thirty times before it is finished.

“If I am inspired, it is from within. Very often I feel that the stories have been inside me for a long time, and that I am no more than an instrument for their manifestation. As for the subject matter, I guess we are compelled to write about what has hurt us most.”

Asked by Weich whether he would eventually write about the immigrant experience, Jin answered, “I haven’t returned to China since I’ve been here. China is distant. I don’t know what contemporary Chinese life is like now. I follow the news, but I don’t have the mature sensation—I can’t hear the noise, I can’t smell the place. I’m not attached to it anymore. What’s meaningful to me is the immigrant experience, the American life.” The most important work of immigrant literature for him was Nabokov’s Pnin, which, as he said, “deals with the question of language, and I think that’s at the core of the immigrant experience: how to learn the language—or give up learning the language!—but without the absolute mastery of the language, which is impossible for an immigrant. Your life is always affected by the insufficiency.”

Bibliography

POETRY

  • Between Silences: A Voice from China (poetry), University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1990.
  • Facing Shadows (poetry), Hanging Loose Press (Brooklyn, NY), 1996.
  • Wreckage (poetry), Hanging Loose (Brooklyn, NY), 2001.
  • A Distant Center, Copper Canyon Press, 2018

FICTION

  • Ocean of Words: Army Stories, Zoland Books (Cambridge, MA), 1996.
  • Under the Red Flag (short stories), University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1997,
  • In the Pond (novel), Zoland Books (Cambridge, MA), 1998.
  • Waiting (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1999.
  • Quiet Desperation (short stories), Pantheon (New York, NY), 2000.
  • The Bridegroom (short stories), Pantheon (New York, NY), 2000.
  • The Crazed (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 2002.
  • War Trash (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 2004.
  • A Free Life, Vintage (New York, NY),, 2007
  • A Good Fall (short stories), Vintage, 2009.
  • Nanjing Requiem, Vintage, 2011
  • A Map of Betrayal, Vintage, 2014
  • The Boat Rocker, Vintage, 2016

OTHER

  • The Writer as Migrant, The University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2008

 

 

Further Readings

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

PERIODICALS

  • Associated Press, October 1, 2003.
  • Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 10, 1999, p. L11; October 31, 1999, p. L15; June 23, 2000, p. E5; October 8, 2000, p. D3; October 27, 2002, p. Q4.
  • Australian, July 3, 2000, p. 013.
  • Booklist, November 1, 1997, Frank Caso, review ofUnder the Red Flag, p. 454; September 15, 2000, p. 216; April 1, 2002, p. 1314; September 1, 2002, p. 6; January 1, 2003, p. 792; March 15, 2003, p. 1338.
  • Boston Herald, November 17, 2002, p. 065.
  • Buffalo News, December 8, 2002, p. F6.
  • Capital Times (Madison, WI), January 28, 2000, p. 9A; September 28, 2001, p. 9A; January 3, 2003, p. 11A.
  • Chicago Tribune Books, December 24, 1996, p. 6.
  • Christian Science Monitor, November 2, 2000, p. 21.
  • Commonweal, February 14, 2003, p. 17.
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Australia), April 1, 2000, p. W09.
  • Daily Telegraph (London, England), January 6, 2001; May 12, 2001; October 19, 2002; September 27, 2003, p. 12.
  • Daily Telegraph (Surry Hills, Australia), June 10, 2000, p116.
  • Denver Post, October 27, 2002, p. EE-02.
  • Entertainment Weekly, October 29, 1999, Megan Harlan, review of Waiting, p. 106; December 3, 1999, Lori Tharps and Clarissa Cruz, "Between the Lines," p. 93; November 15, 2002, p. 140.
  • Guardian (London, England), October 7, 2000, p. 11; November 30, 2002, p. 27; October 04, 2003.
  • Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), June 22, 2000, p. 18.
  • Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), November 20, 1999, p. 023; June 3, 2000, p. W18.
  • Hindu, February 2, 2003.
  • Houston Chronicle, December 5, 1999, p. 15; September 17, 2000, p. 24; December 17, 2000, p. 14; November 10, 2002, p. 18.
  • Independent (London, England), May 27, 2000, p. 10; October 10, 2003.
  • Indianapolis Star, November 28, 1999, p. D06; October 18, 2003, p. A15.
  • Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2004, review of War Trash, p. 763.
  • Library Journal, October 15, 1999, Shirley N. Quan, review of Waiting, p. 105; September 1, 2000, p. 254; June 1, 2001, p. 170; September 15, 2002, p. 91.
  • Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2000, p. A1; June 24, 2000, p. A4; October 3, 2000, p. E-3; October 11, 2000, p. E-3.
  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 14, 1999, p. 8E; June 23, 2000, p. 08; October 8, 2000, p. 06.
  • New Straits Times, October 1 2003, p. 6.
  • Newsweek International, November 29, 1999, p.73.
  • New Yorker, November 4, 2002.
  • New York Review of Books, March 23, 2000, p. 29; March 13, 2003, p. 25.
  • New York Times, November 19, 1999, p. B44; June 24, 2000, p. A17, B9; October 21, 2002, p. B7.
  • New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1996, p. 21; January 11, 1998; January 31, 1999, p. 16; October 24, 1999, p. 9; October 22, 2000, p. 9; September 30, 2001, p. 24; October 27, 2002, p. 7.
  • New York Times Magazine, February 6, 2000, p. 38.
  • Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), November 2, 2002, p. E1.
  • Progressive, March, 2000, John McNally, review of Waiting, p. 44.
  • Publishers Weekly, February 26, 1996, review of Ocean of Words: Army Stories, p. 98; October 3, 1997, review of Under the Red Flag, p. 58; October 12, 1998, review of In the Pond, p. 58; August 23, 1999, review of Waiting, p. 42; November 1, 1999, review of Waiting, p. 46; March 20, 2000, p. 20; September 4, 2000, p. 81; June 4, 2001, p. 78; July 9, 2001, p. 13; September 30, 2002, p. 47; August 2, 2004, review of War Trash, p. 49.
  • Rocky Mountain News, October 25, 2002, p. 26D.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 31, 1999, p. F12.
  • St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, FL), June 23, 2000, p. 10A; November 10, 2002, p. 4D.
  • Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 18, 1999, p. D6.
  • Seattle Times, October 31, 1999, Irene Wanner, review of Waiting; November 18, 1999, p. A9; June 23, 2000, p. E3; October 15, 2000, p. M14; November 3, 2002, p. K12.
  • Spectator, June 3, 2000, p. 42; September 21, 2002, p. 45.
  • Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), April 16, 2000, p. 005.
  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), January 24, 2000, p. 01E; November 10, 2002, p. 15F.
  • Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Australia), July 9, 2000, p. 023.
  • Sunday Times (London, England), June 24, 2001, p. 48.
  • Tampa Tribune, November 10, 2002, p. 4.
  • Time, December 1, 1997, Paul Gray, review of Under the Red Flag, p. 94; November 8, 1999, Paul Gray, "Divorce, Chinese-Style," p. 144.
  • Times (London, England), June 14, 2000, p. 19; December 16, 2000, p. 6; May 2, 2001, p. 15; January 26, 2002, p. 14; October 5, 2002, p. 15; November 2, 2002, p. 16.
  • Virginian Pilot, January 14, 2001, p. E3.
  • Wall Street Journal, October 22, 1999, p. W8; October 27, 2000, p. W12.
  • Washington Post, October 6, 2000, p. C03; March 24, 2005, p. C02.
  • Washington Times, May 15, 2000, p. 8; December 15, 2002, p. B06.
  • Weekend Australian, May 27, 2000, p. R13.
  • Winston-Salem Journal (Winston-Salem, NC), June 11, 2000, p. A20; January 26, 2003, p. 20.
  • World and I, May, 2000, p. 247.
  • World Englishes: Journal of English As an International and Intranational Language,July, 2002, p. 305.
  • World Literature Today, autumn, 1997, Timothy C. Wong, review of Ocean of Words: Army Stories, p. 862; autumn, 1997, K. C. Leung, review of Facing Shadows, p. 861; spring, 1998, Fatima Wu, review of Under the Red Flag, p. 454; spring, 1999, Jeffrey C. Kinkley, review of In the Pond, p. 389.

ONLINE

  • AsianWeek, http:// www.asianweek.com/ (December 16, 1999), interview with Ha Jin.
  • AsiaSource, http:// www.asiasource.org/ (November 17, 2000), interview with Ha Jin.
  • Austin Chronicle Online, http:// www.austinchronicle.com/ (November 10, 2000), article on Ha Jin.
  • Boldtype, http:// www.randomhouse.com/ (December 1999), "Ha Jin."
  • Book, http://www.bookmagazine.com/ (January, 2000), "Ha Jin of America,"
  • BookReporter, http:// www.bookreporter.com/ (October 13, 2000), interview with Ha Jin.
  • Boston Review Online, http:// www.bostonreview.net/ (August, 1988), "Ha Jin."
  • DesiJournal, http:// www.desijournal.com/ (October 26, 2002), review of The Crazed.
  • Emory Magazine Online, http:// www.emory.edu/ (spring, 1998), "Ha Jin."
  • MostlyFiction, http:// mostlyfiction.com/ (October 12, 2002), review of The Crazed.
  • Powell's City of Books, http:/ /www.powells.com/ (February 2, 2000), Dave Weich, interview with Ha Jin.
  • World and I, http:// www.worldandi.com/ (May, 2000), review ofWaiting. *