Enormous Changes: Ha Jin & Eliot Weinberger
ELIOT WEINBERGER: Your life has had such an amazing trajectory from semi-literate Chinese soldier to distinguished American novelist in such a short amount of time. You joined the army when you were fourteen, I believe.
HA JIN: Yes, toward the end of 1969. Almost fourteen—not fourteen yet, but I lied because the requirement was sixteen. My father was an officer and since most of my schoolmates had fathers who were officers, they were going into the army.
WEINBERGER: That seemed the only thing to do, your only possible career?
JIN: I think it was a better choice at the time. The other choice would have been to go to the countryside to work in the fields. That would have been more tedious, and the food would have been worse.
WEINBERGER: Whenever I read your books, even when there are poor people just having a little piece of rice, it always makes me incredibly hungry.
JIN: In the first book, particularly during the first two months, in the middle of the winter, two companies in the regiment were really starving to some extent. All the young soldiers were boys from the countryside—they ate a lot because the weather was very cold.
WEINBERGER: You were up on the North Korea border?
JIN: Yes, off the coast of Russia, as well. That’s kind of Siberia. There were no vegetables. There were turnips and cabbages, but they were all frozen. That’s the only way to preserve the vegetables. The older companies would dig cellars during the fall. They knew how to prepare and save food and vegetables for the winter. But the recruit companies didn’t do anything like that. That’s why during the first two months, most of us starved. Perhaps that caused the descriptions of food.
WEINBERGER: What did you do in the army?
JIN: The first half year, I was a regular artillery man. They have a first artillery man, a second artillery man. I was the fourth one. Basically my job was just to carry the shells. But half a year later, I was picked to be trained as a radio man and to learn how to send out and receive telegrams. It took a long time to finish the training, almost a year.
WEINBERGER: It’s good training for a writer—you learned compression, right?
JIN: In fact, it was quite a headache because you listen to the signals all the time. Some of my fellow soldiers lost their hair—they couldn’t get used to that kind of electric signal and stimulation of that kind. I had to be very concentrated to follow the signals and write down the messages.
WEINBERGER: I gather you barely knew how to read. With most writers, one asks “When did you begin to write?” But in your case, it’s “When did you begin to read?”
JIN: I would say toward the end of the second year. Before then, books were not available. In the summer of 1971, China began to republish some classics. At the time, reading was very hard for me. I remember the first page of The Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms took me four hours to figure out. So I had to put it aside. I began to read a dictionary. It was very small, but once I went through it, I knew more words than before. I began to read whatever I could lay my hands on.
WEINBERGER: Was there any one book that started you off?
JIN: No particular book. At the time, there were a lot of propaganda novels that were not well written at all, but we couldn’t read anything else. So whatever I could get hold of. My parents managed to buy a sack of textbooks from an old scholar who had been banished to the frontier of China to teach middle school there. Then he retired, returned to Shanghai, and sold his books. So my parents and brother sat with him among those books. There were a few high school textbooks, old ones, published before the Cultural Revolution. Those books had some ancient poems in them, and I think they were the best literature I could read at the time.
WEINBERGER: You were in the army for six years and then you became a telegraph person?
JIN: Five and a half. It took such a long time to train as a telegrapher, and so they tried to keep me as a kind of junior officer. Most of my comrades, the telegraphers, automatically became junior officers. But I was determined to go to college. I wouldn’t stay in the army. That’s why I left. The schools at the time were still closed, so I worked for another three years in a little company again as a telegrapher. I think I quite enjoyed it. I had my own room. I could read whatever I could get a hold of, and from the second year on, I began to follow the English learner’s program in China. That’s how I began to learn English.
WEINBERGER: You were learning on your own.
WEINBERGER: Did you know anyone who spoke English?
JIN: No; before I went to college I didn’t know anybody.
WEINBERGER: You were just imagining how all these words were pronounced?
JIN: The radio station broadcast the program for a half hour a day from 5:30 to 6:00, seven days a week. It was very simple. This is a glass; that is a chair. It always began and ended with a slogan and in the middle you had some basic sentences. But it was a very slow process—just a half hour a day.
WEINBERGER: So it was “Long live the chair of Chairman Mao; long live the glass of Chairman Mao”?
JIN: Yes, “Here comes the Party,” and those kinds of slogans. We were made to read books by Marx and Engels and other revolutionary authors. At the time, I knew that Friedrich Engels had written a book in English, The Condition of the Working Class in England. I thought that some day I might read that book. I haven’t read it yet, though I did buy a copy. Somehow, I’m superstitious about it.
WEINBERGER: Your life will be over when you finally read it.
WEINBERGER: Is there any literature you read when you were working as a telegrapher that’s particularly important to you? Did you have any idea of heading toward literature in your life at this point?
JIN: No. Honestly, I never thought I would study literature or write anything literary. I thought I would be an engineer, just have a college education. I think I followed my own instinct. When I went into the army, it was rumored that there would be a war and after a year, the border came down, so I was confused.
WEINBERGER: A war with whom?
JIN: With the Russians. Then the border came down. As a result, I really felt lost because suddenly I didn’t know. The question would be, “What should I do in peace?” I was semiliterate, and so I thought I had to get some kind of education in order to be a useful person living in peace.
WEINBERGER: You went to the university to study engineering?
JIN: No, I couldn’t because that would have required different kinds of tests. To study science, I would have had to take examinations in chemistry and physics. Chemistry would be impossible to study on your own, whereas for examinees in the humanities and social sciences, you just took math and some others like politics and language. So that’s why I decided I didn’t have a choice: I had to go into the social sciences and humanities. My first choice was philosophy, then classics, then world history, then library science. Each person was given five choices at the time. I didn’t have a fifth choice—I put English there. But since I put English as a choice, I had to take the exam.
WEINBERGER: They made you become an English major?
JIN: Yes, I passed the exam barely. I got sixty-two points for the written part. It happened that there were not many examinees who would take English as a choice. The city had about a quarter of a million people living in it, but there were sixteen people who put down English as a choice. As a result, sixteen students were put in a huge classroom for an exam. Half of them didn’t know a word of English. There were not many people who would pick English, so that’s how they assigned me to major in it.
WEINBERGER: That’s amazing. Were you studying mainly English literature? Or just English?
JIN: In fact, English literature was not offered in that school. We were trained just for the language—to speak and listen. Most of us would be translators and teachers eventually. But toward the end of 1980, American literature suddenly became very popular. Professors in the Chinese literature department specialized in foreign literatures, so they talked a lot about American literature. The English majors or Russian majors or Japanese majors all went to their lectures and listened to them speak about Hemingway and Faulkner and a lot of Jewish writers—Malamud was popular. But very few of the professors had read the books. They didn’t have the answers. They learned about American authors from critical articles written by somebody else, in Beijing or somewhere, and then they talked about them.
WEINBERGER: Were you actually reading any of these American writers?
JIN: Not when I was an undergrad. But that’s how I became interested in American literature. Some of the students in my year were twenty years older than others. Some were very advanced in English, and one didn’t go to any classes. He just read Charles Dickens in his bedroom all the time. He was far ahead of the rest of us. People like me didn’t think of English as a choice; we didn’t know anything. So on the first day, we were given a test, a dictation, and we couldn’t write down any words. As a result, we were put in the slow classes. For the rest of college, the four years, we stayed in the same class. Even among the slow classes, there are two levels—I think I was at the bottom. That was humiliating; that’s why I never liked English at all. I just followed whatever I could do and then—because I suddenly became interested in American literature—I knew that I would have to pass the English test, which would be quite rigorous, in order to continue studying American literature. That’s why toward the end of the third year, I began to work very hard on the language.
WEINBERGER: And you passed?
JIN: Yes, fortunately I passed. I had to teach myself American literature because that course was not offered. So I had to read whatever I could find.
WEINBERGER: Were you reading translations or histories?
JIN: Some translations, but literary histories written by Chinese scholars. Very often they were biased, because they didn’t have full access to American literary works. So, as a result, my job was to know what this book is about. What is the story and structure of the book? But I couldn’t have the book in my hands.
WEINBERGER: How did you get to the United States?
JIN: Once I became a graduate student, I began to work with American professors—Fulbright professors. I began to study literature seriously. The professors were very generous. They bought books out of their own pockets and brought them back to China. They gave us books by Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. That’s when I began to read real books and later, when I finished my graduate work for the Master’s degree, my American professors recommended me to study American literature in the States. It was almost assumed that this was part of the training and that if I could continue, I should.
WEINBERGER: This was what year?
WEINBERGER: The idea was you would go to the United States for a few years, then go back to China?
JIN: Yes, that’s why it was smooth—because I came to study literature and nobody assumed I would stay. I thought I would go back too. It was quite easy for me to get out at the time. Although I got a scholarship from Brandeis University, I came out on a J visa, which means that the government officially sent me, although I didn’t spend the government’s money.
WEINBERGER: You were at Brandeis in graduate school. What was that like in terms of a first discovery of the United States?
JIN: I knew by then something about American literature and culture, but my first impression was how different the landscape was from the Chinese landscape. In Chinese landscapes, everywhere you go, you see outcrops, all barren, gray and yellow—the land is not tillable. But here, there is grass everywhere. I went to the Charles River because the graduate student dormitory was nearby. I saw people fishing and they caught big bass and carp that they wouldn’t keep—they’d dump the fish right in the water. That was an eye-opener. I wrote to my friend and said, “Nature has been very generous to America. This land is so abundant.”
WEINBERGER: I gather that’s where you started writing, when you were at Brandeis?
JIN: No, not that year. Frank Bidart used to teach at Brandeis as poet in residence, but since I was a graduate student, I was not allowed to take his class for credit. So I sat in on his class but my graduate seminar interfered with the workshop, so I couldn’t go every week. Still, as an auditor, I had to turn in my work. One day I wrote a poem called “The Dead Soldier’s Talk,” and he liked it very much. It was later published in The Paris Review.
WEINBERGER: The first poem you ever wrote was in English, and it was published in The Paris Review?
JIN: Yes, that was how it started. He told me, “You should continue to write.” Then, a year later, when I was working as a janitor/night watchman in a factory in Watertown, Massachusetts, I wrote the poems in Between Silences. That was 1990. I didn’t know what to do with them, but I just felt I’d reached a point—I had to write something.
The next year, Alan Shapiro, who was poetry editor at the University of Chicago Press, visited Brandeis as a lecturer and read the manuscript. He liked it and accepted it for that press. At the time, I didn’t know the value of it—it’s a good press—and for a first book of poems, it should be a good beginning. I just didn’t care; I was absent-minded. I thought this was an excursion and I would return to China.
WEINBERGER: Return to China and do what?
JIN: To teach.
WEINBERGER: To teach? And not be a writer at all?
JIN: No, to teach. That’s why I really didn’t take the first book seriously. I didn’t know I was supposed to give readings or promote the book. In writers’ terms, you should continue to carry on the momentum for the next book. I didn’t know anything about that.
WEINBERGER: At what point did you switch to fiction?
JIN: After I was done with the first book. I began to write stories, very slowly. But my major work was to finish my dissertation.
WEINBERGER: Which was on?
JIN: Pound and Yeats and Auden, with reference to the Chinese material.
WEINBERGER: Then Tiananmen happened, and you realized you couldn’t go back.
JIN: True. For a long time, I was in shock because everything for me was turned upside down. I had served in the People’s Liberation Army. We were funded by the people to serve people, to protect people; that’s why we were called the People’s Army. I couldn’t serve a state like that. At the time, all the schools were owned by the state. So any jobs would have been like a state appointment. I had this kind of strong anger. Also, my son finally came. For years, we’d tried to bring him to the U.S., but his papers couldn’t get through and he couldn’t get a passport, not to mention a visa. But in the chaos of the Tiananmen massacre, everything went rapidly; people just didn’t care. He got all the papers.
WEINBERGER: How old was he?
JIN: He was almost six. But the problem was that neither my wife nor I could go back to get him, so he had to come by himself. That was a risk, but we didn’t have a choice. So we let him fly on his own, but he was not allowed to switch planes. My wife and I went to San Francisco to collect him from the airport. When he landed there, I remember clearly that the first thought I had was that he must be American. That was very clear to me—he must be American. I didn’t want him to be trapped in a cycle of violence and suffering. I didn’t know what to do about my life and what would be the next step. But for him, I would stay here for some years. That’s why I went to B.U., to do critical writing as a way to buy time.
WEINBERGER: You became a student at B.U. so you could stay on in the United States?
JIN: Yes, because the United States gave an extended visa and medical insurance to all Chinese students and scholars. I had a child here and I had to be a graduate student otherwise I couldn’t find health insurance for the family. That was part of it. It was also to learn how to write fiction. Fortunately, before I finished the degree, Emory University hired me. I think that was a turning point because writing became a matter of survival. If I didn’t continue to publish, I couldn’t keep the job, obviously.
WEINBERGER: You were working to expand from telegrapher to poet to short-story writer to a writer of short novels—and later to a much longer novel. In this time, what other writers interested you the most? Were there other writers whom you felt in context with or in the company of?
JIN: I was a beginner in poetry. At Emory, I taught poetry writing and poetry courses most of the time. I learned a lot from Frank Bidart. I love poetry and some American poets like Louise Glück and many other contemporary poets. But as I shifted to fiction writing, I began to read more Russian authors—contemporary translations of classical Russian fiction. I was nourished by it. This started even at B.U. We were introduced to Dostoevsky, Chekhov. Chekhov was big part of it.
WEINBERGER: Gogol also?
JIN: Gogol, yes. So I still carry that kind of education with me.
WEINBERGER: Many people compared Waiting to Jane Austen, and Waiting reminded me of Henry James in the sense that nothing happens but it’s a total page-turner. Were you reading any of these people?
JIN: I’d read their work for my graduate seminars, but I wasn’t aware of the influence. But that might be because Turgenev was really like James’s teacher almost—they were very close. In fact, Turgenev was a key figure in Western fiction, even in the English language—the sentiment, the sensibility is there. So I did learn a lot from his work.
WEINBERGER: How did you get to War Trash—the idea of a big historical novel re-creating that moment in history during the Korean War? And why the Korean War?
JIN: Again, it was out of necessity. I had a contract for The Bridegroom, but I hadn’t finished the stories yet. My publisher had five or six stories—that’s all I had at the time—but they wanted to go ahead and publish the book. I couldn’t dissuade them. My wife suggested, “Why don’t you write something short but complete to replace it?” At the time, I had been reading books on the Korean War. I didn’t have a clear idea about what I was going to do, but I knew quite a bit about that. I’d often told my wife about some episodes and details, and she suggested that I write a book based on the material I had collected. I began to work and thought it would be a hundred and fifty pages long. But it dragged on and on and the first draft was a little over four hundred pages. That rarely happened; most of the time, I wrote the first draft and it was a very skinny thing. During the process of editing and revision, it got thicker and richer, so I always added things.
WEINBERGER: So you’re a writer who adds instead of cutting out?
JIN: Yes, I think because I wrote poetry. So I always wrote too condensed; I couldn’t expand it much. But this happened in the reverse and I was surprised by it. When I was in the army, we stayed on the border between Russia, China, and Korea and we assumed there was going to be a war. If it happened, few of us would have been able to go back to China. I think most of us feared we’d be captured by the enemy. Once you were caught, either you died or you killed yourself. But if you came back alive, you’d be a disgrace to your family—you would be, in fact, the dregs of society. I think I had seen some form of abuse in China. Soldiers were treated very badly. Suddenly the fear was released in the writing and that drove me to continue.
WEINBERGER: I’m curious that War Trash is the memoirs of an old man. I couldn’t decide whether I liked that. Whether I wanted to know that he survived all of this, since you know from the first page that it’s a memoir. Was that a hard decision to make?
JIN: In a way, yes. But it’s also a kind of challenge—giving the outcome of the story away and then suspending the interest of the reader. Also in this form of memoir, the protagonist is supposed to survive. I decided on memoir because, by nature, a memoir is episodic. Whatever is interesting and related to the narrator’s life can be included. This really left a lot of space for my research. I think I made the right choice. I read memoirs by the former POWs, Chinese and Americans, that are short, small articles, and the memories are fragmentary. In some cases, the victims wouldn’t like to remember. Mostly, they had to please the authorities. There was a strong sense of censorship behind the writing. As a result, it’s impossible to find the one person among them who has a complete story. Usually, a POW is captured and put in jail and that’s it—his fifty yards of vision is very limited. He doesn’t know what’s going on outside. That’s why I had to create a character who could move around, who could interact with his captors and other factions.
WEINBERGER: He is a kind of unofficial interpreter.
JIN: Yes—that’s why I decided on a junior officer able to speak English, needed by different sides. At the same time, he is an outsider. Most of the memoirs I read were very patriotic; they were Commies. They all emphasized their loyalty to the party and they were revolutionaries. The memoirs of the POWs who went to Taiwan always emphasized that they were loyal to the free world. They condemned the Commies and praised the U.S. armies. So I had to have a person who is neutral.
WEINBERGER: That’s why you put him in America? So he’s writing his memoir from America?
JIN: Yes, but he’s supposed to return to China. He’s again inside and outside at the same time.
WEINBERGER: I read somewhere that your next book is set in America.
JIN: Yes. It’s a very difficult book.
WEINBERGER: I was a little shocked because all of your books after all are based on memory and imagination—a re-creation of China, though you haven’t been in China for a long time. It must be very difficult to write about the reality that you’re seeing outside the door.
JIN: You’re right, I haven’t returned to China for twenty years. I’m unfamiliar with the current situation. Also, as I continue, I don’t feel I’m that attached to China as a subject anymore. When I started, I was quite naïve. I went to the Harvard library, where, in the basement, they stored all the old journals and magazines and newspapers. Very few people would use them. They were just piled there. I remember I saw them, the piles, and I was moved. I thought my job would be simple: to translate history into literature. Writing about China book after book, I thought my life would be spent that way. But, as I continued, it was not the case. I think there was a deep alienation. I think the English language played some role in this because I’m writing about China in English. All the setting and subjects are Chinese. This put me in limbo—trapped between two languages and two cultures. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to liberate myself.
There’s another reason. The American immigrant experience is closer to me, to my heart, as a subject. But of course there are consequences; it’s a huge hurdle for me to jump. That means I have to resolve a lot of the things I already worked out for a novel or story set in China. Even the language has to be changed to some extent.
WEINBERGER: What’s your status in China? Are your books published in China?
JIN: Only Waiting is published there. I don’t think the others can be published. Some books, maybe, but books like The Crazed and War Trash would be absolutely impossible.
WEINBERGER: And you haven’t been back?
JIN: In the first ten years, I tried and I couldn’t have my passport renewed. Then I became a citizen; I wasn’t eager anymore.
WEINBERGER: You have no desire to go back?
JIN: Sure, but I don’t feel comfortable to go back. For me, it’s personal. I would like to see the Chinese government apologize for the Tiananmen massacre and before that happens, it would be very hard for me to go. That event really shaped my life, changed my life. For me, it’s personal, not public trauma.
WEINBERGER: I’m sure you’ll never see the moment when the Chinese government apologizes for Tiananmen.
JIN: I don’t know. I think it’s possible. It’s hard. You can’t depend on a government like that. It is very capricious; you don’t know what would happen next. As a result, it’s better to hold on to my own principle, my own work, and live my own life.