Chinese author Ha Jin reflects on nationalism, Tiananmen Square and his latest novel The Boat Rocker
Ha Jin was a student in Boston when the Tiananmen crackdown happened, and knew almost immediately that he couldn’t return. Instead he made a life for himself as a writer and academic in the US
Feng Danlin, the embattled journalist at the heart of Ha Jin’s latest novel, The Boat Rocker, is deeply suspicious of nationalism. A Chinese expatriate writing for a Chinese-language online news organisation in New York, he finds purpose writing about abuses of power in his native land. He’s like an idealistic island: “To be alone,” he reflects near the end of the book, “is a precondition of independence.”
Ha Jin, a National Book Award winner for 1999’s Waiting, isn’t really alone. He runs the creative writing programme at Boston University and has lived in the area with his family since coming to America in the ’80s. In China, however, he remains persona non grata. His novels, often critical of the Chinese government, are not published in his homeland. He hasn’t been back since he arrived in the States. “They wouldn’t give me a visa,” he explains over coffee at the Texas Book Festival in Austin.
Ha Jin has been in the States long enough to feel at home there. Not so Danlin, his creation in The Boat Rocker.
He’s a wounded cynic whose wife left him for a wealthy American. Now she’s working on a romantic potboiler of a novel hyped by both the Chinese and American governments as a symbol of warm relations between the countries in the wake of 9/11. Danlin sets out to expose what he sees as a royal scam perpetuated by the woman – and the country – that broke his heart and now seek to smear him if he digs too deep.
In a sense, Danlin is a man without a country. He has learned to live with his beliefs. As he says in the book, “Patriotism is a pejorative word in my dictionary; it connotes spiritual paucity, intellectual blindness and laziness, and moral cowardice. Isn’t it terrible to let only a country form the underpinning of one’s being?”
Ha Jin, 60, sees reason in Danlin’s beliefs, especially as they relate to China. “I do feel there are good, logical ideas that are bigger than one’s country,” he says. “The Chinese, they have sanctified the country largely because their religion has been suppressed, so a lot of religious idioms were transferred to the nation.”
Friendly and quick to smile beneath his baseball cap, Ha Jin seems comfortable in his own skin. This wasn’t always the case, particularly not after the 1989 military crackdown against protesters at Tiananmen Square.
Ha Jin came to Boston in 1985 to study American literature at Brandeis University. He planned to return home and perhaps become a translator when his studies concluded. He had served in the Chinese military. He grew up believing the goal was to protect the people.
Tiananmen ripped his world in half. “Now everything was upside down,” he says. “Something collapsed inside of me. For a few weeks I was in a trance, because I was not prepared for this. I was supposed to be going back. Then suddenly I realised I couldn’t. I was in a shock for a long time.”
Ha Jin maintains he would never have become a writer were if not for this trauma and his decision to stay in the States and become an American citizen. The tragedy forced him deep within, where novelists tend to reside.
And his adopted country afforded him the freedom to look back in anger, on the page.
We’ll leave the last word to Ha Jin’s latest fictional creation, Danlin. “The truth is that a country is not a God, it’s a historical construct. It’s foolish to imagine the country as a mystical figure, a generous mother that has raised all the Chinese, who in turn must be obedient, longing for her love and nurturance. That’s a fallacy, a lie.”