Memory man

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 October, 2004, 12:00am

WHEN XUEFEI JIN first arrived in the US, he dreamt of returning to his native China after getting his PhD and working as an academic or a translator. Nineteen years later, the young American literature major is pepper-haired Ha Jin, 48, one of the most influential immigrant writers in the US. And he's never gone home.

Which means that his books, including four novels, three short story collections and three poetry collections - all of them about events in and around China - are based on increasingly distant memories and research done from afar. He can cling onto a lot from his youth. After all, Xuefei, meaning swirling snow, is a reminder of chilly winters in northeast China, where he grew up, and his pen name, Ha, was picked from Harbin, the Chinese city he likes most.

'I miss China,' he says. 'But usually it's the China I lived. I don't know about the current China.'

Jin knows that the era when everyone earned similar lowly wages (he earned 60 yuan per month as a college instructor) is long over. But the increasing gap between rich and poor unnerves the writer, whose first book was published in the US in 1990.

'It's hard for me to imagine that I [could] live a better life in China when there are a lot of people who are so poor in the countryside,' he says.

Jin's fears about a changed homeland are reflected in his fourth novel, War Trash (Pantheon), published this week. The novel looks at a little-known aspect of the Korean war: the Chinese soldiers in American prisoner-of-war camps.

The story unfolds through the memory of Yu Yuan, a 73-year-old former POW. When he is enlisted as a young 'volunteer' and sent to the war zone in Korea, he expects to come back to his home town as a hero and marry his fiance. But waiting for him in Korea is cold and hunger - and his capture by the enemy.

Yu spends his three years in the camps working as a translator for the Americans, as well as the pro-communist and pro-Taiwan nationalist groups of POWs. Some of the mainland soldiers turn pro- Nationalist because of inducements from the Americans and their Taiwanese allies.

Despite physical and mental torture, the POWs keep their spirits up by dreaming of returning home. Yu is typical of many when he cries over a picture of his fiance at night. Yet what enables many to survive is to haunt them for the rest of their lives. For when they return home, they find everything has changed. Instead of being regarded as heroes, they're seen as cowards for allowing themselves to be captured, and are punished.

War Trash is almost certainly Jin's most ambitious work. The writer, who was a People's Liberation Army officer, had long been interested in the Korean war. He read all the historical documents and books he could find on the subject and based the novel on real, epic events involving ordinary people.

In Yu's memory, history is no more than the scenes caught by his eyes. And historic events are less important than the day-to-day struggle between hope and desperation. The narrator says: 'Do not take this to be an 'our story' ... I have just written what I experienced.'

Jin's novels sweep readers through history, while taking them into the trivial but vivid daily life of ordinary people. 'With all this turmoil, politics and war going on, he always has human beings on the ground,' says Perry Link, a scholar and critic of Chinese literature who teaches at Princeton University. 'He's so good at evoking Chinese life. He does much better at bringing daily life into vivid impressions than most contemporary Chinese writers who write in Chinese.'

This ability also separates Jin from the second-generation wave of Chinese writers in the US, such as Amy Tan - whose works focus on identification - and other Chinese writers who write about China in English. Link contrasts Jin's work with My Country and My People, an essay collection written in English about China by the 20th-century writer and scholar Lin Yutang. 'Lin is writing [about] China for Americans,' Link says. 'He doesn't have that intimate reality feeling that Ha Jin has. It's a very unusual talent.'

Given his heavy accent and occasional errors in spoken English, Jin's mastery of English writing surprises critics and writers. He has a unique style of written English with a Chinese perspective, sometimes even translating from Chinese sayings. When his novel Waiting won the National Book Award in 1999 he'd been writing in English for only about 10 years. 'He's a genius in language,' Link says. 'He writes English better than many American writers. This isn't something he learned from school. This is a gift.'

For Jin himself, descriptions such as 'gifted' and 'inspired' are meaningless. Writing to him is more a method of paying the bills - and writing in English was his only realistic option in America. 'Life pushed me,' he says. In 1977, when China's universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution, Jin - who had spent five years in the army and two years working in a telegraph firm - applied to attend Heilongjiang University. Like many Chinese students at the time, he dreamed of becoming a scientist or an engineer, and he put English last among the five options for majors allowed in the application form. He was surprised to be admitted by the English Department. That led him to a master's degree in American Literature at Shandong University seven years later and his arrival in the US to attend Brandeis University in 1985.

But he hadn't thought of doing creative writing in the US until the events in Tiananmen Square four years later. 'It changed my life,' Jin says. After a shock that lasted weeks, Jin decided to stay in the US. To keep his student visa, he delayed handing in his doctoral dissertation, and later joined the master's program of creative writing at Boston University.

Jin's dissertation in comparative poetics didn't land him an academic position, and attempts at getting jobs such as Chinese teaching or translation failed because of his lack of a Chinese-related degree. Even local Chinese restaurants, in the main run by people from southern China, wouldn't hire him because of his northern accent. 'I couldn't find a job anywhere in the Chinese market in the US,' he says.

To support his family - his wife, Lisha, joined him in 1987 and his son (who was then six) came soon after the Tiananmen events - he started to do all sorts of odd jobs. He's been a busboy at a western restaurant, a custodian at a hospital and a factory watchman. Given the time to think at night in the factory, Jin wrote the poems for his first book, the poetry collection Between Silences, which was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1990 and eventually landed him a teaching job at Emory University at Atlanta three years later.

'I don't know if I have talent or not,' he says. 'But there's a practical level to write and to use my degree in English to earn a living. I think when survival is on the line, you have to try many things.'

However, the first book sold so poorly that the University of Chicago Press turned down a manuscript for his second. In the six years after that, Jin couldn't find a publisher. He continued sending manuscripts to literary magazines. 'For a period of time each year I would almost receive rejection letters every day. My wife got so frustrated. She made a rule that nobody was allowed to check the mail before dinner,' Jin says.

The turning point came in 1996, when two of his books, the poetry collection Facing Shadows and the short story collection Ocean of Words, were published. The short stories won him a Pen/Hemingway prize that year, the first of a series of awards.

Asked about his perseverance during the hard times, Jin gives another practical reason. 'I was an assistant professor in creative writing,' he says. 'I have to publish to keep the job. There was no choice.'

Even War Trash was written pragmatically. For his short story collection, The Bridegroom, Jin signed a contract with a small publisher in Massachusetts, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. Then, Waiting gained him fame. To get the rights to The Bridegroom back, his wife suggested he write a novel on the stories Jin often told her about POWs during the Korean war. He would then swap that with the ailing publishing house for The Bridegroom.

Jin thought it was a good idea. But after finishing the Korean story, he realised it would be more important than The Bridegroom, (which was later bought by Random House). 'I only planned to write 150 pages, but the first draft ended up with 400 pages,' Jin says. 'It surprised me. I felt it was in the same genre as Dostoevsky's Memoirs from the House of the Dead.'

But Jin says he'd have written the POWs' story sooner or later anyway. Growing up in the army camp where his father, an army officer, was stationed, Jin saw that the Chinese authorities brutally punished those returning from captivity. It made such an impression on him that, when he was enlisted in the army and guarded the border between Russia and China at a time of great tension between the two countries, he feared capture more than death. 'If you died in the battle zone, you'd be deemed a Revolutionary Martyr, and your family would be taken care of by the government,' Jin says. 'But if you got captured, that would be the end of the world.'

War Trash is about more than those times, though. It's a reflection of Jin's feelings for his homeland. Although he denies he's a political dissident, his candid writing about China makes his native country close the door to him. Among his books, only Waiting has been allowed into the market officially, and it was negatively reviewed by official media. Jin doubts that his father, who participated in the Korean war and lives in China with Jin's mother, will be able to read the Chinese version of War Trash in the foreseeable future.

'I miss China, but I have to be rational about this. I don't think I'm welcome there,' he says, citing the Chinese consulate's refusal of an application to renew his passport years ago and the lack of a reply to a job application from a prestigious Chinese university recently.

War Trash will be his last book related to China. Jin, who is now a tenure professor of creative writing at Boston University, says his next book will be about the immigrants' life in the US. It's a country he loves. He's cast his ballot in local and national elections since he became a citizen in 1997. However, the US isn't quite home to him.

'I do speak English with an accent,' he says. 'I'm treated as a foreign stranger. It's hard to blend in completely because I lived in China for almost 29 years.'

But to Jin, who moved often with his father's army unit and was sent to boarding schools as a child, the status of being an outsider is normal. 'The sense of roots in the conventional sense isn't strong because I wasn't like a regular child living with parents all the time,' Jin says.

He refuses to accept that he's a man without a homeland. 'Homeland is where you build your home,' says Jin, 'For me, I can live in my books.'