Interview: Ha Jin

Helen Gordon & Helen Gordon

Ha Jin was born in Liaoning, China, in 1956, and moved to America in 1984. He is a professor of English at Boston University.

Helen Gordon: ‘In the Crossfire’ is taken from your forthcoming book, A Good Fall? Had you always intended these stories to form a collection?

Ha Jin: Yes, I conceived the stories as a collection from the very beginning. They are all set in Flushing, NY, and are about the immigrant life. That gives them a kind of unity.

Can you say where the idea for this particular story originated?

I read on a website some complaints written by women about their mothers-in-law, so I wondered about how a husband would respond to those situations. That is how I began to think about the story.

Are there any other writers who have had a significant influence on your short fiction?

When I write short stories, I often read Chekhov, who is an inspiration.

And do you see your work as influenced by a distinct Chinese literary heritage?

Conventional Chinese fiction is different from the kind of literary fiction we write today, so in this case I cannot say I was influenced directly by Chinese literature.

I wondered whether your books were widely translated and published within China? Is that possible given the current political climate?

Only Waiting [Ha Jin’s second novel, published in the US in 1999] was published in China and then went out of print. All the other books are banned. But all my fiction books have been translated into Chinese and published in Taiwan. The readers in the Chinese diaspora can read them.

And if you were to begin the process of writing fiction today, would you still write in English?

My reason for writing in English is twofold: to separate my existence from the state power of China and to preserve the integrity of my work. Given the present political situation, I have to continue writing in English. In fact, after working so long in this language, it has become part of my existence.

Have you formulated any rules or guidelines for presenting a foreign language – Mandarin, say – in English? I’m thinking, for example, of Meifen’s dialogue in ‘In the Crossfire’…

It is always ad hoc. For me, the most important of all is to have a sense of the English ear: how much it can receive a foreign language presented in English. In general, if a character speaks Mandarin or another foreign language, the speech should not be too standard in English, but then how much can it be stretched and even distorted? That has to be decided case by case.

In The Writer as Migrant, your recent collection of essays, you point out that the punning of Nabakov’s Pnin is ‘unique to a non-native speaker who…is easily amazed by the most common features of his adoptive language’. Is this sense of amazement something that you feel as a writer? Are there any advantages to writing in an adopted language?

Sometime this does happen. Why do ‘a slim chance’ and ‘a fat chance’ basically mean the same thing? But on the whole, there are many more disadvantages than advantages. The biggest advantage for me is to be alone, working in an individual space.


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