Home > Conversations > On Language and Embracing Failure as a Writer: An Interview with Ha Jin
Published: Fri Jul 1 2005
Eva LundsagerFirst Attempt (detail), 2019, oil on canvas
On Language and Embracing Failure as a Writer: An Interview with Ha Jin

Ha Jin, born and raised in China, came to Brandeis in 1985 to study American literature, and earned his PhD in English in 1993. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, he realized he couldn’t go back home. He has since published three collections of poetry, three story collections, and four novels. His collection Ocean of Words (1996) won the PEN/Hemingway award, Under the Red Flag (1997) won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and The Bridegroom (2000) won the Asian American Literary Award. His four novels include Waiting (2000), which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award, and War Trash (2004), which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Ha Jin is a professor in the graduate Creative Writing Program at Boston University.

Ha Jin has a long history with AGNI. He was the feature poet in AGNI 28, back when he was a graduate student at Brandeis. And we began publishing his fiction years before his first collection came out. “My Best Soldier” appeared in a 1991 issue, AGNI 33 (it was later reprinted in The Pushcart Book of Short Stories: The Best Short Stories from a Quarter-Century of The Pushcart Prize), “Dragon Head” appeared in AGNI 36, and “ALIVE” was published in issue 45.

I met with Ha Jin during a blizzard in February, 2005, to talk about War Trash, which had just come out in the fall. Boston University had posted Xeroxed signs on doorways canceling the rest of the day’s classes, but Ha Jin had decided to linger at school in case his students showed up for his weekly writing seminar. We sat in an office that had been turned into a storage space for incoming applications to the writing program. Other than file boxes lined up against the wall, an aged wooden desk and a few chairs comprised the room’s only furnishings. It was stifling from an outpouring of steam heat so I opened a window. As soon as I sat down, several plows began their raucous business of ramming into snowbanks to carve out new pathways. I shut the window to mute the noise outside.

Jessica Keener: You dedicated War Trash to your father, a Korea veteran. Did you talk to your father about his experience? Is that what spurred you to write about the plight of Chinese POWs?

Ha Jin: I dedicated the book to him because he was an officer. He didn’t talk a lot about it. He didn’t know anything about how POWs were treated in the American camps because he was not there. My father fought in the Korean War but he was injured (wounded by a traffic accident), not captured. He didn’t belong to those humiliated by their war experience.

I grew up in the army so we saw people who returned from the war. Those who were POWs were punished. These were the dregs of society. Almost without exception they were discharged without honor or sent directly to labor camps in remote places. People thought they deserved this treatment. A lot of people thought that way.

JK: Your bios often state that you volunteered for the People’s Army. I wondered about the word “volunteer”? Was that something kids in your village did as a way to get educated or have a career?

HJ: Not to get an education [laughs]. At the time, school was closed because of the Revolution, so to go to the army was a better choice. If I hadn’t gone to the army I would have gone to the countryside to work in the fields. That was much worse, so a lot of kids chose to go to the army. That’s why I use the word “volunteer.”

JK: Did you draw on your army experience when writing War Trash?

HJ: Oh, yes. A lot. In the first half-year we didn’t have our own barracks so we stayed in a Korean village. Through that everyday interaction, I had a physical sense of the place and the people. Also, in our travels we saw the other side, the North Korean landscape. That helped me a lot. Otherwise I wouldn’t dare write about that place and its people. I had a lot of contact with the customs—even the language—so that gave me concrete impressions.

JK: You constructed the novel as a memoir. How did you decide to tell the story that way?

HJ: When I worked on The Crazed, I read a lot of Dostoevsky, all the major novels. I read Memoirs from the House of the Dead many times, four times at least. It is about prison life. When I decided to work on War Trash, almost automatically that book came to mind. It is a fictionalized memoir, and really reads like a memoir not a novel. By contrast I wanted to make this book more like a novel. But Memoirs gave me a lot of ideas in terms of structure and how prison life should be described. That helped me. I used a lot of fiction techniques to make it read like a novel—give an arc to the plot, what main characters should appear at important moments. Another thing that I think is important: there are a lot of memoirs, a lot of writings by prisoners, written by the Chinese in the mainland and the Chinese in Taiwan.

JK: Confessionals?

HJ: Confessionals tempered by propaganda. The prisoners don’t write long pieces. Those pieces are fragmentary and some of them are not reliable. One side just praises everything in the camp.

JK: You frequently refer to propaganda in your book, in all your books.

HJ: Yeah, a lot of that! So, I had to create a neutral person, an outsider who could give an objective view of the experience, a person who experienced more than the regular POW. Generally, a POW doesn’t travel, doesn’t move around. I created a character who had access to many things, a broader view of the region, and could give a more objective assessment. So that’s why I used a creative person who knows English [laughs].

JK: In War Trash, one of your characters urges the protagonist to bring along an English-Chinese dictionary because it would “serve as a unique weapon.” That statement strikes me as summing up the unique course of events your life has taken.

HJ: [laughs]

JK: What I mean is, in a way it’s the English dictionary’s fault that you are where you are. What prompted you to study English in the first place? You didn’t choose German or Russian? Did you read Dostoevsky in Russian?

HJ: No, no. I was assigned to study English when I applied for college.

JK: You mean you could have been assigned German, was it that random?

HJ: At the time, each applicant was given five choices. I put English as my last choice. Before that, I had followed an English learner’s program on the radio. Each morning it was broadcast for half an hour.

JK: Was that typical?

HJ: No, it was brand new at the time, the first year in the small city. I followed that program for about a year—before college, but after the army. In 1977, for the first time I could take exams for college. Because I put English as a choice I had to take the exam. At the time there weren’t many applicants and not many passed the exam. I barely passed.

JK: What were your other choices?

HJ: My top choice was Chinese literature, then philosophy, world history, and library science.

JK: It all fits in a way. Obviously, literature was a love.

HJ: But foreign language was viewed as a tool. So most people didn’t take it seriously. I hardly studied the first two years in school because it was not my first choice.

JK: Could people take other languages?

HJ: If they passed the exam, yes. I only met one person who said he knew German, but I don’t if he did. A lot knew Japanese and Russian, more than English.

JK: Did you think English might give you access to knowledge that you may not have gotten otherwise?

HJ: No. It was very primitive. We were urged to study books by Marx, Engels, Stalin, Lenin. I knew that Engels wrote some books in English. One, called The Conditions of the Working Classes in England [1845], I thought I could read in the original. That’s why I followed the program. Only sixteen people put down English as a choice. There were thousands of applicants for different subjects.

JK: How has your experience of the English language changed over time? Can you go back and remember your impressions as a beginner?

HJ: As a beginner, we just worked like a machine. The school emphasized British English—a few could read Charles Dickens because their parents were English teachers. The first few years I didn’t work hard, but toward the end of my second year suddenly American Literature became very popular in China. Faulkner, Hemingway, all the Jewish writers. We didn’t have the originals, just quotes from critics. I became fascinated and wanted to study American literature. That’s when I began to work hard, really hard on the language. You had to be able to read and write to get into a graduate program.

Then I came to this country [to Brandeis]. After a while I picked it up and it became less difficult. I could write papers. Still, there’s a difference between creative writing, writing a paper, and talking. Academic English was fine, but after the Tiananmen Massacre I decided to stay, and that’s the turning point when I really began to work to learn how to write.

The big difficulty was once I decided to write fiction. Before that, I wrote some poems. Poetry is on the one hand very demanding, very precise, accurate. On the other hand it can give some room, ambiguity. So language can occasionally be looser. I had the illusion that poetry was easier—maybe it is for a beginner. Logically speaking, all this playfulness should be based on full mastery of the language; but for a beginner very often you can go there. In fiction, there are so many levels of diction and different kinds of dialogue and tone. It was almost relearning the language, different parts of the language. That was difficult. So I read a lot. I did ask Leslie Epstein how to write and he said, “Read like hell.” [laughs]

JK: Could you give examples of interesting quirks between the two languages? What you can you do in Chinese that you can’t do in English?

HJ: English is very speculative, very eloquent. It has a flowing feeling. Chinese is more down to earth and closer to things in that sense. Some of the abstract ideas and words [in English] are absent from the Chinese language—at least originally. For instance, the word “identity” is very hard to translate. You can put it in different words but it’s not the same word as identity—some concepts like that. On the other hand, the Chinese language can describe a lot of things like feelings. There are so many words [laughs] about different shades of feelings and tastes. Chinese has a lot of words that English doesn’t have. In that sense, Chinese is quite a physical language. Another thing, in English we always try to avoid clichés and idioms. But Chinese has thousands and thousands of idioms and very often a person’s mastery of the language depends on how many idioms are mastered. That’s an opposite attitude.

JK: Is an idiom in Chinese captured in a character?

HJ: Yes, but usually it rhymes, for example four words will form one expression. But even that is changing. Chinese has begun to be influenced by English. That means you can’t reuse idioms automatically. Nowadays, people will try to avoid too many idiomatic expressions.

JK: Another thing. In your books, people are continually cursing ancestors.

HJ: Chinese culture had a lot of respect for older people. As a result, swear words always had to do with violating the older person in your family.

JK: In War Trash there’s a poem: “Yearn Not for Native Soil—Your loyal bones can lie in any green hill.” How much of it speaks to you? You left China for a painful reason.

HJ: Yes, but I’m still alive!—but because of my father, we moved around, so I don’t really have an attachment to a single place.

JK: You were an army brat.

HJ: Yes. In fact it’s in Boston where I’ve spent the most years. Most people, when they say they miss “home,” are referring to their hometown. I really don’t have a hometown. I don’t have that kind of nostalgia—some, but not as intense. I also miss the language. I can relax when I speak Chinese. But that is not available here. So I have to be rational about that. Yearning—sure. But China is changing. I’m changing too.

JK: When I lived in Hungary I missed speaking my language. I really ached for it.

HJ: Yes, in the beginning there were many, many years when I felt completely out of my element. Even when speaking with someone, Chinese would come out. That’s normal for non-native speakers. But as I live here longer it happens less. I spend so much time writing, my system has begun to get used to this language.

JK: Do you speak Chinese at home?

HJ: Half and half, because I speak English with my son. He can speak Chinese, but he can’t read and write it.

JK: Going back to this sense of isolation, your stories are set in China in the past. Does that give you a sense of living in a time capsule—walking around in a Chinese world that isn’t now, yet it’s your world.

HJ: In the beginning, that was my only subject. I couldn’t do anything else. I derived strength from it. You automatically exclude millions—as if the audience is less relevant as long as what you say is truthful. But suppose I were to write a novel set in America. I couldn’t exclude American readers. It would be impossible. If I talked about coffee, I’d have to say what kind of coffee. You can’t just invent a coffee that is not there or that is no longer available when the story was told. That kind of capsule is a disadvantage. On the other hand it does give some kind of strength to the writing because the outside world is less relevant.

JK: Your vision is sharpened because nothing outside interferes with it?

HJ: Yes, you don’t have to worry about the current readers who can point their fingers and say this is not true. Because what you are saying—only you yourself can make a judgment.

JK: What about your Chinese readers?

HJ: That’s the difficult part. I have to keep them in the back of my mind. The translatability of the work is a standard. It is one way I can prevent myself from abusing the privilege. That means that if someday the work is translated back into Chinese, people will be able to say: this is truthful. Otherwise you have the authority, and [laughs] you could put whatever you want in there. You can’t do that! Also, when you write literature, there are predecessors and you have to face them. You can’t lie.

JK: All your works have been translated into Chinese. Did you work with the translator?

HJ: Yes, I had to because there are a lot of military terms and small things.

JK: But always writing in English first?

HJ: Yes.

JK: Not even in your head as Chinese first?

HJ: No, I do it in English. Once the book is put into Chinese, the publisher always has a deadline and I can’t do it. I would have to spend so much time on it that I would stop doing anything else. So that’s why I have a translator. These books were published not in mainland China but in Taiwan, for a Taiwanese publisher.

JK: Does writing in English create a layer that puts you a little outside yourself, almost like a second skin?

HJ: In the beginning, yes, it was like changing your blood. It’s not just that you’re writing a book, you have to see what can be accomplished in the language, how to find a literary tradition in the language. But the beauty in this language is that there are writers whose mother tongue is not English—Conrad, Nabokov—who became essential writers of literature that I could follow.

JK: You’ve gotten a lot of affirmation. Do you feel like a poster child for the English language?

HJ: In a way, yes. But in every good piece of work, no matter what language, there is always uncertainty in the beginning. Especially in my case it was difficult to bear the uncertainty. I could have really messed up my life and gotten nowhere. That was the difficult part, and still there are a lot of uncertain things, but in writing I could accept them as working conditions.

JK: I read something you said in an online interview [at collectedstories.com] that intrigued me. Basically, you said that to become a writer you must embrace failure. What did you mean by that?

HJ: The more ambitious you are, the stronger the sense of failure, because there are so many [laughs] great books that have been written. When I was at Emory University I often taught a story by Kafka: “The Hunger Artist.” That story explains the psychology of a writer. Very often we write not because we want to achieve—maybe there was that desire, but so much has been accomplished. We can’t do anything better. On the other hand, you have to go on and continue. That’s why I think some sense of failure is essential to a writer from the very beginning.

JK: Does it free your writing students when you tell them that?

HJ: It doesn’t matter. People should be discouraged. There are a lot of professions that are perhaps even better than writing. I don’t believe that people can’t live a much better life if they don’t write. There are great professions that can make you happy as a person and more useful to others. Writing is not a great profession as a lot of writers proclaim. I write because this is something I can do. Another thing—very often I think a lot of writers write because they have failed to do other things. How many writers can’t drive? A lot. They’re not practical. They are not capable in everyday life.

JK: And now, are you working on poems, stories, a novel?

HJ: I’ve been working on novels a lot recently, and the next book is also a novel but it has a lot of poetry in it. I will continue to write poetry. I do have a project of short fiction as well. But a novel needs so much energy, so before I get old I think I will work really hard on some novels.

JK: You haven’t been back then—to China?

HJ: No.

JK: Are you going to go? Will you get jailed if you go back?

HJ: I don’t think so. I’m an American citizen. I don’t think they can jail me without it causing some kind of news. There would be diplomatic complexities if they did that.

Jessica Keener is a fiction editor at AGNI.

Jessica Keener’s debut novel, Night Swim (2012), became a national bestseller; The Boston Globe called it “thrilling” and “exhilarating,” The New York Times “earnest” and “moving.” She followed it in 2013 with W_omen In Bed_, a collection of nine stories; Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “She demonstrates a versatile voice and ability to deliver as much exquisite detail as the stories’ brevity will allow.” Her fiction has been listed in The Pushcart Prize under “Outstanding Writers.” She is also a recipient of Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship. Her second novel, Strangers in Budapest, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books. Keener is a manuscript consultant at Grub Street and has been part of AGNI’s editorial team since 2004. (updated 4/2014)

She is interviewed at Litpark.

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