Ha Jin on the writer as migrant
"...No matter where we go, we cannot shed our past completely - so we must strive to use parts of our past to facilitate our journeys. As we travel along, we should also imagine how to rearrange the landscapes of our envisioned homelands." writes Chinese-born novelist Ha Jin in the concluding essay of The Writer as Migrant (University of Chicago Press, 2008), his first collection of nonfiction writings on exile as a literary theme and the moral hazards it presents to a writer.
Reading Jean Westmoore's fine interview in The News yesterday and hearing Joyce Krysak's very poignant WBFO radio interview with the author of Under the Red Flag (1997), Waiting (1999), and War Trash (2004) in preparation for his Babel Series lecture tonight (Friday) at 8 p.m. in Kleinhans Music Hall reminded me of something he told me in an interview published in this newspaper on the occasion of a previous visit to Buffalo shortly after he received the PEN/Faulkner and National Book Awards in 2000 for Waiting.
I asked him, among other things, if despite his self-evident mastery of English-language prose and success as an author, he thought his writing represented an attempt to better understand or reconcile his feelings of exile and dislocation from a country and culture he felt he could no longer return to after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. "When I first started writing in English, I think that may have been a factor," he told me, "I thought that by writing about it, I could make the Chinese experience transparent. But I don't think about that much anymore. Now I just think about the story..."
In the preface to The Writer as Migrant, Jin observes:
"When I first began to write, I longed to return to China and I saw my stay in the United States as a sojourn, so it felt almost natural for me to claim to be a spokesman for the unfortunate Chinese. Little did I know that such a claim could be so groundless...I was unaware of the complexity and infeasibility of the position I had adopted, especially for a person in my situation. Indeed, too much sincerity is a dangerous thing. It can overheat one's brain..."
In "The Spokesman and The Tribe," the first and most personal of the essays in the collection, he strikes upon a formulation that he believes to be consistent with the work of the "migrant writers" he most admires, notably Joseph Conrad, V.S. Naipaul, and Vladimir Nabokov:
"Just as a creative writer should aspire to be not a broker but a creator of culture, a great novel does not only present a culture but also makes culture; such a work does not only bring news of the world but also evokes the reader's empathy and reminds him of his own existential condition."