... conversations with People at the Leading Edgesm

Only a master can translate history into literature. Ha Jin is a master. Only a master could reveal China since the Revolution, one story at a time. Ha Jin is a master. Only a master would take this path in a language not his own. Ha Jin is a master.

Ha Jin's ambition was to transform the figures, statements, ideas and plans found in history books about China into universally accessible images of struggle, to consider how individuals' emotions, ideas and minds function in a particular environment.

That would have been immodest enough, but Ha Jin had a further hurdle. Chinese by birth, he had intended to return to a privileged career as a translator in China following a couple of years studying in an American university. Tiananmen changed all that. So Ha Jin had to figure out what to do with his life. In America. How to make a living. How to create meaning. Writing, he thought quite practically, was something he could do.

While Ha Jin could not know that a National Book Award and literary fame awaited him, he did know that the English language is beautiful. And it has a grand tradition which provided him a reference -- people born to other mother tongues have become major writers. Even masters. His wife encouraged him, confident her husband was a born writer whose way of writing would not be accepted in Chinese. So he took the risk. In English.

Painful as the process was at the beginning, gradually, Ha Jin made a transition. He found a kind of freedom on the page. He remembers feeling himself changing as he became more able to think and express himself in English, though the loneliness never went away. And he remembers the confusion, too.

Now, as he writes, he thinks only in English. But there's a problem, especially in his fiction. When the characters begin to speak to each other, they speak in Chinese. And he has to translate for them!

Human universals fuel Ha Jin's prose and poetry. Confucius still deeply influences the Chinese people -- Ha Jin believes their willingness to bow to authority, to adapt their values too readily, is a tragic flaw -- but the fundamentals of being humans are, well, fundamental. The desire to love somebody. And to be loved. Traumatic emotional experiences in relationships. The importance of the spiritual life. These, he assures us, are constant. His stories and poems -- masterfully -- will bear witness for the ages.

[This Program was recorded November 8, 2000, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]


[We were deeply impressed with what we learned from Ha Jin. In order to assure that our listeners can clearly understood him, we include here the transcript of our Conversation with Master Storyteller, Ha Jin.]




Ha Jin

    ... literary writer. Winner of the National Book Award for Waiting, an international best-seller, Ha Jin is a native of China who came to the United States in 1985 to attend Brandeis University, when events in his homeland precluded his return. War Trash gives Chinese prisoners of war in the Korean War a place in history. Like Conrad and Nabakov, Ha Jin is internationally known for his works written in his second language, English. Recipient of many of literature’s highest awards for his fiction, Ha Jin is also a poet and a professor of English at Boston University.

Conversation 1

Ha Jin assures us that all people are essentially the same, whatever the changing political context, noting how stable the fabric of daily life has been in China. We all share the same emotions, he says, giving examples of how differently they get expressed. Admiring human resilience, Ha Jin uses examples from his stories to suggest that sometimes people can be too adaptable.


Conversation 2

The continuing importance of Confucianism in China is considered, with Ha Jin drawing examples from politics, culture and literature. He reminds us of how durable the agrarian reality has been in China, remembering his own childhood there. He points to what has changed and what has stayed the same. Ha Jin explains the differences he sees between literature and history. He wonders about the impact of changing concepts of individuality in his native country.



Conversation 3

Ha Jin amplifies on the continuing role of Confucianism in the fabric of Chinese life. He applauds the efforts of the Communist government to liberate women, concerned that women's situation seems to have deteriorated as private enterprise has re-entered the Chinese economy. Ha Jin compares Chinese ideas about the role and rule of law to those of Westerners, with examples from his stories. He describes Chinese readiness to yield to authority as tragic, then explains why he thinks his literature is not available in China. He puts the idea of bound feet into its cultural, social and political context.


Conversation 4

Enormous tensions between Ha Jin's native Chinese and literary English languages are explored on several levels. He recalls his early days in America. He describes the profound impact the Tiananmen Massacre had on him. He compares the role of the Army (of which he was a member) in the Cultural Revolution and in 1989. He expresses hopes for China's future. Ha Jin describes the feelings he experiences as he writes in English. He tells stories of how people respond to his novels and poems, pointing again to universal human truths.



Conversation 5

Ha Jin finds more pain than advantage in working in a language not one's own. He describes the physical, intellectual and social challenges of having adopted English for his literature. He elaborates on advantages and disadvantages of his dual-language occupation. Ha Jin considers the roles of suffering and pain in creating art and describes how he goes about writing his stories and poems. He explains the power and beauty of the English language and its tradition of non-English natives becoming masters. Crediting his wife for her sustaining contribution to his work, Ha Jin explains his ambition to translate history into literature. He considers his future.


Conversation 6

The real contact between East and West has just begin, according to Ha Jin, who considers the ramifications he believes that opening might have, with positive and negative examples. He amplifies on what he believes is the single greatest distinguishing characteristic that separates the cultures of his native and adopted homes.



Related Links:

Among Ha Jin's novels is Waiting, which won The National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner Award, was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist and a "New York Times" Notable Book. "The Bridegroom" is a collection of short stories. He also writes poetry.

The audio for our second program with Ha Jin, principally focused on his remarkable novel War Trash, is here.

This is a one-minute piece we produced for CNNRadio International in 2001, and this is a two-minute program produced for in 2003.

And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.


This program is the 200th broadcast of "The Paula Gordon Show."We chose Ha Jin as our Guest for this special Show because we are deeply impressed with his literary majesty, his sincere humility and his courage in coming to his own terms with our rapidly changing world.

Suzanne Williams of Pantheon Books was unusually helpful in arranging for us to meet Ha Jin. We are even more grateful to her than we thought we would be.


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