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The Interview | with Ha Jin

A mosaic of Chinese immigrant life

HA JIN HA JIN (Jerry Bauer)
By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / November 29, 2009

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After novels such as “Waiting,’’ set in modern China, and “War Trash,’’ which depicted Chinese POWs during the Korean War, Ha Jin returns to short fiction with a volume of 12 stories that gracefully convey the often disorienting reality of Chinese immigrant life in the United States. “[T]he American type of success was not for everyone,’’ one character reflects. “You must learn how to sell yourself there and must change yourself to live a new life.’’

A visiting professor attempts to defect, a home health aide is ensnared by her elderly client, an indentured prostitute makes a break for freedom. In Jin’s stories, the life of each character, masterfully compressed, is granted depth and even occasional nobility.

Jin left China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. The author of five novels, three story collections, and three volumes of poetry, he is a professor of English at Boston University. He spoke from his home in Boston.

Q. How did you return to the short story?

A. I had intended for a long time to write short stories about the immigrant experience, so it was planned long ago, but I just didn’t know where to set the stories. It wasn’t until the beginning of 2005 when I happened to be in Flushing. I was very moved by the sights and the people there.

Q. So the characters were there already, waiting for the setting?

A. It can happen both ways. Some of the characters, I already knew their anecdotes so some of the happenings were in my head. Then after my first visit to Flushing I returned many times, perhaps 20 times altogether. Gradually there were stories that during the visit came up. I also did a lot of research.

Q. Why did you choose Flushing?

A. This is such an immigrant community. There are all kinds of people. It’s like the very beginning of an American town, in a way. That’s why I was very touched by it.

Q. You open this collection with the voice of a waitress. Are you setting the tone?

A. Yes. It is a slender story; it is slight, just four pages long. But the story is, in a way, a kind of prelude, a preface to the whole volume. It sets up a time and place and the complexity of our time. In that sense, the book needs a small piece like that at the beginning.

Q. In novels and stories, you project the female narrator’s voice so well. How is that?

A. I just spend more time working on it. There is no short cut. You just have to spend more time with the character whether she is in a novel or a short story.

Q. Why are details of work and money so important?

A. Modern immigrants are slightly different from previous generations. Many of them are professionals, so materially speaking, some of them are doing fine. But the metaphysical part of their lives - their anxieties, their concerns - those are the same as they were in the old days. Cash is important because they don’t have any other recourse. They save and save, as though money is the only way to assure safety. I think that’s why a lot of immigrants are passionate about saving. They’re very good at it.

Q. The new immigrant life that you describe is not such “A Free Life,’’ to use the title of your previous novel?

A. I think immigrants assume - perhaps have always assumed - that the United States is the place where you can start a new life. But you can’t sever your ties with the past; it’s impossible. And nowadays with e-mail and such technology the distances are shortened. No matter where you go, you are closer than ever, in a way, to those at home. So there are the perennial feelings, emotions, but they are manifest in a different form.

Q. Has your own work moved from weight - of history, of place - to lightness in some way?

A. I know what you mean. Those historical subjects are very heavy, and I may still work on some of them, but the immigrant story is very close to my heart and is a subject I want to work on as well. In fact, I have been thinking of how to write funny books, which is far harder to do.

Q. Your style always strikes me as somewhat formal and wonderfully restrained. Do you avoid stylistic flourishes or do you edit them out?

A. In most cases I avoid them. I try to use a kind of English that is slightly different from the standard idiom but language is supposed to serve the story. My job is mainly to fulfill the story.

Q. Has this style anything to do with writing in a language that is your second language?

A. Yes, this accounts for the absence of spontaneity, I think. Both Conrad and Nabokov were aware of this problem and figured out their ways of turning the disadvantage to advantage. I have to figure out my way, which I am still trying to do.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at ama1668@hotmail.com.

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