In conversation, Ha Jin displays a remarkably playful sense of humor about the smallish absurdities of life. " It's crazy!" he exclaims, laughing, after describing how novelist Allegra Goodman, Nobel prize-winning poet Derek Walcott and he all share a single office in the English department at Boston University, making it impossible for any of them to actually write there. He laughs again, almost gleefully, as he relates how, after getting a doctorate in modern American poetry and after developing a reputation as a poet himself, he taught poetry writing at Emory, but at BU, where he has been for five years, "there are so many good poets that I only teach fiction writing and literature."
This ebullience is, frankly, surprising, coming from the author of the highly, and deservedly, praised novels War Trash, which offers a deeply affecting portrait of the grim fate of Chinese prisoners of war during the Korean conflict, and Waiting, which won a National Book Award for its suggestive look at the emotional and political paralysis of life in the People's Republic of China.
On the other hand, a stylistic and thematic playfulness bubbles enticingly beneath the surface of Ha Jin's marvelous new novel, A Free Life, a book that offers a notably fresh look at the Chinese immigrant experience in America.
"Every book is a kind of departure; every book is a step forward, a move away from the past," Ha Jin says of the new novel during a call to his home in Foxboro, Massachusetts, where he and his wife live in a quiet neighborhood on the edge of a state forest. The couple's son recently graduated from Princeton in American history and is now in graduate school at Brown. "The style in this book is different from my earlier books," he continues. "The linguistic playfulness in this book cannot be translated anymore."
Ha Jin came to the United States as a graduate student in 1985. Like Nan Wu, the central character in A Free Life, he decided to remain here after the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989. Unlike his main character, however, he has never returned to China, even for a brief visit. His novels, composed in English and translated into many languages including Chinese are banned in China. "I used to believe a good book should be translatable, meaning if it is translated back into Chinese it will be meaningful to the Chinese as well. But this book will be hard to translate into Chinese. Somehow it will be hard for Chinese to understand the meaning, the style, the playfulness. That is a kind of sacrifice, but I don't care much about how the Chinese read this book anymore, mainly because I think of this as an American novel. Stylistically, I really wanted to do as much with English as I could."
A Free Life is a sweeping narrative that tells the story of Nan Wu, his wife Pingping, and their son Taotao as they struggle to establish a life in America over the course of about a decade. Nan moves from being one of the favored youth of China who was sent to be educated in the U.S., to a waiter and cook in a Chinese restaurant in New York after he rejects life in post-Tiananmen China, to a restaurant owner in Georgia, struggling to sustain his family while nurturing a desire to become a poet.
Throughout his absorbing story, Ha Jin offers an extraordinarily nuanced view of the complexity of immigrant communities and the individual human beings who inhabit them. The members of the Chinese community near Nan's Georgia restaurant, for example, are divided over their conflicted loyalties to their homeland. Nan's writer friend Danning is spiritually and morally at odds with himself about his artistic integrity versus his need to succeed in the restrictive social and political environment of China. Nan and his family face long, difficult periods of separation. They also encounter the subtle and not so subtle bigotry of some of the American inhabitants in the communities where they live. All of this is a forceful, moving reminder of the depth and range of human experience that unfolds, often below our awareness, in the seemingly monolithic communities of recent immigrants.
But Nan's struggle is not merely about finding a way to fit into his new social environment, it is also about a more difficult effort within himself to seize the freedom that America offers him to become the person he chooses to be. "Nan's struggle for freedom is not just about whether he has the right to be free," says Ha Jin, "it is about achieving a state of mind. A Free Life is about a person from a kind of totalitarian society, where freedom is alien, arriving here and being overwhelmed, because freedom involves a lot of uncertainty, risks, sacrifice and a lot of other things he simply couldn't imagine."
That freedom, Ha Jin says, also involves more than just the ability to achieve financial success. "A lot of people come to the United States not just for material benefits. There is a kind of spiritual, even metaphysical aspect to this journey. It's another part of the contemporary immigrant experience. In Nan's case, he's never really materialistic, so the general notion of the American dream doesn't make much sense to him. For him the dream is much more than that."
In recent years, Ha Jin has spoken more and more frequently of his desire to become a truly American writer. To do that, he says, he has "to write more books about the American experience. I do believe the national experience is very important. It's not just in the language but in really writing about the experience in a way that is somehow resonant with the audience." Later, near the end of the conversation, he observes, "I've been teaching immigrant literature recently, and I've realized that immigration is not a universal theme in literature, because it's basically an American phenomenon."
So is A Free Life a book that allows Ha Jin to feel he's become an American writer?
"It is a step toward the goal," Ha Jin says.
Indeed it is.
Alden Mudge, of Oakland, is a juror for the California Book Awards.