Friday, May 08, 2009

The Writer As Migrant

The Writer As Migrant by Ha Jin consists of three interconnected essays, this book sets Ha Jin’s own work and life alongside those of other literary exiles, creating a conversation across cultures and between eras. He employs the cases of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Chinese novelist Lin Yutang to illustrate the obligation a writer feels to the land of his birth, while Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov—who, like Ha Jin, adopted English for their writing—are enlisted to explore a migrant author’s conscious choice of a literary language. A final essay draws on V. S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera to consider the ways in which our era of perpetual change forces a migrant writer to reconceptualize the very idea of home. Throughout, Jin brings other celebrated writers into the conversation as well, including W. G. Sebald, C. P. Cavafy, and Salman Rushdie—refracting and refining the very idea of a literature of migration.

A 53-year-old professor at Boston University, Jin’s also written five novels, three books of poetry, and three collections of short stories, all in English. He’s won two PEN/Faulkner awards and a National Book Award and in 2004 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

When he started writing, Jin says, "I viewed myself as a Chinese writer who would write in English on behalf of the downtrodden Chinese." But how could he write on behalf of a people if he couldn't also address them? Since his books often deal with the politics of modern China most of them haven't been published there. Of course, had he returned to China he could have written in Chinese. Then again, he might not be writing at all. Jin thinks he'd have become a translator or critic or maybe a professor, but wouldn't have written much. When he was starting out in the U.S., he says, writing was a matter of survival: he was on the tenure track at Emory and had to publish to keep his job. But writing in English offers another sort of survival as well. It's "a way for me to do meaningful work in a language that's not controlled by authorities. In that way it's a matter of artistic survival." So he writes in English, even though he argues in the book's second essay, "The Language of Betrayal," that "no matter how the writer attempts to rationalize and justify adopting a foreign language, it is an act of betrayal that alienates him from his mother tongue.…"

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