Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696

Born in Jinzhou, Liaoning Province, in northeastern China in 1956, Ha Jin—a pen name that Xuefei Jin adopted for easier pronunciation—was the first Chinese-born American writer to win both the National Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award. However, Jin became an English-language writer almost by happenstance. His father was an...

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Born in Jinzhou, Liaoning Province, in northeastern China in 1956, Ha Jin—a pen name that Xuefei Jin adopted for easier pronunciation—was the first Chinese-born American writer to win both the National Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award. However, Jin became an English-language writer almost by happenstance. His father was an army officer. Therefore, when facing the choices between going to work in the countryside and joining the People’s Liberation Army at age fourteen, he choose the latter, patrolling the border between Northern China and the Soviet Union for six years. After leaving the army, he worked as a railroad telegrapher in Harbin, the capital of Helongjian Province from 1975 to 1977 and taught himself English by listening to the radio. In 1988, he went to Helongjiang University, also in Harbin, a city he loved so much that he used the first character of it, Ha, in his pen name. He graduated with a B.A. degree in English in 1982. Then he moved with his father, who had just retired from the army, to their home province of Shangdong.{$S[A]Jin, Xuefei;Jin, Ha}

Two years later, Jin received his M.A. in American literature from Shandong University; there he was taught by visiting American Fulbright scholars and was exposed for the first time to the National Book Award-winning novels of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. While Jin enjoyed reading these works, he never imagined he would one day follow in their authors’ footsteps. He wanted to be a scholar and a translator.

Shortly after his marriage to a young mathematician, Lisha Bian, Jin was given the opportunity to pursue a scholarship overseas. In 1985 he went to the United States to begin doctoral work on modern American poetry at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His wife joined him in the United States in 1987. He had planned to return to China after four years, but because of the shootings during the political protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, he decided to stay in the United States. It was difficult for him to find a job in academia. By then he had published a book of poems in English, Between Silences, so he thought if he continued to publish some books in English he might find a job teaching creative writing.

Although Jin was determined to write, he had only completed several unpublished short stories back in China. To him, choosing to write in English meant much labor and some despair. When he applied to the creative writing program at Boston University in 1991, Leslie Epstein, the program director, could not accept him because his English was not quite fluent. Epstein was impressed, however, by Jin’s determination to write and allowed him to audit the courses. As a result, all the short stories in Ocean of Words were written during that audit year. When Jin reapplied to the program a year later, he was accepted as a full-time student.

In 1992, Jin received his Ph.D. degree from Brandeis. One year later he was accepted by Emory University as an assistant professor of creative writing. In the following years, he published two collections of short fiction: Ocean of Words, which received the PEN/Hemingway Award, and Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award. Jin’s novel In the Pond was selected as a best fiction book of 1998 by the Chicago Tribune, and Waiting, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for fiction, won the National Book Award for fiction in 1999 as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award (2000). His short stories have been included in the anthologies The Best American Short Stories (1997 and 1999), three Pushcart Prize anthologies, and The Norton Introduction to Fiction and The Norton Introduction to Literature, among others. He also became the Young J. Allen Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory.

While American literary circles praised his effort to transform the figures, statements, ideas, and plans found in history books about China into universally accessible images of struggle, thus presenting a complex view of the ambivalences and hypocrisies that flourish in an intensely nationalistic culture, Ha Jin’s works have, to date, received little attention in China.

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