The Writer as Migrant
Like Ovid, Dante, and Heinrich Heine, Ha Jin writes in exile. Like Joseph Conrad, Samuel Beckett, and Aleksandar Hemon, he writes in a language other than his native one. What distinguishes Ha Jin from other prominent Chinese American authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Gish Jen is the fact that he was born in China and emigrated to the United States as an adult. Though he arrived without fluency in English, he has chosen to make his career in that language, not Chinese. That career was confirmed when, ten years after his decision to settle in the United States, he won both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his 1999 novel Waiting.
Invited to serve as guest speaker for the Campbell Lecture Series at Rice University, Ha Jin addressed the challenges faced by writers who live outside their native lands and who, as translinguals, write in adopted languages. Speaking on three successive days in October, 2006, he drew from his own experience and from the lives and works of kindred writers he admires. The Writer as Migrant is a transcript of those three overlapping lectures, titled in turn “The Spokesman and the Tribe,” “The Language of Betrayal,” and “An Individual’s Homeland.”
Expatriation is nothing new in world literature. The “Lost Generation” of American writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos, made its home, temporarily, in Paris. Much earlier, Rome drew Seneca from Iberia and Apuleius from North Africa, and Latin literature is said to have begun with Livius Andronicus, a Greek slave who wrote a Latin version of Homer’s Odyssey (725 b.c.e.). However, with increased mobility and the globalization of cultures, the phenomenon of the writer as migrant has become more common. Written in lucid, engaging English, Ha Jin’s short book offers a cogent discussion of literary figures who, like its author, find themselves situated between countries and languages.
In his opening essay, “The Spokesman and the Tribe,” Ha Jin recalls how, with his first book of poetry, his ambition, despite writing in English in the United States, was to give voice to the voiceless Chinese people. He contrasts his situation to that of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who, throughout the eighteen years he spent in exile in rural Vermont, continued to write in Russian for the Russian people. He attributes Solzhenitsyn’s ability to work in stubborn isolation to his Christian faith in an afterlife but, turning to the case of Lin Yutang, notes that Chinese writers crave community. Ha Jin describes Lin Yutang’s role as cultural ambassador in two directions, from China to the West and from the West to China, and he praises his My Country and My People (1935) as still the best book about its subject, China. However, Ha Jin faults Lin Yutang’s fiction for being too general and didactic; subsuming his individual vision under that of the communities he tried to represent, Lin Yutang, Ha Jin contends, forgot the lesson that “great literature has never been produced by collectives.”
Encouraged by the way Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame (1983) subverts the clichéd analogy between human beings and trees, as if human “roots” were anything but a hackneyed metaphor, Ha Jin states: “The debunking of the tree metaphor makes it clear that human beings are different from trees and should be rootless and entirely mobile.” He contends that, unlike Solzhenitsyn and Lin Yutang, who were established authors before they departed their native lands, most migrant writers must accept the fact that they are more like V. S. Naipaul, fundamentally rootless. They must establish new identities within alien cultures. By the conclusion of the first chapter of The Writer as Migrant, Ha Jin recognizes the naiveté of his earlier aim of speaking on behalf of the downtrodden Chinese. While conceding the obligation to take a stand against injustice, he insists that the writer serves society best by pursuing his art: “He must serve on his own terms, in the manner and at the time and place of his own choosing. Whatever role he plays, he must keep in mind that his success or failure as a writer will be determined only on the page. That is the space...
(The entire section is 1760 words.)