The Writer as Migrant

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1760

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...

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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 where he should strive to exist.” Proclaiming the independence of the artist, Ha Jin thus rejects his early aspiration to writealbeit in Englishon behalf of the Chinese masses.

In the second essay in the book, “The Language of Betrayal,” Ha Jin examines the phenomenon of translingualism, of writing in an adopted language. Contending that the motives for switching languages are often mixed, he attributes his own use of English, rather than Chinese, to the demands of survivalnot only the need to earn a livelihood but also the desire to make the best possible use of his talents in the circumstances in which he found himself. Although many of the classic Latin writers adopted the language of Rome instead of their native tongues, he hails Joseph Conradwho was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Poland but became a major novelist in English, a language he did not learn until he was in his twentiesas a pioneer of translingual literature. While noting that betrayal is in fact a theme within Conrad’s fiction, he defends him against charges of cultural treason leveled by champions of Polish. In addition, he discusses the anxiety that Vladimir Nabokov felt about differentiating himself from Conrad. Nabokov, who wrote in Russian, French, and English, was intent on demonstrating greater stylistic virtuosity in English, the language he wrote in after Russian and French.

Ha Jin notes the linguistic playfulness that characterizes much of Nabokov’s English fiction, particularly the 1957 novel Pnin, but he maintains that Nabokov’s use of English rather than his native Russian crippled him as a poet. However, he proclaims Nabokov the prose artist “a supreme example of how to adapt writing to the circumstances of displacement, how to imagine and attain a place in the adopted language while still maintaining an intimate relationship with his mother tongue, and how to face an oppressive regime with contempt, artistic integrity, and individual dignity.” Ha Jin identifies the humor in Pnin, based on a disproportionate attention to trivial matters, as Gogolian and praises it as “completely translatable.” In fact, uncomfortable with word play, which is unique to each language, he insists that translatability is the hallmark of successful literature. While mastering the unique idiosyncrasies of a new language, the writer should, according to Ha Jin, strive to create a text that is not dependent upon or limited to those idiosyncrasies. “Therefore,” he claims, “the writer who adopts English, while striving to seek a place in this idiom, should also imagine ways to transcend any language.”

However, Nabokov was himself a translator, from Russian to English and from English to Russian. In elaborate commentary he appended to his 1964 four-volume translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin (1825-1832, 1833; Eugene Onegin, 1881), Nabokov insisted both on the incommensurability of Pushkin’s narrative poem and any English facsimile and on the principle that all translation ought to embody acknowledgment that it is derivative. Addressing Pushkin in his poem “On Translating Eugene Onegin,” Nabokov belittles his own arduous effort as “Dove-droppings on your monument.” Because Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), a novel constructed around a poem and its commentary, makes elaborate use of linguistic play, it resists translation. It is Nabokov’s greatest literary achievement, precisely because it is a consummate marriage of specific words and theme. It is what it is, which it would cease to be if rendered into anything else. It is likely that Nabokov himself would reverse Ha Jin’s contention and insist that a text approaches perfection as it approaches untranslatability.

“An Individual’s Homeland,” the third and final chapter in The Writer as Migrant, is largely a meditation on the archetypal wanderer Odysseus. Contending that all of us, migrants or not, seek an Ithaca, Ha Jin begins with a few comments on C. P. Cavafy’s “Ithaka” (1911), a poem in which the Greek island-state functions as a symbol of arrival, not, as in the Odyssey, of return. He notes that Mr. Shimerda in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918), Albert Schearl in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934), and Carlos Chang in Sigrid Nunez’s A Feather on the Breath of God (1995) are all broken by the pain of displacement. He contrasts them with Bertha in Call It Sleep and Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), who are both invigorated by exile. He ponders the ambiguity of the word “homeland,” which can refer either to the land of one’s birth or to the land in which one has established residence. Like Thomas Wolfe, who titled his 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again, he notes that, for all of Odysseus’s longing to return, he can never go back to the same place as the same person. Things change, and, inevitably, so do people.

Ha Jin examines the two most famous accounts of Odysseus’s life after he comes back from the Trojan War, twenty years after departing his native island. In the Inferno from La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Dante places the Greek hero in the eighth circle of hell, punished as an evil counselor for the sin of pride in his refusal to accept God’s order and his deceit in persuading others to set out again from Ithaca to sail with him beyond mortal limits. Ha Jin reads Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1842 poem “Ulysses” not, conventionally, as the celebration of a hero determined “[t]o strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” but rather as the portrait of an egotist indifferent to the harm he is causing the mariners he coaxes into joining him for a final, suicidal voyage westward. He also discusses the search for home in Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979) and the strategy for artistic survival in exile portrayed in W. G. Sebald’s Ausgewanderten (1992; The Emigrants, 1996). Since global migration is continuous and irreversible, any conclusion to a book called The Writer as Migrant will be abrupt and arbitrary. Ha Jin gains enough trust through his unpretentious style that he can be forgiven for the banality of his pious parting words: “no matter where we go, we cannot shed our past completelyso we must strive to use parts of our past to facilitate our journeys. As we travel along, we should also imagine how to rearrange the landscapes of our envisioned homelands.”


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19

The Guardian, December 6, 2008, p. 7.

The New Republic 239, no. 11 (December 24, 2008): 40-43.

San Francisco Chronicle, November 9, 2008, p. M5.

The Spectator 309 (January 24, 2009): 41.

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