Queries: an interview with Ha Jin

Ha Jin, the acclaimed Chinese American poet, novelist, and master of the short story, has been writing in English for a little over a decade. After serving in the Chinese People’s Army, he came to the United States to study American literature at Brandeis. Horrified by the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1990, he renounced his plans for returning home and stumbled into creative writing in order to support himself in the states. It was a wise career move: his fiction has won the PEN/Hemingway Award (for Ocean of Words, 1996), the National Book Award (for Waiting, 1999), and the PEN/Faulkner Award (for Waiting, 2000), among many other prizes. Below, he discusses his approach to the writing process and his current literary plans.

DB: You are part of a small group of authors (e.g. Conrad, Nabokov) who write with great success in a foreign language. What special difficulties do you encounter when writing in English? Are there any ways in which you have an advantage over authors who write in their first language?

HJ: The major difficulties are uncertainty and the alienation from my mother tongue, which in a larger sense implies the estrangement from the Chinese culture. I began to learn English at the age of twenty, so I never know how far I can go and whether I can write in the way I imagine I should. Every story or book begins with uncertainty. However, gradually I am used to the uncertainty, which is a good thing to most writers. If we are sure of the outcome, the work cannot be very promising. Writing in English also means that I have to be alone without many comrades. I feel that as I proceed, I am wandering away farther and farther away from Chinese and the culture. But this is necessary and may be a kind of growth.

DB: You have mentioned in previous interviews that you decided not to return to China after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Have you ever re-considered that decision? To what extent do you think China has improved its civil rights policies since Tiananmen Square?

HJ: The decision was made after a long soul-searching, so I have never reconsidered it. I made up my mind long ago that I would travel alone, in English, and will continue to do so. To many people, life in China is better and there are more opportunities and some freedom. But to writers, the censorship is still harsh and the environment is still stifling.

DB: Your poetry, short stories, and novels have all won critical acclaim. Do you find your talents suited to one form of writing over the others? Will you continue to work in all three forms?

HJ: I think I am a better short story writer than a poet or a novelist. Writing novels in English demands a lot of time and energy, so I have concentrated on novels recently since I am not old yet and physically can do it. Poetry is very hard, largely depending on luck. You don’t know when the next poem will come, or whether it will ever come. I can write fiction like doing daily chores. But I can only work on one piece of writing at a time. I will return to short forms when I am done with the novels I have been working at.

DB: You once said that a single sentence can take you up to two or three days to write. How do you structure your writing time? On average, how many drafts of a short story, poem, or chapter do you produce before you are satisfied? And how do you know when you are satisfied?

HJ: Not every sentence is like that. Once in a while I get stuck at a sentence that will take a lot of time for me to fix. I don’t know about the average number of drafts. I would say at least thirty drafts for a story or a novel. As for a poem, it needs many more. After writing for over a decade, I believe I am more patient now. Ideally one should give as much time as a piece of work needs. But on the other hand, the sense of finishedness is often subjective judgment. I stop at the point where I cannot do anything further. I wish I could be more patient. Flaubert said, “Talent is a long patience.”

DB: What project are you working on currently, and what are your long-term literary goals?

HJ: My new novel The Crazed will be published by Pantheon Books this fall. I have been working at a novel set in Korea, this book serving as a transit place for me to migrate to the United States literarily.