Ha Jin: The liberating powers of English

Guest blog by Samrat Upadhyay, author and faculty member in the IU Bloomington Department of English:

In the 1990s, Croatian-American writer Josip Novakovich asked me whether I’d read any Ha Jin. I replied I hadn’t.

“Read him. He’s really good,” Novakovich said.

At that time, Novakovich was editing an anthology titled “Stories in the Stepmother Tongue,” featuring non-native users of English who had nonetheless chosen the language for their literary imagination. I also fell into that category, although by my late 20s, English had gradually become my first language — the language of my profession and my literary passion — even as Nepali was, and is, my mother tongue.

Ha Jin

Ha Jin. Photo courtesy of the IU Arts and Humanities Council.

When the anthology arrived, I read Ha Jin’s story, “Saboteur,” and I was blown away. “Saboteur” tells the story of a recently married man who, after unfairly being imprisoned for sabotage, devises a scheme for revenge and, ironically, ends up as a saboteur.

The story was brutal in its unwavering gaze at the repressive Communist rule in post-Cultural Revolution China. Ha Jin’s spare style further accentuated the impotent rage that the protagonist feels at those who’ve wronged him.

But there was also something else: The English I was reading was new, sculpted carefully, and using expressions that, while occasionally sounding slightly off-kilter, carved images with startling clarity. I was more used to the labyrinthine sentences and penetrating interiority championed by many South Asian writers like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, and Arundhati Roy.

Ha Jin’s prose was, at times, painfully staccato and abrupt and matter-of-fact and drama-less. It enthralled me. It was a prose style well suited to his subject matter, for it stressed the helplessness and repressed emotions of those who live under authoritarian regimes.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Ha Jin was at the forefront of writers who were creating game-changing fiction in English despite not having grown up with it. “Stories in the Stepmother Tongue,” published in 2000, showcases stalwarts such as Bharati Mukherjee, Edwidge Danticat, Nahid Rachlin, Julia Alvarez — writers who have changed our notions about who can play, and play damn well, in the schoolyard of the English language that for so long had been traditionally occupied by native speakers.

Sure, giants such as Joseph Conrad from Poland and Vladimir Nabokov from Russia had already paved the way earlier, but it was writers like Ha Jin who demonstrated the enormous elasticity of the English language by stretching its geographical boundaries to non-Western countries.

Since the publication of his first book in 1990, which was a collection of poems, Ha Jin has penned more than a dozen books of fiction, both novels and short stories. His 1999 novel “Waiting,” which tells the story of an army doctor who, for 18 years, attempts to divorce his wife so he can marry his sweetheart, earned him a National Book Award.

His other books have won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the PEN/Faulkner award (twice, putting him in the same ranks as Philip Roth, John Edgar Wideman, and E.L. Doctorow), and a Pulitzer Prize nomination for the novel “War Trash,” which chronicles the ordeals of a Chinese soldier who becomes a POW during the Korean war.

In interviews, Ha Jin has said that he first decided to write in English so he could divorce himself from the Chinese Communist regime. The Chinese language, for Ha Jin, was filled with political jargon. English was liberating, granting dignity to the individual.

As a fellow non-native writer, I find this quite refreshing, as conventionally English has been seen as the language of the oppressor, the colonialist, the globalist, the market-driven capitalist. The Nigerian writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o chose to “decolonize” his mind by abandoning the colonial language altogether, and here is Ha Jin, who not only has embraced English but has been boldly and unashamedly empowered by it.

“To be a literary writer does not mean just to write books,” Ha Jin has said. “You need to look for some space in a language and find your niche in it.” How fortunate for world literature that this dynamic and prolific writer has not only found a niche for himself but has taught us, in work after work, the amazing generosity of the English language.

Ha Jin will speak at the Grunwald Gallery at 8 p.m. March 2. The event is free, and no ticket is required. More information about the event and other “China Remixed” events can be found on the IU Arts and Humanities Council website.

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