Ha Jin at Fordham

I’m loving Waiting which I’m reading on the strength of Ha Jin’s talk about his writing last Thursday at Fordham. The event was in conjunction with his upcoming opera at the Met. (More opera, I know!) He’s collaborating with composer Tan Dun and film director Zhang Yimou on “The First Emperor.”

Ha Jin was amazingly impressive. The event—a staged interview—suited him well. It was informal (conducted by my colleague, Professor Chris GoGwilt and then opened up to questions from the audience) and Chris’ well-researched questions taught me a lot about him.

He talked about himself as having been a “half-hearted” writer for many years. Even after he published his first book of poetry in English, he was still half-hearted. He came to English by an accidental route. When the universities were closed during the Cultural Revolution, he followed along with a radio program on learning English—a half hour a day. A year later, the universities now open, he put this small progress in English onto his college application and was assigned to be an English major. Then, he came to the U.S. in 1985 to get a Ph.D. in comparative poetics at Brandeis. That dissertation was written for the Chinese job market.

But, when the Tiananmen massacre happened in 1989 and, in the chaos his son was suddenly permitted to leave China and join him in the States, his life changed forever. Ha is the son of an army officer and a former officer himself. And, he said, seeing the People’s Army turn on the people was traumatic. That trauma combined with his son’s fierce desire to emigrate. Suddenly, out of his trauma and for his son, he, too, decided to stay in the United States.

Now, he said, he had a big problem: what to do with his life? Having some friends who taught creative writing, he thought that, perhaps, with lots of hard work, he could, in ten years, maybe get a decent job teaching poetry.

Throughout the conversation, he was genuinely humble. He spoke of himself as a writer who was still learning, still experimenting, still trying, with each new book, to deserve the name of novelist. All of this struck me as a very ancient Chinese scholarly stance. Ha seems to take the long view of time and to have little interest in acclaim. When asked what it was like to work with Tan Dun and Zhang Yimou on the opera, he laughingly explained that he has to remember that he is one of many artists, that opera is new to him, that he is collaborating on a project not of his own invention but one that he was commissioned to do. Under the laugh, you could imagine many, many moments in which things did not go his way. Still, he took it lightly and with easy maturity.

In short, I was mightily impressed. I am eager to see the opera and the book is a delight.