gazettelogo.gif - 2815 BytesThe Sunday Gazette
Arts & Entertainment
09/21/003 G-06

By JACK RIGHTMYER, Staff Writer
AUTHOR HA JIN TO READ, TALK AT UAlbany ON LIFE IN CHINA

As a 14-year-old boy in China, Ha Jin was a volunteer in the People's Liberation Army. He was stationed at the northeastern border between China and the former Soviet Union.

"For the first time in my life, I saw people who were well-read, officers who were reading Russian authors," said Jin, in a recent phone interview from his home near Providence, R.I. "That's when I began to think about getting an education and going to college. I wanted to be a learned person."

Since that time in the mid-1970s, Ha Jin has fulfilled his dreams. He has become a successful poet, short story writer and novelist. His most recent novel, "The Crazed" (2002), was set during the Tiananmen Square uprising, and his first novel, "Waiting" (1999), won the National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Free talk

On Thursday, he will conduct a public reading with novelist Leslie Epstein at 8 p.m. at the Reading Assembly Hall at the Campus Center of the University at Albany's uptown campus. The talk, which is free, is part of The New York State Writers Institute.

Ha Jin said he joined the military as a way to leave home, because it was during the time of the Cultural Revolution in China and the schools were all closed.

"I had a lot of spare time in the military and I began reading," he said. "I met some Russian translators and I was very impressed with how smart they were."

When the colleges reopened in 1977, Jin passed the entrance exams and went to Heilonjang University, where he was assigned to study English, even though it was his last choice for a major. He received a bachelor's degree in 1981, and then studied American literature at Shandong University, where he received a master's degree in 1984. The following year he came to the United States to do graduate work at Brandeis University, where he earned a Ph.D. in English in 1993.

"I was devastated watching the Tiananmen massacre on television," said Jin. "I knew it would be impossible to go back to China and write and teach honestly. I had once served in the Chinese army. It was a people's army with the purpose of protecting civilians, and now the whole thing was reversed and they were attacking civilians. My whole image of China was changed. I spent many weeks in a fog where I couldn't think clearly."

Jin decided to stay in the United States with his wife and young son. He looked for teaching jobs but couldn't find any, and that's when he decided to begin writing.

Writing in English

"I wrote in English, even though I had just learned the language," he said. "It was a very disheartening process. I had to keep going to the dictionary to look up word meanings, but the process taught me patience."

His first two books were poetry collections, and his next two books were short story collections. It wasn't until 1999 that he attempted a novel.

"I feel more at home writing short stories," said Jin. "Novels demand so much energy and time for the writing, and poetry depends on luck because it has all the weight of language in so few words."

He is currently working on a new novel, "War Trash," which will be published in fall 2004. "It is set during the Korean War," said Jin, "and it's told from a Chinese prisoner's point of view."

Along with his writing, he teaches two days a week at Boston University. "Teaching helps me become a better writer," he said. "Although it takes a lot of energy from me with all the grading of papers, I still enjoy it. Teaching is an anchor. It allows me to be financially secure so I am able to write the books I want to write. I don't need to write books that have to make me a lot of money."

Content in America

He misses his family and friends in China, but he is happy to be living in the United States. "Today China is very different from when I lived there," he said, "but it is still politically a very tightly controlled state. Economically it is more open, but culturally it is still very much controlled."

Jin mentioned that in China the government controls all the publishers. "It's not possible for some writers to get published in China," he said.

"They are able to publish their own books, but they can't be economically independent or reach a large audience. All my books have been translated into Chinese, but you can't find them on mainland China, and no official Chinese paper would ever review them."

Jin does not consider himself a political writer, yet many of his characters are affected by politics. When you read one of his stories, you truly enter the world of China with all its sights, sounds and smells. "But the longer I stay in this country, the more I want to write a novel about the immigrant experience here," he said.

He is pleased to be back working with Leslie Epstein at Boston University. Epstein taught him many years ago at Brandeis. "It will be nice speaking with him also at the Writers Institute," said Jin.

His advice for beginning writers is to be more patient. "I needed to be patient as a writer in a new language, and I tell my students to slow down, take your time. Good writing cannot be rushed."

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