Why write? The question is especially poignant for writers who fashion their words in a strange country and in a language not their own. Why write when you render yourself vulnerable to accusations of forgetting your homeland? Why write when you risk censure for appropriating the suffering of your compatriots and portraying them for personal gain? And why, above all, write in English, the tool of empire and of globalisation and yet a language that may cut you off from your former neighbours or your childhood friends? In this short book, drawn from a series of lectures delivered at Rice University, Ha Jin questions the author's nostalgia for home and conjures up another dwelling place in the house of literature.
The particulars of Jin's biography have attracted considerable attention. Born in China, he served as a soldier in the People's Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution before moving to the US in 1986 to study for a PhD. What was intended to be a temporary visit became permanent after political events in China left him unable to return. Jin has become a highly successful writer in his adopted language of English; his numerous works of fiction and poetry include the widely admired Waiting, for which he won the National Book Award, and War Trash, which was given the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
In his first work of non-fiction, he places his biography in a wider context by reflecting on what he calls the metaphysical aspects of the life and work of writers who have journeyed from one country, or one language, to another.
Readers primed to expect an engagement with recent debates in postcolonial studies will find themselves disappointed. This book is pitched towards a general rather than academic audience, and Jin's interlocutors are not Edward Said or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, but fellow writers in exile, especially Joseph Conrad, but also V. S. Naipaul, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Lin Yutang, Vladimir Nabokov and W. G. Sebald.
In the first essay, he looks back on his illusory belief that he could serve as a spokesman for the downtrodden Chinese people and reflects on the fragility of the author's social role, the tension between individual and collective interests, and the primacy of literary over political values. A second chapter deals with the exquisite agonies of writing in a language not one's own, of struggling to turn the handicap of an adopted tongue to aesthetic advantage, while dealing with accusations of cultural betrayal.
In a final chapter, he draws on the story of Odysseus to explore the meanings of arrival and return, acknowledging the pain of relocation but also the falseness of nostalgia. A person's homeland is not necessarily the country of their birth; it can also be the place where they choose to build a home.
"Today literature is ineffective at social change," Jin writes. "All the writer can strive for is a personal voice." In these pages, it is literature itself that serves as an imaginary homeland, a point of orientation and a source of solace. Given his upbringing, it is not especially surprising that the author chafes at attempts to subordinate art to the demands of a social collectivity. These essays fail to acknowledge, however, that literature connects to politics in many different ways, that its social meanings are not limited to the task of representing the people or serving as a national allegory.
Not everyone will be persuaded by Jin's attempt to resuscitate a view of art as autonomous and timeless, by his depiction of literary value as self-evident and self-generated, determined only by the power and the beauty of the words on the page. At their best, however, these essays offer a thoughtful and thought-provoking defence of the author's right to define his own reasons for writing and to fashion his own home.
The Writer as Migrant
By Ha Jin
The University of Chicago Press
Published 14 November 2008