National Book Awards

November 30, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The winner of the award for fiction this year is Ha Jin for his novel “Waiting.” A story of old and modern China, of illusion and love, “Waiting” begins with a memorable line: “Every summer, Lin Cong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shu Yu.” Ha Jin left China in 1985 to study English at Brandeis university. He began writing in English in 1987, and since then has published “Waiting,” two books of poetry, two short story collections, and a novella. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Emory University in Atlanta. Thank you for being with us, and congratulations.

HA JIN, National Book Award, Fiction: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You joined the People’s Liberation Army at age 14, then you worked for the railroad. How did you first start to study English, and why?

HA JIN: I first began studying English at age of 20 in 1966, and there was a learner program in China that started in the morning from 5:30 to 6:00 during the weekdays. And so I followed it for a year, and then when the entrance exams were restored after the Cultural Revolution, I was ready to take the exams. So I was assigned to study English at the English major.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And this is at the university level, right?

HA JIN: Yes, yes. After a year of following the learners program, then I began studying systematically as an English major.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then you came here and you got a degree. You got a master’s degree, didn’t you, at Brandeis?

HA JIN: Yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why did you decide to stay?

HA JIN: That was after the Tiananmen massacre. I realized that if I wanted to be a writer, I would have to stay in the states because it would be impossible for me to write honestly in Chinese in China. So it was a painful decision, but it took a year for me to decide to write English exclusively and to stay as immigrant.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us very briefly the story of this novel.

HA JIN: This story is a love story in a kind of bizarre way, because this is a story about a man who is not capable of loving others. He is… Lin Cong by nature is not a passionate man, but if he were given the opportunities, he would have developed into a….maybe a normal person. But his situation, the social environment worsened his personality or character. And he is a decent man. He is a very good-hearted man. But he never maturely… he has never grown up enough to love a woman passionately.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read something for us?

HA JIN: Okay. Let me read some scenes… … we are not… the drama is not very clear if I read just one passage. Let me read some… a passage of a description of nature. I did some descriptions of nature in this book. This is about the river. “Winter in Muji was long. Snow wouldn’t disappear until early May. In mid-April, when the Sung Hwa River began to break up, people would gather at the bank, watching the large blocks of ice crackling and drifting in the blackish green water. Teenage boys, baskets in hand, would tramp and hop on the floating ice, picking up pike, whitefish, carp, baby sturgeon, and catfish killed by the ice blocks that had been washed down by spring torrents. Steamboats still in the docks blew their horns time and again. When the main channel was finally clear of ice, they crept out, sailing slowly up and down the river and saluting the spectators with long blasts. Children would hail and wave at them.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Jin, I was really struck in reading your novel by the spare, very beautiful style that you achieved. And this is a style you’re achieving in a language you really learned relatively recently. How do you do this?

HA JIN: Oh, perhaps because I write poetry also, and I was hired as a poet by Emory University. So I’ve been teaching poetry writing for years. And perhaps I was more careful with the tone and the cadence, the nuances of the language. And maybe there might be another reason, that is the story had accumulated in my mind for over a decade. So when I began to write it, a lot of things came out with some depth, I think.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The story is a story, as I understand, that you heard, or at least the broad outlines of it, in China. When you conceived it, did you conceive it in Chinese and then put it into English, or did you conceive it in English?

HA JIN: I always conceive every piece of work in English, and that’s important, otherwise the feeling, the sentiment will be very different. Just the sounds of the words, the cadence, the rhythm, those things will make the prose very different. So if I put this into Chinese, it would be a different kind of book.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You said this book is about a man who, maybe given different circumstances, might have learned to love.

HA JIN: Yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He leaves a wife, a wife that he got through an arranged marriage, and goes with another woman, and has trouble loving her even though he had hoped he had. Is it about something larger than that, too? Is it about what conditions in China do to passionate feelings?

HA JIN: Yes, it is larger. I think it’s not only about China, about Chinese. In the middle of writing this book, I was nervous, very, very nervous, worrying about the universality of the material. And then one day I came across an interview given by an American woman, a middle-aged American woman whose husband was a Navy officer. She said something really that give back my confidence. She said, “I hope… I wish my husband could have an affair with another woman so that he can prove himself capable of loving a woman passionately.” Then it occurred to me that not only Chinese, there must be some American men, as well, like this. That, I think, is the essence of literature, which emphasizes the similarity, not difference.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Jin, how will this prize affect your future work?

HA JIN: Um, of course I can’t… I don’t know yet, but at this moment, there’s too many calls, I guess. I’m very exhausted, but I think there will be a lot more pressure, more pressure as a writer. I have to work harder and try to really write a better book. But that’s my will. Whether I can succeed at that is another question. And there might be too much self-consciousness, which can be bad for a writer.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, I’ll hope not. Thank you so much for being with us, and congratulations again.

HA JIN: Thank you, Elizabeth.