As a teenager during China’s Cultural Revolution, Ha Jin served as an uneducated soldier in the People’s Liberation Army. Thirty years later, a resident of the United States, he won the National Book Award for his novel Waiting, completing a trajectory that has established him as one of the most admired exemplars of world literature.
Ha Jin’s journey raises rich and fascinating questions about language, migration, and the place of literature in a rapidly globalizing world—questions that take center stage in The Writer as Migrant, his first work of nonfiction. Consisting of three interconnected essays, this book sets Ha Jin’s own work and life alongside those of other literary exiles, creating a conversation across cultures and between eras. He employs the cases of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Chinese novelist Lin Yutang to illustrate the obligation a writer feels to the land of his birth, while Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov—who, like Ha Jin, adopted English for their writing—are enlisted to explore a migrant author’s conscious choice of a literary language. A final essay draws on V. S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera to consider the ways in which our era of perpetual change forces a migrant writer to reconceptualize the very idea of home. Throughout, Jin brings other celebrated writers into the conversation as well, including W. G. Sebald, C. P. Cavafy, and Salman Rushdie—refracting and refining the very idea of a literature of migration.
Simultaneously a reflection on a crucial theme and a fascinating glimpse at the writers who compose Ha Jin’s mental library, The Writer as Migrant is a work of passionately engaged criticism, one rooted in departures but feeling like a new arrival.
Jin, a Boston University professor and award-winning expatriate novelist (A Free Life), presents a brief meditation on writing in the "migrant" tradition ("including "exiles, emigrants, immigrants, and refugees") covering authors like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Nabokov and V. S. Naipaul. Though stiff and self-regarding, Jin has some interesting insight into these writers' process and reception; curiously, Jin considers several cases of writers working in their adopted language rather than their primary language, but doesn't discuss his own decision to work in English instead of Mandarin Chinese. Opinions range from sharp and negligibly inoffensive ("nostalgia is never a collective emotion") to blanket statements that hold little water ("other than slaking the writer's nostalgia, the writer's physical return to his native land has little meaning"). Though he warns up front that "my observations are merely that-my observations," Jin often seems to assert opinion as fact ("writers do not make good generals, and today literature is ineffective at social change"). Though he has some engaging points to make regarding the handful of (exclusively male) writers he considers, Jin's obtuse text is hardly welcoming, limiting its appeal to more serious students of world literature.
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