Portrait of the Artist as an Immigrant

Ha Jin’s quintessentially Chinese-American novel.

It is a literary truism that writers ought to write in their mother tongue. Ezra Pound, Paul Celan, Thomas Mann, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czeslaw Milosz: They all spent much of their lives far from their homelands, but their work is inconceivable in any language other than its original. Aside from the most famous exceptions—namely Conrad and Nabokov—writers who break this mold (such as Jonathan Littell, the American whose French-language first novel Les Bienviellants won the Prix Goncourt last year) are met with incredulity. Creativity, so the mythology goes, can spring only from an original source.

The work of Ha Jin, who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years and now teaches creative writing at Boston University, has been greeted with similar wonderment. With the publication of A Free Life, his fifth novel (there have also been three books of poetry and two of short stories), he is still fielding the perennial question: Why does he choose to write in English? The answer is not obvious: Jin’s work has always felt thoroughly foreign. That is true not only in its setting (with the exception of War Trash, set in a Korean POW camp, nearly all of it takes place in the far reaches of his native northern China) but also in its sensibility and even its syntax. In the Pond(1998), his first novel, tells of a worker at a fertilizer plant who wages a private war against government corruption; in the National Book Award–winning Waiting (2000), a doctor in the Chinese army waits 18 years for his wife to grant him a divorce. Nothing in this fictional universe marks it as the work of a writer in America—nothing, that is, except the almost imperceptible mediation of Jin’s narrative voice, translating Chinese mores for an audience unversed in them while constantly negotiating with an alien language. 

A Free Life—Jin’s most personal novel, though not exactly autobiographical—confronts the taboo head on. This meandering yet deeply affecting novel is at once a version of the classic saga of an immigrant family adjusting to life in the United States and a highly unconventional portrait of the artist as an immigrant, family man, and all-around ordinary guy. While Jin has always been polite to his interviewers, it seems quite clear that Nan Wu, the poet who is the protagonist of A Free Life, speaks for his creator in response to a magazine editor who asks, “Can you imagine your work becoming part of our language?” Nan bristles: “I have no answer to that xenophobic question, which ignores the fact that the vitality of English has partly resulted from its ability to assimilate all kinds of alien energies.”

Like all immigration stories, A Free Life is indeed a novel of assimilation, and we watch the English language adapting to accommodate Nan Wu as much as he assimilates to it. When we first meet Nan, it is the summer of 1989, and he and his wife, Pingping, are waiting at the airport for their 6-year-old son to arrive from China. The boy has been living with relatives while his parents make their initial way in the United States: Nan is a doctoral student in political science, and Pingping cooks and cleans in exchange for their room and board. But after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Nan decides he is finished with politics, and soon he learns that his passport has been canceled. Liberated from his university department, his country, and his family back home, he is at once delighted by his freedom and terrified by the responsibility of living up to it.

In a relaxed narrative that has the gentle up-and-down rhythm of everyday life, A Free Life follows Nan over the course of a double journey: his quest to provide his family with financial stability while simultaneously realizing his dream of becoming a poet. He starts off working odd jobs—first as a security guard, then as a busboy—but soon he and Pingping have saved up enough money to buy a Chinese restaurant and a house of their own. By all the benchmarks of the American dream, they are successful. But Nan worries that the banality of his daily existence is stifling him as a writer. “Do you have to live a literary life to produce literary work?” he asks a poet friend. By closely tracking every step of Nan’s creative genesis, from an inspiring early meeting with a flamboyant Greenwich Village poet (obviously modeled on Allen Ginsberg) to the epiphany that finally launches him, Jin’s novel offers an alternative vision of imaginative growth inspired precisely by the most mundane circumstances.

Ha Jin has said that he sees himself as a Chinese-American writer: “I need the hyphen.” A Free Life is the quintessential Chinese-American book, in which the dilemma of how to exist simultaneously in two worlds—on both sides of that hyphen—animates every page. Like the famously four-toned Chinese language, the novel takes place in multiple registers. First there is the dominant narrative voice, at times fluid and evocative, but also idiosyncratic and clunky: Though it is disguised as a conventional third-person narrator, this is Nan’s literary voice struggling (at times unidiomatically) to find its way in English. Sometimes he overdoes the literary effects, as when he describes a Chinese restaurant as “glazed entirely with mirror, on which some sea creatures were blazoned.” And sometimes he overshoots in search of the right word (describing Nan leaving a party early as taking “French leave”) or drops in a jarring colloquialism (a dancer in a nightclub wears a “skong,” surely the first appearance of that term in literary fiction). This is the work of a man who speaks English as if he had learned it from the dictionary—and indeed, we often glimpse Nan studying his dictionary during lulls on the job.

Nan’s literary voice contrasts dramatically with his heavily accented speech, which Jin insists on rendering in all its phonetic disarray, so that “another” becomes “anozzer” and “Thank you” is “Sank you.” This is not as annoying as it might sound, and the device works to emphasize the gap between Nan’s fluent thoughts and his garbled speech: Though he will come close to mastering English in his head, he will never sound fully competent to others. His struggles with the language make for some of the funniest moments in this often comic novel. Early on, asked in a job interview why he is looking for employment, Nan explains that “my bawss was sacked, so we got laid all together.” The cultural misunderstandings work both ways: Nan is amused when a friend confides that he takes the herb dong quai to enhance his sexual performance—Chinese women use it to regulate their menstrual cycles. The impression the novel gives of two parallel worlds—the American and the Chinese, joined only with difficulty by that weak, wavering hyphen—is heightened by Jin’s ingenious solution to the problem of how to render Chinese speech in an English novel: He puts it in italics. As we read Nan’s conversations with his compatriots, it is impossible to forget that we are foreign eavesdroppers on their native tongue.

Somewhat less convincing is Jin’s other major stylistic choice. While his other works have been rigorously structured (Waiting is often cited as a touchstone of elegant concision), A Free Life is loose and baggy, with episodes that lead down dead ends and digressions that amount to little. The Wus’ life is full of dramatic events—Pingping suffers a late miscarriage, a friend’s baby is diagnosed with cancer, Nan visits his parents back in China—but they are presented in a tone of almost comical understatement. Only after they have owned their restaurant for months do we learn that Nan is working “at least fourteen hours a day, sometimes without seeing the sun for a whole week.” At one point it is casually mentioned that Pingping has never bought herself a single new item of clothing. This artlessness feels intentional, an approximation of how a talented but unschooled writer like Nan might tell his own story.

It is a testimony to Jin’s abilities that the novel manages to be engrossing despite its total disregard for narrative tension. The charm of A Free Life comes from its cheerful subversiveness, its gentle upending of the most persistent myths about the creation of art. Though Nan, like his creator, may always “need the hyphen,” his refusal to be stereotyped is thoroughly American.