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In 1990, Jin published his first book of poetry, Between Silences, and six years later, debuted as a fiction writer with a short-story collection, Ocean of Words, which won him a PEN/Hemingway Award, in 1997. By choosing to write in English rather than his native tongue, he’s followed authors Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad into linguistic exile. “If I wrote in Chinese, I would be at the mercy of the censorship,” says Jin, all of whose books except Waiting are banned in China. “But that’s what made me a writer. And I’ve been in the language for so long that I do feel that I exist in English.” Pantheon editor LuAnn Walther, who has published Jin since Waiting, and who puts him on the shelf alongside Tolstoy, marvels at his English. “It is at times not our English,” she says. “It’s sometimes informed by his dictionary as much as listening. Perhaps only somebody coming to English as an adult would be able to use a particular word in a particular way.”

“Nabokov was asked what his secret flaw as a writer in English was,” says Jin. “He said the absence of a natural vocabulary. He turned that into an advantage. He highlighted his foreignness. I don’t want to write standard American-English idioms. I want something that sounds slightly foreign and absolutely accessible. I’m still trying to figure it out.”

A Good Fall
By Ha Jin.
Pantheon Books. $24.95.


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