Next Stop, Main Street

Photo: David Hilliard

On a recent morning, Ha Jin is waiting in the lobby of the Sheraton La Guardia East Hotel in Flushing at the last stop of the 7 train—the pipeline to Citi Field and to what has steadily evolved, since the sixties, into the second-largest Chinatown in New York. The Chinese-born American writer, who won the National Book Award for his novel Waiting in 1999, is visiting from Boston University, where he teaches creative writing and literature. He looks very professorial in a color-blind scheme of blacks, browns, and blues, and, because I am five minutes late, he’s poring over a well-thumbed copy of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which he slides into his blazer pocket.

Jin, who has set seven of his nine works of fiction in Asia, chose to meet in Flushing because that is the setting for the stories in his new collection, A Good Fall—fresh territory for the author, who has placed his characters on U.S. soil only once before, in his most recent novel, A Free Life. The Flushing Main Street that appears in his pages is less a portrait of specific venues and more an evocation of a state of being—that of immigrants tethered to an insular community. Jin wants to take me to a Sichuan restaurant he likes that is always full of recent arrivals, but it’s not yet open for lunch. We settle on a diner nearby that serves milder Shanghai cuisine, though we’re both craving something spicier.

Jin discovered the neighborhood in 2005, when he stayed at the Sheraton for a conference. He was immediately intrigued by Flushing’s microcosmic nature, as opposed to Manhattan’s more tourist-driven Chinatown. The Chinese population here is so self-contained that residents never need to learn English. It’s a blessing and a curse for arrivals, as well as rich material for a writer, and Jin uses it to harrowing effect in A Good Fall. In “A Pension Plan,” a middle-aged health aide, who can’t speak English, is being pressured to marry the demented elderly charge who is sexually harassing her, and works for a merciless Chinese agency without benefits or overtime. “This is not an uncommon story,” says Jin, whose spoken English is thickly accented but who writes in lyrical, spare sentences. “So many people have been exploited by Chinese agencies because they can’t speak English. There are a lot of reports, but I’ve never seen a story. That’s why I was determined to write about these people.”

As we’re waiting for our entrées, Jin trains his ear on two loud waitresses gossiping near the kitchen door. I ask if he understands them. “Her dialect? I don’t,” he says, offering me a soup dumpling (there are many regional dialects of Mandarin). In fact, Jin never spoke to anyone in Flushing for his stories. “When you talk to people here, they get nervous. They won’t tell you the truth. It’s better to just walk around, keep notes, and observe.” Jin also borrowed elements from his own life; the story “A Composer and His Parakeets”—about a musician who creates a masterpiece from his grief over losing his avian muse—was inspired by his co-writing a libretto for Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, which premiered at the Met in 2006. “Whenever possible I stayed close to personal experience,” says Jin. “But I had a much more fortunate experience than these characters.”

The son of a military officer, Ha Jin was born Jin Xuefei (pronounced Shu-e-fay) in the northeastern province of Liaoning. When he was nearly 14, in 1969, he joined the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution, leaving after nearly six years of duty to go to college and eventually to pursue an academic career in American literature. He came here in 1985 on a four-year doctoral fellowship at Brandeis. It took nearly two years for his wife, Lisha Bian, to join him, and another two to bring over their son, Wen, who arrived in July 1989, a month after Tiananmen Square. That tragedy made Jin decide to remain here, something he’d never before considered. “Once Wen came, I felt he must be an American,” says Jin, who has not returned to the mainland since leaving nearly 25 years ago. “There’s a sense of loss. Sometimes I feel nostalgic. But my father was an officer, and we moved around. There’s no place for me to go, nowhere I can call my hometown.”

If becoming an American was unexpected, becoming an American writer was unimaginable. Jin’s aspirations had always been modest: He wanted to be a translator, a desire born of his love of Hemingway and Steinbeck, whose works he’d first encountered in tone-deaf Mandarin translations (gently mocked in the story “Shame,” about a mediocre Chinese Hemingway scholar hoping to defect to the U.S.). Until he learned English, Jin says, “I couldn’t see the small things, the stylistic inventions—they were lost.” But in his second year at Brandeis, Jin showed a poem he’d written in English to poet Frank Bidart, who read it on the phone to Jonathan Galassi, who was an editor at The Paris Review (and now runs Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Galassi immediately accepted it for the journal. Because of the poem’s political nature, Jin Xuefei became the pseudonymous Ha Jin, and he’s written under the name ever since.

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.

Next Stop, Main Street