"A Free Life"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte OCT 29, 2007)
America, the land of immigrants, has always been rich with their stories and accounts of the immigrant experience — from writers like Willa Cather to Bharati Mukherjee — occupy pride of place in American literature.
Ha Jin, a first generation Chinese-American and winner of the National Book Award for his earlier work, Waiting, is the latest author to take on the immigrant experience. His new novel, A Free Life, details the first-generation travails and experiences of Chinese immigrant Nan Wu, his wife Pingping and their son Taotao.
As the novel opens, Nan and Pingping are already in the United States, waiting for the arrival of their young son from Shanghai. He gets here and their life together begins in the adopted country. Nan takes up a job as a night watchman in the Boston area but knows he needs to move up to be able to support his family fully. Nan’s real love is poetry and he constantly vacillates between freely indulging in writing poetry while not worrying about financial struggles, and trying hard to make ends meet for his family. “One must be financially secure first and then think about making arts or writing books,” a friend advises Nan. “In other words, it takes generations for the immigrants to outgrow the material stage.”
As luck would have it Nan is presented with what seems like a perfect opportunity—managing editorship of a Chinese language poetry magazine in New York City. Even if it means being away from his family for extended periods of time, Nan jumps at what he sees as a way of moving up. While in New York, Nan meets local poets many struggling and a few famous, and fast learns the rewards and challenges of the artist’s life. He also takes up a small job at Ding’s Dumplings, a local noodle house, to supplement his income.
Eventually the Wus move to the Atlanta area and buy a local Chinese restaurant, The Gold Wok. As Ha Jin’s prose labors on, we learn about the clutter in the neighbor’s yard, Taotao’s refusal to persevere and learn the Chinese alphabet, the removal of Nan’s teeth and on and on. These events are merely presented instead of lived. It is almost as if the American chapter of the Wus’ lives were being narrated by Nan’s father in Shanghai, an outsider looking in.
When Nan does express his feelings out loud he often sounds a little too self-righteous. “Freedom is meaningless if you don’t know how to use it,” he once says, “We’ve been oppressed and confined for so long that it’s hard for us to change our mind-set and achieve real freedom.” Frustratingly, Nan is also often distracted by memories of his ex-lover a woman called Beina who jilted him because he didn’t seem to be capable of offering her material comforts. Despite many years of marriage to Pingping, Nan annoyingly obsesses about his old love almost to the very end of the book. After a while, you feel like shaking him and asking him to get on with his life already.
Ha Jin, like his protagonist, is a poet and there are many parallels between his own life and that of Nan Wu. Despite the similarities, Ha Jin has said the book is not autobiographical—instead it is a portrait of a man that Jin can readily sympathize with.
There are a fair number of more telling passages in the book: Nan’s frustration at Taotao’s pursuit of a wayward American girl, and the Wus’ constant financial insecurity are well done. Particularly impressive is Nan’s brief visit back to China where he realizes the many contradictions in his immigrant life. When he struggles to somehow save a thousand dollars and give them to his parents, they wrongly assume he is loaded: “Everybody knows how easy it is to make money in America,” Nan’s mother tells him, “After you gave us the cash the day before yesterday, your dad said to me, ‘Damn, we’ve never had so much money in our whole life. See how easy it was for Nan to toss out a thousand dollars.’” His parents’ inability to see his immigrant struggles and desperation make for some beautiful scenes.
Some notes from Nan Wu’s poetry journal and a few of Ha Jin’s poems complete A Free Life at the end. In a moving poem titled “Homeland” Ha Jin writes:
Eventually you will learn:
Your country is where you raise your children,
Your homeland is where you build your home.
A Free Life is a detailed telling of the first-generation immigrant experience. But the voice with which Ha Jin narrates it makes the recounting feel too clinical and detached. It is telling that Ha Jin distills more emotion from the 23 meager lines of his poem “Homeland” than from the six hundred plus pages of his meandering novel.
- Amazon readers rating: from 41 reviews
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(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 27, 2005)
"We all felt ashamed of becoming POWs because we should have died rather than submit to capture. Many even believed our captivity had impaired our country's image. I often heard some men say they had 'smeared soot on Chairman Mao's face.' The guilt weighed heavily on their consciences. That was why ever since our arrival at Cheju, the Party leaders in the camp had propagated this slogan as the principle of our actions: 'Through our struggle we shall remove our shame and win back our glory.'"
Author Ha Jin, who was born in the People's Republic and lived there until he left to attend college in the United States in 1985, offers a unique perspective on Chinese culture, different from that which appears in most "Chinese" novels written for an American audience. Setting this novel primarily in a POW camp in South Korea, where Chinese and North Korean troops, captured by US and South Korean soldiers, have been separately interned during the 1950s war, Ha Jin focuses on the different attitudes each group has toward home, country, and each other. Through Yu Yuan, a young soldier from the Chinese Communist army, Ha Jin shows how differently Yuan evaluates his life and his obligations but how similarly he holds to ideals of friendship, justice, honor, and love.
The only son of an elderly mother, Yu Yuan is engaged to Julan and hopes to be married the following year. Life is full of hope—until, as a member of the Chinese army, he is moved to the border of Manchuria, and then directed to enter Korea to aid the North Koreans. The Chinese army, he discovers, is not a "well-oiled machine." Their weapons are Russian, but no one can read the instruction manual. Lines of communication are so long that one group of men can get orders to march in two different directions from two different officers on two different days. No officer is allowed to make his own decision, so troops are moved around almost randomly as officers await final instructions coming from great distances away, by which time the circumstances and the imminent dangers have changed. Units are often many miles apart, and supplies are low to non-existent.
In vivid battle scenes from the front lines, the author describes the bombings of Chinese lines by the Americans, the atrocious casualties, the Chinese lack of basic medical equipment, the starvation conditions which force men to subsist on flour and water for weeks, and their sense of abandonment by their government. When Yuan is wounded, falls unconscious, and is captured, he is assigned to a POW camp, in which mainland Chinese and North Korean officers control their own sections, though the camp itself is under the control of the Americans.
The POW camp comes alive in Ha Jin's hands, as officers try to keep order and everyone tries to hide his own identity. Being captured is a crime for these Chinese, and no one wants to return to China as an outcast. Abominable camp conditions, vividly described, are especially challenging for Chinese like Yuan and his mates who want to return to their families on the mainland after the war. The Nationalist Chinese, allies of the Americans, have been given almost free rein to try to bully the mainland Chinese to go to Taiwan, instead of returning home. Those who agree not to be repatriated to their homes in China get twice as much food, better clothing, and more blankets. Those who still insist on returning home are subjected to fully described water tortures, murders, unremitting beatings, the tattooing of anti-Communist statements on their bellies, and the (even worse) cutting out of the flesh containing these slogans if the men continue to refuse to go to Taiwan.
Yuan, like so many of his compatriots who are not officers and not members of the Communist party, is helplessly buffeted by the forces of fate, always trying to stay alive, always trying to obey their officers (even when these officers abuse their troops to protect their own reputations), and always yearning to return home to their families. The end of the war brings its own set of problems, as Yuan, now faced with the immediacy of repatriation, also discovers a series of betrayals by his own officers.
Ha Jin's writing is efficient and precise, his narrative bringing to life horrific battles, constant privation of the worst sort, and abusive behavior by the Nationalists, mainland Chinese officers, and even the Americans. Yu Yuan epitomizes the helpless individual who is part of a system in which individualism is not valued. Though he yearns to return home to his mother and his fiancée with honor, he does not yearn for personal freedom, which he does not miss because he has never known it. Like several other Chinese in the novel, Yu Yuan is clearly drawn and the reader empathizes with him, though his personal uniqueness stems from his inherent personality, rather than from any quest for individuality. A strong novel which depicts a whole culture, War Trash lacks a love story, which often unites other war novels and provides a connection with the reader, but it remains fascinating and rewarding for readers interested in seeing how culture determines behavior.
Editor's Note: War Trash won the 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award.
- Amazon readers rating: from 54 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from War Trash at RandomHouse.com(back to top)
(Reviewed by Bill Robinson OCT 12, 2002)
Ha Jin's prose style in The Crazed can be described as a sparse photo-realism. Everything is presented straight on and formally, in sharp focus with few extraneous details. The structure of the novel is theatrical with numerous short scenes that keep the narrative moving and give the book a serial, episodic flavor. This is an easy book to read, a hard one to put down.
The setting is a provincial Chinese university. The time is summer 1989, shortly before the Tiananmen Square massacre. The main characters are Jian Wan, a student who serves as narrator, and Professor Yang, an old and respected professor of literature. He is Jian's mentor and the father of Meimei to whom Jian is engaged.
As the book opens, Professor Yang has been hospitalized after suffering a stroke. It has left him bedridden and in a condition where he frequently rants and raves uncontrollably. These outbursts are at best "politically incorrect," at worse too true statements about his back-stabbing academic colleagues and the tragedy of what he sees as his meaningless and wasted life.
Professor Yang is "the crazed" of the book's title. Due to the stroke, he seems oblivious to the outside world, rarely recognizing the colleagues and family who visit him. His student, Jian, has been assigned by the head of their department to sit with and care for his teacher every afternoon. The hospital is bleak, dark, dirty, and understaffed. Once, Jian inadvertently stumbles into an open ward where a dozen women are in various stages of childbirth.
Most of the book takes place in Professor Yang's sickroom. Jian listens, at first in surprise and horror, to the old man's ravings. The professor occasionally reminisces about his personal life-the lost love of an extramarital affair, the sadness of never feeling emotionally fulfilled. However, most of his meandering focuses on the futility of academic life in a context where content is controlled and original thought is generally looked on warily and with suspicion.
"So you're not a scholar?" Jian asks at one point in one of their more lucid dialogues.
"I told you," the professor responds, "I'm just a clerk, a screw in the machine of the revolution . Now this screw is worn out and has to be replaced, so write me off as a loss."
Jian is soon to take exams, which will determine whether he goes on to a Ph.D. program at a university in Beijing. If successful, the plan is that he will then marry Meimei who is a medical student there. However, spurred by his teacher's words, Jian begins to question the road he is taking. He is a good student, and he has always enjoyed his studies. However, he begins to feel a hollowness when looking down the road before him. Jian's mixed feelings are amplified as the professor raves on about the falseness on his own honor-filled, yet ultimately meaningless career.
As the novel progresses, we realize that the invalid professor is actually doing what he does best: teaching, despite his "crazed" condition. Jian continues his role as pupil, confronting the painful truths that come with facing reality and being honest with himself. We empathize with the struggling student as he sits in the hospital room turned schoolroom, and we learn with him.
Most reviewers of Ha Jin's former work mention the remarkable fact that the author, who emigrated to the U.S. from China in 1985, has only been writing in English for a little over dozen years. This may account for his studied style. However, Jin's observations about self, family, work, and community are not restricted to a specific time or place. They are applicable anywhere and will resonate with readers of varied and diverse backgrounds. This was certainly true of his previous novel Waiting. It won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulker Award, and has been published in twenty-five countries. The Crazed should receive a similar reception.
- Amazon readers rating: from 42 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Crazed at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Ocean of Words: Army Stories (1996)
- Under the Red Flag: Stories (1997)
- In the Pond (1998)
- Waiting (1999) /
- The Bridegroom: Stories (2000)
- The Crazed (2002)
- War Trash (2004)
- A Free Life (2007)
- A Good Fall: Stories (2009)
- Nanjing Requiem (October 2011)
- The Writer as Migrant (2008)
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- Wikipedia Page for Ha Jin
- Emory Magazine article on Ha Jin
- Reading Group Guide for Waiting
- Excerpt from Waiting
- Storyteller Ha Jin and The Bridegroom
- War Trash Wins Ha Jin 2nd PEN/Faulkner Award
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About the Author:
Ha Jin was born in mainland China and grew up in a small rural town in Liaoning Province. At at the age of fourteen, he volunteered to serve in the People's Army and was stationed on the northeastern border between China and the Soviet Union. He began studying on his own and, after six years, left the army to attend college. But the Cultural Revolution closed the colleges, so he put in three years as a railroad telegrapher in another remote area. In 1977, when the colleges finally opened, he enrolled at Heilongjiang University in Harbin, where the study of English was assigned to him. He went on to earn an M. A. degree in American literature from Shandong University and then in 1985 he came to the United States to study at Brandeis University from which he received a Ph. D. 1992. He also studied fiction writing at Boston University. "After the Tiananmen massacre, it would be impossible to write honestly in China," so he decided not to return to his homeland.
He is the author of the internationally best-selling novel Waiting, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award; the story collections The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award, Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery OConnor Award for Short Fiction, and Ocean of Words, which won the PEN/ Hemingway Award; and three books of poetry. He lives in Massachusetts and is a professor of English at Boston University.