By Ha Jin
Original Publisher: Pantheon Books
(Random House, Inc.)
Current Publisher: Vintage Books
(Random House, Inc.)
Ru Freeman writes:
"Then spring descended all of a sudden. Aspen catkins flew in the air, so thick that when walking on the streets you could breathe them in and you would flick your hand to keep them away from your face. The scent of lilac blooms was pungent and intoxicating. Yet old people still wrapped themselves in fur or cotton-padded clothes. The dark earth, vast and loamy, marked by tufts of yellow grass here and there, began emitting a warm vapor that flickered like purple smoke in the sunshine. All at once apricot and peach trees broke into blossoms, which grew puffy as bees kept touching them." (from Waiting, by Ha Jin)
There is something about reading another writer for whom their first heard language was not English that makes words appear particularly magical. My first introduction to Ha Jin was, I confess, through his short story, “The House Behind the Weeping Cherry,” which appeared in the New Yorker sometime in April last year, during a time when I was between writing projects. My interest in the book, Waiting, therefore, stemmed not from any prior knowledge of his reputation or stature – which sometimes gets in the way of looking critically at a writer’s work – but by being invited in on the power of that short story.
I chose it above all his other works, because I wanted to visit with a novel where everything happens while nothing changes. For any immigrant, the idea of place is of paramount significance – the places that are not inhabited but only visited, and the ones which are inhabited but rarely possess the spirit. In Waiting, the two places between which the protagonist, Lin Kong, an army doctor, moves, Muji City and Goose Village, are both fictional, but were based on Jin’s knowledge of a countryside which he traveled in beside his father. In one, he has what he wants, his girlfriend, in the other, he has what he needs, his wife, or rather his wife’s consent to grant him a divorce without waiting for the eighteen years required by law. The days that make up a life unfold relatively peaceably and relentlessly while an individual stays hung between the perils of caring too much and too little, of choosing to abide by laws or break them, of contemplating destiny as it could be realized, and the circumscribed realities of the actual. There is the part of a person that they choose to reject in themselves (in Lin Kong’s case his revulsion at his arranged marriage and his wife, Shuyu), and that which they choose to laud (his love for the nurse Manna). These several dichotomies are handled so beautifully by Ha Jin perhaps because they mirror those that describe the contradictions of immigrant life, the yearning for what cannot be had which coexists alongside the plethora that is available.
Above all, what he accomplishes in the book is to place the story amid the politics without the latter being given any undue significance or credence. As in most ordinary lives, even those lived in extraordinary times, political upheaval is but another condition to be surmounted, circumnavigated, forged or ignored. A lesser writer would have taken the usual route, politicizing the personal, overwhelming the larger matters of the human heart, specially the most ordinary of human hearts, with the smaller explosions of mob activity. But not Jin.
As an immigrant, and one from a country full of the same kinds of social and political complexities, a fellow writer, and dreaming-in-tongues, once-upon-a-time TOEFL taker, Waiting was, simply, the affirmation of a small story with enormous and universal reach, beautifully spun by a writer who understands that a home can be created out of words just as surely as it can out of bricks and mortar:
Ru Freeman’s first novel, A Disobedient Girl was published in July, 2009 by Atria Books.
Fiction Finalists that Year:
- Andre Dubus III for House of Sand and Fog
- Kent Haruf for Plainsong
- Patricia Henley for Hummingbird House
- Jean Thompson for Who Do You Love
Fiction Judges that Year:
Charles Johnson, Dorothy Allison, Allegra Goodman, Terry McMillan, Scott Spencer
The Year in Literature:
- The Hours by Michael Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Günter Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
- Ha Jin was born in the province of Liaoning and grew up in the turmoil of early communist China.
- He was on scholarship at Brandeis University when the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident occurred, and the event hastened his decision to remain in the United States.
- He published his first book of poems, Between Silences, in 1990.
- His second novel, Waiting, won him his first National Book Award, as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award.
- Ha Jin's 1999 NBA Acceptance Speech
- Image - Ha Jin with other NBA 1999 Winners
- Ha Jin's Wikipedia Entry
- Author Interviews - Ha Jin Lets It Go
Dave Weich, Powells.com
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