The Writer as Migrant by Ha Jin

When the tanks of the Chinese army rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June fourth, 1989, Jin Xuefei, a Chinese student at the Brandeis University in Massachusetts, decided that he could not return home. During his years in the army, he had been told that the main task of a soldier was to protect the people of China, so when the military turned on the students in the square it shocked him. Jin Xuefei stayed in America, began writing in English and eventually became known by his pen name Ha Jin, a winner of the National Book Award and a part of American literary life.

The list of authors living abroad – not infrequently in exile – is long and remarkable and includes Dante, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, and V.S. Naipaul – just to mention a few.

Some of these authors left not only their home country – willingly or unwillingly – but also their native language, a home in itself. However, the migrant writer’s situation is complex and multifaceted, and while it’s true that the loss of country, language, and culture will have an enormous impact on an author, the same writer will also gain something, namely a whole new existence.

In The Writer as Migrant, Ha Jin attempts to capture the essence of this kind of existence. His three essays are short, rich in content and they are rewarding reads. He asks: can an author living abroad be a spokesperson for the country and people left behind? What is the fundamental nature of language and writing? What constitutes a homeland? The essays that evolve from these questions and others display a poetic, educated, and uncluttered mind, capable of embracing the complexities of the issues involved.

Ha Jin makes many references to works of literature in his essays, as he believes that “the usefulness and beauty of literature lies in its capacity to illuminate life.” Thus, The Writer as Migrant isn’t just a book about authors and the world of books – it is a book about life at large. Every human being is a migrant of sorts, and no matter where the journey leads, the past does not go away – “so,” Ha Jin says, “we must strive to use parts of our past to facilitate our journeys. As we travel along, we should also imagine how to rearrange the landscapes of our envisioned homelands.” In other words, The Writer as Migrant can be a book for any reader.

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