The Writer as Migrant Ha Jin

University of Chicago Press, pp.96, 8

The Writer as Migrant, by Ha Jin

Three quest-ions, labelled as ‘Aristot- elian’ by the author, begin the Rice University Campbell Lectures delivered by Ha Jin in 2007: to whom, as whom, and in whose interest does a writer write? To which the reader might respond: can any writer truthfully answer any of these questions? The identity of a writer and of his readers is a matter debated long before Aristotle and well into the groves of post-modernist academe. From Homer blindly taking dictation from his muse to Joyce sweating away in the smithy of his soul, the writer has been perceived by himself and by his audience as innumerable things, none truer than another. Ha Jin’s own experience exemplifies these changes of identity. From teenage soldier in the People’s Liberation Army to winner of the American National Book Award, 30 years later, Ha Jin, now author of a dozen books and teacher at Boston university, has drastically changed convictions, country, status and language. When he first settled in the United States, he viewed himself, he tells us, ‘as a Chinese writer who could write in English on behalf of the downtrodden Chinese. I was unaware of the complexity and unfeasibility of the position I had adopted, especially for a person in my situation.’ This led him to explore the migrant writers’ transient condition, and the changing personalities they assume during their travels. The three Aristotelian questions are the starting-points of three meditations that analyse, in turn, the exiled writer who crowns himself, or finds himself crowned, spokesperson of his tribe; the responsibilities of the writer who migrates, not only from country to country, but from language to language; and the writer who, from abroad, must still construct in his mind a place that he can call home.

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The geography of migration is as vast as the world itself and covers many sorts of displacement. ‘My choice of the word “migrant” ’, says Ha Jin, ‘is meant to be as inclusive as possible — it encompasses all kinds of people who move, or are forced to move, from one country to another, such as exiles, emigrants, immigrants and refugees. By placing the writer in the context of human migrations, we can investigate some of the metaphysical aspects of a “migrant writer’s” life and work.’

But can we? The word migrant, meaning someone who leaves one place and settles in another, concerns only the physical, not the metaphysical, aspects of those various ‘kinds of people’ who, as writers, move from one country to another, trade the native identity for that of a stranger. Indeed, the word ‘migrant’ avoids the very aspects that differentiate an immigrant from an emigrant, an exile from a refugee, a traveller for pleasure from a deported convict. Ulysses, emblem of the traveller (and to whom Ha Jin very naturally refers several times in his lectures), is a migrant in several different ways. The soldier-king choosing to travel from his home to fight on the plains of Troy, the wretched man longing to return to his hearth and forbidden to do so by a wrathful god, the old adventurer (described first by Dante and later by Tennyson) who wants to leave again ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,’ are and are not the same man. The Romanian German-language writer Herta Müller, forced to leave her native Romania during Ceausescu’s regime and take up residence in Berlin, declared: ‘I’ll never be like my neighbours, because they are here by choice and I’m here because I wasn’t allowed to be there.’ This difference is of the essence.

Throughout these lectures, Ha Jin associates and compares migrants as different as Solzhenitsyn and Lin Yutang, Joseph Conrad and V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and C. P. Cavafy, Milan Kundera, W. G. Sebald and Vladimir Nabokov, and in doing so pronounces a number of judgments that seem puzzling. For instance, that much of Conrad’s writing is ‘purple,’ that Nabokov’s poetry lacks the incisiveness and humour of his prose, that Lin Yutang (called on one page ‘an accomplished literary scholar’ and on another a ‘Chinese humorist’) is a major writer, and that the Chinese potboilers of the deservedly forgotten American Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck still carry intellectual weight. (I was reminded of a New Yorker cartoon from the years of the strained relationship between America and China, in which a husband reading the paper turns to his wife and says: ‘I don’t understand why the Chinese are so angry at us after all that Pearl S. Buck has done for them.’)

And yet, it becomes quickly apparent in Ha Jin’s book that the common experience of migration, though hardly illuminating the deeper complexities of the subject, helps to differentiate rather than unite the writers huddled under its umbrella. Solzhenitsyn’s desire to instruct his people from his Vermont sanctuary is utterly unlike Lin Yutang’s ambition to portray, from his chosen place of exile, a happy modern China to the Western world. Conrad writing masterpieces in his new language, while never denying an Eastern European heritage, is nothing like Naipaul writing in his own tongue under the curious conviction that he’s a white Anglo-Saxon literary gentleman. Rushdie’s plight and Cavafy’s have nothing in common, the one on the run to save his skin, the other merely spending a few mild villégiatures away from his dear Alexandria. Kundera, a resident of France, turned in recent years to French for his literature, while Sebald, living in England, remained faithful to his native German. And neither author compares to Nabokov, for whom English, the ‘instrument’ (as he called it) used for his later, major work, was ‘a stiffish, artificial thing,’ while his beloved Russian tongue had ‘faded away gradually,’ he confessed, after he had taken up residence in America.

Through this tangle of voluntary and forced migrations, Ha Jin offers the reader a string of glittering insights. For example, that exiles, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, can confuse personal longing with collective need; that the allotted task of witnessing may turn, as in Solzhenitsyn’s case, a literary work into a historical one; that nostalgia is never more than individual longing; that memory, when manipulated even for the best of reasons, can become a dangerous falsehood. All these are happy caveats and speak of a reflective and extensive reading.

Ha Jin ends his third lecture with the reminder that the migrant who, after a difficult or enthralling journey, reaches his new homeland, even when knowing that there is little likelihood of a return, must bear in mind that ‘we cannot shed our past completely — so we must strive to use parts of our past to facilitate our journeys.’ This is a useful reminder to those who settle in societies that demand from a stranger the shedding of skin and stories in order to ‘become’ a citizen of the new place, that he accept the strictures of the American ‘melting pot,’ of Gordon Brown’s self- proclaimed ‘Britishness,’ of Sarkozy’s bombastic Ministère de l’immigration et de l’identité nationale. In other societies (in Canada, for example, where multiculturalism is, for the time being at least, still an official policy) things are otherwise. But that is another story. 

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: China, Essays, Non-fiction