Immigrant Struggles to Find Meaning in 'A Free Life' In his first novel set in America, critically acclaimed author Ha Jin explores the meaning of the American dream in A Free Life. In the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, his protagonist dreams of being a poet, but soon finds himself swamped in mortgage payments and obligations in suburban Atlanta.
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Immigrant Struggles to Find Meaning in 'A Free Life'

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Immigrant Struggles to Find Meaning in 'A Free Life'

Immigrant Struggles to Find Meaning in 'A Free Life'

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One author who has won high acclaimed for his English language literature came to this country 22 years ago from China speaking halting English.

That man is Ha Jin. His novel, "Waiting," won the 1999 National Book Award, set at the end of the Cultural Revolution. "Waiting" tells the story of a doctor who struggled for 18 years to leave his arranged marriage. This month for the first time, Ha Jin has published a novel set in America. It's called "A Free Life."

Ha Jin joins us from our member station WGBH in Boston.

Welcome to the show, Ha Jin.

Mr. HA JIN (Author, "A Free Life"): Thank you. Glad to be here.

LYDEN: Let's set the scene of this new novel, "A Free Life." Its main protagonist is Nan Wu, a young man who flees the communists and comes to America in the mid-1980s to study political science. Tell us a little bit more about Nan Wu, and how are his struggles American struggles?

Mr. JIN: He came to the Unites States as a graduate student, but he planned to return to China, and then the Tiananmen massacre happened, and he decided to stay. And at that point, he was going to become an immigrant but mentally he was not prepared for it. So that was a big struggle for him, to mentally adapt himself to American life and the idea of freedom, of course. He was given freedom but he couldn't use it.

LYDEN: You struggled with different concepts of freedom in this novel, "A Free Life."

Mr. JIN: Yes.

LYDEN: And there are at least two important notions of freedom here. Nan Wu and his wife, PingPing, think that they'll be free if they own their home and pay off their mortgage and own a business and so on. And when they finally do this after years of working like coolies, as Nan says, he discovers a great emptiness because he's never become the poet he wanted to be.

Mr. JIN: Yes. Yes, I think this is also (unintelligible) theme, yes. And different people have different versions of American dreams. And the dream that's for Nan is not just materialistic success and it's more than that because a dream is associated with the mindset of freedom. For him, the dream is not something to be realized soon. It's something just to for him to pursue.

LYDEN: And I think he has to very much struggle to protect his artistic soul and identity against all the other more generic metrics of success.

Mr. JIN: Yes. Yes, but also at the same time, he was astounded by the immigrant experience because he now - he has - he cannot continue to write in Chinese. And also, he's isolated. And he spent so many years doing other things, so in that sense his parent is frustrated - diminished. And so what took then - what to make all of these diminished situation, you know, the life line he loved from Robert Frost's what to make of a diminished thing, that line, in fact, really echoes his situation.

LYDEN: You left behind a former self. You were a soldier for the People's Liberation Army, and Chinese Cultural Revolution deprived you of gaining literacy and fluency even in your own language when you might have expected it. I mean, you didn't become literate even in Chinese, I understand, until you were in your late teens. How did you make that happened?

Mr. JIN: Sure, yeah. You know, I tried to teach myself. Basically I just read whatever I could lay my hand on. And sure, I think in that sense it sharpen(ph) me because in my youth, not just myself, people from my generation, there was a gap - almost 10 years, no schooling. So I think that somehow from people of my generation are different(ph). Now, the people, in fact, are still illiterate because of that.

LYDEN: Which American literary character does Nan Wu most resemble for you?

Mr. JIN: I think in terms of - there's another book that really does - it was a big influence on this novel that is Nabokov's "Pnin." And "Pnin" - and for him, English, the language itself was a big, big problem. And the man basically lives two lives - one is in Russian, the other is in English.

LYDEN: Yes. Now, I reflect (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JIN: He appears like an idiot in English. I think in that sense, Nan Wu might be affiliated with that character - Pnin. But, of course, Nan goes further than that. He tries to read, even to write and really to take risk. But Pnin is really completely trapped in English, in America. He couldn't find a home.

LYDEN: Why did you take Nan Wu back to China when you, yourself, Ha Jin, haven't gone back to China?

Mr. JIN: That's again a common story among immigrants. A lot of the people would go back and then found that the - in fact, they have changed. And the place has changed and they are foreigners.

LYDEN: It's a very changed China to which…

Mr. JIN: Yes.

LYDEN: …your literary hero returns. It's grasping and everyone's out to make a buck in his own parents' or husbands…

Mr. JIN: Yes.

LYDEN: …and one of his best friends has become a successful but…

Mr. JIN: Yes.

LYDEN: …formulaic writer, who eventually…

Mr. JIN: Yes.

LYDEN: …Pnin(ph) wanted to take him to a lap-dancing club.

Mr. JIN: Yes.

LYDEN: At the end of this book, "A Free Life," there's something quite wonderful. I don't want to give away the book's revolution.

Mr. JIN: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: But there's an entire collection of poetry that gives us an insight into all the things that maybe Nan Wu have on his mind but couldn't articulate, couldn't open up to. And now he's really free because he is liberated to at least inhabit these emotions and feelings. And I thought to myself, I know this book took you a long time. And it's a huge book, 660 pages, but writing all these poems, which you wrote, had to be like writing a second book?

Mr. JIN: It was very hard, really hard work. Originally, I thought I could cut the corner. I thought that some abstracts from his poetry generally would be fine as the epilogue. But our after a few drafts, I realized, you know, I can't - I could not cut corners at all because Nan Wu would appear like a crack pot. And he has to - I had to show that he had talent. And his talent that God has (unintelligible) by the (unintelligible) process and also to show his inner feelings, so I had the resolve - I began to work on the poems in response to the story.

LYDEN: Would you perhaps like to leave us with reading one of these poems?

Mr. JIN: Sure. Okay. Okay. Let me read a short one.

LYDEN: Yes, a short one.

Mr. JIN: You know, this is the last one. This one is called "Another Country."

(Reading) You must go to a country without borders, where you can build your home out of gallons of words where broad leaves shade familiar faces that no longer change in wind and the rain. There's no morning or evening. No cries of a joy or pain. Every canyon(ph) is drenched in the light of serenity. You must go there quietly, leave behind what you still cherish. Once you enter that domain, a path of flowers will open before your feet.

LYDEN: It's a beautiful journey that the narrator takes in that poem and it's a tremendous journey that you've taken and had given us Ha Jin and your character of Nan Wu in this new book, "A Free Life."

Thank you, very, very much for being with us.

Mr. JIN: Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure.

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