Interview: Ha Jin, Author Of 'A Map Of Betrayal' Ha Jin's new spy novel resembles the story of the real-life Chinese agent Larry Chin — and echoes the expat author's own experiences. But, he notes, a writer's life is less political than a spy's.
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An Ambivalent Double Agent, Torn Between Two Countries

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An Ambivalent Double Agent, Torn Between Two Countries

An Ambivalent Double Agent, Torn Between Two Countries

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When the Chinese writer Ha Jin came to the USA in 1985, he was just looking for a graduate degree before heading home to teach English. But a series of events shocked him into staying permanently, starting with the capture and trial of a Chinese spy named Larry Chin. Chin spent decades infiltrating the CIA. But at his trial, he insisted he was working to improve relations between the two countries.

HA JIN: He claimed that he was basically serving both countries. He used the metaphor mother and father. I think the man was somehow really - he was torn by the two countries.

RATH: In the 30 years since, Ha Jin's novels and stories have won him international acclaim and a National Book Award. His newest novel, "A Map Of Betrayal," follows the life of a spy who, with clear echoes of Larry Chin, is deeply ambivalent about spying on America, which he loves as much as China. I talked with Ha Jin this week and I asked him if like his character, he also felt torn between his two countries.

JIN: I do feel that I've lived here long enough. I am American. But emotionally, I could feel the division, because I lived in China for 29 years before I came to the States. That was hard for myself. My past, I can't just erase it, so I could feel the pain - the suffering of the man. But again, my profession was different, you know? I'm a writer. I'm a teacher. So really it had nothing to do with that kind of politics.

RATH: Can you talk about how you first came to America in 1985 and why you didn't go back?

JIN: I was a graduate student to study American literature, so my purpose was very clear. I would finish my dissertation, then I would go back to China to teach American literature. When I was finishing my graduate work, the Tiananmen suppression took place.

RATH: The Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989.

JIN: Yes. And that was a big shock - huge shock to me. In fact, I was traumatized by it because I had served in the People's Army in China. We were instructed that our purpose was to serve the people - protect people. But now everything was turned around.

Field armies were sent into the city basically to kill and suppress civilians, so I just couldn't accept that. I just couldn't take it. That was a turning point. But it took a year or so for me to decide to write English and to live another life in the States.

RATH: I'm curious about the Tiananmen Massacre being a turning point for you because you say that you were in the Red Army in the 1970s, and that was during the Cultural Revolution when there was -

JIN: Yes.

RATH: - So much violence and repression and -

JIN: Yes.

RATH: - Wouldn't have you expected that kind of thing almost having seen the darker side of the revolution close-up?

JIN: No because during the Cultural Revolution, most of the violent acts were committed by the masses, not really by the military. I was in the army. I stayed on the side of the Sino-Soviet border. Our purpose was very clear - to defend the country, to protect the people. That's why the army was called the People's Army.

And then when I saw the tanks and helicopters, you know, all kind of forces were rushed to Tiananmen Square. For me, I just couldn't take it. I just - a part of my mind and psychology collapsed, I would say really collapsed. So for about two or three weeks, I lived in a trance. I just couldn't function. And later, gradually, I just - I couldn't serve my government like that. I just couldn't.

RATH: And you have not been back to China since you left?

JIN: I haven't. Almost 30 years I have not been able to go back. In fact, my mother died last October. I couldn't get a visa.

RATH: The authorities refused you a visa for entry?

JIN: True. And I think there was a petition for democratic changes - very mild document - but I signed it. I think - I was told that was the reason that I couldn't get a visa.

RATH: Are your works read in China?

JIN: Four of my books have been translated - published in mainland China. But all the other books were published only in Taiwan. So people in the diaspora could read of my Chinese translations. But in mainland, in recent years, it was very hard to get them published, especially since last year.

RATH: And you've written in some of these earlier books about parts of Chinese history, which are certainly uncomfortable for the authorities.

JIN: True. True. But on the other hand, I didn't invent historically a lot of details. They are factual.

RATH: I wonder with this book being the politics in it are more subtle and it deals a lot more with America than with China. I wonder if this might be more palatable to the authorities if there's a greater chance of this getting published over there.

JIN: Oh, this raises the question impossible - impossible - because in the book, there's a larger theme in that it is the individual in the country. Basically, the protagonist is betrayed by the country. So in that sense, politically it is much more resonant than most of my other works. I don't think this book will see print in China if the current government stays in place.

RATH: That's Ha Jin. His new novel is called "A Map Of Betrayal." It's out on Tuesday. Ha Jin, thank you.

JIN: Thank you, Arun.

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