A Free Life, which appeared last year, is an epic work, with a panoramic vision whose narrative form resembles a hefty, plot-driven nineteenth-century English novel. Nan Wu, a student who is pursuing graduate work in political science at Brandeis University, and his wife Pingping become disillusioned with the prospect of returning to their homeland in the wake of Tiananmen Square. Nan decides to abandon his studies and instead to nurture his love of poetry, and to this end he takes a series of menial jobs while his wife remains a housekeeper and cook to a wealthy American widow. Nan and Pingping are reunited with their six-year-old son Taotao, who travels from China to join them in the United States, and they are thereafter free to begin life afresh as a family in Massachusetts. Eventually they leave the Northeast for an unappealing suburb of Atlanta, where they buy a Chinese restaurant located in a strip mall in a largely white, blue-collar, conservative rural subdivision. As they try to establish themselves as freedom-loving Americans who are attempting to run a business and pay off the mortgage on a modest home, Nan is increasingly haunted by his memories of China, including thoughts of a woman whom he believes he still loves. He is also consumed with his present struggle to understand how to compose poetry and to live the life of a writer. Naturally, as their son grows up and becomes more American in behavior and language, the turning hinge of generation starts to open the door onto an American world that Nan and Pingping often find baffling.
We soon learn that this United States can be a frightening place for Chinese immigrants. In an early scene in the novel, Nan takes time off from his duties as a night watchman at a local factory and goes to a nearby supermarket to pick up some food. While walking back to his car he is accosted by an aggressive white couple who want to take him to get "some young pussies." Nan hurries to his car and flees, but the couple pursues him. It is apparent that his "difference" has placed him, and by extension his family, in danger. A distraught Nan asks himself, "Why were they so determined to hurt him? Just because they could? Just because his face was yellow, not as white as theirs?"
At various points in the novel, Nan, Pingping, and Taotao encounter the problem of being migrants who are visibly different in skin color, accent, and culture. They are singled out for discrimination--but this is not the vision of America that Nan wishes to believe in. Despite these setbacks, the United States still represents for him opportunity and hope, in the same way that the country did when he first arrived as a student. He remembers: "Among some of his compatriots at Brandeis, Nan had a nickname, Mr. Wagon Man, because he had once quoted Emerson at a party--'Hitch your wagon to a star'--in an attempt to dissuade a linguist from switching to the field of economics. A historian, an arch-browed man from Henan Province, admonished Nan not to 'parrot that so-called New England sage' who was a racist and always despised the Chinese."
Nan comes to understand much about prejudice and the perils of being the "other," but he attempts to contextualize his condition by looking at how others are treated; the novel is littered with references to blacks, Hispanics, and gay people. Yet Nan also understands that as a would-be writer he should set his course and navigate towards those, including "racist" New England sages, who might help him to come to terms with what it means to be a writer. And as the novel unfolds, it is clear that Nan Wu wishes to be a writer at least as much as he wishes to be an American.
The novel is unashamedly autobiographical, following the path of its author's own journey from China to Brandeis, and on to a series of menial jobs, then to suburban Atlanta, and finally to the writing life. Looking at the novel through such a lens does not diminish its achievement. It is a meditation on the development of a migrant writer's sensibility and an immigrant success story of how a Chinese family adjusts and eventually becomes a Chinese-American family.
Still, as readers we already have some experience of this "how we got over" story, not only with direct reference to the Chinese situation, but also in the many other novels of immigrant life that exist in our literature. As A Free Life proceeds, it soon becomes clear that the strength of the novel, and its originality, resides in its evocation of the growth of a writer who also happens to be an immigrant. Behind the well-constructed facade of the family story, the real drama concerns Nan Wu's individual struggle to remain focused and to nurture the impulse to find his literary voice.
Early in the novel, Nan leaves the family in Boston and travels to New York, where he tries to get a low-level administrative job at a Chinese cultural center. The interview does not go well, and on leaving the center he begins to speculate:
"Nan came out of the building with a sinking heart. Questions, one after another, were arising in his mind. Why do they call that place a cultural museum? Why are there so few exhibits that can be called artwork? How come there's no Picasso or Faulkner or Mozart that emerged from the immigrants? Does this mean the first Chinese here were less creative and less artistic? Maybe so, because the early immigrants were impoverished and many were illiterate, and because they all had to slave away to feed themselves and their families, and had to concentrate their energy on settling down in this unfamiliar, discriminatory, fearsome land. Just uprooting themselves from their native soil must have crippled their lives and drained their vitality, not to mention their creativity. How could it be possible for an unfettered genius to rise from a tribe of coolies who were frightened, exhausted, mistreated, wretched, and possessed by the instinct for survival? Without leisure, how can art thrive?"
Yet Nan knows full well that this is not the whole story. Chinese migrants certainly have been writing stories about themselves and their culture, and in a passage that feels as though the author's unmediated opinions may be leaking through, Nan makes reference to "contemporary authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Gish Jen." But Nan understands that such stories are subject to distortion and commercial pressure, and he is fully aware that "success" can bring with it vexing problems of authenticity.
On reading A Free Life, with its artful and anxious digressions on what it means to be both a migrant and a would-be writer, it becomes increasingly clear why Ha Jin's new book is a collection of three essays with the unambiguous title The Writer as Migrant. The three essays that make up this slender volume were originally delivered as lectures at Rice University in 2007, and one immediately feels the leaden weight of the academy's often baffling obfuscations in the author's one-page preface. "By placing the writer in the context of human migrations," he declares, "we can investigate some of the metaphysical aspects of a 'migrant writer's' life and work." And he continues: "I make references to many works of literature because I believe the usefulness and beauty of literature lies in its capacity to illuminate life." Well, yes, but where are we going with this? "I will speak at length about some exiled writers, not because I view myself only as an exile--I am also an immigrant--but mainly because the most significant literature dealing with human migration has been written on the experience of exile. By contrast, immigration is a minor theme, primarily American. Therefore, a major challenge for writers of the immigrant experience is how to treat this subject in response to the greater literary traditions."
The preface to the volume suggests the potential richness of an engagement with the subject of exile, but it already triggers alarm bells of doubt and frustration in the reader's mind. Why is immigration a minor theme, or for that matter an essentially American theme? Contemporary British literature is replete with outstanding work on this theme, including Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners and Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet. I doubt that either Selvon or Mo, coming from Trinidad and Hong Kong respectively, felt overly concerned with "the greater literary traditions."
Ha Jin's first essay, "The Spokesman and the Tribe," deals with what he calls the "Aristotelian questions--to whom, as whom, and in whose interest does he write?" At the beginning of his essay, he makes a passing reference to his own work. "My initial answers to those questions were quite simple. In the preface to Between Silences, my first book of poems, I wrote, 'As a fortunate one I speak for those unfortunate people who suffered, endured or perished at the bottom of life and who created the history and at the same time were fooled or ruined by it.'" Originally, Ha Jin considered himself a writer who was speaking for the downtrodden masses of Chinese people who he had left behind. He admits that his appropriation of such a position was partly motivated by guilt, but he realized that by taking up this self-appointed task he was opening himself up to accusations from those whom he claimed to serve.
He never reveals whether he was ever subjected to the scrutiny of people who might have demanded to know who gave him the right to speak for them. And having cracked open the door onto his own personal situation, he is quick to slam it shut again. He talks instead of what "the people" might do to "a writer" who seeks to claim such spokesmanship, and, having firmly established the character of "the writer," he liberates himself from any obligation to fulfill our expectation, or hope, that "the writer" will be Ha Jin. This is disappointing, for one cannot escape the feeling that, even at the inception of this book, the most fascinating example of "the writer as migrant" might be Ha Jin himself.
The opening essay looks at two cases of spokesmanship: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the Chinese writer Lin Yutang, who, in Ha Jin's account, both embraced the notion of speaking on behalf of their people once they were outside of their countries, which subsequently caused great damage to their work. In the case of Solzhenitsyn, Ha Jin believes that "the books he wrote in Vermont are less literary than the novels he had written before his exile," which is largely due to the fact that in exile he sought in his work to bear witness and preserve the memory of the Russians who had no voice. While he champions (somewhat uncontroversially) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, and Cancer Ward, he is sure that Solzhenitsyn's "later books do not have a firm artistic order, and their relevance might fall to the erosion of historical change."
This may well be true, but it seems also possible that even before he found himself in the backwoods of Vermont, events within the Soviet Union had already provoked Solzhenitsyn to re-assess the purity of his purpose as an artist. Surely The Gulag Archipelago, the first volume of which was published before his exile in 1974, already betrayed evidence that Solzhenitsyn's vision was being influenced by what Ha Jin calls "nostalgia," as opposed to a firm resolve to craft novels in the realistic tradition. If this is the case, then it would seem to follow that Solzhenitsyn's exile was not the sole cause of the artistic atrophy that Ha Jin seems to detect.
The episode in Solzhenitsyn's life that seems to fascinate Ha Jin is the "mystery" around the Russian writer's flirtation with naturalization as a U.S. citizen. On June 24, 1985, reporters and photographers waited inside the courthouse in Rutland, Vermont, for Solzhenitsyn to take the oath of American citizenship. But his wife showed up alone and received the certificate by herself, having explained that her husband was "not feeling well." Clearly Solzhenitsyn had changed his mind at the last moment and decided that he was not ready to give up on his native land. Ha Jin claims that "fortunately, he was coolheaded enough to restrain himself from attending the naturalization ceremony." Why "fortunately"? If Ha Jin has so little faith in the position of writer as "spokesman," and if he feels that such a position causes damage to one's art, why should he be so pleased that Solzhenitsyn maintained his "loyalty" to the Soviet Union?
One senses, without knowing exactly why, that this episode has a more personal meaning for the author; but his conclusions feel hurried and unsatisfactory. "This episode in Solzhenitsyn's life shows that despite the writer's careful construction of his relationship with his tribe, his role remains susceptible to change--any accidental, sometimes necessary, step might easily undermine the construction and force it to drastic revision," Ha Jin writes. "By writing about Solzhenitsyn's attempted naturalization, I do not intent just to point out the folly this great man almost fell into. What I mean is to illustrate the fragility of his identity as a spokesman for his people." But surely Solzhenitsyn was a far more complex literary figure than a "spokesman." Who, precisely, was he speaking for? The dead, in large measure. And his literary vision was wedded not so much to a people (his work was also a massive attack on what many Russians did and believed) but to a place, and to a very specific and idiosyncratic notion of that place. One always sensed that his tribe's view of Solzhenitsyn mattered little to him as long as he remained true to his own idea of the true Russia.
Ha Jin considers the case of the Chinese writer Lin Yutang so as to further demonstrate the perils of embracing the role of spokesman, although Lin Yutang faced the additional problem of having decided to write in English and, in some respects, to become an interpreter of his people for a Western audience. He was born in China in 1895 and earned a B.A. from Harvard in 1922 before eventually returning home. In 1935, while still in China, he published My Country and My People, his first book in English, which became an American best-seller. A year later, he migrated to the United States, where, for the next three decades, he devoted himself to writing in English. (He died in 1976.) Ha Jin is clear about the adverse consequences this had on his many works of fiction and nonfiction, not least the effect of encouraging him to "sweeten" the narrative so that some works read like popular romance.
He also insists that Lin Yutang spread himself too "thinly," producing many inferior books for money and then, after leaving the United States to live the last decade of his life in Taiwan, spending five years, from 1967 to 1972, compiling a large dictionary, The Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage. Ha Jin describes this endeavor as a "mistake," because it was soon rendered insignificant by a similar project launched from within the state on the orders of Mao and boasting an editorial staff of more than fifty people. He is clear about what we should learn from this "mistake," although once again his conclusion feels unconvincing: "An exiled writer must avoid pitting his individual effort against any collective effort, because his principal asset is his creative talent and energy, which should be used primarily for creative work--great literature has never been produced by collectives." And it is great literature that Ha Jin is interested in, for only such literature "can penetrate historical, political, and linguistic barriers and reach the readership that includes the people of the writer's native country."
Having shown us some of the dangers and pitfalls that face the migrant writer who, like himself in the early period of his writing life, seeks to cling to some sense of attachment to his people, Ha Jin leaves the reader with the biggest question of all. Just how should the migrant writer comport himself with reference to his place of origin? One might have guessed where Ha Jin would look for his answer. Again he reverts briefly to memoir and recalls that "I still remember vividly my first reading of Naipaul's novel A Bend in the River, a book that changed my life. It was in late December 1992, three years after I had declared in the preface to my first book that I would speak for the unfortunate Chinese."
The second part of Naipaul's novel begins with a passage about a column of ants who remain undisturbed by the loss of a single member of their tribe. There is no contract between the individual ant and the collective, and it is up to the unfortunate individual ant to fend for himself. The passage reminds Ha Jin that in China there is still some notion of a relationship between oneself and one's country, whereas in the United States "I saw that such a contract gave you a false sense of entitlement.... Here you had to work like everyone else to put food on your table and had to learn to live as an independent man." It is Naipaul who frees him from the burden of speaking for the downtrodden Chinese and "the silliness of that ambition."
In this way Ha Jin comes to understand that a writer's first responsibility is to write well, and that the social role is only secondary, "mostly given by the forces around him, and it has little to do with his value as a writer." He carefully rejects Nadine Gordimer's notion of the writer as having a social responsibility to make an "essential gesture" and be more than just a writer. And he uncouples himself from his former fealty to Derek Walcott's line in "The Schooner Flight": "either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation." Finally he proclaims that "today literature is ineffective at social change. All the writer can strive for is a personal voice."
It is hard to disagree that literature must first and foremost be an individual expression, and that the writer must beware the corruptions of a representative voice. And yet some of Ha Jin's conclusions seem contestable. What of those writers in the Middle East, or Africa, or Southeast Asia, who continue to be harassed or jailed or killed because of their "essential gestures"? Not all of them are naive romantics hitching a ride on the coattails of their nations with inferior, or sweetened, narratives. Is it really true to say that all literature is ineffective as social change? Does the writer have no social responsibility at all? While nobody can argue with the essential selfishness of a writer who chooses to abandon loyalty to a people and make his art the thing, it does seem a little presumptuous to suggest that this is the one and only way to produce great literature. Yes, yes, "the writer should enter history mainly through the avenue of his art. If he serves a cause or a group or even a country, such service must be a self-choice and not imposed by society. He must serve on his own terms, in the manner and at the time and place of his own choosing"--but why does this matter so overwhelmingly to Ha Jin? There is something coy about these lectures, in which he considers many cases of migrant writing except his own. His many digressions, both anecdotal and professorial, only clutter the way to a proper understanding of the reasons for his rather strident conception of his calling.
The second essay in the book, called "The Language of Betrayal," begins with the bold statement that "linguistic betrayal is the ultimate step the migrant writer dares to take; after this, any other act of estrangement amounts to a trifle." The essay then proceeds to an extended and rather pedestrian consideration of Conrad and Nabokov, which is properly footnoted and carefully argued, before coming to rest with the bland conclusion that a writer "must be loyal only to his art." The discussion here flickers to life only briefly, on the second page: "I have been asked why I write in English. I often reply, 'For survival.' People tend to equate 'survival' with 'livelihood' and praise my modest, also shabby, motivation. In fact, physical survival is just one side of the picture, and there is the other side, namely, to exist--to live a meaningful life. To exist also means to make the best use of one's life, to pursue one's vision."
Once again, just as the door opens up on the possibility of weaving his own experience into the narrative, Ha Jin slams it shut again and continues, "Joseph Brodsky once observed...." He later claims that "we writers who have adopted English ... are all related to Conrad one way or another," but he says nothing about his own adoption of English. By leaving out his own story he has not only reduced the force of his argument, he has also created the opposite effect of what one assumes is a modest purpose. Far from praising his restraint, we are left wondering whether he really is in any way related to Conrad.
By the time one reaches the final essay, "An Individual's Homeland," one can almost predict what the conclusion is going to be. "Home" has nothing to do with a piece of land, for one cannot return to the same place as the same person; "home" is to be found in art, and more specifically in language, which, for a migrant writer who has changed language, must be always subject to continued interrogation and modification. In this essay the key texts are the Odyssey, Kundera's Ignorance, and once again Naipaul's A Bend in the River. Ha Jin is most interesting on Sebald's The Emigrants, but even here, while considering what happens to the artist Max Ferber in one of Sebald's stories, the analysis collapses into a flat result: "It is the intimate and inseverable connection with his past that keeps him sane and safe and provides for him the space in which he can practice his art. In other words, he has succeeded in constructing a kind of homeland for himself, to survive the violence and horror of history." Ha Jin seems to regard the migrant writer's art mainly as an asylum, a sanctuary that must above all protect his art from the intrusions and the imperatives of history.
There are two ways to read these essays. First, they are the reflections of a professor who has thought seriously on issues of migration, representation, language, and homeland as academic spheres of inquiry, and whose reading and erudition are dutifully on display. Approaching the essays in this manner, one must conclude that they are well-researched and well-constructed but finally unilluminating about their difficult and complex subject. One is inclined to put this professorial volume aside and reach instead for essays on the same themes by Chinua Achebe, Octavio Paz, Salman Rushdie, Czesaw Miosz, V.S. Naipaul, Mario Vargas Llosa, Wole Soyinka, and others--writers who have seriously grappled with these issues in their own work and who feel comfortable importing details of their own struggle, including autobiographical details, into their essays. These authors have, in every case, written pointedly about other writers and analytically left their own experience to one side; but when talking about issues that are so fundamental to their personal and artistic existence, they have not distanced themselves from the subject at hand.
The second way to read these essays is to approach them as though they have been written by a writer who has himself lived their subject. But then they read like a strange exercise in reticence whose purpose is unclear. If Ha Jin's hope is that we turn back to his fiction for the tensions, the ruptures, the betrayals, and the difficulties of being "the writer as migrant," then he has succeeded. For A Free Life is a far more profound meditation upon this condition than these critical explorations. Midway through the novel, Nan Wu ponders the difference between himself and an older scholar, Mr. Liu:
"Here lay Mr. Liu's tragedy--he couldn't possibly separate himself from the state's apparatus that could always control and torment him. Without the frame of reference already formed in his homeland, his life would have lost its meaning and bearings. That must be why so many exiles, wrecked with nostalgia, would eulogize suffering and patriotism. Physically they were here, but because of the yoke of their significant past, they couldn't adapt to the life in the new land. In contrast, Nan was an immigrant without a noteworthy and burdensome past. To the authorities, he was nobody, nonexistent. He didn't even have a Chinese official to beg. Who would listen to a man like him, a mere immigrant or refugee? People of his kind, 'the weed people,' survived or perished like insects and grass and wouldn't matter at all to those living in their native land. To the people in China, they were already counted as a loss.... The more Nan thought about these issues, the more upset he became. On the other hand, he was willing to accept the immigrant life as the condition of his existence so as to become a self-sufficient man. He felt grateful to the American land that had taken in his family and given them an opportunity for a new beginning."
Passages like this serve to remind us of how much energy the risk of self revelation provides for Ha Jin's fiction, and how much we miss that energy in these often ponderous essays.
Caryl Phillips is the author most recently of Foreigners (Vintage).
This article originally appeared in the December 24, 2008, issue of the magazine.