WORD with the WRITER
an interview with Ha Jin
Featured Books by Ha Jin
Author Ha Jin has a chaotic schedule — not only does he teach a full course load at Emory in Atlanta, but he is also often scheduled for a number of readings across the country. His two most recent books are published by Pantheon: Waiting, a novel which racked up numerous awards for him, including the 1999 National Book Award and The Bridegroom, a collection of short stories, released in October of 2000.
The Bridegroom represents Jin’s third collection of stories. Of the previous two, his first, Ocean of Words: Army Stories (Zoland Books), won him a 1996 PEN/Hemingway prize and his second, Under the Red Flag (Univ. of Georgia Press), won him a 1997 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. He has also won three Pushcart Prizes and a Guggenheim fellowship, in addition to unnamed other awards — certainly no small feat for someone who published his first book only 10 years ago (a book of poetry entitled Between Silences: A Voice from China from Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990).
The opportunity to pose questions to this prolific Chinese-American author was not to be missed by collectedstories.com, particularly in light of the 12 wonderfully crafted stories of The Bridegroom, sure to deliver more accolades in Jin’s direction. So, in spite of his teaching and travel schedule, we managed to get a few questions through which Jin found the time to answer via e-mail.
from “A Tiger-Fighter is Hard to Find” by Ha Jin
“The morning of the shooting was a little windy and overcast. Two Liberation trucks took us four miles out of the city, to the edge of an oak wood. We unloaded the tiger cage, mounted the camera on the tripod, and set up the scene by placing a few large rocks here and there and pulling out some tall grass to make the flattish ground more visible. A few people gathered around Huping and helped him with his costume and makeup. Near the cage stood two men, each toting a tranquilizer gun.
Director Yu was pacing back and forth behind the camera. A scene like this couldn’t be repeated; we had to get everything right on the first take.
The medic took out a stout jar of White Flame and poured a full bowl of it. Without a word, Huping raised the liquor with both hands and drank it up in a long swallow. People watched him silently. He looked radiant in the shifting sunlight. A black mosquito landed on his jaw, but he didn’t bother to slap at it.
When everything was ready, one man shot a tranquilizer dart into the tiger’s rump. Holding his forefinger before Huping’s face, Director Yu said in a high-pitched voice, ‘Try to get into the character. Remember, once you are in the scene, you are no longer Wang Huping. You are the hero, a true tiger-fighter, a killer.’
‘I’ll remember that,’ Huping said, punching his left palm with his right fist. He wore high leather boots and a short cudgel slung across his back.
Director Yu’s gaze swept through the crowd, and he asked loudly if everyone was ready. A few people nodded.
‘Action!’ he cried.
The door of the cage was lifted up. The tiger rushed out, vigorously shaking its body. It opened its mouth, and four long canine teeth glinted. It began walking in circles and sniffing at the ground while Huping, with firm steps, began to approach it. The animal roared and pranced, but our hero took the cudgel from his back and went forward resolutely. When he was within ten feet of the tiger, the snarling beast suddenly sprang at him, but with all his might Huping struck its head with his cudgel. The blow staggered the tiger a little, yet it came back and lunged at him again. Huping leaped aside and hit its flank. This blow sent the animal tumbling a few feet away. Huping followed it, striking its back and head. The tiger turned around with a menacing look. Then they were in a real melee.”
© 2000 HA JIN
cs: Some writers see short stories as a prelude to the first novel, and once they get that first novel published, they abandon the short form, never to return to it again. You not only return to the short form, but also write poetry. What interests you about each of these forms of writing?
hj: I don’t have time to write a novel when I am teaching, so the short forms suit me better. On the other hand, poetry is extremely hard to write. It’s a big challenge, so there’s more fun in doing it. It can keep one’s work more literary.
cs: Are short stories easier to write?
hj: No. They are very, very difficult to write. In general, a good collection of short stories needs more labor than a good novel.
cs: When were the stories in your new collection, The Bridegroom, written?
hj: From 1993 to 1999.
cs: Which stories from The Bridegroom have you selected, or will you select for live readings and why?
hj: Maybe “A Tiger-Fighter Is Hard to Find” and “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town.” They are more vivid and a bit wild.
cs: Where did the seed for the fourth story in your new collection, “A Tiger Fighter is Hard to Find,” come from? The depiction of the absurd length movie crews will sometimes go to in order to get a shot unfortunately rings with a certain truth.
hj: Seventeen years ago I saw a TV series, Wu Song Beat the Tiger, and was very impressed. Later on, a friend told me that the leading actor had been hospitalized because he was frightened in a fight with a real tiger. Since, then, the anecdote bothered me a lot. I had to write a story to get it out of my mind.
cs: Your writing eloquently achieves a way for the reader to see many sides of a fence on an issue, like in the title story “The Bridegroom,” which deals with the issue of a family’s ability to deal with a gay son-in-law, so to speak. It seems that this might have something to do with character in your stories. There seems to be an underlying compassion for all your characters, an intimate understanding of them. How do you approach first getting to know your characters?
hj: By trying to be truthful and objective. I seldom make remarks in my fiction, and I only serve the story as an instrument.
cs: When did you begin writing?
hj: When I was in the Chinese army, I was required to write a lot of propaganda stuff, as every soldier was supposed to do. That’s how I started. I wasn’t serious about creative writing until Emory hired me to teach poetry writing.
cs: Your first published work was a poem, “The Dead Soldier’s Talk,” that appeared in the Paris Review and led to your first published book, a book of poetry, Between Silences (Univ. of Chicago Press). How did you celebrate your first publication?
hj: I did nothing.
cs: Is it still true that none of your work has been published in China?
hj: Not until last month was that so. But Waiting was brought out recently in Taiwan.
cs: You have been honored as one of only three writers non-native to the English language to receive the National Book Award — for your novel, Waiting. How and at what age did you come to learn English? And, what led you to start writing in English?
hj: When I was 20, I began to follow a learner’s program on the radio in China. Later I went to college to major in English. At Brandeis, I sat in Frank Bidart’s workshop, and wrote “The Dead Soldier’s Talk,” which was my first piece of writing in English. After that I continued to write, though half-heartedly for several years.
cs: In addition to writing, you have a family with a teenage son and you teach at Emory University in Atlanta – how do you successfully manage your time?
hj: I forced myself to write a little every day no matter how busy I am. In summer and winter breaks, I write some drafts; and when I teach, I can edit and revise the drafts. I am lucky that my wife and son have never been demanding.
cs: Does your son have a predisposition for writing?
hj: He writes stuff too, but he’s mainly interested in physics and history.
cs: As a professor, what is the most important lesson of writing that you try to get across to your students?
hj: From the start, a serious writer should accept himself or herself as a failure.
cs: It is well known by now that Ha Jin is a sort of pen name, your first name really being Xuefei — how did you choose “Ha;” was it a previous nickname?
hj: “Ha” is the first word of the city’s name “Harbin.” I lived in that city for four years and liked it very much. Since few people in America can pronounce “Xuefei,” I picked “Ha Jin” as my pen-name when my first poem was accepted by the Paris Review. Frank Bidart said it sounded good, very concise. Since then, I have used this name.
cs: Is there a particular person or persons to whom you feel indebted for support of your writing career? Your books note a dedication to Lisha — does this refer to your wife?
hj: Three teachers deeply affected my life as a beginning writer. They are Allen Grossman, Frank Bidart, and Leslie Epstein. “Lisha” is my wife’s name.
cs: How much do you read and/or what sort of books do you like to read?
hj: I read as much as I can. Since I teach poetry most of the time, I read a lot of poetry and criticism when I teach. I also read fiction and non-fiction books that can help the project I am working on.
cs: What will follow the release of The Bridegroom, from Ha Jin?
hj: Not sure. A book may work or may not. Very often this depends on luck.
Word with the Writer: Ha Jin Interview ©2000 Dara Albanese & collectedstories.com