Fwd: Cultural evolution

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Wed 27 Nov 2002 - 23:59:15 GMT

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    I clicked on this story because of the title, of course. But, while not about, in any scientific sense, cultural evolution, this is about cultural change, and posits language as being at the front door of this.

    - Wade

    ******

    Cultural evolution

    With talent and hard work, Ha Jin has gone from semiliterate Chinese soldier to award-winning writer of novels in English

    By David Mehegan, Globe Staff, 11/27/2002

    http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/331/living/Cultural_evolutionP.shtml

    FOXBOROUGH - Greenish rocks, stately barren trees, and a soft carpet of brown oak leaves half surround the home of Ha Jin. The elemental forms near his beige Colonial house put Jin in mind of northeast China, where he was born.

    ''It's similar in climate to New England,'' he says of his homeland, standing at the edge of the yard and gazing into the forest. ''Much like Vermont.''

    The writer, who is 46, is far from China now. And though all his fiction - including his just-published third novel, ''The Crazed'' - is set in China, Jin has transformed himself, in a decade's time, into an award-winning writer of English fiction. ''I think he possesses genius,'' says novelist Leslie Epstein of Boston University, Jin's first prose writing teacher.

    Since 1996, Jin has published three novels, three collections of short stories, and three volumes of poetry. His second novel, ''Waiting,'' won the 1999 National Book Award. After a stint as professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, Jin accepted a full professorship at BU this year, teaching literature and creative writing. He and his wife, Lisha, moved from Atlanta to their wooded corner of Foxborough in July.

    Jin's sunny, gentle manners and high courtesy - he emerged from his front door and strode across the front yard to greet his interviewer - give no hint of the fire, imagination, and dogged nature that made possible this remarkable career in American letters. Even after one hears his story, delivered in heavily accented English, one can scarcely believe what he has achieved.

    He was born Jin Xuefei (Ha Jin is his pen name) in 1956 in what then was known as Manchuria. Jin and his family moved around frequently with his father, an army officer. When the disastrous Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, Jin had had just four years of schooling. Those schools that were not closed were paralyzed.

    ''There was no teaching,'' Jin recalls. ''We were just copying out revolutionary slogans.''

    In 1969, afraid that his school would be closed and he would be sent to work in the fields, Jin lied about his age and joined the People's Army. He was 14. He spent six years in the army; his first post was the tense Soviet border amid fears of imminent war. Food was scarce and so was reading matter. One day, Jin was lent a Chinese translation of Cervantes's ''Don Quixote.'' He had it for only that day.

    ''I couldn't read it, I was almost illiterate,'' he says. ''I looked at the pictures. It was important because I realized there are other books. Not just propaganda stuff - good books.''

    In his second year in the army, he was assigned to a telegraphy office, which gave him space at night to study the schoolbooks his parents had surreptitiously sent him. ''You would be condemned if you read during the day,'' he says. ''You could only read revolutionary works.''

    Coming to America

    As the Cultural Revolution wound down, the colleges reopened, and Jin passed the entrance exam for Heilongjiang University in Harbin. Though most students were studying Russian or Japanese, he chose English. At first, ''The only good books that were available were by Marx and Engels - the philosophers,'' he said. ''Apart from those, there was only propaganda. Engels wrote a book in 1844 called `The Condition of the Working Class in England.' I knew that book was in English, so I thought someday I could read that book.''

    Jin's progress in English was slow. He didn't like it much at first. But as certain authors - Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, William Faulkner - came into fashion in the university, he studied harder. He met his future wife, Lisha, and they were married in 1982. He got his degree and then went to Shandong University for a master's degree in American literature. There he met two American professors who were on visiting lectureships.

    At their urging, Jin applied and was accepted to Brandeis University; he arrived here to begin his studies in 1985. His plan was to get a doctorate, return to China, and become a professor. To that point, he had written no prose fiction but had begun to write poetry in English, which astonished his American professors.

    ''He brought in a completely amazing poem,'' says poet Frank Bidart, who taught a poetry workshop at Brandeis. ''I was astonished by it. It was clear that he was a real writer. I knew the poetry editor of the Paris Review, and they took it. It was extraordinary and wonderful having him in my class. He had this eloquence and could make remarkable and unpredictable poems out of it.'' Jin was reading American writers, and Bidart and Brandeis professor Allen Grossman encouraged him also to read such Russian writers as Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, and Isaac Babel. He devoured them.

    Lisha joined him in 1987, while their 4-year-old son, Wen, stayed behind with her parents. There was hope then for a new kind of cultural revolution in China, and Jin expected to be a part of it. But then came the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, in which hundreds of students were shot by army troops. Jin was shocked and horrified.

    ''When I served in the army,'' he says, ''we were taught that the People's Army's first principle was to serve the people, to protect the people, and now the whole thing was reversed. For months I was in a daze. The government was so brutal, and I would not serve a government like that. All the schools were state-owned, so any job was a state job.''

    `An artist with a first-rate mind'

    Jin decided he could not return to his homeland. Like other Chinese students at the time of the massacre, he was allowed to stay in the United States. He had completed his Brandeis studies but his doctorate in comparative poetics was oriented to Chinese academia and was not marketable in American universities. He could not find an academic job.

    With difficulty, he and Lisha brought 6-year-old Wen to America (now 19, Wen is a history major at Princeton University). To survive, they both worked, sometimes as many as 80 hours a week. They lived at first in Waltham and later in Somerville; Lisha cleaned houses and yards and took in laundry, while Jin worked in factories, as a hospital custodian, and for a while as a waiter. In one restaurant, he was demoted from waiter to busboy because he couldn't remember the names of the wines.

    In 1992, Jin contacted Epstein and asked to be admitted to the BU graduate creative writing program as an auditing student - he couldn't afford the tuition, but wanted to improve his literary skills. Epstein agreed, and like Bidart, was astounded when he read Jin's first stories.

    ''Right away I said, `These are not stories for our workshop - these are literature,''' Epstein recalls, ''I could sense it almost from the first. He is a conscientious artist with a first-rate mind.

    ''There is enormous humanity and breadth in his writing. He never flinches from the ugliness or cruelty in life, and that prepares him for seeing the beauty,'' Epstein said. ''He also has a real feel for nature: the dusty leaves on the trees in a town, the birds that flit from tree to tree, the carp in the stream that people look down at and that look back up at them. He's a great Chinese painter in a way.''

    Jin's stories are personal - all about love, ambition, jealousy, longing, cruelty - yet they also evoke crushing social pressure and the suffocating effect of bureaucracy and closed-mindedness. Those who fight back lose in the end. But those who give in lose in other ways.

    Most of the short stories in Jin's first collection, ''Under the Red Flag,'' were originally written while he studied at BU. That book won the PEN/Hemingway prize for first fiction. In his second year, BU (with the strong urging of Epstein) gave Jin a scholarship and a part-time teaching job, which relieved a little economic pressure. On a strong recommendation from Epstein, he finally landed an academic position at Emory in 1993. In 1996, Jin's books began to appear. After ''Under the Red Flag'' came a second story collection, ''Ocean of Words,'' and a first novel, ''In the Pond.'' His best-selling novel, ''Waiting,'' was followed by a third story collection, ''The Bridegroom,'' and now the newest novel, ''The Crazed.'' His books have been translated into Chinese and have sold well in Taiwan but have not been published on the mainland.

    The beauty of English

    Jin has moved beyond the People's Army as a setting for his fiction. He explains, ''I started writing about the Chinese experience, but as time passed, I realized I'm not interested in China as a literary subject any more.'' His next novel is set in an American prisoner-of-war camp during the Korean War, with Korean, Chinese, and American characters. After that, he says, he will write about America.

    That he writes entirely in English does not seem strange to Jin.

    ''In English, we have a tradition of prose writers whose mother tongues are not English, but who did become meaningful writers. Writers like Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov,'' he said. ''This is mainstream; these are not marginal. If you take these writers out, English letters would seem incomplete. That is the vitality, the beauty of the English language that makes it different from other languages. It is always able to take in all kinds of resources and energies.''

    Listening to Jin, the deeply Americanized and distinguished man of letters, it's hard to picture him as the semiliterate, ill-fed, oppressed adolescent he so recently was, a teenage soldier stuck in the snows of northern China, only dimly aware of such a thing as literature. Along with probable genius, what it took for him to accomplish that metamorphosis was the readiness to accept the cost of changing himself in order to vault every barrier.

    ''I will never be a Chinese writer,'' he muses. ''This is a fact of myself, that I can accept myself as a kind of failure. I never understood Nabokov's epilogue to `Lolita,' where he said that for him to write in English was `a personal tragedy'; that he had to stick with second-rate English.

    ''I have begun to understand him, because his ambition as a writer had to be modified as he adopted another language. He never had the opportunity to write his best work in Russian. His energy was invested in the English language. This gave me the idea that to write in a different language, you have to change yourself, your life, your ambitions and intentions, personally and in every way.''

    David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

    This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 11/27/2002.
    Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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