The second installment to Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel series for the 2009-2010 season saw American-Chinese author Ha Jin taking the stage. He is an interesting writer in the fact that he crafts his work with his second language, English. Not even learning it until college, where it was his fifth out of five choices to study at university, he has both adopted it and America as his home. Saying that he is in semi-exile from China, he still holds a linguistic bond to the nation even though they have pretty much disowned him. By not returning to the country and writing in a foreign tongue, China has banned his books due to their subject matter, treating him as a non-native author. He, however, does not want to forget his past, setting his novels there until his newest work A Free Life. Finally moving his setting to America, this novel continues his literary evolution, turning to new territory in order to captivate audiences as well as himself.
His lecture focused mainly on this newest prose, in how it spoke to his feelings about language and the immigrant in a foreign land topic. Ha Jin did speak about the novel Waiting by stating the progression taken from it to the present. Some of the question and answer period delved deeper into that story, especially since it is the one read by most audience members in preparation for the talk, but I will admit to being more interested in his writing process and outlook on non-native tongue writers. A Free Life tells the tale of an immigrant and how he copes with a new culture and lifestyle. Unlike speaking about his acquisition of, or at least attempt for, the American Dream—like Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep did, a novel that influenced his writing—he began the journey after that success. While the main character isn’t a millionaire or anything, he has found the “popular” version of the dream with a house, car, etc, all by the age of forty; so the novel talks more about what an immigrant will do afterwards. To the author, the want to travel to a different land is not always to better one’s situation financially, but oftentimes for a spiritual pursuit, a cause in the metaphysical dimension that draws them somewhere to enhance their interior self. The book is not necessarily autobiographical, but he does admit to sprinkling in life experiences to keep the story real and true to him.
The process of writing the novel itself was a challenge to him because this was the first not set in China. Whereas he could fudge some details and write from his memories rather than truth, because the audience wouldn’t know what was true or not, writing about America meant he now had to get his facts straight. This also makes the process of translating a difficult one since some characters speak slang or just bad English, words that have no equal in Chinese. The idea of even attempting the conversion scared him a bit, and so he hired a professional to do it for him. After seeing how the essence of the story still remained, despite losing the nuance of English, he discovered how a good translator could enhance a tale by retaining its human spirit. “A good book,” he says, “should be translatable.” Seeing this power, he decided to now convert his works himself, allowing the power to create something new where a translation is impossible. Hired help needs to stay exact, whether the meaning doesn’t come through or not; the author himself can alter passages and make the words feel fresh in both languages, even if the words themselves are different.
Through the entire talk, this topic of language stayed at the forefront. Authors, like him, that came to America and decided to write in English rather than their native tongue, like Vladimir Nabokov, really influenced his work. Ha Jin loved his confidence in using puns and wordplay to add humor to the work. By taking archaic words and resurrecting them, or even creating words of his own, Nabokov allowed his work to show the struggle his characters faced in learning a new language. But jokes don’t always have to be from word games, they can succeed from drama and the human experience. A foreign writer doesn’t need to be a professional at slang and the intricacies of another language to joke; he can speak of experiences and share them in a witty way. My favorite line of the evening was towards the end as Ha Jin spoke about his novels living on after his death. He believes one should not be afraid to stay fresh and new or speak about things that may be controversial—like his view on Tiananmen Square and his banning in China as a result. One “needs to preserve truth in books, or else who will want to read them?” Truer words were never spoken as his own works resonate in their humanity despite their foreign environments, keeping his work relevant as the years go by.
Babel continues at Kleinhans with Azar Nafisi on 3/5/10 and Salman Rushdie on 4/16/10. Tickets on sale now.
Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.