Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Writer as Migrant

Jin, Ha. The Writer as Migrant. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

R. Stuhr

In three essays, Ha Jin explores the fate and blessings of the immigrant writer. In "The Spokesman and the Tribe," Ha Jin recounts his early conviction, that through his poetry, he could speak for the people he left behind in China. Because he has left behind his compatriots he can not truly represent them. Perhaps, through the work that is the result of his talent and creativity, he may find his way back to his country. Ha Jin looks at the experiences and creative work of Solzhenitsyn and Lin Yutang to make his point. Solzhenitsyn and Lin Yutang left their countries as respected and honored writers, and attempted to represent their countries abroad. But, Ha Jin writes, [e]ven the most socially conscious writers like Solzhenitsyn and Lin Yutang could be accepted by their peoples only on the grounds that they had written lasting literary works. Their social function in their lifetimes have been largely forgotten...a writer's first responsibility is to write well" (28). Ha Jin emphasizes that writers should chronicle and shape history, should take a moral stand and speak out against injustice, but only through their art. The "battlefield" is on the page.

In hise second essay, "The Language of Betrayal," Ha Jin looks at the writings of Polish writer in exile, Joseph Conrad, and multilingual, Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov. Although Nabokov first wrote in Russian, much of what he wrote is in English. Conrad wrote only in English. Ha Jin considers the necessity of writing in the language of exile and what the writer gains and loses through this necessity. Conrad was first rejected and then much later embraced by the writers in his native country. He was repeatedly asked to justify his choice of language. Ha Jin finds that though Conrad suffered because of his choice to write in English, he opened the doors for many exiled and immigrant writers to choose to write in the language of their adopted countries. Ha Jin also finds that writers such as Conrad and Nabokov bring something new to the language though their lack of familiarity with idiom and conversational style may also hamper them. Ha Jin admires Conrad's intensely poetic prose and Nabokov's use of humor in his prose. Although some of have said that it is impossible to write humorously in an adopted language, Nabokov, writes Ha Jin, seemed "as if he . . . squinted at the words he inscribed on paper to see what extra pleasure he could extract from them. He seized every opportunity to turn self-consciousness into delightful art" (51). Ha Jin urges writers in exile to find their place in their adopted language even if what they write cannot be translated into their native language. Writers may choose loyalty to their art over loyalty to their native language.

Finally, in his third essay, Ha Jin considers whether the expatriot can ever return home again; whether a writer, once exiled, can in fact ever have a true home. Looking at the works of authors such as Kundera, Cafavy, Naipaul, Rølvaag, and Sebald, Ha Jin again emphasizes the importance of language, the loss of fluency, the changes that make the once familiar unrecognizable. While one must maintain, and possibly cannot avoid maintaining the past as part of one's identity as an individual and as a writer and artist, "homeland" may not be the writer's country of origin, but instead be where the writers makes a home.

Burling Library 1st Floor, Smith Memorial PS 3560.I6 Z46 2008.

Other works by novelist, poet, and short story writer, Ha Jin including Between Silences: A Voice from China, Waiting, and A Free Life.

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