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Published:December 11th, 2007 23:30 EST
Chinese Author Writes for an American Audience

Chinese Author Writes for an American Audience

By Aviva Gat

Boston University English professor Ha Jin, a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist, has not returned to China since he immigrated to the United States before the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Even though he has not been to China in 20 years, his books have all taken place there except for his most recent novel: “A Free Life.”

“A Free Life” is an immigrant’s story and Jin’s first book to take place in the United States. While it is not autobiographical, it is reflective of some of Jin’s own experiences.

“At the micro level it is mine, but the big story is not mine,” Jin said in a thick accent. “The protagonist goes to New York to be a chef and he returns to China, I didn’t do that, but it has to come from some personal experience. I needed certainty to write about his experiences, I could only say things I really knew.”

He also had to be more careful with the details in this book. “The devices I invented for myself wouldn’t work,” he said. “The details had to have actual references and be accurate. My books in China didn’t because people had no reference.”

Jin, formerly Xuefei Jin, hopes to visit China eventually, but for now, he has no time.  “In China, you feel like you’re living in a web, you have to always be aware because you don’t know what will happen to you. Here, as long as you don’t break the law, you’re safe.”

Even if the countries are different, the people are not.  “People are all basically the same,” he said. “The young people, people’s dreams, it’s the same. The essences of Chinese and American people are very similar.”

Jin’s inspiration for his novels came way before he actually started writing. His friend showed him a book of poems with photos that showed the struggle of immigrants. The photos moved him he said. “I didn’t have a lot of experience writing then. I didn’t start until 2000.”

Jin came to the U.S. to study American literature at Brandeis University.  He later studied at BU before becoming a full-time faculty member teaching a course on migrant literature and a workshop for graduate students in fiction writing.

He loves teaching because of the students and the discussions he has in class. “If you read a good book, it’s an enriching experience,” he said.

“He is adored by his students,” BU creative writing director Leslie Epstein said. Epstein has known Jin since 1991 when she heard him read poetry at a PEN Discovery Evening, an annual event for new writers to read selections from their work. Epstein admires Jin’s writing skills and his courage for taking on challenging subjects.

“One never feels far removed in [A Free Life], or any of the [other books], from the spiritual life taking form deep within,” she said.

Jin’s next work will be a collection of short stories set in the U.S. “Writing the first draft is fun,” he said. “After that, it’s what you can endure.”