A Free Life
Ha Jin
Pantheon, $26.00 (hardcover)

“Either you will / go through this door / or you will not go through,” Adrienne Rich writes in her 1962 poem, “Prospective Immigrants Please Note.” Writing under the pen name Ha Jin, short story writer, novelist, and poet Xuefei has lingered gracefully at the threshold of “that door.” Writing in English and living in the United States for more than two decades, Jin’s writing—until the recent publication of A Free Life—cast his sharp eye principally on the Communist China of his early years, rendered for the American reader in a master’s singularly lithe, muscular prose. Unlike many other hyphenated-American authors, Dwight Garner noted in the New York Times Magazine in 2000, “Jin steers clear of the bumpy politics of assimilation.”

Born in northeastern China in 1956, Jin joined the People’s Liberation Army at age fourteen after Mao Zedong closed the country’s schools. In 1977, when schools reopened, he resumed his studies first in China and later in the United States. In 1989 Jin was a doctoral candidate in English at Brandeis when soldiers killed protesting students at Tiananmen Square. Watching the massacre on TV with disbelief, Jin resolved that he would not return to China. When his graduate stipend ran out, he worked odd jobs as he finished his doctorate at Brandeis, studied creative writing at Boston University, and began writing in earnest.

A progression of elegant and astute work followed, addressing primarily the clashes—variously spiritual and geopolitical—that arose in the years of China’s Cultural Revolution. It’s a formidable canon: Jin’s 1996 debut collection of short stories, Ocean of Words, won the PEN/Hemingway Award; another collection, Under the Red Flag (1997), picked up a Flannery O’Connor Award; and the novel, Waiting (1999), earned Jin a National Book Award (Jin is only the third non-native English speaker to be awarded the prize since its inception in 1950). Jin’s last novel War Trash (2004) was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Over the years critics have been consistently enchanted by Jin’s command of language, the agility—even whimsy—with which he wields English, sometimes in moments of brutal struggle. Consider a line from the short story “Dragon Head” appearing in Ocean of Words. A battalion commander scheming to teach an insubordinate a lesson is reminded by a comrade of “the saying that goes ‘Today you caper about swaying your butt, tomorrow we’ll rip out your guts.’” In In the Pond (1998), an untamable worker finds his nemesis, Secretary Liu, seated atop his face: “Liu’s bottom, smelling of onion, was so heavy that Bin realized that he would faint in a few seconds if he didn’t take action. So he wiggled his head a little and took a big bite.”

Even in less mischievous moments, Jin finds new ways to describe the contradiction of human struggle; his most memorable characters are unexpectedly thrown off track, swept into currents of the larger world, which often threaten to overwhelm them. Obstacles opaque to them perpetually confound their plans. Yu Yuan, the POW protagonist of War Trash, for example, must swap allegiances more than once—editing the text of the tattoo forcibly branded upon him—to stay alive. Or, in The Crazed, the narrator, Jian, single-mindedly focused on preparing for a rigorous set of graduate exams, finds himself by the end of the novel in the heart of Tianamen Square—the very embodiment of violent struggle in modern China. The title of Jin’s tale about Lin Kong, a citified doctor who takes two decades to divorce his rural wife Shuyu and marry Manna Wu, his colleague and girlfriend, points to desire thwarted: Waiting.

When Jin began talking eight years ago about writing a novel set in the United States, he told Garner, “This book will be a great hurdle for me. I will have to write it very slowly.” And indeed, after an atypically long three years between books, Ha Jin takes as his protagonist in A Free Life a modern-day Chinese-American struggling to build a future in the United States. It should come, then, as little surprise that A Free Life’s plotline partially parallels Jin’s own life: The novel tells the story of Nan, a Chinese graduate student who travels to Boston to complete doctoral work. After the Tiananmen massacre, Nan, a politics student, loses his appetite for his field of study and drops out of academia altogether to pursue the only goal he sees worthy of his attention: poetry.

Plagued with self-doubt, Nan is no instant success. He dreams of the passion inspired by Beina, his first love, and bemoans his lack of a muse. Yet he must still find a way to provide for his loyal wife Pingping—whose love for him, unfortunately, far exceeds his own tepid feelings for her—and their young son Taotao, who has managed to join them in America. After working as a watchman and a busboy in New York and Boston respectively, Nan seizes an opportunity to buy his own restaurant in suburban Atlanta. Nan, Pingping, and Taotao move to a house of their own in Georgia.

Through the mortgage payments and soul-searching that follow, Nan plunges deeper into life in the United States and increasingly finds his poetic aspirations at odds with the daily reality of running the Gold Wok and securing financial stability for his family. At the book’s outset, Nan’s embrace of the American dream seems uncomplicated:

He was all the more convinced that they must live in this country to let their son grow into an American. He must make sure that Taotao would stay out of the cycle of violence that had beset their native land for centuries. The boy must be spared the endless, gratuitous suffering to which the Chinese were as accustomed as if their whole existence depended on it. By any means, the boy must live a life different from his parents’ and take this land to be his country! Nan felt sad and glad at the same time, touched by the self-sacrifice he believed he would be making for his child.

Yet (just pages later) Jin signals that A Free Life is in fact a story of contradiction and struggle: Nan falls asleep to Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man.” Jin writes, “the book slid from his hand and plopped on to the carpet,” presumably before Nan could arrive at the poem’s final stanzas, and their stark echoes of his own life (“He has a plan. You mustn’t laugh at him.”). Much later in the book, Jin addresses Nan’s particular conflict in less oblique terms: “he felt as though the whole notion of the American dream was shoddy, a hoax.” Nan’s real ambitions, he realizes, have all along been aesthetic: “It seemed that he had forgotten his goal and gotten lost in making money,” he reflects. “Why hadn’t he devoted himself to writing poetry?”

The economic necessity driving Nan’s life is a familiar component of the American dream. But beneath the financial hardship, Jin layers the spiritual struggle of creating a coherent personal narrative and a comforting, social community far from home. Although Nan and Pingping have a few close friends—the Wus (the prior owners of the Gold Wok), and Janet and Dave Mitchell (a young couple who take a liking to Taotao and later adopt a Chinese daughter), and Nan’s scattered contacts in the artistic community—they are profoundly isolated, distanced from their families and all that is familiar, left to perpetual improvisation as they make a home in a new land.

One of Nan’s poems observes, “To write in this language is to be alone, / to live on the margin where / loneliness ripens into solitude.” Nowhere, perhaps, does the underlying loneliness and isolation of Nan and Pingping’s life in America become clearer than in the language Jin uses to describe their interactions with their fellow Americans. In quick, thick strokes, the flight attendant who shepherds Taotao to his parents is merely “the blonde, who wore mascara and had permed hair,” as peripheral as “the teenager with an orange mohawk” Nan sees later on the American streets. The privileged son of the woman for whom Pingping works as a housekeeper “looked like the young Ronald Reagan.” A woman who takes a fancy to Nan and then spurns him after he fends off her advances is simply “Maria, the thirtyish Latina.”

Equally evocative of the isolation of immigrant life is Jin’s stunning use of a variety of dialects. Indeed, in A Free Life Jin seems to deliberately trade away the steady voice familiar to his readers for the troubles of spoken English. When Nan communicates in English, his sentences are a choreographed mess of misplaced consonants. Nonetheless, Nan’s mastery of the language is better than his wife’s (much to their son’s annoyance, she revises and abridges idioms willy-nilly). In one frenzied outburst late in the novel, Jin’s protagonist mistakenly substitutes “dirty acre” for “filthy lucre” to express his frustration with his life of hard-earned financial security:

“I hate this mahney, this ‘dirty acre’!” he yelled in a voice verging on a sob. His eyes gave a flare . . . He picked himself up from the floor and stamped on the half-burned cash, saying through his teeth, “Dirty acre! Dirty acre!” His face was misshapen, his eyes smoldering with pain.

In a 2004 interview with Russell Banks, Jin expressed slight trepidation at the task of capturing the vagaries of America’s many spoken Englishes and channeling them into dialogue for a novel set in the United States. “There is a very basic technical thing I have to resolve, which is learning how different kinds of people— immigrants, non-native English speakers, native English speakers—speak when they interact,” he told Banks. In A Free Life, spoken Chinese is distinguished from spoken English by sleek italics. All other linguistic quirks—the malapropisms, accents, and code-switching endemic to ESL novices—are fashioned individually by Jin’s watchful hand. The results are striking. The steady register of Jin’s other works may be gone, but the dissonant linguistic bumbling and clatter of A Free Life convey much about Nan’s experience of language as something foreign and unfettered.

Emerging from the dissonance, then, is a remarkably guileless investigation of the trials of the immigrant’s experience. Where Jin’s contemporaries (like Boston University MFA classmate Jhumpa Lahiri) have been hailed for their depictions of the perils of assimilation for the first generation of Americans, Jin’s new book tackles head-on the hope, hard re-education, and second-guessing of that generation’s parents, the brave adults who break with the country they have known as home to find a better life in uncharted waters. A Free Life is a story of reconciling creative ambition with simpler dreams for a safe future—a story of what real freedom looks like.