Five years ago, when he received the National Book Award for his lyrical novel Waiting, Ha Jin became the first winner to thank the English language. It is an "embracive and vibrant" tongue, he said in his acceptance speech, and it had provided him "a niche where I can do meaningful work."
Ha Jin may be tipping his hat to his adopted tongue again soon, as he recently won the PEN/Faulkner award for his latest novel, War Trash, a powerful story set in an American-run POW camp for Chinese prisoners during the Korean War.
Speaking from his home outside Boston, here's what the novelist had to say about what he promises will be his last novel about Chinese history.
This is a rather dusty part of history for some Americans. How did you come across it, and why write a novel about it?
I was always interested in that period of the Korean War because my father was an officer. Then there is the practical reason. After Waiting got the NBA, my publisher in Cambridge (Zoland Books) wanted to publish my story collection. They had half of the stories; but the press was in bad shape, and for years I wanted to get out of the contract, so my wife said, "Why not write a short novel to replace that collection?" So I went ahead and began to write and, once I started it, couldn't stop.
You obviously read quite a bit about the war. Did anything surprise you?
I was surprised that every side is capable of brutality; there is a guy in the novel who eats the flesh of another prisoner, for example. That actually happened! I couldn't believe that; I thought that was Communist propaganda.
Obviously, you could not go to North Korea to research this novel. But the descriptions are so vivid. Did you do any extra research?
Actually, when I was in the Chinese army, in the first half year we lived in a Korean village in China. It gave me a sense of the custom and language and people; then we traveled and saw the other side. It's very similar to Manchuria.
How long were you in the army?
Five-and-a-half years. Schools were closing, and it was a better choice, comparatively, than going to work in the countryside.
You've lived here almost 20 years. Do you see any difference in how soldiers are treated?
One big shock when I came here was that I saw POWs who returned home and were welcomed as heroes. When I was in the army, some soldiers, me included, we were afraid of captivity more than death. If you were captured, your family would be humiliated. If you got killed as a POW, it was terrible but you were a hero. You would become a threat to their honor.
Did the army teach you what to do if you were captured?
Yes, you were to kill yourself.
Was it strange to write this novel in English—essentially the language of your characters' captors?
Of course, it was a strange experience. On the other hand, this could only be written in English. I have to keep a balance.
Given that your books are banned in China, do you think of your audience as American or Chinese?
I view myself as an American writer. As for audience, though, I do have the people in mind. Otherwise, translatability is standard. When the POWs read it, I want them to say, "This guy didn't lie." That's always in the back of my mind.
What is the attitude in China about this war? Is there resentment toward Americans?
No, they felt they won the war; there was a lot of pride. China was a new country, one year old, and here it was able to confront the United States, the No. 1 power. People tend to neglect the human cost, though. That's why I tried to tell the loser's side of the story. The people who suffered the brunt of the war. Not just the people who took pride in it.