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Chinese Author Ha Jin Discusses His Award-Winning English Language Writing

By Emily Drew '04

September 24, 2001
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu

Ha Jin on stage
Ha Jin followed a long line of distinguished speakers to the Love Auditorium as this year's McGaw Lecturer.

"So I thought a long time about a person's response to the past, which must not be carried as a burden of baggage." Ha Jin, an award-winning Chinese author and poet, addressed his audience in Love Auditorium on the evening of September 11 His talk, "My Choice of Writing in English," included readings from his poetry and fiction, as well as Ha Jin's interpretations.

Appearing as the college's 2001 McGaw Lecturer, Ha Jin commented on the healing process and about the different ways that people use their pasts. His words spoke of the power of continuing, and applied to Davidson's effort to continue through with the lecture series, despite the fact that the morning's terrorist attacks had almost completely disrupted campus life.

Brenda Flanagan
English professor Brenda Flanagan introduced Ha Jin to his audience

After observing a moment of silence, Dr. Vivian Shen -- assistant professor of Chinese -- introduced Ha Jin, his accomplishments, and the campus groups that supported the '01 McGaw series: the English and Chinese Departments, The Public Lectures Committee, the Center for Interdisciplinary studies, the Asian 3Ds, the Dean Rusk Program, and the Concentrations in East Asian Studies and Ethnic Studies Concentration.

Ha Jin based the final segment of his speech on questions taken from the audience. He explained that when he came to the United States to earn a Ph.D. in English, he had no degree in Chinese, and so could not receive any position that applied his native tongue. "I made a very rational decision to write in English. It was a matter of survival," he said.

He also said that writing in English became he vision for himself as a writer, and that he is happy with the translations of his work.

The McGaw series concluded with "The Writer as a Human Being," presented on Wednesday, September 12, at 8 p.m. in the C. Shaw Smith 900 Room of the Alvarez College Union.."

Vivian Shen, HaJin and wife

Ha Jin and his wife (l) flank their Davidson host, Vivian Shen of the Chinese department.

He reiterated some of his points from his Tuesday night lecture, since a much larger audience was able to attend.

One questioner asked how he was able to articulate his thoughts in English, since he is a native Chinese speaker. Ha Jin admitted that crossing these linguistic and cultural barriers could be difficult, just as conveying social and gender differences could be more challenging. However, he also sensed writing as both craft and art, and said that the effort was what made the difference. "You have to shape a work though details," he said.

Ha Jin also gave insight to his struggles with developing the dialogue of characters who all speak English at different levels, and of the struggle of developing character psychology. "I used to think that a writer should only write what he or she knew. Now, I think this is not the case." He now feels that his writing can be benefited by integrating experiences and personalities with which he is not familiar.

Jin grew up in a rural town in Liaoning Province of China. He joined the People's Liberation Army at the age of fourteen, and served for six years during the Cultural Revolution. He began to learn English during three years of work as a telegrapher, and then enrolled in Heilongjiang University in 1977. Jin received his B.A. in English in 1981, and his M.A. in American Literature two years later.

He came to the United States in 1985 to continue his graduate work, and completed his Ph.D. in English in 1993 at Brandeis University. He permanently settled in the United States as an exile following China's Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Jin writes exclusively in English. He has published three volumes of poetry, three books of short fiction, and two novels. Waiting, the winner of the 1999 National Book Award, tells the story of Lin Kong, a doctor in the Chinese army who falls in love with a nurse and must wait eighteen years to end his arranged marriage and marry the woman he loves. The National Book Award citation praised the work for its profound understanding of "the conflict between the individual and society, between the timeless universality of the human heart and constantly shifting politics of the moment."

Ha Jin & Kuzmanovich
While waiting for his second talk, Ha Jin chatted with Associate Professor Zoran Kuzmanovich of the English department.

Jin also received The Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the PEN/Hemingway Award. His short stories have been included in various anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize anthologies, The Norton Introduction to Fiction, and The Norton Introduction to Literature. He currently teaches creative writing and contemporary poetry at Emory University.

Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked in the top ten liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson is currently engaged in "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.

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