FOXBOROUGH, Mass. Ha Jin is a winner of the National Book Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His day job secure at Boston University, he and his wife live in a fine suburban house, close enough to Gillette Stadium to hear the fireworks on Sunday as the New England Patriots routinely beat up on an NFL opponent.
He is an immigrant success story, arriving from China 20 years ago as a graduate student and staying on for good after the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989 made him decide he couldn't return.
But in his mind, he remains, and always will be, not quite a part of this country.
"I prefer to live here, as an immigrant," he says.
Interviewed recently in his living room, the walls bare as if he can't quite decide if he'll stick around, the 51-year-old author, graying and round-faced, still speaks with a strong accent, still dreams at times in Mandarin and says he still writes more confidently in his native language than in the English prose that has brought him near-universal admiration.
"I might achieve more," he says of writing in Mandarin, dismissing the idea of having his works translated back into English as too time-consuming. "I don't mean this to sound like a tragedy. (The Russian-born Vladimir) Nabokov said that for him to write in English was a personal tragedy and it did not matter whether he could write better at one language than at another, because he wasn't at home in English."
On paper, too, Ha Jin's journey in America has been tentative, a race of the mind to catch up with the body. Virtually all his work has been set in China. Just three years ago, with "War Trash," did any of his characters step on U.S. soil. Only with his current book, "A Free Life," does the whole story take place here, if only to demonstrate that he's just getting started.
"A Free Life" is by far his longest book, more than 600 pages, and reflects his own early years in the United States, when the author studied at Brandeis University and Boston University, then taught at Emory University before joining the Boston University faculty as a full professor in 2002.
"This book is a big departure from the past," he says. "I wanted a book that reflects the American experience, and to do that I needed the heft."
The novel's main character, Nan Wu, is an exiled poet who settles in the United States with his wife and young son in 1989, after troops and tanks broke up protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds of people. The family lives at first in the Boston area, then in the Atlanta suburbs, where Nan manages a Chinese restaurant. Nan worries about how to make money, whether hardship helps or hurts his writing and if it's better to write in English.
"He knew that to him Chinese meant the past and English the future," Jin writes of Nan in his novel. "He also understood that by adopting another language he might wander farther away from his Chinese heritage and have to endure more loneliness and run more risk."
Jin first thought of the book in the early 1990s, when a friend showed him some poems, written in Chinese, given to her by a Hong Kong native who ran a Boston-area restaurant. Ha Jin was "very moved" by the book and knew that he wanted to write a novel using the man's story as a starting point.
But not right away.
"I couldn't do it," the author explains. "I had to live through it (being in this country) to understand a lot of things."
He had grown up being taught that Americans were cartoonish buffoons. In "War Trash," the story of a Chinese soldier captured during the Korean War, Ha Jin writes of how the Chinese ridiculed and envied the United States, drawing caricatures of potbellied Americans, while also speculating on what their servicemen ate. Jin remembers this from his own time as a soldier, the rumors that American troops were served chocolate cake and milk at every meal.
"We did talk about what kind of food the GIs ate," he recalls. "We had a very limited view of the United States."
Ask Ha Jin what impresses him about America and he'll answer, "The land." As a student at Brandeis, he remembered people fishing in the Charles River, the large mushrooms and the well-fed squirrels, a general feeling of "abundance" that he had never known in China. His current home is located on a state forest that includes some five acres of wetland.
"Land is more important than the idea of country," he says. "Land is more permanent, a character itself. In Willa Cather's novels, the largest character is the land."
The son of a military officer, he was born Xuefei Jin in 1956 in the Chinese province of Liaoning, near the Korean border. He was sent to boarding school at an early age and as a teenager joined the People's Liberation Army, around the same time he read Maxim Gorky's "My University," a novel that inspired his dream of "going to college, which seemed remote to me," says the author, who later took on the "simplified" name of Ha Jin for his books.
Wherever he has set his fiction, Ha Jin writes of ordinary people finding their way through bureaucracy, whether military life, the Communist-run housing system or the regulations of private enterprise. For the author, education was an early lesson in official, organized confusion.
When he was of college age, in the mid-1970s, campuses were shut down around China because of the Cultural Revolution. Jin worked for a time as a telegraph operator, taught himself English through a radio learner's program and finally entered Shandong University at age 21, receiving a master's degree in American literature, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow among his favorites.
"I found the language extremely expressive, subtle. It can be stretched, it can embrace so many different things," he says. "Generally speaking, there is much less structure in American life. It provides a lot of room."
He arrived in the United States in 1985, and planned on receiving a Ph.D. in English so he could teach back in China. But after Tiananmen, there was little he could do, except write in English. His poetry had already earned him an important admirer, Jonathan Galassi, who published his work in The Paris Review, and Jin soon acquired another: Leslie Epstein, director of the creative writing program at Boston University
"I met him at a PEN writers conference, where they introduce new writers, and he was being introduced as a poetry writer," recalls Epstein, who still runs the school's creative writing department.
"He came up to me afterward and asked if I would consider letting him audit our workshops in fiction. I had never allowed an auditor, and he could barely speak English, but something made me say yes."
By the second semester, Jin was writing the stories that ended up in his first collection, "Ocean of Words," published in 1996 and winner of the PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction. Ha Jin was soon accepted as an accredited student at Boston University and wrote most of the stories for his second book, "Under the Red Flag."
He has since completed several novels, including "Waiting," winner of the National Book Award in 1998, and "War Trash," a Pulitzer finalist in 2004 and winner of the PEN/Faulkner award. He has been compared to Chekhov for his perception and sympathy, and placed in his own category for the settings of his fiction.
"He's completely nonjudgmental and that's a wonderful quality for any fiction writer," says Russell Banks, whose novels include "Continental Drift" and "Cloudsplitter."
"But what's really unusual about him is that he has this multinational perspective, a very modern one, hidden under this low-key, understated prose. He's telling an old American story, but he's telling it differently. Other immigrants tell about what happens in America, but not about where they came from. Ha Jin mingles the two."
Ha Jin is still mastering English, relying on his Westernized son to help him with teenage slang in "A Free Life," and his next book will be another story of immigrants in the United States. Although Jin doesn't consider himself a full American, he has not been to China in 20 years and has no plans even to visit. He hesitates when asked which country he will root for during next summer's Olympic games in Beijing.
"It depends on whether I like the person," he says. "It's like if you watch Michael Jordan, you just want him to perform. It's all about the performance itself."