The migrant voice: The politics of writing home between the Sinophone and Anglophone worlds.
What is the meaning of writing "home"--the production of place in literature--in the contemporary transnational literary phenomenon? How is the sense of dwelling "at home in the world" connected to the historically diasporic experiences of exiles, expatriates, and sojourners in foreign lands, namely, migrant writers who have to recreate a different sense of belonging or homeliness on the page? For whom does an exiled writer speak when he or she is simultaneously aware of and engaged in more than one culture, language, and place ?
In The Writer as Migrant, Ha Jin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (2008) offers an insightful account of the politics of writing elsewhere in another language other than one's mother tongue. He examines the literary creativity and linguistic diversity of what he calls the "migrant" writer who can actively intervene in the cultural politics of both the host country and the motherland. He finds himself spiritually aligned with Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, and V.S. Naipaul, that is, exiled writers who chose to write in English and their works have had universal appeal to Anglophone and global readerships. Among them, Ha Jin points out the difference between Nobokov and Conrad in treating their native tongues for literary expression, while they both have a tremendous impact on literature home and abroad. Nabokov is an exemplar of dual linguistic identity that most writers would envy, as he also wrote poetry and fiction in Russian. Still, Ha Jin claims that Conrad's "monolingualism" of English writing has not undermined in the least his legacy as the founding spirit of modernist literature. Besides a significant readership in the English-speaking world, Conrad's (English) works are embraced by the Poles as their own literary heritage. Conrad's fame among his Polish country fellows convinces Ha Jin (2013) that "literary citizenship is not always determined by language alone" (121), in spite of the fact that literary citizenship can be more determined by the English language as the lingua franca of global literature nowadays.
Conrad, the Polish emigre writer who chose to write in English and attained international recognition, stands solidly as Ha Jin's role model to encounter the accusation of linguistic betrayal from his Chinese critics. Writing on contemporary Chinese people and subjects in English primarily for American readers, Ha Jin has been considered by Western critics as a realistic writer and truth-teller of Communist China. Claiming to write on behalf of his own people, however, he finds his work criticized by his countrymen for betraying his Chinese roots by making Chinese stories to cater to Western--especially American--audiences. "No matter how the writer attempts to rationalize and justify adopting a foreign language," Ha Jin (2008) explains, "it is an act of betrayal that alienates him from his mother tongue and directs his creative energy to another language" (31). The charge of linguistic betrayal reflects the intricacies of language, identity, and politics that inevitably confront a migrant writer. If the migrant writer cannot comfortably return to the "home" of his mother tongue, then the question is how he can adopt the stepmother language of English to rewrite China for the world.
As he later declares in The Writer as Migrant, Ha Jin has rejected his role "as a spokesman for the downtrodden Chinese" (27). This does not mean that the writer completely gives up his ambition to write about Chinese people and lives for a world readership. Rather, it bespeaks how an exilic subject embraces complex ideas of homeland and identity in relation to the means of linguistic expression. Challenged by his Chinese critics with the moral indignation "Who gave you the right to speak for us?" (4), Ha Jin contends that the lasting value of migrant writing has nothing to do with the writer's physical presence or absence in the homeland, and much less with the moral appeal of his work to the native subjects that it is about. "All the writer can strive for is a personal voice," Ha Jin asserts, because "today literature is ineffective at social change." The migrant writer must stay loyal only to the art of literature rather than to his country: "His real battlefield is nowhere but on the page. His work will be of little value if not realized as art" (29).
Ha Jin (2008) cites Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Lin Yutang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] for the defense of the literary worth of their works (12-21). (1) Solzhenitsyn chose to return to Russia after years of exile, but it was his late literary endeavors but not political beliefs that helped the author win the favor of the Russian people after returning to his homeland. Lin Yutang could never set foot on China after his sojourn in the United States, where he wrote only in English as he positioned himself as the cultural ambassador between China and the West. Yet, Ha Jin emphasizes, Lin finally made his return to his "homeland" through literature, as Chinese translations of his English works began to blossom in the 1980s and 1990s. In either case, Ha Jin believes that the physical return of an emigre author to their native lands makes little sense nowadays, because it is only through literature is a genuine return (homecoming) possible for the exiled writer.
What are the stakes for an ethnic-Chinese English-language writer who creates literature about his native land and publishes it in the West? Ha Jin is an outstanding example of a new global literary phenomenon: exiled or migrant Chinese writers who successfully overcome the language hurdle and write assuredly in English. (2) Although the writer barely acquired any English until the age of twenty, he diligently learned it after he entered university in the mainland and became interested in such American authors as Faulkner and Bellow. Afterward he went to America to start his training courses and practice creative writing in English at the age of thirty. (3) As the first Chinese immigrant writer to be awarded the prestigious National Book Award (1999) and the PEN/Faulkner Award (2000), both for his novel Waiting (1999), Ha Jin has made a landmark achievement as a diasporic Chinese writer using English, the language of his adopted country, as the linguistic medium of his creative writing. (4)
The core issue relates to how to contextualize Ha Jin's migrant voice and linguistic perversions in the diasporic setting and exilic discourse. It is worth recalling Ha Jin's notion of migrant subjectivity as he identifies himself with the exiled writers whom he has discussed in The Writer as Migrant. Ha Jin decided to stay in the United States in self-imposed exile after 1989 when the Beijing government cracked down on the student protests in Tiananmen Square. He has regarded himself as an outcast at the margins of both Chinese society and American culture, adopting the position of a migrant writer rather than an immigrant writer or American author. (5) In The Writer as Migrant, he delivers a critical taxonomy of exiled writers in modern literature, in which he examines the existential condition of a migrant writer who has to shuttle back and forth between the languages and cultures of the homeland and the new land. "For most migrant writers today," Ha Jin (2008) emphasizes, "displacement makes them more vulnerable and their existence more haphazard since they cannot fall back on any significant past and must struggle to survive in new places." Hence, their "existential condition" hinges on accepting their fundamental "rootlessness" (23).
For many migrant writers, the exilic condition and rootlessness can also generate positive and productive literary experiences. As Edward Said (2000) has said, the experiences of exile have contributed to a potent, even enriching, motif of modern culture thanks to the works of exiles, emigres, refugees--they had similar cross-cultural and transnational visions to bring in their host countries. In other words, Said views exile more as a condition of privilege than as that of despair (173-86). More critically, Said uses exile as a metaphor to describe the intercultural vision of modern intellectual, "who needs a critical, detached perspective from which to examine his culture" (Khan 2015: 143). For Ha Jin, a migrant writer can only count on literary language to provide the metaphysical "homeland" as he moves across cultures.
I opt for Ha Jin's idea of migrant writing that initiates linguistic and literary perversions to intervene in the cultural politics of both the hostland and homeland. Based on Ha Jin's Anglophonism and linguistic polemics, moreover, it is crucial to situate Ha Jin's work and reception in the trope of the migrant subject as well as in the literary tradition of overseas Chinese literature. In what follows, I recuperate the diasporic narratives of Bai Xianyong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Nie Hualing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], who were overseas writers from Taiwan writing about Chinese migrants in America in the 1960s and 1970s. The overseas Chinese stories written by Bai and Nie belong to the emerging Sinophone literature of exile known as Overseas Student Literature [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in a still underdeveloped, Cold War Taiwan. (6) As two of the early Sinophone emigre writers who were attached to the language of the homeland in writing about exilic experience, Bai and Nie had their salient works translated into English at the time. (7) Their transnational visions and articulations shall give a fuller picture of Chinese migrant writers as they move between cultures of China and America.
Writing between Worlds on the Margins of Chineseness
"My name is Lorna, but people simply call me Lulu. It's up to you," Lorna said, smiling. "What's your name ?" "Wu Han-hun." "Wu--." Lorna covered her mouth and giggled to her heart's content. "Clumsy! Let me call you Tokyo. Fine." "But I"m Chinese," said Wu. "Uh--that doesn't make any difference. You Orientals all look alike. Hard to tell apart." --"Death in Chicago" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (8)
In his first migrant story "Death in Chicago" (1964), Bai Xianyong gives a tragic-comical account of the final moments of Wu Hanhun (Wu Han-hun) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a Chinese expatriate student in Chicago, before he commits suicide in Lake Michigan to end his wandering life in America. Having just completed his doctoral work after six years of unremitting study, during which he had scarcely stepped out of his squalid basement room, he ventures into a bar on the night before his death. There, for his first time in America, Wu's Chinese identity is repeatedly teased by a prostitute called Lorna, who jokingly addresses him as "Tokyo," "Chinaman" and "Oriental." Not only is the student's Chineseness being ridiculed, but his wish to unleash his sexual energies on a Caucasian woman is also thwarted. To his dismay, the naked blonde lying before him turns out not young or buxom, but wrinkled and fat, in stark contrast to his imagination. Even the prostitute's white identity remains questionable. To add a tragic tinge to this comic situation, the Chinese student's first name ("Hanhun")--which literally puns with the meaning of "Chinese soul"--gets ridiculed when the deceptively young prostitute fails to pronounce it properly. That his surname "Wu" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is a homophone in Mandarin Chinese for the word for "no" or "nothing" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] would have another mixed sense of bitterness and absurdity for Chinese readers.
I recall the episode in Bai Xianyong's first story of an expatriate Chinese subject in America to address the politics of language and diasporic identity in Chinese migrant narratives. In multiethnic American society, the use of "Oriental" to denote anybody from the "East" is a rude racial categorization that clashes with the equally crude and Sinocentric naming of "Chinese soul." Between these two ethnocentric labels lies the linguistic hurdle of articulating one's own identity: Shall we call the "Chinaman" in Chicago an overseas Chinese, an American Chinese, an Asian American, or a Chinese alien (immigrant)? If language is the fundamental signifier of one's own identity, what is the threat posed to the protagonist who fails to be recognized by his Chinese name once it gets mistranslated, and so is denied the chance to speak in his native tongue? Rereading "Death in Chicago" as an early work of Chinese migrant subjectivity nevertheless problematizes the inseparable cohesion between language and the discourse of ethnic Chinese. "For the Chinese diaspora," as E.K. Tan (2013) notes, "language seems to be a crucial factor that determines the degree of involvement its subjects possess in mobilizing their Chinese identity" (19). In the novella, the disorientation of the Chinese-American student not so much evokes an ethnocentric call for Chineseness (as his Chinese name cannot be recognized or gets misrecognized) as endows the migrant subject with an alternative vision to see through the new land and homeland. In other words, the diasporic subject begins to embrace a more radical and truly peripheral position and renounce the rigid obsession with the centers, that is, the dominant Chinese tradition and Western culture.
I shall trace the irony operating in the migrant text when the narrator conjures up an inventory of Western modernistic texts. In his cramped basement room, Wu Hanhun regards the presence of books of Western literature as oppressive and threatening. Coming to pursue his intellectual career in America, Wu had retreated into the ivory tower of comparative literature studies for years, only to find that the Western canons of literature and philosophy have alienated him from his native culture. The great works of Plato, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Nietzsche appear to him as sources of decay rather than of liberation. In his eyes, the bulky books on the shelf appear as "a bilious mass of rotting corpses, their decomposing bodies emitting a foul pungency" (Bai 1979, 350). This ghostly presence not only dominates the protagonist's literary imagination but also accentuates his estrangement from his native culture. In this sense, Bai Xianyong's short story satirizes the ideology of Taiwan's literary modernism--which aspires to modernize the cultural sphere and thereby transcend Taiwan's peripheral status in postwar geopolitics. (9) "Death in Chicago" may well echo Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice" in the vein of Western literary modernism (Hsia 1975, 76-99). While literary modernism maybe congenial to the emigre mentality and embraced by immigrant subjects to articulate the diasporic American dream or nightmare, Wu Hanhun's diasporic experience reveals that Western cultural imperialism and modernism cannot but deepen his sense of marginality in the foreign land.
In "Death in Chicago," Bai Xianyong turns the fantasyland of urban America into a haunted city. Sigmund Freud's warning of the "uncanny"--literally meaning "un-homely" in German (unheimlich)--best describes the alien's feelings of dislocation in the novella. In his overnight trip to the nightclub, Wu Hanhun envisions eerie urban scenes and monstrous cityscapes. Borrowing decadent images from Western modernist paradigms, the narrator evokes the deadening feel of life in Chicago, comparing it to the deserted scene in T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. "At dark, Chicago in June was a piece of steak just forked off the grill, golden brown, dripping with juice and filling the air with the smell of succulent meat" (Bai 1979, 350). (10) The migrant student encounters a macabre underworld as he steps down into a cellar like "walking into one of Hoffmann's Tales" (351). In the critical eye of the protagonist, Chicago is a deadly city, "an ancient tomb of Egypt, holding captive million of the living and the dead," as uncanny hallucinations captivate the migrant's imagination (358). Ultimately, the split of dark reality and fantasy is embodied by Lorna, the prostitute whose seductive appearance masks a grotesquely aging figure. Dismissing the call of his homeland, Wu Hanhun succumbs to the seduction of Lorna in the new land, which results in his suicide.
In Bai Xianyong's migrant stories, death is understood less as a tragic outcome of the protagonist than as an existential trope pointing to an elimination of the "obsessions with China" and fantasized images of America, particularly when the Sinophone texts were primarily directed at readers of the Chinese diaspora. Hence, a deep sense of irony with faulty perceptions of real history and the socio-political situation inform migrant subjectivities in "Li T'ung: A Chinese Girl in New York" (1965), a short story that centers on a beautiful yet inexplicable Chinese emigre and her self-destruction in America. The original Chinese title, "Zhexian ji" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], denotes a "record of a banished celestial," and is one of Bai's six American stories about wandering Chinese, collectively known as the "New Yorkers." (11) By convention, readers may be drawn to the alluring heroine as the center of the story, but I argue that it is the middle-class male narrator who reconstructs an enigmatic aura of the Chinese woman that spells out the delusive nature of the American dream and Chinese cosmopolitanism. In a perspectival first-person narration, the male storyteller perceives the migrant woman as embodying Western modernity and Chineseness. Li Tong (Li T'ung) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] seems adept at living a metropolitan life. She changes her jobs and apartments at will, squanders money at the gambling table, gets attached to Caucasian millionaires and hangs around nightclubs, sipping Manhattans and dancing the cha-cha. The devastating beauty with an inscrutable temper exudes exoticism in her decadent way of living.
Paradoxically, the worldliness of Li Tong is produced by the male narrator's remembrance as subjective images that epitomize the dream of bourgeois Chinese in America. When the heroine commits suicide during a trip to Venice (again evoking Thomas Mann's Death in Venice), her mysterious death deals out a hard blow to the narrator. It shatters his ethnocentric fantasy of a dazzling and powerful woman who is socially assimilated into New York's upper-class circles. In classical Chinese literature, the term "zhexian" refers to a supernatural being or a literary genius "descending from Heaven on an earthly mission" (Lau 1984-85, 415). In the Chinese diaspora to the West, nonetheless, the "banished celestial" connotes the fateful downfall of a Chinese beauty into a rootless minority in metropolitan New York. After her parents--who are high-ranking KMT (Kuomintang) officials--are killed in a shipwreck while fleeing to Taiwan before the Communist takeover of China, Li Tong has to face the cruel allegory of her nickname, which is "China," when she ends up being as much a catastrophic loser as the country itself is. Again, as the heroine chooses to end her life in Venice, the trope of death points to the individual's reflection upon the contingent and provisional nature of "home." To follow Said (2000), the diasporic subject has to "stand away from "home" in order to look at it with the exile's detachment" (147) and hence with critical judgment.
To be sure, being a migrant writer can result in positive gains, linguistically and culturally, all the more so when it comes to creative impulse. Nie Hualing's Mulberry and Peach: Two Women of China (1988) [Sangqing yu Taohong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1976] is a productive outcome of writing in exile. Originally published in Chinese and translated into English and several other languages, Nie's novel survived the historical traumas of the Cold War, traversing the ideological predicaments of China and America. (12) It has since become "a de facto work in transnational Asian American literature" in the English-speaking world and an essential Sinophone text in diasporic Chinese literature (Fusco 2012). Nie admits that living in the United States has granted her intercultural experience and literary reflections to transcend national and provincial limits of both China and America. It enriches her creative writing by acquiring Western literary techniques. The exilic condition has transformed her writing into a potent motif of modern literature. (13)
Mulberry and Peach explores the theme of exile through a schizophrenic woman's doubles (Mulberry/Peach) and their psychological/physical journeys from Mainland China via Taiwan to America. The novel is structured around four historical moments of the heroine's exile. Her journey starts from Mainland China between the Sino-Japanese war and the Communist victory, extends through the "White Terror of Taiwan in the 1950s, and winds up in 1970s America. The split narrative structure comprises epistolary dialogues between Mulberry and Peach. Mulberry is a woman in perpetual flight from China, while Peach embodies the female emigre set to anchor her new identity in America.
The device of the divided personae represents the conflicting selves of a migrant schizophrenic in her dreadful transformation from an ethnic Chinese woman to a Chinese (Asian) American. Bai Xianyong (1976) considers that the fragmented world of the schizophrenic makes "the psychic and the social correlatives mutually informing" (211). Sheng-mei Ma (1998) propounds the view that the fiction offers an outstanding depiction of the "immigrant schizophrenic" characteristic of Asian diasporic literature (40-60). Mulberry/Peach is chased and interrogated by a U.S. immigration agent who questions her legitimate residency. "When Peach emphatically tells the U.S. officer that "I am not Mulberry--Mulberry is dead," readers may expect the story to be about the unproblematic assimilation of a Chinese alien into mainstream American society (Nie 1988, 3). Yet the novel's dialogic structure formed by the heterogeneous voices of the schizophrenic heroine suggests otherwise. These are the contested identities of Chinese American womanhood. The novelist implies that the formation of Chinese American identity is ongoing and incomplete, and it has to be reconciled through intercultural understanding of traditions and histories on both sides (China and America) but not through state-sanctioned discourses of immigration and citizenship.
Uninhibited individual sexuality and the embrace of Epicureanism suggest a radical metamorphosis of migrant subjectivities in Mulberry and Peach. Mulberry is the female victim who suffers from the double abuses of Chinese patriarchy and the opposite sex. "While in her memory narrative the suppressed Mulberry feels guilty about her sexual transgressions in China and Taiwan, Peach is gratified in the New "World by her erotic adventure in which she sleeps from man to man across the vast geographical continent of America. Peach in her sexual indulgence can be seen as seeking vengeance for what the Chinese patriarchy inflicted on Mulberry, her psychological double in China; it is part of the "spiritual suicide" of her old self. This "newwoman" identity with its celebration of sexual anarchy is reflective of the hippie mentality of 1960s American youth culture and civil rights movement. It is too indicative of an immigrant's fantasized projection of American liberalism and Western power to serve the purpose of criticizing old, hegemonic China.
The portrayal of Mulberry/Peach unsettles the stereotype of Chinese/Asian Americans as meek and compliant, and that of Asian women as sexy and seductive Orientals, by granting the female migrant ample psychic space to maneuver and discursive energy to speak against Chinese power and American ideology. (14) Asian American critics confidently affirm that "Peach's transformation is complete" in the novel because she cuts herself off from China's pasts and values and henceforth becomes an assimilated migrant self (Yu 1993, 143). But I argue that the novel has never brought the question of identity to an end. Rather, through the narrator's schizophrenic voices, Mulberry and Peach challenges us to un-think migrant experience as a continuing journey in search of variable identities as it negotiates with the Chinese self and the immigrant other. (15)
Peach's purposeless wandering across the American continent adumbrates a "politics of mobility" reminiscent of the frontier-crossing and nation-building narratives in American literature. (16) Nevertheless, encounters with victims of Auschwitz and anti-Vietnam War protesters shatter her wholesale acceptance of the American myths of individualism and freedom, reminding her of the Western Other as an imperialist superpower. To redress the weaknesses of American and Chinese civilizations for the migrant subject, the novelist revives mystic Chinese symbols and the "primitive life force of Chinese" in the hope of assimilating the best of Chinese and American cultures (Nazareth 1981, 12). The peach is endowed with life-giving force and feminine sensuality in traditional Chinese symbolism. (17) The novel ends with a folk vision about a little bird laboriously picking up small stones from a mountain and dropping them one by one in the ocean, symbolizing the old virtues of industry and self-reliance valued by the Chinese. Through blending the Chinese spirit with Western liberal ideals, the emigre writer endeavors to save her split and exiled subject from cultural dislocation.
Embodying the diasporic spirit, Leo Ou-fan Lee [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1991) advocates Chinese migrant subjects to stay true on the periphery so as to engage critically in a dialogue with the centers, namely, China and America (207-26). In a similar vein of criticism, the cross-cultural and transnational visions as powerfully presented in Mulberry and Peach validate a migrant voice and its potential to intervene into the hegemonic discourses of Chineseness and Americanization. As if responding to Ien Ang's (1998) question: "Can one say no to Chineseness?", the exiled subject in the novel crosses borders and breaks barriers of ideologies to "embrace a truly diasporized, hybrid identity, because the dominant Western culture is just as prone to the rigid assumptions and attitudes of cultural essentialism as is Chinese culture" (235). But saying no to Chineseness by no means amounts to a total denial of Chinese cultural heritage; it rather means a critical engagement with Chineseness, unbound by one's homeland, with all its promises and queries conjured up in different localized contexts and marginalities. From the politics of identity to the politics of language, Bai's and Nie's pioneering Chinese-language creativity brings a minor language to the major traditions (Chinese literature and Asian American literature) by changing it from within and forcing it to face its inherent minor elements. (18) It exemplifies the Cold War phase of overseas Chinese American writing and prefigures future developments of Chinese migrant literature in the new transnational stage, at which I shall turn to a discussion of Ha Jin.
Writing Elsewhere: Ha Jin's Linguistic Exile
Different from Bai Xianyong and Nie Hualing and a group of overseas Chinese writers who were already recognized Sinophone writers in Taiwan in the 1960s and 70s, Ha Jin had not yet established a literary career in the Chinese-speaking world in Mainland China. Unlike Asian American writers who use English as their mother tongue to write about their native experiences and relocate them in American culture, Ha Jin's major works are memory narratives of life in Maoist China, where he was brought up. Shall Ha Jin's works be considered as a part of Chinese immigrant literature because they deal with the Chinese diasporas and cultural pasts? Or would his works be better placed in the canon of Chinese/Asian American literature because they are Anglophone texts concerned about an ethnic minority (Chinese American) with a target American readership?
Ha Jin's literary accomplishments have elicited a call for reshaping the contours of various canonical literatures. Steven G. Yao reminds us that Ha Jin has received scanty critical attention in Asian American literary scholarship despite the big readership he has in the United States and elsewhere. (19) Corning from Mainland China to the United States at mid-age, Ha Jin has a different background from an 'Asian American' ethnic identity--historically conceived as American-born (or American-raised) citizens of various Asian cultural heritages. (20) Yet, Yao (2010) argues, the transpacific diasporic imagination that Ha Jin has brought to bear on Anglophone American literature underscores "the need to continue expanding the notion of "Asian American" beyond the conceptual boundaries of national citizenship and the referential domain of the United States" (112). Likewise, Xiaojing Zhou (2006) looks into Ha Jin's early poetic verses and migrant sensibility, claiming his poetic voice as a "transformative force" for both American and Asian American literature (276).
Beyond the cultural politics and appropriations of Ha Jin in the West (North America), disputes over his Anglophonism have involved the Sinophone world. In 2007, the Taiwanese writer Zhu Tianwen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], through a satiric fictional episode in Wuyan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Shaman Words), mocks Ha Jin's Anglophone writing as linguistic betrayal and a gimmick of translation, as he relies on "straight translation from Chinese to write his English-language novels" (Tsu 2010, 103). (21) Such multilateral and sometimes antagonistic receptions of Ha Jin in a global literary scene convey the problematique and challenge for the migrant writer to articulate Chineseness through his Anglophonism. As Belinda Kong (2012) aptly sums up: "How does Jin (Ha Jin) transcend Chineseness, or else transform the literary sites he occupies from within or from theirperiphery?" (123). "Whether the author's Chineseness is called into question by Sinophone (as well as Mainland Chinese) writers, neglected by Asian American critics, or misunderstood in Anglophone American literature, (22) Ha Jin's linguistic creativity has to be examined in the diasporic setting within Chinese and American contexts.
Ha Jin's decision to commit to English creative writing in his thirties was practical with a critical aim. As he stated in an interview: "If I wrote in Chinese, I couldn't have an audience at all. Other exiled writers have already established themselves in the mother tongue. I didn't publish enough in Chinese to have an audience. For me now to be a writer there is no other way but to write in English" (Olesen 1999). His struggle to become a skilled and professional Anglophone writer in a foreign land is always mingled with his immigrant experience and American dream, as if the switch to the English linguistic medium is imperative for one's identity conversion in the adopted country. He described his immigrant experience as like having "a blood transfusion." "Language is like water," he said. "You live in it, so it would be very hard to go back" (Thomas 1998). But Ha Jin pronounced that he could sense a freedom in using the foreign language which he had never felt in his native tongue: "I had written a few poems in Chinese, but I wasn't happy with them. The Chinese language is very literary and highbrow and detached from the spoken word. It doesn't have the flexibility that English has. So I slowly began to squeeze the Chinese literary mentality out of my mind" (Garner 2000, 40).
Early in his literary career, Ha Jin produced two collections of poems. He sought to transcend historical and cultural barriers derived from his native and national culture in his English writing. Many of these pieces registered the author's endeavor to adopt a new language and to evolve a new identity. In "Because I Will Be Silenced," the speaker points out the paradoxes of silence and articulation when he has to use a different language to relate the experience of being silenced in his native tongue.
Once I have the freedom to say my tongue will lose its power. Since my poems strive to break the walls that cut off people's voices, they become drills and hammers. But I will be silenced. The starred tie around my neck at any moment can tighten into a cobra. How can I speak about coffee and flowers ? (Ha jin 1990, 79)
"Because I Will Be Silenced" impersonates the voice of an expatriate Chinese in America speaking back to a Chinese audience in the homeland, where there is no freedom of speech. In the preface to his first poetry collection, Ha Jin notes, "I do not mean to tell horrible stories in this book, and instead I want to present people's feelings about and attitudes towards these events" (1). As the poet claims that his poetry is intended to present the historical experience of the 1960s and 1970s in China, the particularity of the Cultural Revolution and its tragic outcomes may easily invite criticisms of Ha Jin's literary politics of pandering to Anglo-American stereotypes of Red China. Yet, Ha Jin strives to manipulate a nuanced interplay of individual voices with words to transcendany crude conceptualizations of his writing from both American and Chinese sides. Xiaojing Zhou (2006) maintains that the writer "employs dramatic and interior monologues to allow multiple voices and speakers to be heard" (281). Steven G. Yao (2000) is critical of Ha Jin's use of English as an unproblematic and accessible linguistic medium to render the Chinese voices in his work transparent to Anglophone readers (115-32). The contrastive views illuminate the challenges of cultural politics as Ha Jin is facing: How can the migrant writer remain critically committed to his own cultural and historical particularity while he seeks to attain humanist universalism within an intercultural paradigm in his migrant narratives ?
The challenge lies in the writer's juggling of words and voices, expressions and silences, as they are articulated in between cultures. In "Because I Will Be Silenced," whereas the poet is estranged from his mother tongue, the double entendres of the verses are worth pondering. Written in English, the poems vainly "strive to break the walls." The poet is thrown into the dilemma of conversing with his Chinese readers in a foreign language that they probably are unable to appreciate. He is also delivering a message about China distant from his intended Anglophone readers. There is an incommensurable gap between the language (English) and the subject (China), between the message (China) and the addressee (English-speaking readers). Hence the concluding line of the poem goes: "How can I speak about coffee and flowers ?"
In his verses, the poet creates vivid images of a fearsome snake that threatens his freedom: "The starred tie around my neck/ at any moment can tighten into a cobra" (Ha Jin 1990, 79). Similar menacing metaphors also appear in another early poem: "A few snakes sense life in the water/ so they creep over, digging tunnels/sharpening poison; they climb up/ to sun their bellies on the rock--I don't budge" (Ha Jin 1996, 64). The image of the malicious and poisonous "snake" could be associated with the political reference to the undesirable "class enemy" as it was known in Maoist China. It could well be a political password that targets native Chinese readers. Naturally, the Chinese allusions in the poems convey a sense of strangeness and otherness to English speakers. Once the poet attempts to break the cultural barriers to articulate his past experience, his voice becomes "drills and hammers" for his audiences from both sides of the world. The verses seem to alert the reader to ask: What are the stakes of writing "between silences"? Are there two types of silences? If one kind of silence refers to the poet's inability to speak freely to his fellow Chinese audience, would the other kind of silence be the writer's need to deliberately conceal the password quality of his Chinglish when he attempts to write for the English-speaking world?
To survive in a foreign land is not easy, and to change one's identity by using a different language to make a living is like transforming one's own biological body. Ha Jin's poetic verses become not only the last bastion of the freedom of speech, but also a badge of nostalgic identity of Chineseness, in which he seeks to negotiate a new identity in the shadows of the past. He reflects that the nostalgic sentiment of many exiles, expatriates, and immigrant writers often "deprives them of a sense of direction and prevents them from putting down roots anywhere" (Ha Jin 2008, 63). Indeed, his early poems contain a poignant sense of self-loathing and perhaps guilty feelings characteristic of immigrant narratives. "After losing a land and then giving up a tongue/ we stopped talking of grief" (Ha Jin 1996, 11). The poet describes how a language switch can inflict a great deal of suffering on the physical body: "Words lined up in our throats/ for a good whining." To "whine" is to utter a high-pitched, distressed cry, or to complain in a sad, annoying voice. Pains caused by "words" are often physical: "Heaven plays on you, to make your words come/ not from a sore throat but from a twinging belly" (38). If a person's belly hurts, can he feed himself well? Moreover, a "twinge" is not only a sharp stab of pain in the body--it could also refer to a sudden feeling of guilt, a moral or emotional pang of conscience. Sometimes we hear the poet's conscience-stricken voice addressing a second person to express the fate of losing a tongue: "This is why I feel/ so miserable writing in English/ which I love but wish not to use/ since we ought to labor in our own tongue/ to keep it from decay and make it great." "I know my cries in this alphabet/ will compound my 'crimes' and take me further away" (66). Shifting from "cries" to "crimes," word play is deployed here not to express remorse and sadness over the loss of a tongue but to celebrate creative joy. Like Nabokov and Conrad, whom he praises in The Writer as Migrant, Ha Jin (2008) the poet admits the pain of linguistic switch from one's mother tongue to English, but he also has turned the "handicap" to his linguistic advantage by invoking the playfulness of "humor, wit, word games, endless wisecracks" (48).
Combating shadows is a daunting task. One can sense through the personas of these poems the fight for a room of one's own between the silences of two (or more) nations and cultures. Ha Jin's (1996) "Nets" is about everyday life and survival: "Yes, life happens in nets." "I have fled many nets/ but always wandered into another one--/there are nets outside a net/ and nets within a net./ I am a frog with useless wings" (54). Sensitive as he is to the pain and joy of a migrant's identity transformation, the poet expresses the biological metamorphosis of a hybrid creature. If this does not remind the reader of the password quality of Ha Jin's English writing and its cultural quotations, the reference to Du Fu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Tu Fu) certainly bears witness to his intention to conjure up the voices of ancient Chinese poets: "My joy in the labor evoked Tu Fus line: 'The river flows but stones remain'." (23) The persona is speaking to himself or someone else about his labor of stones. Does it also mean the labor to acquire the skills of writing and speaking, which involve as much physical torment to the tongue as to the belly when the poet writes between the lines?
Ha Jin is tied to his personal memories as he renders Chinese experiences into English letters. The question remains as to whether language is a preeminent and exclusive badge of identity for a writer. Can a writer permanently stick with his homeland even after shifting to another language ? Diasporic experience may render one's nostalgia and memory dysfunctional; a static reminiscence of the past prevents the writer and his readers from recognizing each other. Ha Jin's poetry articulates the impossibility of communication between the addresser and addressees, couched in language imbued with pain, remorse, and death:
Why have you brought me wine and meat and paper-money again? I have told you year after year that I am not superstitious. Have you the red treasure book with you? ... Why are you crying? Say something to me. Do you think I can't hear you? In the early years You came and stood before my tomb swearing to follow me as a model. In recent years you poured tears every time. Damn you, why don't you open your mouth? Something must have happened. What ? Why don't you tell me ! (Ha Jin 1990, 5-6)
Ha Jin's poetics on the one hand conjures up lyrically individual voices to break the barriers of cultural and ideological stereotypes of China in Western (American) eyes, and on the other he contextualizes the private articulations and psychic expressions against historical particularity to achieve an inevitable sense of irony. The poet contributes a note to the poem: "In September 1969, in a shipwreck accident on the Tuman River, a young Chinese soldier was drowned saving a plaster statue of Chairman Mao. He was awarded Merit Citation 2, and was buried at a mountain foot in Hunchun County, Jilin" (5). The concrete historical references notwithstanding, the dramatic monologue gives us a sense of absurdity when individual idealism is sacrificed in the name of political fanaticism during the Cultural Revolution, that is, Maoism (embodied in the statue of Mao). Whereas Ha Jin's poetic labor is intended to "provoke sympathy from an Anglophone audience in the United States for a Chinese subject" (Yao 2010, 122), I argue that the poet strategically unveils a sense of incommensurability between the English medium and the Chinese referent, between language and thing, that is, a blockage of communication between the speaker and his addressees in subtle linguistic-cultural exchange.
These moving verses are spoken through the persona of a dead soul, as the narrator summons the individual voice of the soldier whose subjectivity has been denied as an insignificant part of collective idealism. I notice that there can be linguistic playfulness in the narrator's use of "paper money." In English, Macmillan Dictionary defines "paper money" as "money in the form of pieces of paper, not coins." Paper money, as real money, is a printed form of currency for economic exchange. The poet literally translates the Chinese term zhiqian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as "paper money." In its Chinese usage, however, zhiqian is fake money, a symbolic currency offered for the dead in mourning rituals. Does the poet want to address his imaginary Chinese reader when using the translation "paper-money"? As Ha Jin said before, "I always conceive my works in English, except when I use dialogue and my characters speak Chinese. But the working process is in English" (Olesen 1999). Apparently, zhiqian is untranslatable in English, as the "paper money" or fake currency in the Chinese context has turned to real money in America where the worth of words (writing) is so inextricably bound up with their use value and economic worth in the literary profession. Does the writer intentionally make a pun, and unintentionally have a slip of the tongue in the poem? As Ha Jin (2008) later forsakes his earlier claim to write for "the downtrodden Chinese" (27), he takes his linguistic switch to English as an advantage to writing about China for the world in his capacity of a migrant writer. He deploys the strategy to delve into individual selves and make their voices heard against the tyranny of ideological interpellations. As Xiaojing Zhou (2006) aptly indicates, Ha Jin "reveals the complexity and humanity of individuals by employing interior and dramatic monologues to reveal the inner life of the Chinese who lived during the radically totalitarian regime" (284). The final section of the paper shall look into the stakes involved in Ha Jin's first English novel Waiting.
Unbecoming Chinese: The Exile Writes Back
Waiting tells the story of Lin Kong, a military doctor, who is trapped in a loveless marriage to an uncouth and uneducated peasant woman, Manna. Lin falls in love with a nurse in his hospital. The story chronicles the disintegration of the affair as the doctor struggles to divorce his wife and marry his new love. It reflects the existential condition of the characters in the absurdity of waiting for seventeen years. Lin Kong has failed to bring the divorce to court, while all three parties in the triangular love are waiting in vain. Although Ha Jin claimed that he had deliberately avoided an impeachment of Communism in his novel, Waiting was generally well received by Western critics and readers alike as a political "allegory of love" of Communist China, providing "a crash course in Chinese society during and since the Cultural Revolution" (Prose 1999, 9). Western critics enjoyed Waiting as a piece of realism, and they hailed the writer's sincerity and honesty in offering them a glimpse into the history of China. They regarded Ha Jin as "one of the preeminent English-language chroniclers of day-to-day life in the People's Republic of China," probing the human condition that transcends time and physical borders (Patterson 1999). Receptions of Ha Jin's novel from Mainland China, however, were diametrically opposed to this favorable reception in the West. In fact, the Chinese translation of Waiting (titled Deng dai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) was at first banned in Mainland China. Ideological hardliners took Ha Jin to task for cursing his own compatriots and vilifying China in the American literary media. (24) Waiting was also faulted for presenting an "Oriental" image of China to American readers and "pandering to the more lurid stereotypes Westerners have longheld about China's inhumanities" (Twitchell-Waas 2002, 109-10). Such markedly divergent opinions reveal the politics of English writing as practiced by the migrant writer in the global literary scene.
In "The Road to Babel," Ian Buruma (2001) claims that Ha Jin's clear, sparse English prose exemplifies the style of "cultural minimalism;" he finds it "entirely lacking literary or cultural allusions" (26). He believes that Ha Jin's work anticipates "a new international English style," in which culture and language are entirely disconnected. Buruma suggests that when contemporary English-language writers like Ha Jin claim to "write for the world," they tend to treat English as a transparent medium but not a cultural signifier of Englishness (as well as Chineseness in Ha Jin's case). Kazuo Ishiguro (born in Japan but raised in Britain) would be another exemplary figure, the critic claims, who tries to avoid any allusions that can be understood only by English speakers. He cites further examples of bilingual writers like Nabokov, Beckett, and Conrad, whose English masterwork has very little to do with their ancestry or nationhood. (Indeed, in The Writer as Migrant, Ha Jin's praises all the three writers for their "linguistic betrayal" of their mother tongue.) Finally, Buruma (2001) jumps to the conclusion that as the global literary world becomes predominantly English speaking, we shall find more and more English-language writers who will adopt a non-cultural strategy of English writing, in which language is divorced from its cultural allusions and historical referents, in order to appeal to a global readership (26).
Buruma's picture of Anglophone literature as a global phenomenon is unabashedly Western-centered and Eurocentric, as it overlooks the factors of culture and multiculturalism. In particular, Ha Jin's works, from his English poetry to his novels, are invested with complex cultural codes (or passwords) hidden in a migrant voice, which depends on English to evoke his native memories. True, there is scarcely any trace of Americanness or Englishness in Ha Jin's writing. Paradoxically, it is the Chineseness hidden in his lucid narratives embodying the historicity and everyday life of Communist China that has earned the writer immense appeal in U.S. book markets. His novel depicts the physical details of everyday life like food, housing, entertainments, clothing, and people's activities in specifically Maoist China; its fictional settings, themes, characters, allusions, and figures of speech "retain a Chinese, at times even a seemingly Maoist tone" (Kinkley 1999, 390-91). For a Western sinologist, Ha Jin has created "authentic socialist rural and urban backdrops" (Kinkley 2000, 579-80).
Indeed, Waiting is richly littered with cultural and historical references: books and novels that people read, dramas and films that they attend on a daily basis in Communist China. Lin Kong is a bibliophile, a petit bourgeois who reads extensively from Western books to Mao's writings. His bookshelves are filled with Chinese translations of Russian novels and books: Cement, The History of International Communism, War and Peace, The Guerrilla Detachment on the Railroad, White Nights, How Steel is Tempered, Lenin: World's First Nuclear-Powered Ice-Breaker, The Problem of Leninism, and so forth. The pedigree of cultural texts quoted in the novel conjures up the "revolutionary" milieu of the Maoist period, and suggests how they shaped people's mental world and behavioral traits.
While the novel does not forefront politics and political movements, it underscores the subtle reality and Maoist culture that affect human thought and relationships. In the middle of the story, Ha Jin chooses Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass as the book given to Manna by Commissioner Wei. The Communist official is dating the heroine, and he offers to loan her a Chinese translation of Whitman's poetry, asking her to write a report on it to test if she can sense the "revolutionary tenor" in the lines. Manna asks Lin Kong for help with deciphering the meaning of Whitman's verses, as she must report her views to her superior. This is yet another love triangle (Lin-Manna-the Party chief) to show how Lin Kong and Manna have to suppress their respective secret affections in order to please the high-ranking official. Most intriguing of all is the protagonist's self-censoring of his reading of Whitman, which reveals his intent to appease those in power:
He read Leaves of Grass once more, still unable to understand it well enough to write about it. To him, this was a bizarre, wild book of poetry that had so many bold lines about sexuality that it could be interpreted either as obscenity or as praise of human vitality. Moreover, the celebration of the poet's self seemed to verge on a kind of megalomania that ought to be condemned. But on the whole this must be a good, healthy book; otherwise the commissar wouldn't have let Manna read it. [...] So he began to write the report at night. The part on the working class was not difficult, because there was a pattern to follow. He just listed what these brave and diligent people did in the poems and emphasized that workers and farmers were basically the same everywhere--whether they were Americans or Europeans or Chinese: they all loved working and had their own "strong and divine life." But the symbol of grass was hard to elaborate, because he did not have a ready-prepared language for it and had to come up with his own ideas and sentences. He rewrote the passages about the symbol of grass three times. Finally he was satisfied with saying that the grass gathered the essence of heaven and earth, yin and yang, and the material and the spiritual, and that it unified the body and the soul, the living and the dead, celebrating the infinity and abundance of life. In brief, it was a very progressive symbol, charged with the proletarian spirit. (Ha Jin 1999, 153-54)
While American readers generally celebrate Whitman's poetry as a champion of democracy and the self, they may know little about the broader significance of Whitman, who prior to the cultural revolution had been enthusiastically read in China as an inspiring and progressive figure. But the romantic impulse of Whitman's poetic vision and its concomitant embrace of radical individualism and anti-authoritarian emphasis are destined to clash with the Maoist ethos of uniformity and collectivity. (25) Lin Kong's cautious reading of Whitman demonstrates the stiffening climate of the politicized period as the protagonist tries hard to adjust his thought to toe the Party line. He finds in "Whitman's lines powerful descriptions of sexuality and obscenity, and he feels the need to quarantine and condemn the individual impulses implied in the bizarre verses. He decides to adopt the Communist tenet of the working class to reinterpret the common Americans depicted by Whitman. He finally rewrites the symbol of grass three times to ensure that it will be understood as a "progressive" symbol and "proletarian" token. The peculiar ending of the episode not only lays bare the psychological panic of Lin Kong and his individual thought transformation in ghostwriting the review of "Whitman, but it also hints at the fates of other characters tied up in the overpowering system. While Commissioner Wei is a model revolutionary in the story (and ironically he dies in prison in 1981 for his connection with the Gang of Four), his passion for American poetry and love of poetic license may indicate his hidden "bourgeois" sentiments. His courtship with Manna reflects the abuse of power of the Communist cadre. Wei finally turns down Manna for the ridiculous reason that her handwriting in the poetry review is too terrible. He decides to marry another woman with a better political background, after dating half of a dozen candidates at the same time. In its mundane depiction of the everyday, Ha Jin's "minimalist" style ingeniously grasps the absurdity of human relationships in their sexual and personal conflicts as they play out against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution.
The above exegesis calls attention to the intricate workings of language and translation as Ha Jin and his characters are sensitively engaged in a dialectical process of reading across cultures in language. Critics have noticed that Ha Jin frequently embellishes his English with tropes and slang that sound like translations from the Chinese. Unlike Nabokov and Conrad who were supreme stylist of English, Ha Jin writes his prose with a simplicity and economy that makes "his works read as if he had written them in Chinese and merely undertaken the translation himself." Chinese critics unmistakably find the unadorned prose in Waiting scattered with "Chinese expressions, idioms, and cliches directly translated into English and hammered into the sentences like nails" (Tsai 2005, 58). That brings up the question: How has Ha Jin, a migrant writer, learned to write in literary English through translation?
It is revealing to see that Ha Jin's appropriation of the English prose style came from his reading of the translations of various Western literary masterpieces, notably, works by such 19 (th)-century Russian masters as Gogol and Chekhov. Ha Jin admitted that reading Constance Garnett's (1861-1946) English translations of Russian literature had been an inspiration (Lydon 2000). He began to read Russian authors very seriously after coming to America. He was particularly fond of Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry because the army experience it described was reminiscent of his own. (26) In a nutshell, Ha Jin treated Garnett's English translations as transparent transference of the Russian literary world. He was especially impressed by Garnett's "straightforward," "very honest," and "direct" prose style, in which he could feel "a subtle flow" of humanity and immortality in these Russian masterworks. Similarly, an American critic finds that the "lucidity and focus" of Waiting enable the novelist to effectively probe the universal human condition in a way reminiscent of Russian writers like Chekhov and Gogol (whose works are also read in their translations by Anglophone readers) (Garner 2000, 40).
The way that Ha Jin appreciates excellent English translations of Western literature illuminates his indebtedness to literary translators, whose neat and elegant prose style may have helped him develop his own stripped down simplicity. Using his second tongue for creative writing, Ha Jin treats the English language as a translucent filter through which readers can grasp the psychology of his characters and the meaning of events. English translations of non-English world literature--for Ha Jin, the Russian masterpieces in particular--has seemingly provided a stylistic model (clarity and transparency) for the Chinese Anglophone writer to probe his literary subject, that is, universal humanity. Commenting on Ha Jin's A Free Life (2007), his short story collection about Chinese life in America, Leo Ou-fan Lee (2011) notices that Ha Jin's realism of the uneventful and the mundane is more indebted to the Chekhovian style of minimalism and simplicity than to Conrad or Nabokov that the writer has often cited. The narrative effect of Ha Jin's minimalist realism is built in irony and satire rather than sentimentalism. The Chekhovian hallmarks of realism may hint at Ha Jin's fictional craft that aims at producing, "aside from fidelity to life, a nuanced tone and an intimate narrative voice that is close to the characters" hearts and souls" (91). Lee's keen observation in reading Ha Jin's short stories is also valid to discuss his novel writing. In Waiting, Lin Kong is a perfect embodiment of an ordinary and passionless Chinese citizen, an "organizational man" of the Communist system. Readers may easily get the sense that "the love he feels toward Manna is a reaction to a life characterized by restrictions and confinement" (Lim 2013, 143). But Ha Jin's tactic of interiority gives the anti-hero back a reflective mind and soul to beat the odds of the state's ideological manipulation. One major literary device to create a sense of lucidity in Waiting is having the Chinese characters give soliloquies in speech and thought so as to open up their minds to Anglophone readers. Hence Lin Kong performs a prolonged monologue to "explain" what is going on toward the end of Waiting:
Let me tell you what really happened, the voice said. All those years you waited torpidly, like a sleepwalker, pulled and pushed about by others" opinions, by external pressure, by your illusions, by the official rules you internalized. You were misled by your own frustration and passivity, believing that what you were not allowed to have was what your heart was destined to embrace. Lin was stunned. For a moment he was at a loss for words. Then he began cursing himself. Fool, eighteen years you waited without knowing for what! Eighteen years, the prime of your life, gone, wasted, and they led you to this damn marriage. You"re a model fool! What's to be done now? The voice asked.[...] He realized that the long waiting must have changed her profoundly--from a pleasant young woman into a hopeless spitfire. No matter how he felt about her now, he was certain she had always loved him. Perhaps it was the unrequited love that had dragged her down. Or perhaps it was the suffering and despondency she had experienced in the long waiting that had dissolved her gentle nature, worn away her hopes, ruined her health, poisoned her heart, and doomed her. (Ha Jin 1999, 295-96)
Realistically, the narrator is able to penetrate the inner thoughts and feelings of his protagonist. Blending the voices of the narrator and the character, the literary narrative unveils Lin Kong's psychological tribulations. The inquiring voice at once exposes the human and social factors that lead up to the lovers' sufferings, one major reason being that the man dares not pursue his individual desires as he had "internalized the official rules" over the years. It is not difficult to understand why American critics have placed tremendous value on the sincerity and honesty of Ha Jin's straightforward prose and plain reportage style when they hail him as "one of the great sturdy realists still writing in the postmodern age" (Anonymous 1999). Nor is it surprising for them to find an artistic affinity between the work of Ha Jin and that of the 19th-century Russian and European realists like Chekov, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Flaubert, whose literature concerns ordinary people caught up in times of political turmoil. And Ha Jin admits that he has always looked up to the Western realist masters as a guide to grasping universal humanity in graceful, simple prose (Lydon 2000).
It is worth noticing the politics and strategy of English monolingualism in which the migrant writer claims to imitate a second tongue from the realist masterpieces through their Anglophone translations. In the Anglophone sphere, Ha Jin purportedly writes English in a plain and unadorned style to present Chinese stories and social realities for Anglo American readers. Conversely, Sinophone critics tend to criticize his Chinese-inflected style of English that is littered with Chinese tropes and idioms rendered rather directly into English. Nancy Tsai (2005) derides Ha Jin's literary English as awkward. To her, Waiting "is filled, if not fraught, with direct translations, mistranslations, awkward use of idioms, expressions and slang, inappropriate or misleading choices of diction and tone." Asserting Ha Jin's status as a non-native English writer, Tsai contends that "the act of writing in a non-native language is an act of translation" (58). What the critic disapproves of Ha Jin is nothing but another accusation of bilingual betrayal (as initiated by Zhu Tianwen earlier): the writer forsakes his mother tongue (Chinese), but as a non-native, he can only be an awkward imitator of his second tongue (English). It sounds that the mother tongue is endowed with an ontological purity and authenticity to which only a native writer can excel at her or his disposal. This purity or authenticity argument, however, disregards the presence of a more dynamic practice of bilingual (and multilingual) writing going on in global literature, in which the Anglophone Chinese diasporic writer can take advantage of writing across languages and cultures between his motherland and the adopted new homeland so as to produce global literature in English(es) and Chinese(s) in their plural variations and enrichments.
Ha Jin has tried his hand at bilingualism by translating his own work, The Good Fall, back into Chinese (titled Luodi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (27) If he has to write in English for survival and so strategically place himself in the Anglo American literary camp, his Chinese translating can be seen as a form of rewriting or co-writing his own work in order to engage a second voice--speaking with a split migrant accent back to his intended native audience. Ha Jin claims that writing in his stepmother tongue provides him a peculiar and stronger creative impulse. He would rather go back to claim his mother tongue by way of secondary creativity, that is, through the act of self-translation of the primary English texts. In either case, the migrant writer treats himself as a "translator," a culturally critical and politically provocative intermediary who splits his voices in speaking to two incommensurable cultures.
By examining a selection of migrant narratives of three writers who have traversed the border of the Sinophone and Anglophone worlds, I have discussed how the migrant writer, whose double allegiances to Chinese experience and American literary culture, is poised to speak to readers along globalizing literaryborders. In the increasingly globalized literary communities and changing transnational contexts of literary production, in which Anglophone and Sinophone texts can be translated back and forth, new understandings of and inquiries into the cultural politics of Chinese diasporic literature are called for. I elucidate the idea of a "migrant" subject as brought up by Ha Jin to underscore diverse verbal strategies and narrative voices of the migrant writer. After retrieving the migrant subjectivities in the early Sinophone diasporic texts of Bai Xianyong and Nie Hualing, this essay takes Ha Jin, an exiled Chinese Anglophone writer himself, as the figuration of the migrant subject in a new phase of transnational literature. Whereas these migrant texts have never fitted into the existing literary taxonomies of Chinese or American paradigms, they serve to underscore the paramount importance of language and linguistic variants that provide heterogeneous and competing Chineseness in the globalizing and multicultural literary phenomena. For the migrant writers, writing "home" for the "world" has to count on their allegiances to the art of literature, the linguistic and artistic subversions with which they reinvent a different sense of homeliness within the lines and fissures between different languages and cultures. Their loyalty to literature and art and their commitments to articulating the hidden voices of the people are essentially connected with a diasporic creativity and their sense of dwelling "at home in the world." Whereas writing in an adopted tongue of English, as attested by Ha Jin himself, unleashes his creative and critical urges, for Bai and Nie writing in Chinese in a foreign land as America does likewise and ushers in the critical distance cherished by the migrant writers to engage in the subject matters of exile and cross-cultural critique. Here linguistic transactions become all the more crucial in their global circulation but similar ethnic-cultural sentiments reign: a migrant writer who deserts his or her mother tongue is prone to the accusation of forsaking the motherland and Chinese identity, as in the case of Ha Jin. But history has changed, and so has the writer himself. Unlike Wu Hanhun who is soured by nostalgia for China and has to kill himself in "Death in Chicago," Ha Jin survives by transforming himself into an English writer and then into a bilingual translator of both cultures by twisting the blame of linguistic betrayal into a productive game of literary transaction. Once the mother tongue and the mother country are turned into a form of great literary capital at the disposal of the writer, we would anticipate the return of the native voice to haunt and reconfigure the idea of the motherland.
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Kenny K.K. Ng
Academy of Film Hong Kong Baptist University
(1) The author of more than thirty books in English, Lin Yutang was the most widely read Chinese immigrant writer in the first half of the twentieth century. He established his reputation in the English-speaking world with the best-seller My Country and My People [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1935). For a criticism of Lin Yutang, see Yin Xiao-huang (1998).
(2) Another significant figure is the Beijing-born writer Li Yiyun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1972-), who moved to the United States in the 1990s. Li writes short stories in English about Chinese experiences. One major literary success is her short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which was awarded the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award in 2005 and Ehe PEN/Hemingway Award in 2006. Being a migrant writer like Ha Jin, Li finds freedom in writing her stories in English.
(3) Ha Jin (real name Xuefei Jin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) was born in 1956, in Jinzhou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Liaoning [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] province. His father was a member of the army. Jin only had an incomplete education before the schools closed in 1966 at the onset of the Cultural Revolution. At age fourteen, Jin joined the army and was sent to the northern border with the Soviet Union. After the army he worked as a railway telegraph operator and began to learn English by listening to the radio. When the schools reopened, he attended Heilongjiang University [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Harbin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], from which he graduated in 1981 with a bachelor's degree in English. In 1984, Jin earned a master's degree in American literature from Shandong University [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Qingdao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In the following year, he entered Brandeis University, and he received a doctorate in 1992. He then became a professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, GA" in 1993. After June 1989, Ha Jin decided not to return to China. Having chosen to stay in America for good, he had no choice but to become an English writer if he wished to fulfill his literary ambitions and remained faithful to his literary ideals.
(4) In the fifty-year history of the National Book Award, only two other writers who were not native English speakers have taken home the fiction prize: Isaac Bashevis Singer and Jerzy Kosinski. See Dwight Garner (2000).
(5) Ha Jin (2005), "I am an outsider in China. I write in English. Basically I have to accept myself as an immigrant, as an outsider" (36).
(6) Bai Xianyong and Nie Hualing shared similar exilic experiences: both fled from the Communist-controlled Mainland, sojourned in Taiwan, and settled in America. Born in Guangxi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], China in 1937, Bai moved to Taiwan with his politically prominent family in 1949. He was an active leader in Taiwan's literary modernism in the 1960s. He came to the United States in 1963 for his Masters degree in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. Nie was born in Hubei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], China, in 1925. She went to Taiwan in 1949, where she established herself as a writer and as literary editor of Free China Fortnightly [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], an outspoken and reform-minded magazine. In 1964, Nie came to America where she was actively involved in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
(7) For a socio-historical context of Chinese immigrant writers and their corpus of Chinese American literature written in the Chinese language since the 1950s, see Xiao-huang Yin (2000, 157-83).
(8) Bai (1979). The passage is modified from Susan McFadden's translation in Tamkang Review.
(9) In view of Taiwan's peripheral status, the young modernists tended to see literary modernism, insofar as it represented the most advanced artistic development in the world, displaying a cosmopolitan character that transcends national boundaries. They were thus eager to transform Taiwan's cultural landscape into one of a universally "modern condition," whereby the economic backwardness of the society could be eclipsed. See Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang (1993, 4-9).
(10) Susan McFadden ( 1979) suggests that the prose is reminiscent of Eliot's Preludes, "The winter evening settles down/ With smell of steaks in passage ways" (335).
(11) The "New Yorkers" [Niuyue ke] depict Chinese aliens plagued by a double marginality vis-a-vis the centers of China and America. As the Chinese term "ke" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] suggests the status of "visitors" or "guests," the migrant characters are filled with a poignant sense of rootlessness and cultural dislocation. See Joseph S.M. Lau (1984-85).
(12) The publication history of Sanqing yu Taohong in China and Taiwan demonstrates the ideological barriers that the novel worked through. See Peter Nazareth (1981). The original Chinese novel was suspended in the middle of its serialization in Taiwan's United Daily News in 1971 because "it was about Old China breaking down" (17-18). In Mainland China, the book's erotic content was officially censored, and the unexpurgated version did not appear until 1989. The novel, which had been translated into five languages, was published in Taiwan in 1988, long after its publication in Hong Kong in 1976.
(13) See interview with Nie Hualing by Yan Huo (1984). Xiao-huang Yin (2000) points out the adoption of Western-style expressions and techniques has made the work of Sinophone writers like Nie Hualing and Yu Lihua [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] more appealing to their readers of Chinese immigrants who are familiar with Western techniques (161).
(14) Serena Fusco (2012) argues that an unruly Peach strategically exhibits the role of the "bad, rebellious Asian American subject" to subvert mainstream interpellation and the exclusion of Chinese Americans as the hard-working and law-abiding "model minority" in American identity politics.
(15) For an incisive reading of Mulberry and Peach, which resists the Sinocentric and Asian American frames as rigid interpretive schemes, see Sau-ling C. Wong (2001); Tina Chen (2005).
(16) Sau-ling Cynthia Wong (1993) notes that while spatial mobility in American literature (Jack Kerouac's On the Road being a classic example) exudes a sense of individual freedom and self-actualization, Asian American novels may imply the themes of coercion and lack of self-fulfillment (119).
(17) As Shiao-ling Yu (1993) suggests, the symbol of "peach" in Chinese literature is poetically connected with the meanings of feminine beauty, virginity, and marital harmony. Nie's portrayal of Peach as a sexual epicurean thus strikes an ironic note (141-42).
(18) Asian American critics have ignored Chinese-language literature and Sinophone immigrant writing in the American literary tradition. Sheng-mei Ma (1996) suggests the tendency to dismiss migrant voices and non-English texts is grounded in identity politics and pedagogical survival (421-58). For a critique of the Anglophone bias of Asian Americanist scholarship and the promotion of Sinophone writings in Asian American literature, see King-Kok Cheung and Stan Yogi (1988); Sau-ling Cynthia Wong (1988).
(19) For a discussion of a multicultural politics of recognition of Ha Jin, see Steven G. Yao (2010).
(20) In the earliest and influential collection of Asian American literature, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974), Frank Chin and his coeditors claimed that a true Asian American sensibility is non-Christian, nonfeminine, and nonimmigrant. This was a move to exclude overseas Asians and immigrant writers from the field (xxi-xlviii).
(21) For an analysis of Ha Jin's bilingual politics, see Tsu (2010, 102-11). In a satiric fictional episode in Wuyan, a third-person narrator questions the justification of Chinese readers taking seriously Ha Jin's English novels about mainland China through the Chinese translations by someone else (Zhu 2007, 77). Ha Jin's (2008) essays in The Writer as Migrant, especially "Ehe Language of Betrayal (31-60), Tsu notes, can be taken as his self-defense against Zhu's charge of linguistic betrayal.
(22) Mainstream American critics have perceived Ha Jin's work as a minor branch of English-American literature. Ha Jin's effort to master English writing skills was conceived as that of a literary disciple who followed in the steps of such literary giants as Henry James and Ernest Hemingway. In his interview of Ha Jin in March 2000, Christopher Lydon asked: "What in the world is it like in mid-life--not in midlife, but well after you've grown up--to come to the United States, and to come to the literary world of Henry James so to speak?"
(23) "The river flows but stones remain" comes from Ha Jin's translation of Du Fu's famous verses. Du Fu's poem "The Eight Formations" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Bazhen tu) reads: "Achievement surpassed that of dividing the Three Kingdoms./ Fame accomplished in the Eight Formations./ The river flows but stones do not roll./ Regrets last for failing to swallow Wu". See Ha Jin (1996, 68).
(24) Liu Yiqing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (2000) of Beijing University [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in the influential Chinese Reading News [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], expressed her skepticism of the motives of Ha Jin, the American press and the critics who praised his work. Liu charged that Ha Jin was forced "to curse his own compatriots and to become a tool used by the American media to vilify China" (19). Liu's essay treated the novel as a disguised polemic. See also Eric Eckholm (2000). The Chinese translation of Waiting was first published in Taiwan by Shibao wenhua [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in 2000. The mainland version published by Hunan wenyi chubanshe [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] came out later in 2002.
(25) Ha Jin recalled an anecdote of Whitman in his experience: "I saw a friend of mine in the army. He was a junior officer. He was reading Leaves of Grass. I read it. I couldn't understand. But I was very impressed. He was much more literary than I was at the time. That gave me the idea." See Lydon (2000). For a detailed reading of the significance of Walt Whitman in Waiting, see Robert. D Sturr (2002). For a reception history of Whitman by Chinese intellectuals, see Xilao Li (1986).
(26) An eminent English translator, Garnett rendered the major works of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol, and Tolstoy into English, making them available to readers of English. However, critics have faulted Garnett's translation for flattening the stylistic differences between the Russian authors whose works she translated, making them "sound all more or less the same." For a criticism of Garnett, see Charles A. Moser (1988) and Rachel May (1994, 30-42).
(27) Ha Jin also co-translated Ocean of Words (titled Haobing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) into Chinese with his wife Bian Lisha [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].
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|Author:||Ng, Kenny K.K.|
|Publication:||Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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