Friday, February 12, 2010

The Writer as Migrant, by Ha Jin

Early in this book of essays, in the Preface actually, Ha Jin states that his “choice of the word “migrant” is meant to be as inclusive as possible—it encompasses all kinds of people who move, or are forced to move, from one country to another, such as exiles, emigrants, immigrants, and refugees,” and reveals his intent to “place the writer in the context of human migrations” in order to “investigate some aspects of the “migrant writer’s” life and work.”

Later: “My observations are merely that—my observations. Every individual has his particular circumstances, and every writer has his own way of surviving and practicing his art.”

Initially presented as talks for the Rice University Campbell Lecture Series in 2006--see a write-up here --these essays focus essentially on questions of a migrant writer’s sense of identity, how closely tied or not it is to his/her originating country, whether the writer carries a sense of spokesmanship/representation, what part language plays in this sense of identity and the persona the writer adopts—both the mother tongue and the language “of betrayal” the writer chooses to use in the land he/she has migrated to-- what “homeland” comes to mean to the migrant writer, and whether the experience of “homeland” can remain static. Each essay returns overwhelmingly to the conclusion that seems to be at the heart of Ha Jin’s questioning, that ultimately it is only the writer’s ability to transmute his politics and struggle into art that ensures his survival: “His work will be of little value if not realized as art.”

I started reading these essays because, being someone who stepped outside her home country, chose to travel, and eventually found herself continuing to live and write in the United States—yes, a longer subject I will explore one day—I’ve become awfully interested in the experience of other “migrant” writers, and curious, too, about their perceptions and configurations of their experience. I’d recommend this collection to anyone in a similar situation thinking about these things, it’s a thought-provoking set of essays, and offers context, a way to begin or write around some of these questions of identity and intention.

I admire Ha Jin’s work and find his thinking interesting. He is rather extraordinary because he started to write in English only after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989—see Exiled to English; like Nabokov and Conrad, whom he writes about, he chose to write in a language other than his mother tongue. In this month’s Paris Review where he was interviewed by Sarah Fey, he says—in that portion of the interview that The Paris Review allows us to view online: "To be a literary writer does not mean just to write books—you need to look for some space in a language and find your niche in it. That was what intimidated me. Beyond the practical reason of earning a livelihood, there was the desire for a meaningful existence despite the forces that mean to reduce and silence you. In this sense, for me, to write is to suffer, but there is so much meaning in it that I must fight my battles on the page."

Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Lin Yutang, the exiled Chinese writer whose The Importance of LIving I found fascinating when I first read it at 13, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, V. S. Naipaul, Milan Kundera, the German writer W.G. Sebald, James Joyce—these are the writers he considers at length, writers exiled and expatriated, often writing in a foreign language, and yes, it’s interesting, sobering, to consider their peculiar predicaments and longings: Solzhenitsyn wanted desperately to return to Russia, as Lin Yutang to China; Nabokov saw Russian as a dying language and rejected the totalitarianism of the Russia he withdrew from; Conrad wanted to represent the Polish even as he felt the only way to survive as a writer was to write in English.

I found much in these essays that made me think and want to write more about issues of identity, writing intention, and notions of home or homeland. I found the breadth and depth of Ha Jin’s scholarship impressive. I liked especially his open revelations of his own struggle with notions of identity and writing self, his inclusion of his poem “In New York City” after his reading of Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River,” where he first encountered the notion of “the insignificance of an individual to the tribe.”

I found it troubling though that no women migrant writers or characters were considered in any depth. Apart from brief mentions of (male) immigrant characters in Willa Cather’s My Antonia and Sigrid Nunez’ A Feather from the Breath of God, a textually-anonymous quote on homeland from Belkins Cuza Male—attributed to her only in a footnote, as taken from an anthology, Looking for Home; Women Writing About Exile, a mention of Nadine Gordimer’s views on writers as needing to be political, to embody conscience from The Essential Gesture, mentions of Eileen Chang, Pearl S. Buck—women seemed non-existent in this discussion. To be sure, it is a set of private observations, by a male writer—but it is also a set of public observations, by a male writer. To a woman reader, such an omission does not merely feel peculiar, it feels supremely wanting.

Underneath all the tropes of exile, lay, or perhaps I should say, rowed Odysseus. For eternity, rowing into every masculine paradigm of exile and migration, taken apart, picked over, gazed at, eternally eulogized in this gaze. Odd, when his sojourn into the unknown began with an imperialistic quest (remember that wooden horse in Troy?). And where are all the Greek goddesses of exile and migration and departure and arrival? (Okay, maybe they don’t exist, there’s abduction and marriage instead preceding travel (Persephone, Helen)—but must we for all eternity fixate on Homer, on Odysseus?!)

Must men write only about men? Do male writers believe, accept, and deliberately perpetuate the notion that literature is quintessentially male, and one’s scholarship and diligence and seriousness is inevitably to be proved only by a scholarly focus on past male writers—a practice which tends to further idolize and exalt said past male writers? Sometimes, it seems so—this is what I found most difficult about this book.

I am conscious that Ha Jin is seeking to write “within the tradition,” so to speak—he states early on that exile is his particular interest and as such, Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn and Conrad and the others cannot be overlooked—he also states that the most significant literature of migration is that of exile—can this be true? I also wonder if his choice of subject was not tempered by the occasion of the lecture series prompting the creation of these essays.

Still, in this century, to not strive to be inclusive across the genders feels inexplicable to me. Women writers write frequently of male writers—do male writers write seriously of women writers? Apparently we still exist in a straitjacketed space where a male writer would need to be consciously radical in order to bring up and talk about a female writer—on par with/among male writers—it’s not the looked-for, prized, or awarded thing. Not recognized as normal. Or even plausible.

I have to say I wouldn’t want that to be the last word on Ha Jin’s essays, which I found mostly enlightening. Exile is a powerful subject, and I thought these essays insightful in many ways. I know I’ll want to read them again, when I sit down to write more about migration.

I found it interesting also that in an interview Edward Said too says he has felt a strong affiliation with Conrad—despite the exclusions and bias (which he excuses as emblematic of his time) in The Heart of Darkness—Conrad was a teenage runaway, an exile from very young, a sailor with the British Merchant Navy, a world traveler, who learned English at 20 and became a writer in his forties, who still retained a strong nostalgic connection to the Poland he never could quite return to in his work—and as Ha Jin notes too, an extraordinary writer in English. “He had this strange sort of exilic consciousness; he was always outside any situation he wrote about, and I feel that affinity with him.” (Said/Power, Politics, & Culture/Interview with Eleanor Wachtel, 1996). Evocative, isn't it—from both their readings; makes me want to read more of Conrad now.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Website online

Finally, the site is online:

Now I just have to worry about the Big Snow, and getting in to DC when the Metro is not running above-ground, and the next big storm headed our way tomorrow and a 5-year-old who's excited about two more snow days! (What do you do after romps in the snow, igloos, snow forts, frozen toes, sledding, did I mention frozen toes? (my mitochondria are not northern European!) raisin bread (that rose and fell and half-rose thereafter), Emma on PBS, nature shows online--hummingbirds, bald eagles, four-winged dinosaurs, putting together Valentine's day packages for all her preschool friends, clean-up, organizing, reading...eating icicles off the front porch railing---I don't know! But Sophie is out sledding again for the second time today with her dad and I am stealing my time now, while I have it!)

Thrilled to be free at last of html, css and font types and sizes and colors. I abandoned my plans for major graphic design--my mind's not on it--javascript, anything else. The site is simple, as much as I can do right now. I've never wanted to put up a web site for myself, didn't think I ever would. Odd all around, posting one's self on the Web in this fashion, but I guess the point is if anyone's looking, there's something there. A pointer to and samples of my work, contact info, etc. Bios, lists, readings, all that.

And yes, I'll admit I do need to let everyone know, I am still looking for that one special agent who would like to represent my second fiction collection--set in the US and India--and my novel, set in India. I haven't given up on you, world!

So, back to the written word....

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

little writer bits

No, I'm still not ready to write a new review--not least because I switched from reading one book to three--and gone apparently are the days when I had the time to sit still and read from start to finish--sitting still is a luxury!!

Reading, like writing these past weeks continues in tiny little fragments of time.

I have been reading Ha Jin's collection of essays The Writer as Migrant on the metro as I train in to DC to teach and back, Mark Slouka's The Visible World en route to and in snowy northern Michigan and back, and still, yes, on my nightstand, I flinch to confess, Susan Minot's Evening, which is lovely but so long!

I am still also working on my web site, which almost warrants its own post. I wonder how many writers sit around developing their own web sites--it feels completely odd to me, creating my own little mini-brochure for myself, but there you are. Impoverished teachers and writers everywhere who have worked in web design end up using up all their reading time in this useless fashion, I suspect--I mean, surely I am not the only misguided site-maker on the planet. (Feels better imagining a community of my kind out there, slaving away....)

In the second snow of this week I stay up wanting to write and not able to get past that website!

But I did make rather a pleasant discovery, surfing the Web: a starred review of Temporary Lives at Publisher's Weekly: nice surprise!

Tomorrow I start my class online for the Writer's Center--Writing the Lyric Personal Essay--reading I can look forward to. That's one thing, teaching keeps me reading for class--poetry today (highlight: Men at Forty, by Donald Justice) lyric essay tomorrow--I get that reading done, one way or the other. And teaching creative writing keeps me thinking continuously about writing, about all those bits of craft we struggle with everyday on the page. The one job I don't want to quit, even when grading absorbs time like a sponge. (And I've been an exemplary job-quitter, all through my varied working life.)

Today after class, the most angelic of my new Intro to Creative Writing students--there's always one student in every class it seems who is just so amazingly ethereal, so innocently charmante she is almost seraphic--came up to me and told me how much she loved this class and looked forward to it, and how she had just been wanting to tell me this. I was charmed! Amazed! Flattered! Grateful! Please, spread that news around, I wanted to say. It is a lovely class, isn't it! To tell the truth, it did make an enormous difference. On the way in to work--when I wasn't reading The Writer as Migrant, that is--I had been thinking darkly about how long it has taken for Temporary Lives to see the light of day, how many years--a subject I am talking about openly in interviews, and thinking more about. I'd actually been feeling a bit invisible myself, as my manuscripts/books have been, for years. It was very gratifying to hear appreciation.

I've been keeping company with that snow tonight. I can see it outside, looming masses weighing down the pine, and hear something: a crinkle of ice on ice, on trees, on the roof, wonder if it's turned to sleet. And I can hear Sophie upstairs, magically sensing my absence in her sleep and snuffling protest -- so finally, bon nuit, mes cheres, and to all, goodnight.