Wednesday, September 06, 2006

An interview with Ha Jin

Ha Jin's novels include War Trash (2004), which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Waiting (2000), which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award.

Last year he granted an interview to the literary magazine AGNI. Two exchanges from the interview stood out for me:
Could you give examples of interesting quirks between the two languages? What you can you do in Chinese that you can’t do in English?

English is very speculative, very eloquent. It has a flowing feeling. Chinese is more down to earth and closer to things in that sense. Some of the abstract ideas and words [in English] are absent from the Chinese language—at least originally. For instance, the word “identity” is very hard to translate. You can put it in different words but it’s not the same word as identity—some concepts like that. On the other hand, the Chinese language can describe a lot of things like feelings. There are so many words [laughs] about different shades of feelings and tastes. Chinese has a lot of words that English doesn’t have. In that sense, Chinese is quite a physical language. Another thing, in English we always try to avoid clichés and idioms. But Chinese has thousands and thousands of idioms and very often a person’s mastery of the language depends on how many idioms are mastered. That’s an opposite attitude.

Does it free your writing students when you tell them that [a "sense of failure is essential to a writer from the very beginning"]?

It doesn’t matter. People should be discouraged. There are a lot of professions that are perhaps even better than writing. I don’t believe that people can’t live a much better life if they don’t write. There are great professions that can make you happy as a person and more useful to others. Writing is not a great profession as a lot of writers proclaim. I write because this is something I can do. Another thing—very often I think a lot of writers write because they have failed to do other things. How many writers can’t drive? A lot. They’re not practical. They are not capable in everyday life.

Read the rest of the interview here.

In this brief interview (2004) with the New York Times the author talked about how his experience as a soldier in the Chinese army informed War Trash.

--Marshal Zeringue