“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Ha Jin fiction in Granta

http://www.granta.com/Magazine/106/In-the-Crossfire/1

‘I can manage. This is easy.’ He smiled, cutting the fish’s fins and tail with a large pair of scissors.

‘You never cooked back home.’ She stared at him, her eyes glinting. Ever since her arrival a week earlier, she’d been nagging him about his being henpecked. ‘What’s the good of standing six feet tall if you can’t handle a small woman like Connie?’ she often said. In fact, he was five feet ten.

attached to: Ha Jin

Comments

# 1.   

I thought this was a very odd story. It's dead-on Chinese, but also exaggerated in its Chinese-ness (I've heard of plenty of unpleasant mothers-in-law, but that unpleasant…?). I wonder how western readers are meant to react? On the one hand, it seems like a valuable lesson in the mores of another culture. On the other hand, maybe there are healthier Chinese mores to be learned than "one can deal with an unpleasant mother-in-law by tricking her into thinking she's guilty for ruining your life. Remember kids, people are generally incapable of mature resolution of their problems, so your best bet is to second-guess and deceive!"

And yes, it's a short-story, not the first assignment in Chinese Culture 101, but that's how it reads.

 Eric Abrahamsen, June 6, 2009, 8:58a.m.

# 2.   

No wonder Ha Jin is having the time of his life in the West. In politically correct America, he can get away with creating one-sided Chinese characters. . . cuz he's Chinese.

By the way, Eric, where did you get the idea (the rather Chinese idea!) that fiction is a vehicle for teaching "healthy mores"?

 Bruce, June 10, 2009, 1:54a.m.

# 3.   

That's right on about the Chinese Culture 101. There was no real merit to the story, except maybe as some kind of guide for those who aren't yet able to stereotype Chinese people. It could have been improved only by a short aside explaining the concept of "face," or maybe a funny black guy who dances.

Jeff, June 10, 2009, 5:25a.m.

# 4.   

I wasn't really enjoying it, but when Tian got himself fired my interest picked up because I thought I knew where Ha Jin was headed and I was interested to see how he got there.

But then the story ended. I was expecting a tie-in between the brilliant "getting fired plan" and earlier references to how the couple should have thought things through before inviting Tian's mother to the States. The irony couldn't be made too obvious or it would seem cliche and manufactured, but as it stands now, if the author intended the parallel it's far, far too subtle.

jdmartinsen, June 10, 2009, 7a.m.

# 5.   

You've also got to note the last few sentences of the story:

He remembered that when he was taking the entrance exam fourteen years back, his parents had stood in the rain under a shared umbrella, waiting for him with a lunch tin, sodas and tangerines wrapped in a handkerchief. They each had half a shoulder soaked through. Oh never could he forget their anxious faces. A surge of gratitude drove him to the brink of tears. If only he could speak freely to them again.

So what the hell is this? A sudden maudlin reversion to filial feelings? Regret for the whole "I lost my job" ploy? I want someone to tell me that this section is integral and essential to the story, and not simply an emotionalist regression to some sort of Chinese story-telling cliché. Wherefore the "surge of gratitude"? How is this different from a thousand Chinese stories where it ends with "tears streamed down his/her face", and there's never any explanation why the fuck so-and-so feels moved?

 Eric Abrahamsen, June 10, 2009, 12:12p.m.

# 6.   

Wow, I really disagree with some of the comments made here.

Bruce wrote: "In politically correct America, he can get away with creating one-sided Chinese characters. . . cuz he's Chinese."

Jeff wrote: "There was no real merit to the story, except maybe as some kind of guide for those who aren't yet able to stereotype Chinese people."

Eric wrote: "It's a short-story, not the first assignment in Chinese Culture 101."

I might be reading too much into these comments, but they seem to suggest that Ha Jin's cardboard-cutout characters are somehow TARGETED toward an American/western audience, that he's actually DESIGNED them to conform to western expectations and stereotypes of Chinese people.

I don't think this is the case at all...what we're witnessing here are the very real limitations of Ha Jin as a writer, thinker, chronicler and creator of characters, both Chinese and western.

While Ha Jin does have his moments of insight, perhaps even genius, my gut instinct is that the weaknesses of this particular story have nothing to do with an attempt to tailor the narrative or characters to western tastes. Ha Jin is simply WRITING THE CHARACTERS AS HE PERCEIVES THEM. Some of the characters don't ring true, and some are just plain maudlin.

Having said that, I did feel a little thrill when Tian Chu engineered his own dismissal. I loved the unspoken understanding between Tian and his wife as they conspired to use his "firing" to solve their mother/mother-in-law problem. I was so primed for something fantastic that I couldn't help but whimper when the ending fell flat. Like Eric, I wanted "someone to tell me that this section [was] integral and essential to the story, and not simply an emotionalist regression to some sort of Chinese story-telling cliché."

But nobody's going to tell us that. The ending was a let-down, a cliché, an infantile regression. There's no way around it.

Cindy M. Carter, June 11, 2009, 3:13p.m.

# 7.   

(My comment was too long - here's the 2nd part:)

Some small percentage of the problem lies in Ha Jin's prose. I know it's bad form to criticize a writer who is not writing in his native language - especially one who is so accomplished, and came to English so late in life - but Ha Jin has chosen this path, chosen to make his career as an English-language writer, so I feel that the criticism is justified. Too often, Ha Jin's fiction reads like a literal translation from the Chinese. This may be part of the attraction for some western readers, but I always find it jarring...I can't shake the feeling that Ha Jin is thinking in Chinese while writing in English. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, but it will continue to (1) limit his global readership in translation and (2) hobble any attempt at elegance in his prose.

Relative to native-English speaking writers, Ha Jin will always be working at a disadvantage. As such, he needs to spend more time editing his own prose. He also needs better advisors and editors. Imagine if the last few lines of the story had read like this:

"During his entrance exam fourteen years ago, his parents had waited outside in the rain under a shared umbrella, clutching a lunch tin, sodas and tangerines wrapped in a kerchief. Remembering their soaked sleeves, their anxious faces, he was moved to tears. Was it a surge of gratitude...or was it guilt? If only he could speak freely to them again. If only he could speak the truth."

Ha Jin is a writer in the process of assimilating his American experience into fiction. It is a worthy task, one that shows he is moving forward as an artist - adapting and incorporating new themes rather than rehashing the old ones - but it is a task made doubly difficult by the fact that he has chosen to write in English. In addition to the linguistic hurdles, Ha Jin still has some conceptual obstacles to overcome. As a reader, I'd like to see him cast off maudlin sentimentality and pat characterizations and explore the lives of his characters through inner monologue rather than purely conversational dialogue. When it comes to fleshing out a character, dialogue upon a page only gets you so far. Like any parent and child, Tian Chu and his mother speak in code, in patterns established years earlier. What we as readers really need to know about Ha Jin's characters is not what they are saying, but what they are thinking, what makes them GO.

Cindy M. Carter, June 11, 2009, 3:15p.m.

# 8.   

Translator Envy

Am thoroughly enjoying this thread! And let me say right off that I have not read Ha Jin's writing, so I have no opinion about it per se.

One could argue that this thread is not about Ha Jin's writing. Rather, it is largely about what some China-based Chinese-to-English translators think about his writing.

These thoughts come to mind as I read the above comments:

-- Ha Jin's writing has elicited some rather strong reactions among the interlocuteurs.

-- Although I feel confident that some here would deny it, I get the feeling that Ha Jin has a burden to bear in your eyes. For some reason, he is responsible for presenting a picture of China and/or of individual Chinese that is accurate and somehow "acceptable." In his fiction, that is. The question that begs to be asked is, of course, if he were say, British, writing fiction in which English characters figure, would he be held to that standard?

-- Perhaps Ha Jin's "original sin" in the eyes of some translators is that he has skipped the translation route and elected to communicate with the English-speaking world in English. Now, let's not be naive: Ha Jin's written English should definitely be up to snuff. He holds a Ph D. in English from Brandeis, and teaches English at Boston University. So if his English reads in places like "he was thinking in Chinese while writing in English," I assume that this is his choice, and not the result of Chinglish or bad editing.

-- Our world is changing and changing fast! Chinese writers, particularly those who can emigrate or live abroad for extended periods, will increasingly choose to write in languages such as English and French, and soon Spanish and German too, one would expect. Witness Dai Sijie, Ha Jin, Li Yiyun and Guo Xiaolu. We can expect that they will do some wild and experimental things such as writing in Chinglish (Guo Xiaolu's "A Concise Chinese Dictionary" for Lovers), or dragging Qing dynasty foot-binding into Cultural Revolutionary times (as Ha Jin apparently did in "Waiting"). To me, the key question is: Do these techniques/approaches "work" for the typical reader in the West?

It's almost unfair, isn't it? These Chinese writers writing fiction in a Western language get to do things -- using grammatically flawed English, playing about with Chinese history -- that we accuracy-obsessed translators can't!

Bruce Humes
Chinese Books, English Reviews

 Bruce, June 11, 2009, 9:48p.m.

# 9.   

I find most of Ha Jin's writing unbearable-- but I've only read his novels. This shorter piece worked for me. That Ha Jin form actually works in a brief sketch like this, where you're forced to dig into the short exchanges between mother and son, tight, coded bursts. I can't stand his novels but this works (at least compared to the longform stuff I've seen).

"Too often, Ha Jin's fiction reads like a literal translation from the Chinese."

I always figured that, well, he intends it that way, trying to mimic the patterns of Chinese in English, because, I assume, he's thinking through the story in Chinese, imagining the mother lecturing her son in her native language. But maybe not. Bad Chinese-English translation can have me trying to read the Chinese behind the English, but with Ha Jin it's not that. I don't think dude is thinking in Chinese and writing in English. That ain't it. Too often the language just hits a completely off note that I can't stand.

And I kinda love idiosyncratic English, so that's not it, but I think Ha Jin is trying to really get it all squared away, nail those English expressions, get it just right, and it usually turns out really joyless and wooden (this story is an exception).

Dylan, June 12, 2009, 1:28a.m.

# 10.   

John Updike (not a China-based Chinese-English translator, I believe) took issue with Ha Jin's use of language in his review of Nan, American Man in the New Yorker.

I probably first found that link through this one.

I've only read Waiting, which I enjoyed, and "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town," an entertaining short story that appeared in one of those Best-of compilations a while ago.

Unlike bad novels (bad in the sense that I dislike them), in which I can still find positive elements most of the time, short stories are usually all or nothing for me. And whether a story grabs me has a lot to do with the experience of reading itself. Maybe this time I scuttled the experience by having expectations for the plot that weren't realized, or maybe there's a context that I'm missing. I doubt it's because I have demands on what Ha Jin an emigre writer is supposed to accomplish with his writing (but maybe I'm in denial about that). His responsibility is to write a good story, and for whatever reason that failed for me (but seems to have succeeded for Dylan).

jdmartinsen, June 12, 2009, 2:30a.m.

# 11.   

Here's a Ha Jin story I liked a lot better. It seemed more nuanced, more alive, and it had things to say both about Chinese culture and other cultures.

I don't really have any opinion on the language issue (though I think it's interesting that Chinese-flavored English doesn't fly the same way that, say, Hindu-flavored English can). It's the story itself that matters, and you can smell the difference between a story that's built around an impoverished concept, and one that's got a soul to it.

 Eric Abrahamsen, June 12, 2009, 2:46a.m.

# 12.   

@Bruce:

I get the feeling that Ha Jin has a burden to bear in your eyes. For some reason, he is responsible for presenting a picture of China [...] The question that begs to be asked is, of course, if he were say, British, writing fiction in which English characters figure, would he be held to that standard?

Good question. And, as you suggest, if he were a British, Australian or North American writer, he'd be held to a higher standard.

And as Eric, Joel and John Updike (in various ways) note: you can feel, touch, hear and smell a good story. Viscerally, you just KNOW it.

This story was sensory deprivation.

Cindy M. Carter, June 22, 2009, 5p.m.

# 13.   

Yes, I too think this thread has been fascinating. As a not-China-based Chinese-to-English translators I'd like to take issue with:

if he were say, British, writing fiction in which English characters figure, would he be held to that standard? Of course he would be "held to that standard" if he were a native English speaker!

We translators are miffed "that he has skipped the translation route and elected to communicate with the English-speaking world in English."?! Again, that's rubbish.

And finally, "Ha Jin's written English should definitely be up to snuff. He holds a Ph D. in English from Brandeis..." Holding a PhD in English does not equip anyone to write literature in English. The skills are quite different.

 Nicky Harman, June 27, 2009, 5:47a.m.

# 14.   

Just want to say thanks to all of you for taking part in this thread, which makes my day just about every day of late!

Particularly Cindy and Nicky for some neat writing...

 Bruce, June 27, 2009, 7:49a.m.

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