Interview: Why I've Never Looked For Commercial Success in China

china-ha-jin-taipei-2010.jpg Ha Jin speaks to reporters in Taipei, Taiwan, in a file photo.

Naturalized Chinese-American author Ha Jin's latest novel, A Map Of Betrayal, has as its protagonist a Chinese man who is spying for Beijing in the United States, but who is torn between his love for both countries. In the first part of a recent interview with RFA's Mandarin Service, Ha Jin looks back at the formative years of his life as a writer in exile:

I came to America in 1985 on a one-year Brandeis scholarship. To start with, I expected to stay here for four years, and then go back to China, and I just spent my whole time studying.

RFA: Wasn't that a time when spies were being arrested?

Ha Jin: There were quite a few who were arrested for spying for the Soviet Union, and they turned into celebrities when they got back home.

I wrote my first book in 1987 or 1988, but it wasn't very good. I didn't yet know what I was doing, technically. I was totally blocked and couldn't finish it. Then the Tiananmen massacre happened in 1989, and I thought I would put that into the book as well. But I still wasn't a good writer. When I eventually got published, I was on my sixth book, a novel. After I finished that, I thought I had the ability to write, so that's when I started writing.

RFA: I saw reports that War Trash took you 20 years to write.

Ha Jin: It was gestating for about 20 years, gradually developing within my psyche. I hadn't necessarily sat down to write it. Once I do that, then that's all I do for a time.

My novels are published first in English, so I see myself as coming from ... a tradition of authors who began writing in a language that wasn't their mother tongue, and made it into the mainstream ... like Vladimir Nabokov.

RFA: You are hugely popular in mainland China, though. Don't you think you could break into the Chinese market? And yet you have brought out another forbidden book.

Ha Jin: My feeling is that to do that, you have to make huge concessions in your writing to the Chinese government, and if you don't, that means you don't see the commercial benefits in China, anyway. So I've never sought to be commercially successful in China.

Out of all of my books, Nanjing Requiem lost the most money, and it had a lot of readers in China. The publishing houses don't tell you what's happening. I made about 500 yuan (U.S. $80) out of it, and that wasn't even enough to cover the cost of the phone calls.

Maybe it would work out better if they made a movie out of my book, but I've never had any of my work made into a movie, ever. The Nanjing massacre is a hugely sensitive topic that a lot of my fellow authors wouldn't touch, because it's so hard to do well. Also, a book like that must be useful, to the culture, to society as a whole.

The book made the shortlists for various literary prizes in China but was always taken off the shortlist at the last minute. They would say it was because it was a translated work, but I think that they were ordered to take it off [by the authorities].

But I have a good job. The conditions are good, and I'm financially independent. I can't complain.

RFA: There's a difference between fame and voice, isn't there, between serious literary fiction and bestsellers.

Ha Jin: There's a huge difference between commercially successful works and works of literary merit. It is about your literary voice. People who love literature will recognize that.

But with some authors, you can't always make the distinction between what is a bestseller, and what is a work of serious literature. They may write a lot of pot-boilers, but then a couple of their books are extremely serious and carefully written. Authors like this are important, and shouldn't be left out of the canon.

Reported by Gu Jirou and Cheng Gong for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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