Across an Ocean of Words


By John D. Thomas

In June 1989, massive student demonstrations were held in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in support of democracy. The communist government sent troops in to squelch the dissent, and in the bloody melee that ensued, tanks rolled through the square and hundreds were killed.

Even though the pro-democracy movement was quashed, scenes of the students' valiant struggles were beamed all over the world. One intent viewer was Xuefei Jin, a thirty-three-year-old Chinese student working on his doctoral degree in American literature at Brandeis University. Jin had originally planned to earn his Ph.D. and return to China and teach, but as he watched the events from Tiananmen Square on the television in his home in Boston, weeping at the brutal violence, he realized he could never go back.

"I never thought the government would send troops to kill students," says Jin, now an assistant professor in the English Department at Emory. "It was very traumatic for me. It's such a brutal government. I was very angry, and I decided not to return to China."

Staying in the United States meant a substantial risk for Jin. He had a secure job waiting for him in his homeland, and making a living here as a teacher and writer meant he would have to abandon the security of working in his native tongue.

"For the initial years it was like having a blood transfusion, like you are changing your blood," says Jin, who still speaks with a thick accent. But his perseverance paid off. Not only did he secure a job at Emory teaching creative writing, but his fiction has recently garnered a number of important accolades. In the spring of 1997, he won the prestigious Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction for his collection of short stories, Ocean of Words. "This debut book, of simple style and understated beauty," the judges commented, "is occasion for real celebration."

Frank Manley, the director of Emory's Creative Writing Program and an accomplished playwright, agrees with that evaluation. "I consider Xuefei to be not only one of the most important young American authors, but also one of the most unusual," he says. "He is the only real genius I have ever known, and, as Emerson once said of Whitman, I believe that he stands on the threshold of a truly great career."

Jin spent his childhood in China during the Cultural Revolution. When he was fourteen, he joined the army and spent six years as a soldier. At first he carried artillery shells on the border with the Soviet Union but was later transferred from the front to be trained as a telegraph operator.

Jin used his military experiences as raw material for the stories in Ocean of Words. Describing them as "achingly human," the New York Times commented that the characters in his stories "form a group portrait that suggests how an entire people struggles to keep its basic humanity within the stiff, unnatural confines of Maoist ideology." For example, in "A Report," an officer must write a letter to his superior explaining why his entire company broke down and cried while singing a sad tune as they marched through town: "Our Most Respected Comrade Commissar, on behalf of my company, I suggest we ban this poisonous song and investigate the family and political backgrounds of its author and its composer."

While Jin admits there are elements of his life and experiences in much of his writing, he says his work is not autobiographical, a practice he tells his students puts serious constraints on a writer. "When you construct a piece of work, a novel or a story, you need a lot of drama and a message," explains the author, who writes under the pen name Ha Jin. "But when you write an autobiographical piece, you cannot create a happening. If this has not happened, you cannot say it happened. It is not faithful to reality, and so that is the limitation. In addition to that, I want to make my work better than myself."

Jin has received the most plaudits for his short stories, and his second volume, Under the Red Flag, won the coveted Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction from the University of Georgia Press. But he has also penned two volumes of poetry and is finishing up a lengthy novel, which he describes as a love story set in a Chinese military hospital. While he enjoys each of these forms of writing,

Jin says practical reasons make short stories his favorite genre. "You can get into a short story and get it out easily," he explains. "If I work on a novel, I have to immerse myself in it for a long time completely. You are just absorbed by the work, so it is a very hard process, and sometimes I don't have the time and the leisure to do that. As for poetry, it's pure luck. You don't know whether this will work, and you just try and try. I abandon a lot of poems, and so I think it is a high order of writing. It's harder and it depends on luck. Sometimes you write a poem without much effort but it works well, and sometimes you just work for months on one but it doesn't work."

To date, practically all of Jin's writing has focused on the land of his birth. In the future, he wants to examine life in America from what he believes is a neglected perspective.

"I want to write about the feeling of being a first-generation immigrant," says Jin, who became an American citizen last year. "I think very often it is the children or grandchildren who write about their parents, but how did the parents feel when they were here? There hasn't been a lot written about that, and I think maybe I can write a little bit about that."

Even though Jin misses his homeland, going back to China is not an option. "I have gone so far in English," he says. "Language is like water. You live in it, so it would be very hard to go back. And another reason is my son. He is an American boy, and I can't just break up the family. It would be insane to do that."

Photo by Kay Hinton

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