In the first essay, The Spokesman & the Tribe, Jin explores the balance between the individual and the collective, and asks to what extent a writer can ‘speak for’ his nation or people, especially if he has abandoned them to live in a new country. I was interested in his initial desire as a young writer to write “on behalf of the downtrodden Chinese”. He makes it clear that he later abandoned this position, but I would have liked to know more about how and why.
In fact, throughout the whole book I would have liked to know more about Ha Jin’s thoughts on migration. His journey, after all, was an interesting one – from an uneducated teenage soldier in the Chinese army during the Cultural Revolution to a professor at Boston University and author of five novels, a couple of which I’ve read and greatly enjoyed. I would have liked him to draw on his own experience of migration, but he does so only rarely, in small glimpses like the one mentioned above. Mostly what we have is a survey of other writers and their thoughts on migration – quite interesting, but for me ultimately unsatisfying because there was no clear overall argument or point of view to draw the whole thing together.
In any case, it was interesting to learn about Solzhenitsyn’s life in America, how he lived in rural Vermont but never really settled, never took citizenship, was always waiting to go back to Russia. After the fall of the Soviet Union he got his chance, but the interesting thing was that after moving back home, he struggled to speak effectively on behalf of the new Russia, as he had spoken on behalf of the old while in exile. His later books Russia in Collapse (1998) and Two Hundred Years Together (2001) were coldly received, and he was seen as out of touch. Even his radio show was cancelled due to low ratings. Ha Jin’s point is that he was loved for his earlier masterpieces, but even that did not give him the right to speak on behalf of the people – when his views no longer matched theirs, they rejected him.
The second essay, The Language of Betrayal, deals with the decision to write in another language. Again, Jin does not speak of his own decision to write in English and whether he feels this is a betrayal — instead we hear about Joseph Conrad being criticised for abandoning the Polish language, and Nabokov’s difficulty writing poetry in English even though he was a master of prose.
An Individual’s Homeland explores the difficulty of returning home — the way that Odysseus initially didn’t recognise Ithaka when he returned after his twenty years of exile, because both he and the land itself had changed. As Jin says, “One cannot return to the same land as the same person.” He talks of using art to survive, as the character Max Ferber does in W.G. Sebald’s book The Emigrants. He ends by referring to the Greek poet CP Cavafy, who positions ‘Ithaka’ as a destination for life’s journey, but not necessarily a return to the homeland. The homeland becomes a part of the past that can be used “to facilitate our journeys”.
As you’d expect from an English professor, the analysis of writers and books here is astute and interesting. I just got the feeling sometimes that he was talking about other writers to avoid talking about himself. Using literary examples is a good idea, but I’d have preferred them to be used to support a clearer argument from Ha Jin himself, drawing on his own experiences to give us his unique, original perspective instead of a summary of other people’s.