Relocation, Relocation, Relocation

A new book reflects on the writer as migrant. Scott McLemee tracks it down.

November 19, 2008

Every so often a word become charged with a certain magic. One example, in decades past, was “alienation.” A more recent instance is “exile,” which for a while now has enjoyed a degree of glamor wholly distinct from the normally miserable experience of real-life exile itself. Such has been the case in literary and cultural studies, anyway.Somewhere along the way, it ceased to refer to the circumstance of being expelled from one’s homeland, or otherwise obliged to flee and unable to return. It took on vaguer connotations, and ever more charm.

Reading books from university presses or listening to papers at MLA, one learned that almost any kind of relocation, displacement, or out-of-sorts experience counted as exile. It seemed, more and more, to be a state of mind, if not an existential condition. In that regard “exile” came to resemble “alienation,” except that the earlier term had grown passé.

Given what exile means in the more pedestrian, agonizing sense -- the loss of one's home, citizenship, and wherewithal -- it was hard not to cringe at the metaphorical and metaphysical bloating of this once-meaningful term. The best you could do was bite your tongue.

Either that, or push the exaggeration into overdrive. The fascination with exile is a kind of self-melodramatizing by proxy. We’re all exiles now – maybe especially the adjuncts. I am considering a memoir of life “in exile” from my home town in Texas, a tiny gemeinschaft that only got its second stop-light a few years ago. (Clearly some conditions of exile are easier to bear than others.)

No freeze-dried profundities about the exilic condition are to be found in Ha Jin’s book The Writer as Migrant, recently published by the University of Chicago Press. This seems all the more remarkable given that the author himself – a novelist who is now a professor of creative writing at Boston University – has been in exile, in the most exactingly literal sense, for almost two decades, ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre.

In fact, Ha Jin uses the word “exile” itself sparingly, instead preferring a more expansive category.

“My choice of the word ‘migrant,’” he explains, “is meant to be as inclusive as possible – it encompasses all kinds of people who move, or are forced to move, from one country to another, such as exiles, emigrants, immigrants, and refugees.” The migrant has not simply left a homeland, whether willingly or by necessity. He or she has arrived in a new place and must make a life there, with or without ties to the old country. And that entails a possibility that the old ties will be replaced or transformed. Ha Jin’s emphasis is on the potentials (and the dangers) this creates for a specific kind of migrant: the writer.

Obviously his own experience as a Chinese emigre has written all of his fiction in the adopted language of English forms the backdrop to his reflections. “When I began to write,” he says, “I longed for a return to China, and I saw my stay in the United States as a sojourn, so it felt almost natural for me to claim to be something of a spokesman for the unfortunate Chinese. Little did I know that such a claim could be so groundless.”

For one thing, the day of return did not arrive. And sooner or later, there was a challenge to his moral claim, whether from other people or from his own conscience: “You sell your country and your people abroad.”

Creative labor in a new language, too, entails a sense of betrayal, even as it also opens up the possibility of making a new way in the world. “I have been asked why I write in English,” says Ha Jin. “I often reply, ‘For survival.’ People tend to equate ‘survival’ with ‘livelihood’ and praise my modest, also shabby, motivation. In fact, physical survival is just one side of the picture, and there is also the other side, namely, to exist – to live a meaningful life.” As he later puts it, “your homeland is where you build your home.”

But this book, which began life as a series of lectures at Rice University, is not a memoir. Ha Jin presents his reflections chiefly by way of short comments on the work of migrant writers, some of them exiles (Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, Kundera) while others repatriated by choice (Conrad, Lin Yutang, Naipaul). “My observations,” Ha Jin avers, “ are merely that – my observations. Every individual has his peculiar circumstances and every writer has his own way of surviving and practicing his art. Yet I hope my work here can shed some light on the existence of the writer as migrant.”

Ha Jin’s approach is atheoretical and ahistorical, and so devoid of any tendency to ponderousness that the lack is quite conspicuous. It is a modest book; almost aggressively modest. But it leaves the non-migrant American reader (one whose travels have always been voluntary and round-trip) better prepared for the future, as more of our literature is written in English as a second language.


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