Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ha JIN ... A New Life (Pantheon, 2007)

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD-winner Ha Jin, like Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, writes in a language not his own, yet has made English his language, his stepmother tongue, if you will. Ha Jin has written a new novel called A New Life (Pantheon, 2007), his third novel and the first with a story set entirely in his adopted land, which follows hot on the heels of his critically acclaimed novels, Waiting (1999) and War Trash (2004).

This time, the pursuit of the American dream forms the crux of the story. Ha Jin’s protagonists are newcomers to the U.S., people who work hard in menial jobs to become citizens of the land of plenty. The Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 was a major turning point for most Chinese nationals in the U.S. As a result of the massacre, many Chinese who had gone to America to study with the intention of returning home decided to stay back and become U.S. citizens.

Through concise, economical and urgent prose, organised into short, succinct chapters, and the use of Chinese immigrant speech rhythms and inflections, A New Life tells the story of how the protagonist, Nan Wu, a struggling poet, and his wife Pingping and their young son Taotao adapt to life in their adopted country. Nan Wu’s quest for a sense of security and belonging takes him from Boston to New York to Atlanta.

There is much delicacy and precision in the way Ha Jin narrates the story. It is a skill to write with such effortless grace and elegance. It is such a simple story, yet it engages you and keeps you turning the pages to find out more about the couple and their life in America. It is not merely a story about the Chinese immigrant experience in America; it is not just about the assimilation or Americanisation of immigrants into American life; it is also about starting life anew amidst uncertainties, managing freedom and the desire to write in a new language, to find one’s voice as a poet. A free life does not come with no strings attached; it comes, of course, with a price that is sometimes just too high.

A New Life is definitely one of my favourite books of 2007.

Photograph © Miriam Berkley
Photograph used with the kind permission of the photographer


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