[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Ha Jin’s A Good Fall (November, Pantheon 2009)



After two partly overly long novels (at least in my estimation), Ha Jin returns with a spritely and witty short story collection, his first collection of short stories since The Bridegroom in 2000. Like A Free Life, the majority of the short stories take place in the United States, perhaps a clear shift then in Ha Jin’s approach to textual representation. In this case, all the stories are set in Flushing, New York. The majority of the stories seem to revolve around the problematics related to assimilation. In this regard, the collection is not far in its thematics to his previous novel, but the improvement here is in the scope and the narrative arc. Whereas A Free Life required Jin to sustain a compelling narrative premise over more than 600 pages, each intricate and more contained short story finds its own intimate footing. Most of the stories are concerned with various domestic squabbles. I’ll focus on the couple that I found most compelling. “Children as Enemies” is narrated from the perspective of a grandfather who finds the Americanization of his children appalling. The tension first appears when his two grandchildren desire “American” sounding names. The plot thickens once one of the children demands the family name to be changed as well. What is very clear in this story is that the children are seen as vessels devoid of any ethnonational pride; that is, they do not see themselves in Chinese in any way. If such is the matter, their repudiation of their names becomes symbolic of the repudiation, at least the grandfather rationalizes, of him and his wife. While the children are I would think pretty fairly demonized, I can’t help but also find it interesting that the grandparents would think that the children would remain so prideful of their Chinese background. I wondered if the dichotomy here was too stark in its representation. Either way, the tension that is set up and one wonders far long after the pages have ended to this short story, whether or not the children would remain so resistant to their ethnic backgrounds. “Choice” depicts a very complicated love triangle that develops between a tutor, his student and his student’s mother. While both the student and the student’s lover find themselves attracted to the tutor, the tutor’s “choice” of one of the two will lead to complicated entanglements. The conclusion to this story seemed especially fitting, although still in its own way surprising. “In the Crossfire” explores the challenging relationship between a husband, his wife, and the “mother-in-law.” The tension of course appears between the “wife” character and her mother-in-law, where nothing the wife seems to do is enough to please the mother-in-law and the mother-in-law’s treatment of the wife results in the wife’s plea for support from her husband. In this regard, the husband character is placed firmly in the middle, attempting to navigate such perilous waters. One of the most strangest, but heartwarming stories is “A Composer and His Parakeets,” in which an actress leaves behind her pet parakeet to her boyfriend, who is a composer. At first the boyfriend-composer is really put off by having to take care of the pet parakeet, but the parakeet soon develops a very strong bond to the boyfriend-composer that culminates in a daring sequence in which the boyfriend-composer performs a kind of CPR on the bird. In any case, the short stories in “A Good Fall” are just right in terms of their length and tone. It is clear that Jin excels in this particular form because the quiet domesticities of the everyday can find firmer footing in a narrative space with more restricted “economy.” Perhaps, the one short story that was a disappointment was “An English Professor,” only because I had held out hope that the story might be something quite germane to the politics of Asian American literary critique, especially as one paragraph reveals that a character teaches Asian American literature:

“He went to Whitney Hall, where he was teaching his immigrant literature course this semester. Today the class was discussing America is In the Heart, by Carlos Bulosan. Rusheng spoke at length about the problems in choosing the form of fiction or that of nonfiction. Bulosan originally wrote his story as a novel, but the press persuaded him to publish it as a memoir. The same thing happened to other books by Asian American authors—for instance, The Woman Warrior. That was why the writer Frank Chin claimed: ‘The yellow autobiography is a white racist form’” (142).

It is clear though that Jin’s awareness of and references to an Asian American literary history is his avowal of a taxonomy that he himself will and is coming to be classified within and that such classification will indeed be of a political sort.

Buy the book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Good-Fall-Stories-Ha-Jin/dp/0307378683/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1249955525&sr=8-1


Ha Jin
[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Ha Jin’s A Free Life (Paperback Edition, Vintage International, 2009)

 

The first of Ha Jin’s writing to be primarily set in the United States, A Free Life is a meandering, yet nevertheless beautifully written novel, expounding upon and nuancing the prototypical Asian American immigrant narrative.  In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Wu family (comprised of Nan Wu, the father, Pinging Wu, the mother, and Taotao, the son) must forge a new life in the United States.  After Nan drops out of graduate school in political science at Brandeis University, the family must work harder than ever to ensure a successful future.  The novel takes us from suburbs of Boston, to New York City, to Atlanta, and in the later stages of the text, back to China.  In the meantime, Ha Jin aims to clarify some of the nuances in the Chinese diasporic community by linking some of the difficulties that the Wu family faces directly because of their Mandarin-speaking background.  My biggest critique of the novel is that it is just too long, and clocking in at a morbidly obese 660 pages, A Free Life could have certainly used a harsh editor.  The uneven plot does little to carry the reader along and really, I believe, it is the strength of Ha Jin’s writing style that lovingly develops and carries what meager momentum there often is for the Wu family.  For those that have read some Asian American literature, the narrative itself will feel ultimately overly familiar, for the “American Dream” looms large as a unifying trope in numerous cultural productions and texts.  Why it is that we should deign to spend it with this seemingly mundane family does beg the particular question about whether or not Jin aimed to consider this from the perspective of U.S “minority” literatures?  Indeed, Nan Wu, an aspiring poet and writer, does at one point, come upon the names Gish Jen and Maxine Hong Kingston, but later rather emulates other more “canonical” poets.  Given the immigrant suffering and angst so prevalent in Jen and Kingston’s work, perhaps Nan Wu would have found a different perspective from which to understand, challenge, and critique his own life’s path.  Toward the concluding pages of the text, Nan is finally sending out poems for publication: “He mailed out another batch of poems to a small journal called Yellow Leaves, which he had noticed published some Asian American authors” (591).  The reader never discovers if his poetic aspirations are successful, only left with an epilogue of Nan’s poems. 

What is certainly breathtaking about Jin’s larger publication arc though is in the tremendous plasticity with which he moves from one sociohistorical particularity to another.  Prior to A Free Life, Ha Jin’s War Trash (shortlisted for the Pultizer Prize in fiction) explored the much-overlooked context of Chinese communist armies dispatched during the Korean War.  Here, the form of War Trash is much like A Free Life in its focus on one particular character and there is less attention to a flash sequence of events than to the development of fictional figuration.  In this respect, Jin’s strength consistently seems to lie in the contouring of these various fictional minds, whether it is the Wu family or the protagonist from War Trash.  Given the length of A Free Life, it might be a hard sell to teach in the already limited time frame of the semester or quarter system, but it regardless, Jin’s novel, despite its ominous length, is a wonderful addition to Asian American literature (and American literature more broadly). 

 

Buy The Book Here:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Free-Life-Vintage-International/dp/0307278603/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1238704383&sr=8-1

[identity profile] sa-am.livejournal.com


The first of Ha Jin’s writing to be primarily set in the United States, A Free Life is a meandering, yet nevertheless beautifully written novel, expounding upon and nuancing the prototypical Asian American immigrant narrative. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Wu family (comprised of Nan Wu, the father, Pinging Wu, the mother, and Taotao, the son) must forge a new life in the United States. After Nan drops out of graduate school in political science at Brandeis University, the family must work harder than ever to ensure a successful future. The novel takes us from suburbs of Boston, to New York City, to Atlanta, and in the later stages of the text, back to China. In the meantime, Ha Jin aims to clarify some of the nuances in the Chinese diasporic community by linking some of the difficulties that the Wu family faces directly because of their Mandarin-speaking background. My biggest critique of the novel is that it is just too long, and clocking in at a morbidly obese 660 pages, A Free Life could have certainly used a harsh editor. The uneven plot does little to carry the reader along and really, I believe, it is the strength of Ha Jin’s writing style that lovingly develops and carries what meager momentum there often is for the Wu family. For those that have read some Asian American literature, the narrative itself will ultimately overly familiar, for the “American Dream” looms large as a unifying trope in numerous cultural productions and texts. Why it is that we should deign to spend it with this seemingly mundane family does beg the particular question about whether or not Jin aimed to consider this from the perspective of U.S “minority” literatures? Indeed, Nan Wu, an aspiring poet and writer, does at one point, come upon the names Gish Jen and Maxine Hong Kingston, but later rather emulates other more “canonical” poets. Given the immigrant suffering and angst so prevalent in Jen and Kingston’s work, perhaps Nan Wu would have found a different perspective from which to understand, challenge, and critique his own life’s path. Toward the concluding pages of the text, Nan is finally sending out poems for publication: “He mailed out another batch of poems to a small journal called Yellow Leaves, which he had noticed published some Asian American authors” (591). The reader never discovers if his poetic aspirations are successful, only left with an epilogue of Nan’s poems.

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