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).
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