Ha Jin’s A Free Life

In this blog, I have tried to focus on books that haven’t been reviewed much elsewhere. It’s usually easy to do since many of the books I like come from small presses and don’t get a lot of attention. The novel I want to write about now, however, comes from Random House and has been reviewed widely. Many critics have made similar points about A Free Life by National Book Award winner Ha Jin. The author uses mundane details to tell the story of a Chinese immigrant and his family. Walter Kirn in The New York Times calls the pace of this realistic narrative “slow, implacable and steady.” Previous books by Ha Jin have not been heavy on plot — his best-known novel is aptly entitled Waiting — but the slowness here is more noticeable since A Free Life is over six hundred pages. Reviewers have mentioned many of the strengths of this long, meditative book. Kirn remarks on “the Zen-like composure” of the prose while Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly praises the author’s ability to speak “directly to the readers’ heart.” But what compels me to write about A Free Life went unexamined in the reviews that I read.

This omission isn’t surprising since what interests me unfolds in the later chapters of the book. To explore it in a review, therefore, is to risk revealing too much plot. I promise not to do that.

What I will do is touch upon Jin’s use of poetry near the end of the book. At the center of A Free Life is an aspiring poet, Nan Wu, who comes to the U.S. from China in the 1980s. In the beginning of the novel, he leaves Brandeis University where he has been studying political science. His goal is to get a job where he can think about poetry while at work.

But Nan doesn’t just have to support himself; he also has a wife and son to consider. After leaving Brandeis, he works as a security guard and then as a busboy and cook. In a matter of months he has lost some of the thinking that he brought with him from his communist homeland: “he was no longer ashamed of working hard to make a dollar.” With constant work and prudent savings, the Wus achieve financial security relatively quickly for new immigrants. Unfortunately, Nan’s dream of writing poetry ends up getting buried beneath his need to make money.

When this need grows less intense, Nan turns his attention back to what he really wants to do. As he starts to focus on poetry, a curious picture emerges. Ha Jin shows us the largely academic workings of American poetry — MFA programs, prizes and the importance of having connections to famous poets — from the unique point of view of his protagonist. Nan’s perspective has been shaped by communist China, capitalist America and the poetry of both countries. He is erudite and idealistic, and these factors come together to give him a fascinating take on both the individual vision of the poet and the paying community of the MFA workshop.

Ha Jin is not only a novelist but a poet, and he draws upon his dual skills to tell this story. As a novelist, he shows how Nan’s choices shape the future; and as a poet, he creates the work that Nan, inspired by unfolding events, comes to write. The result is a moving book that explores the relationship between the many aspects of a poet’s life — working, personal, professional — and the work that he creates.

A Free Life is not without its flaws. John Updike in his review in The New Yorker does a thorough job of discussing a jarring one: Ha Jin, who is not a native English speaker, uses odd words here and there. Updike quotes a number of them in his review. These occasional slips, though, do not detract from the book’s emotional depth and cultural relevance. With A Free Life, Ha Jin contributes to the ongoing conversation about how poetry and literature are being produced in America.

I am looking forward to hearing him read at the AWP Conference in two weeks.

Originally posted on 1.18.2008