Monday, September 25, 2006

Portrait of a Banned Author

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Emily Parker offers a fascinating look at Ha Jin, an award-winning Chinese novelist whose books are essentially banned in his home country:

BOSTON--Ha Jin did not jump at the chance to be interviewed. "I don't know much about most things," he protested when I sent him my request. "If you have a subject of which I am ignorant, I may not be able to do much."

After assuring the writer that we would discuss topics that he knows about, I went to his office at Boston University, where he is currently teaching literature and creative writing. The gray-haired, slightly rumpled Ha Jin came downstairs to meet me. Upon noticing that I was holding two shopping bags, he insisted on carrying them as we walked over to a nearby Cambodian restaurant. Throughout our dinner, Ha Jin responded to allusions to the great success of his novels--"Waiting" won the National Book Award in 1999 and "War Trash" the PEN/Faulkner in 2005--with a detachment that bordered on bewilderment.

Such humility is striking, considering that Ha Jin may very well be the most important Chinese novelist today. His realist portrayals of Chinese history and society tell a story that the outside world doesn't often get to hear. And rarely are accounts of moral depravity and human suffering so elegantly told. It is for these very reasons that Ha Jin is having a hard time getting his books published in China.

With the exception of "Waiting," the saga of one man trapped in a loveless marriage, Ha Jin has not been able to get a single book published on the mainland. While his work has not been explicitly "banned" by authorities, the government has sent out clear signals to publishers that taking on his work would be a very bad idea. Comments in the state media, for example, criticized his work, and mainland publishers got the message.

Who Will Tell the Story of China?


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