Exiled to English
At the time, I was in the United States, finishing a dissertation in American literature. My plan was to go back to China once it was done. I had a teaching job waiting for me at Shandong University.
After the crackdown, some friends assured me that the Communist Party would admit its mistake within a year. I couldn’t see why they were so optimistic. I also thought it would be foolish to wait passively for historical change. I had to find my own existence, separate from the state power in China.
That was when I started to think about staying in America and writing exclusively in English, even if China was my only subject, even if Chinese was my native tongue. It took me almost a year to decide to follow the road of Conrad and Nabokov and write in a language that was not my own. I knew I might fail. I was also aware that I was forgoing an opportunity: the Chinese language had been so polluted by revolutionary movements and political jargon that there was great room for improvement.
Yet if I wrote in Chinese, my audience would be in China and I would therefore have to publish there and be at the mercy of its censorship. To preserve the integrity of my work, I had no choice but to write in English.
To some Chinese, my choice of English is a kind of betrayal. But loyalty is a two-way street. I feel I have been betrayed by China, which has suppressed its people and made artistic freedom unavailable. I have tried to write honestly about China and preserve its real history. As a result, most of my work cannot be published in China.
I cannot leave behind June 4, 1989, the day that set me on this solitary path. The memory of the bloodshed still rankles, and working in this language has been a struggle. But I remind myself that both Conrad and Nabokov suffered intensely for choosing English — and that literature can transcend language. If my work is good and significant, it should be valuable to the Chinese."Ha Jin is the author of “A Free Life” and “Waiting.”