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Writer Ha Jin left China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. Since then, he has written five novels, including "Waiting," which won the National Book Award; and "War Trash," the recipient of the Penn-Faulkner Award.
Jin currently teaches literature at Boston University. His latest book is not a work of fiction, but a slim collection of essays published by University of Chicago Press. Entitled "The Writer is Migrant," the book looks at the different ways writers have dealt with geographic displacement -- from Joseph Conrad and Alexander Solzenitzen to V.S. Naipaul.
Jin talks to "The World's" book editor Bill Marx about the personal discoveries he made while writing the book, as well as his belief that history is best understood through fiction.
Early on, Jin saw himself as a representative of China, but as he became a fiction writer, more and more he became uncomfortable with that stance. He explains how writing his latest book helped him through this process: "There was always discomfort, but I [didn't] know how to articulate, how to reason, and how to express ... but in writing this book, gradually by ... providing different examples, by examining them, I realized in fact that it's not the identity you give yourself, it is really the work you produce. If [it's] good enough ... that really will bring you forward, or back to your own people."
His idea of "homeland" changed as well: "The issue of homeland really became clearer to me ... the word homeland in English has two meanings: One is one's native land, the other is the place where one's home is ... the idea of homeland involves more the present and the future than the past. Homeland can be adopted."
Jin thinks being too nostalgic for one's native land isn't a good thing: "We are human beings who all have the longing for our old place. That's natural. On the other hand, we have to be rational ... that place is not the same, you are not the same ... it's impossible to return to the same place as the same person ... especially for ... exiles, nostalgia can be very negative because very often they try to frame people in the old frame of mind, and you cannot deal with the present and the future as a result.
"That's very, very dangerous -- that's why I think a lot of exiles are very miserable, because they still live in the past, which for them is glorious, significant."
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