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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Writer as Migrant

Ha Jin

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To purchase The Writer as Migrant

Title: The Writer as Migrant
Author: Ha Jin
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2008
Length: 86 pages
Availability: The Writer as Migrant - US
The Writer as Migrant - UK
The Writer as Migrant - Canada
  • Delivered as the Rice University Campbell Lectures, 2006

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Our Assessment:

B : modestly useful consideration of the writer as migrant

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 6/12/2008 Steven Poole
The New Republic . 24/12/2008 Caryl Phillips
San Francisco Chronicle . 9/11/2008 Vanessa Hua
The Spectator . 21/1/2009 Alberto Manguel
Times Higher Ed. . 18/12/2008 Rita Felski
The Washington Post . 14/12/2008 Francine Prose

  From the Reviews:
  • "The examples of other exiled writers are scrutinised with a critical sympathy in this trio of limpid essays." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "There are two ways to read these essays. First, they are the reflections of a professor who has thought seriously on issues of migration, representation, language, and homeland as academic spheres of inquiry, and whose reading and erudition are dutifully on display. (...) The second way to read these essays is to approach them as though they have been written by a writer who has himself lived their subject. But then they read like a strange exercise in reticence whose purpose is unclear." - Caryl Phillips, The New Republic

  • "In this poignant and provocative book, Jin takes us on this journey, revealing the paths laid by migrant writers before him and perhaps by those who will follow." - Vanessa Hua, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The three Aristotelian questions are the starting-points of three meditations that analyse, in turn, the exiled writer who crowns himself, or finds himself crowned, spokesperson of his tribe; the responsibilities of the writer who migrates, not only from country to country, but from language to language; and the writer who, from abroad, must still construct in his mind a place that he can call home." - Alberto Manguel, The Spectator

  • "Not everyone will be persuaded by Jin's attempt to resuscitate a view of art as autonomous and timeless, by his depiction of literary value as self-evident and self-generated, determined only by the power and the beauty of the words on the page. At their best, however, these essays offer a thoughtful and thought-provoking defence of the author's right to define his own reasons for writing and to fashion his own home." - Rita Felski, Times Higher Education

  • "Unsurprisingly, many of the book's most valuable passages concern the craft of writing." - Francine Prose, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Writer as Migrant collects Ha Jin's three Campbell Lectures, held at Rice University in 2006.
       Both an exile and immigrant -- Ha Jin left China as an adult and settled in the United States, where he has become an English-writing author --, Ha Jin doesn't delve deep into his own experience, but he does mention it, and it obviously colors much of what he writes here. Early in the first piece he recalls that when he published his first book of poems (written in English):

I viewed myself as a Chinese writer who would write in English on behalf of the downtrodden Chinese.
       He immediately admits: "I was unaware of the complexity and infeasibility of the position", but Jin's concern for both the writer's audience and for the purpose of writing -- "for whom does the writer speak ?" -- already determine much of his position. For Jin it is clear that:
     But for whom does the writer speak ? Of course not just for himself. Then, for a group ? For those who are not listened to ?
       The (surely very real) possibility that a writer does, indeed, speak only for him or herself is dismissed out of hand. No wonder his first piece focuses on Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Lin Yutang, programmatic writers less concerned with art or literature than with conveying specific messages or information -- specifically their conceptions of their homelands and these homeland's histories. (Even Jin has to admit about Solzhenitsyn's work that: "we can see that the books he wrote in Vermont are less literary than the novels he had written before his exile", but that fits with his fundamental idea, that especially in exile the author is concerned with who his audience will be (and with pounding a message home to that audience).)
       Indeed, art remains secondary throughout Jin's discussions; for him -- as for the Chinese authorities of the past decades -- the message, and how it is received are what count. Jin sees almost only craft, not art (he does gives some Nabokov-examples in the chapter on authors who abandon their mother tongues to write in a second language), and seems unable to conceive of writing simply out of necessity, without any concern for who might eventually read the words (or where the writer is physically located -- in exile or not). As a consequence, he concludes, for example:
The German writer W.G.Sebald lived and taught in England for over three decades and knew both English and French well, but he always wrote in his native language. When asked why he had not switched to English, he answered there was no necessity. That he could give such an answer must be because German was a major European language from which his works could be rendered into other European languages without much difficulty.
       Jin's certainty -- 'must be' -- is embarrassing; at the very least there are other possibilities to consider; beyond that, his reading is almost certainly entirely wrong: it's hard to imagine that the ease with which his writings could (or couldn't) be rendered into other languages figured high among Sebald's concerns (or, indeed, even in his thoughts) when he sat down to write his work. Jin similarly brushes off Milan Kundera's switch to writing in French much too simply.
       The subjects addressed in these lectures are interesting, from the role Solzhenitsyn and Lin wanted their writing to play to the issue (and cost -- personal and public) of a writer switching to a foreign language, and, finally, the possibility of returning out of exile. But this is a thin book, and with his very selective examples (and interpretation) Jin barely scratches much of the surface. He writes quite well, and gets in many nice statements -- "Only through literature is a genuine return possible for the exiled writer" -- but his perspective is surprisingly limited -- perhaps by his own experience of exile. Many of his pronouncements ("Only through literature is a genuine return possible for the exiled writer" ...) also don't withstand all that much scrutiny.
       The Writer as Migrant is a decent introduction to the subject, usefully name-dropping many of the best examples (Solzhenitsyn, Lin, Kundera, Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, V.S.Naipaul) but not doing nearly enough with them.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 October 2009

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The Writer as Migrant: Reviews: Ha Jin: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ha Jin was born in China in 1956 and emigrated to the United States. He teaches at Boston University.

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