Book Review: The Writer As Migrant

The Writer As Migrant, by Ha Jin

I must admit that reading this book gave me a somewhat melancholy feeling as someone who has long written and lived with a certain sense of estrangement from my roots [1].  This experience is surely not unique, as the author manages to discuss a great many people who managed to write and write very well despite being cut off from their native roots, from Dante to Nabokov, and from Joseph Conrad to V.S. Naipal, all of which are writers I am familiar with and generally fond of.  The experience of being an exile carries with it a certain tension about where we belong and who our audience is, and whether it is best to write in our native language or to accommodate ourselves to the language of where we happen to be.  In my own experience, as a native speaker and writer of English and as someone who started learning Spanish very young as well, I am perfectly content to write in both languages, although I greatly prefer to write in English.  Not everyone is fortunate enough to have as their native languages major languages, though, and face a deeper problem as they seek to live as writers in the midst of the problems of being cut off from one’s homeland.

This short book of less than 100 pages is made up of three essays from the author on the problem of the writer as an exile.  After a short preface the author begins his discussion with a thoughtful examination of the spokesman and the tribe, pointing out that the writer as an exile faces a difficult problem in seeking to speak for a people he no longer lives around, for to abandon one’s citizenship or one’s native language makes it very difficult to maintain credibility as a spokesmen for one’s native people, a problem that Joseph Conrad faced being a writer in English despite being a native Pole, but one that was better navigated, for example, by Solzhenitsyn, who despite his mistreatment ended up maintaining his credibility with the Russian people as a spokesman.  The second essay takes up the theme of the language of betrayal, again focusing on Joseph Conrad and writers who sought (not entirely successfully) to distinguish themselves from him as people who wrote literature in English as a second language.  The third and final essay looks at the nature of an individuals homeland through a discussion of Odysseus’ Ithaca and its various meanings and implications in contemporary poetry and literature.  Throughout the author manages to strike a delicate balance between the individual and the collective while pointing out that while a writer cannot help but be moral, there are strong limitations as to the sort of moral change that writers can promote through their writings.

What is it that made me sad to read these essays?  For one, the author himself is an exile, a native Chinese writer who had been a part of the PLA but who managed to become a professor at Boston University as well as a successful writer of Chinese literature, by no means a popular genre of literature in the mainstream American market.  The author’s own personal experiences, and my own experiences as an exile, give this book a poignancy that shows the sense of loss that results from having to make one’s way among strangers who do not understand us.  The author’s discussion, for example, of the tragic eponymous hero of Nabokov’s Pnin, and the way that he is continually misunderstood by others, is something that strikes a deep chord with me personally.  I found myself in reading these essays a sense of kinship with those who wrote of the desire to find home and the tension between doing what is best for oneself and also seeking the support and encouragement of others without which writing is not of any profit and of precious little enjoyment.  Perhaps we may not be alone in being alone, though, and if we are far from home and caught between hopes for the future and looking back to the past, certainly there are others we can relate to, and that makes the journey a less lonely one.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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