Today’s show is the third, concluding program in the series about the event KPFA presented on January 23 at The Hillside Club in Berkeley. That event was a talk by the Chinese-American novelist, poet, and National Book Award winner, Ha Jin, who had recently published The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai (Li Po). The event was hosted by Jack Foley. Today we will present excerpts from the freewheeling, illuminating discussion between Jack and the author; the recording was done by Jane Heaven. In this excerpt Jack and Ha Jin were discussing “emotional parallels” between Ha Jin’s life and Li Bai’s (Li Po’s). Both men experienced the pain of exile.
HA JIN: Li Bai was so anxious, he tried so hard to seek office and to marry a woman of a powerful family…
JACK: He “married up,” as we say.
HA JIN: I can see that. I can feel his pain. Big struggle. Because for him at the time there was no outlet for his talent. Also, his talent was so big he wouldn’t fit in this world. The secular order somehow is not his space. He could not exist well in it.
JACK: He kept shooting himself in the foot! One has the sense reading your book that at some level he deliberately messes himself up whenever he has an opportunity.
HA JIN: Yes. He couldn’t help it! On the other hand, as I continued to write I realized there’s another kind of sense of himself. He used a phrase that means “When I meet dukes and princes, I’m their equal.” This is remarkable. He’s from very humble origins. He had no power, no wealth, but he did believe that he was equal to any of these.
JACK: He was a prince of poets.
HA JIN: Yes!
Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. The June 4th, 1989 incident at Tiananmen Square influenced his decision to remain in the United States and to write in English. He is the author of eight novels, four story collections, four volumes of poetry, and a book of essays—all in English. He has received the National Book Award, two PEN/Faulkner Awards, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, the Asian American Literary Award, and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. In 2014 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in the Boston area and is a professor at the creative writing program at Boston University.