Looking to find something appropriate to post for Labor Day—and less grim than, say, an excerpt from The Jungle—I was drawn to a bit of an essay by Ha Jin in the new collection State by State. Inspired by the WPA guides to individual states, editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey tapped 50 writers to contribute an essay each. (An interview with Edward P. Jones covers Washington, D.C.) Jin’s piece is on Georgia, where he first lived when he immigrated from China. For anybody who’s read his most recent novel, A Free Life, the essay will have a familiar ring—the stubborn urge to make a living and improve one’s station, the fixation on reading and education, the candor about money. That last point is critical. Jin’s one of the few writers in the collection—maybe one of the few major American writers working today—who’s so open about it costs to live in this joint, and he’s perfectly willing to attach dollar signs to the discussion. That candor pulls double duty for Jin—it emphasizes his outsiderness, but calls attention to an urge to assimilate. Here, Jin discusses buying his home in 1993, just after taking a job at Emory University:
We paid $84,000 for our home, which had three small bedrooms, two bathrooms, a half-finished basement, and a carport. With few exceptions, my colleagues all lived in bigger houses closer to Emory. We bought such a modest place because I wasn’t sure if I could hold my job for long, and didn’t want to take out a big mortgage. I was hired to teach poetry writing, which was a position I felt I had gotten by luck. I had never attended a poetry workshop and had no idea how to fulfill my role as a poet in residence. Poets in other parts of the country often asked me, “Who’s the poet at Emory?” The could not imagine it was me. I felt I might lose my job at any time. Once, I even blurted out to my boss, Frank Manley, a tall, flat-shouldered man in his early sixties, who was the director of our creative writing program, “I will stay in Georgia even if I don’t get tenure.”
“Why?” He smiled, narrowing his eyes.
“Because life is easier down here.”
“Indeed it is.”
Frank drove a pickup truck and owned a small farm, where he didn’t grow anything. He went there every week just to write.
I’ll be taking the holiday seriously tomorrow. Back Tuesday.