New York magazine’s profile of Ha Jin closes with this comment from him:
I don’t want to write standard American-English idioms. I want something that sounds slightly foreign and absolutely accessible. I’m still trying to figure it out.
Try harder, seemed to be the message from many of the major review outlets following the publication of his 2007 novel, A Free Life; the New York Times, Washington Post, and New Yorker all delivered polite but firmly negative reviews. That last review, written by John Updike, makes a particular point of Jin’s foreign-but-accessible language, suggesting that its squareness is a detriment. “Some expressions feel translated from the Mandarin,” Updike writes, then adds that “the novel rarely gathers the kind of momentum that lets us overlook its language.”
I’ve defended A Free Life a few times before, and my basic argument is that a) the book’s momentum is in the small, sometime pyrrhic victories that come along with succeeding as an immigrant family in the United States, not in explosive dramas that the critics seemed to expect (perhaps thanks to weaker assimilation novels), and b) Jin’s language bolsters this momentum. His new collection, A Good Fall, will likely meet the same criticism as the novel, since its focus again is on the lives of Chinese immigrants in the United States. But it’s just as strong in many ways. A lot of that, I think, has to do with exclamation points.
Most writers are trained to avoid exclamations—it suggests that you’re an adolescent, or that you’re using an easy way to emphasize the drama of a particular scene without thinking it through. It’s generally bad form in journalism—even in opinion pieces it looks like over-editorializing, like you’ve lost your grip—and as an editor I was trained to strike it out unless it’s absolutely necessary. (It rarely is.) But for Jin, exclamations are ways to stress the awkwardness that his characters feel with the culture they navigate. “Heavens, they would never stop fighting!” thinks the narrator of “In the Crossfire,” who is referreeing a squabble between his wife and his mother, who’s visiting from China. The exclamation mirrors the dialogue of many of Jin’s characters, who often strain to make their voices heard, so they’re prone to blurting things: “Baloney!” “Nuts!” “I don’t want to live anymore!” “How worried I was!”
Unquestionably, the style can be a little square. But they also serve Jin’s conflicts well, because they stress how clear-cut the conflicts are in the eyes of his characters, and how irrational that perspective can be sometimes. In “An English Professor,” a Chinese-born English teacher, Rusheng, sends off materials for his tenure evaluation, then realizes his cover letter ends with a typo: “Respectly.” “Oh, how silly the error looked on paper!” he thinks, and no sentence could better encompass his panic over being mocked as a dumb foreigner who has no right to teach English; it’s a retreat into the stiff language of school-primer stories in which kids learn how to talk to each other over minor problems. Except in this case, in the mind of the story’s protagonist, the potential for embarrassment is enormous.
At the end of the story, it turns out there’s nothing to worry about, and Rusheng’s tenure application is approved. Realistically, it was ridiculous for him to think a typo could ruin his entire academic career. (Oh, how silly!) But the panic Jin describes is genuine, and so is the release Rusheng feels afterward. He celebrates with his wife by bowderizing the words to “Born to Be Wild”: “Born to be happy! Born to succeed!” he sings. “Born to be tenured! Born to stand out!” It’s cringe-worthy behavior, but it neatly exposes at once his discomfort with language and his joy at having proof he’s mastered it. It is, as Jin intended, slightly foreign and absolutely accessible. It’s a feeling of exultation, something to shout about, and any feat of writerly indirection in that moment would be a lie.