“A Distant Center” by Ha Jin

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Ha Jin may be known for his award-winning fiction, in particular Waiting which won the National Book Award for Fiction (1999) and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2000), but his poetry collection is an ambitious and original volume that explores the irreplaceable significance of home, the honesty of writing, and the language for freedom.

Born in 1956 in the northeastern Chinese city of Jinzhou, Ha Jin experienced the havoc of the Cultural Revolution before, in his late 20s moving to the US in 1985 to pursue graduate studies at Brandeis University. In A Distant Center Ha Jin explores the experience of disillusionment and solitude for those who have chosen to or are forced to leave their native land, as they live in the memory or re-imagination of that “distant center”.

An elegy for the late writer Dai Wangshu, “Missed Time”, highlights his closeness with those who have influenced him as a writer:

 

My notebook has remained blank for months
thanks to the light you shower
around me.

 

He raises the question of the meaning of fulfillment for a writer and the overwhelming importance placed on him by the world:

 

Nothing is better than to live
a storyless life that needs
no writing for meaning —

 

Hoping to reconcile the tension between the writer’s happiness as an individual and his contribution to the world, he imagines how he’d like others to remember him with a gentle, lenient heart:

 

when I am gone, let others say
they lost a happy man,
though no one can tell how happy I was.

 

Marked by the clarity of and tenderness in his poetry, Ha Jin explores the different perception of home across different generations. In “Choice of Hometown”, he contemplates the different world his own child will have, how the child will inherit his but go on to build a new world he cannot experience:

 

I never imagined that I, rootless,
could give you root.

 

“Copying Characters” conveys his resentment against family expectations to read and write like a Chinese and mocks parents’ anxiety that their child will lose sight of his Chinese heritage in the foreign country:

 

If you cannot write Chinese,
you will be like a disabled person
when we go back to live in Tianjin.

 

Frustrated by his Confucian reverence for the family’s wishes and his strong belief that copying characters cannot educate, the poem ends with the urgent plea: “I want to create, create, and create.”

In “The Lost Moon”, Ha Jin mocks the irrelevance of the image of a moon-gazing poet, in an increasingly digital, globalised space:

 

Now, there’s no difference between day and night
— I spend them on my computer and cell phone.

 

The allusion to the moon-gazing Li Bai conveys his desire for the pure language of poetry, which has been a source of inspiration for him in his early days as a student at Shandong University, where he read Whitman, Frost, Plath, Roethke and “was very drawn to the music” of the poetry. Convinced that one cannot constantly go back to the story of his ancestors, he highlights the diasporic poet’s necessity to “grow a new backbone”, to create, to trust his own imagination.

 

A Distant Center, Ha Jin (Copper Canyon Press, April 2018)
A Distant Center, Ha Jin (Copper Canyon Press, April 2018)

Some of the most powerful poems in the collection center around the complexity of one’s sense of allegiance to one’s people, land or country. “All you have is your country” questions the meaning of a country to an individual, unrealistic desire to return: “as long as you live, you want to grieve for the fairy tale of patriotism.” Yet original imagery reveals the insignificance the individual, who risks being gobbled up is in the country’s grandiose, mysterious plan:

 

Actually, you are merely a grain of rice
that fell through China’s teeth.

 

“My China Dream” reveals, on one hand, the pain in witnessing the “moaning and bleeding” of his homeland, and on the other the dream of becoming “a scar on China’s face”, the necessity to live up to one’s conscience.

In “Hands”, Ha Jin warns about the distance between people in a censored society:

 

Tell him to be careful,
not to contact me unless necessary.

 

Surrounded and threatened by “those hands [that] have eyes all over them”, the poem acknowledges those fears and the destructiveness of such surveillance in making honest proximity between individuals impossible:

 

tell him I understand his situation
and won’t contact him directly.

 

Witty, metaphorical and imbued with tenderness, Ha Jin’s poetry collection reveals the reverberations of home for those who have left it, and the necessity to be unafraid of the world or the place one comes from, to embrace the depth of one’s roots and at the same time claim the freedom of imagination.


Jennifer Wong is a Hong Kong poet now residing in London. Her most recent book is Goldfish.