The 1999 National Book Award winner’s newest work of fiction centers on a Chinese-American writer in New York, writing articles critical of the Chinese government.
‘The Boat Rocker’
by Ha Jin
Pantheon Books, 240 pages, $25.95
Immigrants to America have always felt a mix of powerful influences from both their country of origin and their country of resettlement. In Ha Jin’s new novel, “The Boat Rocker,” these feelings become even more fraught and layered as the book’s immigrant protagonist, now living in New York, finds himself in conflict with the government of China and most of the other people in his life.
The author of six previous novels, Jin won the National Book Award for his 1999 book, “Waiting.” He left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University near Boston, where he still lives and teaches at Boston University. Jin will appear at the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library at 7 p.m. Nov. 4.
Feng Danlin is a writer and “public intellectual” of renown working in New York City for a Chinese-language news agency, and he regularly writes articles critical of the corruption and hypocrisy of the Chinese government. The story is set in 2005 and Danlin’s latest assignment is a juicy one: an exposé of a soon-to-be-released novel written by his ex-wife, Yan Haili, whom he despises. Her book, a turgid romance set in New York during and after the 9/11 attacks, has been receiving rave advance reviews in the Chinese media and is being hyped as a literary blockbuster. There is talk of movie deals, translated editions, and nominations for major literary awards, including a Nobel Prize.
Partly fueled by revenge, Danlin pans and denounces the book and its author in a series of searing columns. He contends that the project is an orchestrated get-rich scheme backed and promoted by the Chinese government. Although he is a naturalized U.S. citizen, Danlin faces pushback and veiled threats from Chinese officials. Haili retaliates by suing him for libel and attacking him in a magazine interview, even deriding his sexual inadequacies. As the war of words escalates between the dueling ex-spouses, Danlin is urged to desist and conform. An official from the Chinese consulate comes to deliver the message.
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“Don’t assume you can become a real American,” he tells Danlin in ominous tones. “If you don’t mend your ways, eventually you’ll be ostracized and out of place wherever you go, and you won’t be useful even to the Americans.”
Danlin is blacklisted by the Chinese government and a book he has written is banned even before it is published. In the interest of improved relations with China, even the U.S. government seems to be working against him. The criticism begins to take a professional and personal toll, particularly on his relationship with his American girlfriend, Katie.
I’ll leave it to the reader to discover how the story develops and turns out, but the narrative framework is fertile ground for Jin’s brilliant and nuanced political and social observations.
Danlin’s feelings of despair and deracination propel the novel on an unexpected trajectory, where storytelling becomes secondary to fascinating and vital topics (mostly through conversations) of resettlement, the role of the intellectual, Chinese living abroad, and race in America.
Danlin likes the cachet of having a white girlfriend, but is never quite sure of himself in her presence. Haili’s publisher bluntly tells him that America “is a place where a man of color has no chance.”
Regarding the American preoccupation with individuality and identity, Danlin observes: “People of Chinese background like me have little sense of identity. In fact the word identity is alien to us and I still don’t know precisely how to translate it into Chinese. … Its absence from our vocabulary might indicate deficiency in our awareness of self.”
These are cogent, incisive impressions, and it feels like a miracle — and a splendid irony — that an immigrant writer can fashion a novel with such quintessentially American themes from the front lines of the Chinese diaspora.