In Ha Jin's 1999 novel Waiting, Lin Kong annually asks his wife, Shuyu, to divorce him for 17 straight years, and each time she agrees and then changes her mind. It is torture for Lin Kong, who yearns to start a new life with another woman and to consummate his forbidden desire for her.
By 1960s communist Chinese law, after the 18th year of separation, Shuyu's protests will be in vain and the divorce may proceed unhindered. In the meantime, we experience Lin Kong's excruciating desire to leave his loving but simple wife for the arms of the more exotic Manna. Out of fear of discovery and punishment by the government, the couple is forced to bottle their affections, which inevitably sour as they age and remain repressed -- for 18 years, not even a kiss. However, Lin Kong does manage his first wet dream one night and awakens in the morning ashamed, frantically trying to hide it from his roommates by covering the stain on his sheets with a periodical printed by the Chinese army.
It is this realm of dormant lust and romance in a state-controlled existence that the characters must inhabit. The people in Ha Jin's stories and poems cope with invasive political scrutiny while retaining a kind of small-world charm, not unlike the characters of the village from a Shalom Aleichem story. They are often humble, kind, bumbling and endearing -- in other words, fully human -- wondering whether the inhumane totalitarian government that claims them will focus an unforgiving eye on their hapless selves today.
Now that Ha Jin has collected the coveted National Book Award for fiction, he can really write his own ticket. His journey began in Liaoning, China, where he was born in 1956 and chose to enter the People's Liberation Army at just 14. Jin's formative experiences in the army would result in 1996's Ocean of Words, an illumination of the contradictory lives of military men compared by critics to the work of Isaac Babel.
He eventually traveled to the U. S. to further his English studies, then elected to stay after the Tianenmen massacre. Jin said that he then realized "it would be impossible to write honestly in China." He has been embraced by the West, and his recent award concludes a major chapter with a sweet end.
Ha Jin reads from his works at 8 p.m. Dec. 7 as part of the Washington University International Writers Center Reading Series at the West Campus Conference Center, 7425 Forsyth Blvd. Call 935-5576 for more information.