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June 26, 2017

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Writing one's history

Historical material and historical awareness are important to both Ha Jin's (哈金) and Zhang Ling's (張翎) novels. The latter entered the public eye when her novella "Aftershock" (餘震) — which connects the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake (唐山大地震) and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake (汶川大地震) — was adapted into a film by director Feng Xiao-gang (馮小剛).

"Gold Mountain Blues" (金山), another of Zhang's well-known works recently translated into English and published by Penguin, is a cross-generation, multi-continental family epic addressing the history of Chinese railway workers in Canada. Her newest novel, "Sleep, Flora, Sleep" (睡吧,芙洛,睡吧) continues to explore the tableau of early Chinese settlers in North America through the life of an uneducated and tenacious Chinese woman trying to survive in a gold rush town.

On her interest in migration Zhang said: "I see human migration as cyclic water currents … people wander in search of an ideal spiritual, cultural or social homeland … the longing for unfamiliar ways of life brought about great waves of migration from the East to the West, and from the West to the East."

Meanwhile, Ha Jin's newest novel "Nanjing Requiem" (南京安魂曲), is set against the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. Stemming from an inner need to reconnect to his Chinese heritage, Ha Jin also feels the imperative to find a worthwhile new angle to this much reported and much fictionalized event.

To Ha Jin, it is important that the novelist tells the story through an individual's perspective amid the terrible incident. The key to being a novelist, he believes, is to instinctively perceive the small things, putting them in sentences to give texture, and further form coherent whole works that interest readers. "To support an entire work with these little parts — that's really the novelist's greatest challenge," he said.

Crossing Language Barriers

Though living on the same English-dominant continent, Ha Jin and Zhang Ling have chosen to write in English and Chinese respectively.

While one's choice of language bestows an entire literary tradition that structures the writer's thinking, Ha Jin believes that some things told in narratives are universal and transcend language boundaries, quoting British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie's view that translations always enrich the original work.

On the other hand, studying Western literature in her most impressionable years broadened her vision, said Zhang. "Especially works by 19th century Victorian writers like Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot." Influenced by these writers, Zhang has been rather traditional in her approach to storytelling and has largely eschewed formal experimentation.

Of her recent readings, Zhang is particularly impressed by how Irish-American writer Frank McCourt deals with suffering in his novel "Angela's Ashes."

"We often say that the Chinese nation has carried great suffering on its shoulders … but after reading the book I find that experiences of suffering are similar around the world; the challenge is from what angle to communicate suffering."

In the Irish mine town of McCourt's childhood, children got candies only on two occasions: Christmas and someone's funeral. Thus when one child announced, "my grandma has TB," his companions roared in cheer; the next time they got together everyone asked: "Has your grandma died?"

"That perspective really blew me away," Zhang mused.

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