Genius, Explained: The Works of Ha Jin: Waiting: A Good Fall

"Impeccably written" was John Updike’s verdict on the novel Waiting, which won the 1999 National Book Award and vaulted its Chinese-born author, Ha Jin, to literary stardom. Now a BU English professor, Jin has become a regular presence on the New York Times "Notable Books" list, and even earned a Pulitzer nomination. His streak looks to continue with the new short-story collection A Good Fall, which has all the hallmarks of the works that arguably have made him Boston’s greatest living author.

[sidebar]VERSATILITY: Over the past 20 years Jin has published three books of poetry, a volume of lectures, five novels, and four short-story collections that range from politically bleak fables to the gently comic A Good Fall, about Chinese immigrants in Queens.

LANGUAGE: Writing in English as a second language, Jin is often linked with Conrad and Nabokov. But unlike them, his prose is powerfully simple ("I don’t want to write just bookish English," Jin says), as exemplified by his Korean War saga, War Trash.

CHARACTERS: Jin finds drama in his characters’ inner thoughts and everyday actions. Waiting, for example, spans 18 years of modern Chinese history and politics, but it’s the quiet meals shared between a man and a woman that say the most about their lives.

Even such psychologically complex works as The Crazed begin as extremely concise first drafts that Jin gradually expands. "I focus on the small details," he says. "As they suggest meaning and generate feeling, everything else becomes clearer."

In exploring a Chinese restaurant owner’s awkward efforts to become a poet, the U.S.-set novel A Free Life transcends nationalities. The character’s quest seems "to embody American life itself," raved former poet laureate Robert Pinsky.