In his first book of stories since The Bridegroom, National Book Award-winning author Ha Jin gives us a collection that delves into the experience of Chinese immigrants in America.
A lonely composer takes comfort in the antics of his girlfriend's parakeet; young children decide to change their names so they might sound more "American," unaware of how deeply this will hurt their grandparents; a Chinese professor of English attempts to defect with the help of a reluctant former student. All of Ha Jin's characters struggle to remain loyal to their homeland and its traditions while also exploring the freedom that life in a new country offers.
Stark, deeply moving, acutely insightful, and often strikingly humorous, A Good Fall reminds us once again of the storytelling prowess of this superb writer.
Excerpted from A Good Fall by Ha Jin. Copyright © 2009 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. He is the author of six novels, four story collections, three volumes of poetry, and a book of essays. He has received the National Book Award, two PEN/Faulkner Awards, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, the Asian American Literary Award, and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. In 2014 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Ha Jin lives in the Boston area and is a professor of English at Boston University.
Ha Jin is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com).
“His best work so far. . . . Comparable to the best of Malamud and Singer.” —Kansas City Star
“Captivating. . . . Ha Jin captures a new, growing slice of America. . . . The storyteller’s art is richly on display here. Ha Jin has a singular talent for snaring a reader. His premises are gripping, his emotional bedrock hard and true.” —The Washington Post
“Engaging,. . . . Funny and tender at the same time. . . . The stories in this collection deal with what all good stories deal with: love, death, freedom and hope.” —The Dallas Morning News
“Quiet, careful, restrained prose—prose whose absence of flourish can, at times, make it all the more eloquent.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Skillful and deeply felt. . . . The collection as a whole celebrate[s] immigrant resilience: the courage to embrace calamity, hit the pavement and keep walking toward a brighter future.” —The Los Angeles Times
“Ha Jin's masterful storytelling persists—meticulous, droll, convincing, populated with memorable characters—not to mention the indelible portrait of an immigrant life he gives us.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“[Jin] writes with warmth and humor about what it means to be a bewildered stranger in a strange land, no matter where one is born.” —People Magazine
“Engrossing, visceral. . . . All [stories] come across with the straightforward declarative immediacy of a videotaped interview or testimonial. . . . [An] illuminating, well-integrated collection.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“[A] fine collection. . . . Jin is a master of the straightforward line . . . . [and] a significant American writer. . . . As in Chekhov's late work, his writing covers a lot of ground quickly.” —The New Republic
“A collection of sublime moments. . . . With moments of stark insight. . . . A message worth hearing.” —The Denver Post
“Every story . . . offer[s] evocative snapshots of the lives of contemporary first-generation Chinese immigrants. . . . [They] will take up quiet residence in your consciousness, shining a light into lives that too often go unseen.” —The Boston Globe
“Ha Jin continues his intimate, up-close look at Chinese immigrant life. . . . All [are] artfully turned out in Jin’s quietly seismic style.” —Elle
“Included are the rich imagery, attention to detail, and wry humor that are Jin’s stock in trade and that, when taken together, offer—as fellow writer Francine Prose has noted—‘a compelling exploration of the . . . terrain that is the human heart.’” —Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star
“Jin’s carefully constructed worlds offer the reader so much pleasure.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“[Jin’s] unvarnished prose adds a no-nonsense charm to the stories. . . . He just leans on simple phrasing that could come out of Sherwood Anderson or Ernest Hemingway. . . . Jin’s approach is the more honest one, and the one more likely to endure.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Ha Jin’s new book of stories rises way above the ordinary or merely good. . . . The embarrassments and jokes and adulteries and frustrations of these characters in their little prosaic spaces convey the sense of how each human being is like and unlike all others.” —New York Post
“This may be Ha Jin’s best work yet, his stories often ascending to the mystical penumbra we expect of singer, Malamud, or O’Connor. . . . Ha Jin is equally good as a novelist and a short story writer. . . . Stories still allow him to get to the heart of the matter in a more piercing manner.” —The Huffington Post
“Jin writes with a twinkle in his eye.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
“The understated clashes of culture [in A Good Fall] reveal careful thematic design and provide an almost 360-degree view of this select human experience: The concerns of people everywhere trying to make a better life come alive, one deceptively simple story at a time.” —The Miami Herald
“[Jin’s] work is shot through with a sense of isolation, melancholy and sacrifice: what it means—and costs—to be different. . . . There is a seriousness present. . . . And there is occasional humor or at least irony.” —The Seattle Times
1. In the opening story of A Good Fall, the narrator thinks: “I used to believe that in the United States you could always reshape your relationships with the people back home—you could restart your life on your own terms. But the Internet has spoiled everything—my family is able to get hold of me whenever they like. They might as well live nearby” (pp. 5–6). In what other stories does the theme suggested in this passage—the desire to escape the past and start a new life in America—appear?
2. What role does the setting—Flushing, Queens—play in these stories?
3. The main characters in the stories of A Good Fall are, in many ways, quite different from one another, running the gamut from an English professor to a prostitute. In what ways are they and their situations similar?
4. In “A Composer and His Parakeets,” Fanlin is composing the music for an opera in which the hero claims that “greatness in art is merely an accident.” But Fanlin cannot accept this idea and feels that “no art should be accidental” (p. 12). What accidents in the story inspire Fanlin’s own artistic creation? In what other stories do accidents play a major role?
5. What expectations do the protagonists of these stories bring to the United States? In what ways are those expectations frustrated or fulfilled?
6. How do the characters in these stories try to solve the dilemmas they find themselves in? What are some examples of their resilience and resourcefulness?
7. In “A Pension Plan,” Minna tells Niu, “I do trust you, Aunt Niu, but we’re in America now, where even the air can make people change” (p. 170). How are the main characters in these stories changed by America? How does being in American change the way they view their homeland?
8. How does America appear as seen through the eyes of the Chinese immigrants in A Good Fall? What challenges and opportunities does America present for them?
9. In “Temporary Love,” Lina’s husband essentially blackmails her into paying for his business school tuition. In what other stories are characters pressured financially or treated unfairly over money?
10. What are the pleasures of Ha Jin’s storytelling style? How does he manage to make his writing at once so simple and so engaging?
11. Short stories generally revolve around a conflict that is introduced, developed, and then either resolved or left open. What kinds of conflicts occur in the stories of A Good Fall? Which stories exhibit strong closure? Which ones are more open-ended?
12. How has Ha Jin ordered the stories in A Good Fall? Is there a clear progression? Why would he end the collection with a story in which the protagonist attempts to kill himself?
13. Much of what happens in the book is peculiar to Chinese immigrants, but what aspects of these stories might be true of the immigrant experience more generally?
14. The stories in A Good Fall are pervaded by anxiety and an often brutal struggle to survive. What moments of tenderness and compassion stand out?
15. How might these stories be received by Chinese contemplating emigration to the United States?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)