Department of English

Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University

Learning English

On Language and Embracing Failure as a Writer: An Interview with Ha Jin[1]

by Jessica Brilliant Keener

How has your experience of the English language changed over time? Can you go back and remember your impressions as a beginner?

As a beginner, we just worked like a machine. The school emphasized British English—a few could read Charles Dickens because their parents were English teachers. The first few years I didn’t work hard, but toward the end of my second year suddenly American Literature became very popular in China. Faulkner, Hemingway, all the Jewish writers. We didn’t have the originals, just quotes from critics. I became fascinated and wanted to study American literature. That’s when I began to work hard, really hard on the language. You had to be able to read and write to get into a graduate program.

Then I came to this country [to Brandeis]. After a while I picked it up and it became less difficult. I could write papers. Still, there’s a difference between creative writing, writing a paper, and talking. Academic English was fine, but after the Tiananmen Massacre I decided to stay, and that’s the turning point when I really began to work to learn how to write.

The big difficulty was once I decided to write fiction. Before that, I wrote some poems. Poetry is on the one hand very demanding, very precise, accurate. On the other hand it can give some room, ambiguity. So language can occasionally be looser. I had the illusion that poetry was easier—maybe it is for a beginner. Logically speaking, all this playfulness should be based on full mastery of the language; but for a beginner very often you can go there. In fiction, there are so many levels of diction and different kinds of dialogue and tone. It was almost relearning the language, different parts of the language. That was difficult. So I read a lot. I did ask Leslie Epstein how to write and he said, “Read like hell.” [laughs]


English Help

General Links




shall v. will
split infinitive


cleft sentences
comma splice
question tags


[1] Kenner, Jessica Brilliant.  “On Language and Embracing Failure as a Writer: An Interview with Ha Jin.”  AGNI Online 11 Jul. 2006.  3 May 2007 <>.


Home  |  Introduction to the Study of English Fiction  |  Introduction to the Study of English Poetry

Last updated September 12, 2007