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Ocean of Wordsby Ha Jin
Synopses & Reviews
1. Ha Jin has said, "I do believe in universals. I believe literature works on similarities, not differences" [Atlanta Journal]. The characters in these stories are soldiers and officers in a world to which American readers have had almost no access. How does Ha Jin manage to make you intimate with, and sympathetic to, their concerns and dilemmas? What is universal about these characters, and what, if anything, do you find difficult to identify with?
2. In the story "Dragon Head," the militia sings a song based on a quotation from Mao Tse-tung: "A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another" [p. 53]. The activities Mao mentioned are ones we would associate with leisure and with culture, both of which are highly prized in American life. Would you consider a class revolution, such as the one Mao tried to create, at all possible in the United States? Can you imagine Americans engaging in the political study sessions and self-criticisms that characters are involved with in Ha Jin's work? What do people do for fun and relaxation in these stories, since activities like reading and painting solely for personal pleasure are forbidden?
3. What techniques does Ha Jin use to reveal the inner lives of his characters? How does his use of narrative voice and point of view create a sense of variety and affect your response to various stories?
4. Though it is always purely speculative to identify a work of fiction as autobiographical, would you say that Ocean of Words has the feeling of something that actually happened to its author? What do you find most moving about this story? Why has Ha Jin positioned it as the final story of the collection?
Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. He is the author of the internationally bestselling novel Waiting, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award, and War Trash, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize; the story collections The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award, Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery OConnor Award for Short Fiction, and Ocean of Words, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award; the novels The Crazed and In the Pond; and three books of poetry. His latest novel, A Free Life is his first novel set in the United States. He lives in the Boston area and is a professor of English at Boston University.War Trash, The Crazed, The Bridegroom, Waiting, In the Pond, and Ocean of Words are available in paperback from Vintage Books.
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