2005 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
Synopses & Reviews
From the National Book Award-winning author of Waiting
, here is his most ambitious work to date; a powerful, unflinching novel that opens a window on an unknown aspect of a little-known war the experiences of Chinese POWs held by Americans during the Korean conflict and paints an intimate story against a sweeping canvas of confrontation.
Set in 1951 and based on historical accounts, War Trash takes the form of the memoir of Yu Yuan, a young Chinese army officer, a "volunteer" fighting unofficially in Korea when he is captured. Yu's fluency in English thrusts him into the role of unofficial interpreter in the psychological warfare between the prisoners and their captors and between rival groups of prisoners that defines the world of the POW camp. Yu's only allegiance is to his dream of returning home. But by the end of this unforgettable novel, the very concept of home will be more profoundly altered than Yu can even begin to imagine.
"Jin (Waiting; The Crazed; etc.) applies his steady gaze and stripped-bare storytelling to the violence and horrifying political uncertainty of the Korean War in this brave, complex and politically timely work, the story of a reluctant soldier trying to survive a POW camp and reunite with his family. Armed with reams of research, the National Book Award winner aims to give readers a tale that is as much historical record as examination of personal struggle. After his division is decimated by superior American forces, Chinese 'volunteer' Yu Yuan, an English-speaking clerical officer with a largely pragmatic loyalty to the Communists, rejects revolutionary martyrdom and submits to capture. In the POW camp, his ability to communicate with the Americans thrusts him to the center of a disturbingly bloody power struggle between two factions of Chinese prisoners: the pro-Nationalists, led in part by the sadistic Liu Tai-an, who publicly guts and dissects one of his enemies; and the pro-Communists, commanded by the coldly manipulative Pei Shan, who wants to use Yu to save his own political skin. An unofficial fighter in a foreign war, shameful in the eyes of his own government for his failure to die, Yu can only stand and watch as his dreams of seeing his mother and fiance again are eviscerated in what increasingly looks like a meaningless conflict. The parallels with America's current war on terrorism are obvious, but Jin, himself an ex-soldier, is not trying to make a political statement. His gaze is unfiltered, camera-like, and the images he records are all the more powerful for their simple honesty. It is one of the enduring frustrations of Jin's work that powerful passages of description are interspersed with somewhat wooden dialogue, but the force of this story, painted with starkly melancholy longing, pulls the reader inexorably along. Agent, Lane Zachary at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[Jin's] narrator, Yu Yuan, is one of the most fully realized characters to emerge from the fictional world in years....[A] moral fable, timeless and universal." Russell Banks, The New York Times Book Review
"Ha Jin's taut drama of war, incarceration, coercion, and survival is galvanizing, and his ardently observant narrator is heroic in his grappling with the paradox of humankind's savagery and hunger for the divine." Booklist
"[H]ypnotic....Written in the modest, uninflected prose of a soldier's letter home, Ha Jin's story, a mixture of authentic historical detail and realistic invention, is a powerful work of the imagination..." The Washington Post
"A skillful and unusual novel, sharply real, without an ounce of gilding sentimentality....Ha Jin captures the detail and paralyzing sameness of the prisoners' days, yet without plodding splicing in irregular moments of terror without artificiality." The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"In spite of its great documentary heart, flashes of brilliant writing and a tone that is sober rather than shrill, War Trash winds up feeling less like a novel than a slice of actual history. Jin does not endow his protagonist with high powers of lyricism, brevity or a particularly happy ending." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Ha Jin displays this rawness unflinchingly, and he manages to do so without making his novel difficult to stomach or read." Kansas City Star
"Ha Jin's sometimes plodding but always fascinating fictional memoir of a Chinese soldier held captive in an American POW camp during the Korean War." Baltimore Sun
"[T]he drama of Yuan's tortured soul never really catches fire. The story portrayed here so meticulously seems more of historical interest than of dramatic." San Francisco Chronicle
"Jin's narrative is frequently repetitious and slow of pace....Most unsatisfying is Jin's inability to consistently create credible dialogue; the premise that we are hearing Chinese spoken, for example, is too often shattered by the author's use of American slang." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"[T]he hallmarks of [Jin's] other fiction are present: the acute and empathetic psychological observations, the fascination with human imperfection, the sensual prose, the vividly described settings and, above all, that miraculously buoyant, sly humor." Los Angeles Times
"POWs are on the edge of history, always on the verge of being forgotten. In showing the tough moral choices facing these men, Ha Jin does a dual service here reintroducing us to a war we hardly remember and to a kind of heroism that never grabs the headlines." Seattle Times
"Born in 1956, Jin missed the Korean War, but he lied about his age when he was 14 to join the People's Liberation Army in China, and this novel is steeped in the details of history as much as in the flavor of personal experience. In fact, the voice of War Trash
is a rebuttal of its title. It's a timely story about discarded survivors whose lives are more complex and more pitiable than the ideology on either side would have us believe." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire Christian Science Monitor review
Ha Jin's masterful new novel casts a searchlight into a forgotten corner of modern history, the experience of Chinese soldiers held in U.S. POW camps during the Korean War. In 1951 Yu Yuan, a scholarly and self-effacing clerical officer in Mao's "volunteer" army, is taken prisoner south of the 38th Parallel. Because he speaks English, he soon becomes an intermediary between his compatriots and their American captors.
With Yuan as guide, we are ushered into the secret world behind the barbed wire, a world where kindness alternates with blinding cruelty and one has infinitely more to fear from one's fellow prisoners than from the guards. Vivid in its historical detail, profound in its imaginative empathy, War Trash is Ha Jin's most ambitious book to date.
About the Author
Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. He is the author of the internationally best-selling novel Waiting, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award; the story collections The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award, Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery O'Connor 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. He lives in the Boston area and is a professor of English at Boston University.
Reading Group Guide
1. The novel opens with Yuans description of his tattoo and his plan to have it removed. He is writing his story, he says, in order that his children and grandchildren may read it and “feel the full weight of the tattoo on my belly” [p. 5]. What has it meant, for Yuan, to have his body marked with political slogans? How is the writing of his memoir related to the removal of his tattoo?
2. Yuan wants his grandson to become a doctor and wishes he himself had been one: “If I were born again, I would study medical science devotedly. . . . Doctors and nurses follow a different set of ethics, which enables them to transcend political nonsense and man-made enmity and to act with compassion and human decency” [p. 5]. Is Yuans reverence for doctors largely a tribute to Dr. Greene, who operated on his injured leg? What does the statement suggest about Yuans feelings about his life as an English teacher?
3. War Trash is narrated entirely in the first person by the novels protagonist. How effective is the narrative voice in adding realism to the story? Do you agree with Russell Banks, who wrote, “You have to keep reminding yourself that this is a work of fiction and not an actual memoir” [The New York Times Book Review, October 10, 2004]. How does the intimacy of the narrative affect your preconceptions about the Korean War and its aftermath?
4. Why do the pro-Nationalist soldiers hate the Communist soldiers so much? Why do most of the prisoners hold on so fiercely to their factional loyalties, particularly given their remoteness from the ongoing drama of the war and the uncertainty of their fates upon returning home? What do the uprising and the kidnapping of General Bell, and later the battle over the flag at Cheju Island, tell us about the energies of the prisoners?
5. Yuan is an idealist, as Dr. Greene has pointed out [p. 54], and on Koje Island he observes the deterioration of his fellow prisoners as they fight over food: “When led by the Communists, they had been good soldiers and seemed high-minded and their lives had possessed a purpose, but now they were on the verge of becoming animals. How low could an ordinary man fall when he didnt serve a goal larger than himself?” [p. 69] Yet as time goes by, Yuan finds that those who rigidly devote themselves to ideological causes also become less human. Does he continue to believe in the idea of serving a goal larger than himself?
6. In explaining why he has been instrumental in discriminating against the Communist soldiers, Father Woodworth tells Yuan, “Im not just a clergyman but also a soldier. I came with both the book and the sword” [p. 81]. Is it possible to be both a clergyman and a soldier? Why does Yuan conclude, “My conversation with him upset me profoundly and shattered my illusion that there might be shelter in Gods bosom for every person” [p. 81]?
7. After Yuans friend Ding Wanlin is tortured by the Americans, the Communists suspect him of having given up information about Pei and kill him. What is most painful to Yuan about Wanlins death?
8. When pro-Nationalist leader Wang tells Yuan that the Communists “use men like ammo,” he thinks, “[Wangs] words conjured up the horrible image I hadnt been able to shake off—that the war was an enormous furnace fed by the bodies of soldiers” [p. 76]. What events contribute to Yuans growing disillusionment with Commissar Pei and the Party members? What is most unsettling about the ideological fervor of the Communists?
9. Yuan notes, “In the art of inflicting pain, the Chinese and the Koreans were much more expert than the Americans” [p. 86], and he describes their various methods. Yet he also describes the Americans use of the water jail in their torture of Commissar Pei [p. 85] and recounts how “a GI shot a prisoner, a latrine man, who had accidentally tripped and splattered a bucket of night soil onto the jeep the GI was driving. The man bled to death before the ambulance came” [p. 245]. What is the tone in which Yuan describes these acts of torture? What is the experience of reading War Trash in the wake of events in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo?
10. Wang tells Yuan that he seems like someone who will have “a great career”: “Why cant you go to Taiwan with us? Without an able man among us, no one here will get anywhere, and again well be dumped to the bottom of society” [pp. 96-97]. What is it about Yuan—aside from his command of English—that seems to set him apart and makes all factions in the prison, including the Americans, desire his loyalty?
11. The pro-Nationalists tattoo Yuan and Dajian with anti-Communist slogans, eviscerate a man before their eyes, and later force them at knifepoint to declare their destination as Taiwan or have their tattoos removed with a primitive knife. Yuan realizes that they had only tattooed “those who would be valuable to them and those who were their deadly enemies” [p. 111]. Having chosen Taiwan in his terror, Yuan thinks, “Deep down, I wished I could have been as brave as a genuine Communist, who, crazed and fanatic, viewed death without flinching” [p. 112]. What details contribute most powerfully to the horror of the scenes on pages 101-12 in which the pro-Nationalists attempt to win converts?
12. What is the significance of Yuans Bible reading, and why is the loss of his Bible so difficult for him [p. 128]? How does the Bible—particularly Ecclesiastes—influence Yuans philosophical and spiritual outlook on life [p. 317]?
13. After the uprising, an American lieutenant expresses his anger about the prisoners having ruined General Bells career: “He played baseball with us. Hes a powerful pitcher.” Yuan replies, “Im sorry for him. Also for the hundreds of Koreans killed in Compound 76 and for the villagers whose homes were burned down” [p. 192]. What does this exchange tell us about the difference in sensibility between Yuan and Lieutenant East? How do the Americans and their behavior come across in Yuans narrative?
14. What kinds of resonance does the title War Trash carry, particularly in view of the dignity of Yuans narration? What are the connotations of the words, and do they extend beyond prisoners like Yuan?
15. Why does Julan refuse to marry Yuan once he returns, given his devotion to her? Is it possible, since the message comes from Julans brother, that her family has insisted that she refuse to see Yuan again? Compare her brothers message [p. 344] with Yuans memory of their last night together, when Julan told him, “From this day on Im your wife. Remember, even if Im dead, my ghost shall be with you” [p. 137].
16. Russell Banks writes that while War Trash is a “powerfully moving . . . nearly perfect” novel, it is not an entertaining one: “Jin does not wish to entertain but to inform and put his readers in a place where most of us would choose not to linger. . . . Readers are likely to finish War Trash feeling like they, too, have escaped this terrible camp” [The New York Times Book Review, October 10, 2004]. How does the pace of the story contribute to this feeling of being inside the novel? In forging so powerful a relationship between the protagonist and the reader, what does Ha Jin achieve?
17. If you have read other novels or memoirs in which ordinary people bear witness to devastating historical events, how would you compare War Trash to them? What does Yuans story reveal about history and ideological struggle? How effectively does the story convey what it feels like to be used, punished, betrayed, or forgotten by ones country?
18. Ha Jin has said that War Trash will be his last book on China; he wants to write about the immigrant experience and is working on a novel set in America. How might the loss of home experienced by Yuan and the other prisoners compare to the life of the writer in exile?
19. How surprising is the fate the former prisoners face upon their return to China? What is the effect of reading about the three principles imposed upon the prisoners, the study sessions and the denunciations they face? How would you define Yuans philosophical attitude as he arrives at the end of his story?
PEN/Faulkner Award Winner and
New York Times Best Book of the Year
“Powerfully moving. . . . Brilliant and original. . . . Timeless and universal. . . . Nearly perfect.” —The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your groups discussion of Ha Jins new novel War Trash, the winner of the 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.