Nonfiction

Ha Jin on Literature and Evil


At the 2012 AWP conference, The Center for Fiction hosted a panel titled Literature and Evil with Ha Jin, Marilynne Robinson and Paul Harding, moderated by Noreen Tomassi. Here, the author of WaitingNanjing Requiem, and The Boat Rocker elucidates his views on the danger of seeing evil as "other."


When we think about evil, it is dangerous to feel complacent. Evil is something like a cosmic power that permeates the world and exits within ourselves as well. Its complexity can be mind-boggling. If we push our reasoning about evil too far, we might get paralyzed mentally, unable to make decisions and take actions. One fact alone might shake our conviction in fighting terrorism: We tend to alienate the other from humanity in order to protect ourselves.

 

When I was researching my novel Nanjing Requiem, I watched some documentaries. In one of the films, an old Japanese veteran told an interviewer that he was baffled by the violent acts committed by his fellow comrades in China. “Those men used to be good husbands and brothers back home,” he said, “but why did they suddenly act with so much ferocity?” That has also been a question I have been wrestling with, not only in the Japanese context but also in many of the stories I have written. I believe we all have some evil within us, but normally we can manage to restrain it from manifesting itself. But when people act collectively, for instance, in the name of a country or God, we tend to set loose the evil and act it out, because we have others to share the guilt and responsibility, which under such circumstances can be divided into small, forgettable pieces. Therefore, human beings ought to accept solitude as a condition of humanity so that we can hold ourselves fully responsible for whatever we do. We must never follow the crowd.

 

Another attitude is also necessary. We know that evil can perpetuate itself.  Sometimes we commit a damaging act because others have hurt us. As a result, the power of evil proceeds to possess one person after another and will eventually prevail. To counter this, we must adopt the mentality that evil acts stop at ourselves.  Czeslaw Milosz wrote a great line about this attitude: “Whatever evil I suffered, I forgot.” There is no higher achievement in life than the ability to forget others’ evil against us.

 

 

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Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. He is the author of seven previous 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 director of the creative writing program at Boston University. The Boat Rocker is his latest book.