At the outset of his career, a writer often wrestles with the Aristotelian questions—to whom, as whom, and in whose interest does he write? His answers to those questions will shape his vision and help determine his subject matter and even his style of writing. Among the three questions, “as whom does he write” is the most troublesome one, because it involves the writer’s sense of identity and tradition, both of which, though often not a matter of choice, may be subject to change.

My initial answers to those questions were quite simple. In the preface to Between Silences, my first book of poems, I wrote, “As a fortunate one I speak for those unfortunate people who suffered, endured or perished at the bottom of life and who created the history and at the same time were fooled or ruined by it.” I viewed myself as a Chinese writer who would write in English on behalf of the downtrodden Chinese. I was unaware of the complexity and infeasibility of the position I had adopted, especially for a person in my situation. Indeed, too much sincerity is a dangerous thing. It can overheat one’s brain.

In general, writers from less-developed countries are apt to define themselves in terms of their social roles, partly because of the guilt they feel for emigrating to the materially privileged West and partly because of the education they received in their native lands, where the collective is usually held above the individual. In fact, the word “individualism” still has a negative ring in Chinese. When I began to write, I longed to return to China, and I saw my stay in the United States as a sojourn, so it felt almost natural for me to claim to be something of a spokesman for the unfortunate Chinese. Little did I know that such a claim could be so groundless. At any moment, a country can take a writer to task and even accuse him of misdeeds, betrayal, or other crimes against his people. Even the people he tries to serve can question him, “Who gave you the right to speak for us?” Some may even pose a challenge: “If you have not suffered together with us, you’ve just appropriated our miseries for your personal gain. You sell your country and your people abroad.”

Few of those questioning the writer will heed the truism that Homer didn’t have to go to Troy with the Greek warriors to sing of their deeds. But then, Homer is a great poet. Who are we? As aspiring writers, we at times cannot help but wonder about the justification for our writing endeavors. Can our talent alone be our justification as tribal spokespersons? Logically speaking, talent alone should be sufficient, since most collective experiences and personal stories have no lasting significance unless they are transformed and preserved in art. But the world operates in its own way, as if designed to frustrate and smother talent.

The best qualification for claiming spokesmanship that a writer can have is to be an established voice in his native country—that is, before arriving abroad, to already have an audience at home. From this position, he can resume writing abroad, though he may be speaking to different people and about different things. This is a fortunate endowment, but, like most endowments, it cannot last forever. Such a writer is like a literary ambassador of limited tenure who will be replaced by another in time.

It stands to reason that many important writers in exile regarded themselves as spokesmen of their native countries, because this approach is an expedient way to resume their writing roles. The best examples of this are the Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the Chinese author Lin Yutang, both of whom were exiles and viewed themselves as spokesmen of their countries, their visions shaped by nostalgia and by their efforts to rejoin their peoples after many years in the United States.

Solzhenitsyn was stripped of his Soviet citizenship for the false charge of treason. In December 1973, a Parisian publisher had brought out the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, and he was expelled from Russia in February 1974. Although a man of strong self-assurance and moral conviction, he was staggered by the expulsion, unable to imagine living elsewhere or writing for a different audience. He told a Spanish interviewer, “I never intended to become a Western writer…. I came to the West against my will. I write only for my homeland.” Also, to a Swiss reporter, he lamented, “I do not live in Switzerland…. I live in Russia. All my interests, all the things I care about, are in Russia.”(1) After two years in Europe, Solzhenitsyn and his family came to the United States in the summer of 1976 and secluded themselves in the outskirts of Cavendish, a village in the Black River Valley of Vermont. It was said that Solzhenitsyn loved the New England state’s cold climate, crisp air, and natural forests, all of which reminded him of Russia.(2)

Last summer, I happened to take a trip to Vermont, and, while on my way back to Massachusetts, I drove to Cavendish to look at Solzhenitsyn’s estate. To my surprise, the fifty-acre property, surrounded by a steel fence, was still inhabited by some members of his family. The iron gate was forbidding, complete with an intercom and electronic surveillance; nearby a tree bore a sign: “Private Property. No Trespassing.” The road to his estate and the driveway inside the thickly wooded acres were both unpaved. His two-story wood house on a hill looked weather beaten, and around it nature appeared to have run its own course. A burbling brook flowed through a deep gully at the foot of the hill, making the place easy to defend from a military point of view—we know that the Solzhenitsyns occasionally received death threats even in Cavendish.(3) Everything beyond the steel fence seemed to suggest that the inhabitants had not intended to live here permanently, had been extremely concerned about their safety, and had deliberately isolated themselves from the public and their neighbors. On the other hand, a middle-aged woman at a grocery store in Cavendish gave me clear directions to the writer’s home, fondly calling him “Alexander.” My impression of his homestead was congruous with Solzhenitsyn’s statement that he always planned to return to his native land.

He and his wife and their three sons lived at this place for eighteen years, until he was finally able to return to Russia, in March 1994—his Russian citizenship restored, the charge of treason dropped, and his books at last published in Russia. It was at this place where he worked twelve or fourteen hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, and wrote many of his books, mainly his magnum opus, The Red Wheel series.(4) Although he claimed, “I write only for my homeland,” Solzhenitsyn for many years could not speak to the Russian people directly despite writing in his mother tongue. He could speak, through translation, only to a Western audience. All the same, he set himself the task of exposing the underside of the Soviet history, bearing witness to its destruction of humanity, and preserving the memories of the Russians who had no voice. This perspective made his later works more historical than literary: we can see that the books he wrote in Vermont are less literary than the novels he had written before his exile. In other words, by comparison, his early fiction, especially One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, and Cancer Ward, is literature par excellence. Some people may think that these novels written in the realistic tradition are old fashioned, clumsy, tedious, and overpopulated, but each of them has a fictional autonomy that resists the passage of time. They will last. In contrast, his later books do not have a firm artistic order, and their relevance might fall to the erosion of historical change.

Before setting out for Russia in March 1994, Solzhenitsyn went into the Village of Cavendish, which he had rarely visited, and bade farewell to over two hundred villagers at a meeting. He said with gratitude, “Exile is always difficult, and yet I could not imagine a better place to live and wait and wait for my return home than Cavendish, Vermont.”(5) Obviously, to him, his eighteen years in the United States was just a long wait, during which, with his pen, he fought the Soviet regime and played a catalytic part in bringing it down.

Nevertheless, he was acutely aware that the new Russia differed greatly from the Russia he had left behind—the country had gone through Gorbachev’s perestroika and was open to the influence of Western democracy and to the inroads made by capitalism. Although his literary books were well received in his homeland, his return was cautious and hesitant. It took almost two years for him to uproot himself from Vermont after Boris Yeltsin invited him to “work for the Russian people from within Russia and not from a foreign land.” He felt he was going home to die and might not live for long once he was back in Russia.(6) For all that, his return was no less heroic and miraculous, considering that in literary history few banished giants succeeded in setting foot on their native soil again. In every way, his return is Odyssean.

Still, unlike Odysseus who restored his household and regained the kingship of his city-state, Solzhenitsyn had a rough time in his homeland. His patriotic views, mingled with Orthodox Christianity, fell on deaf ears, as his political books—Russia in Collapse (1998) and Two Hundred Years Together (2001)—were coldly received, and he was considered a has-been, out of touch with Russian realty. His radio talk show was cancelled due to low ratings, Solzhenitsyn, once a powerful spokesman in the West for the oppressed Russians and an impassioned critic of the Soviet regime, seemed to be losing his voice and unable to play any significant role in Russian society, like a retired diplomat whose career and service had taken place elsewhere. But Solzhenitsyn is Solzhenitsyn, as a genius is genius. In late January 2006, the state television broadcast a ten-part series adapted from his novel The First Circle. The show became one of the most watched programs on Russian television. Solzhenitsyn, now eighty-seven, wrote the screenplay and even narrated some long passages. It was said that he had turned tearful when he saw the edited version of the show.(7)

A decade after Solzhenitsyn moved back to his homeland, we can say that he had at last returned to Russia, finally having gotten the acceptance of his people—though we should also bear in mind that this return was possible mainly through literature. Granted, it is the political situation in today’s Russia that allows for his literary works to participate in reshaping the nation’s identity and cultural heritage, but, had he not written significant literature, Solzhenitsyn might never have found access to the Russians’ hearts again. Together with The First Circle, other adaptations of Soviet era masterpieces were also televised, such as The Master and Margarita, The Golden Calf, and Doctor Zhivago, illustrating that, to achieve a return to favor with the Russian people, an author’s physical presence on Russian soil was no longer a prerequisite. Even if Solzhenitsyn had not been back in person, his literary works would have found ways to return to his people.

Heroic and triumphant as Solzhenitsyn’s return was, let us not neglect his frustration and torment during his years of exile. On June 24, 1985, inside the courthouse in Rutland, Vermont, a town twenty miles north of Cavendish, court officials and three rows of reporters and photographers were waiting for Alexander Solzhenitsyn to appear and take the oath of U.S. citizenship. His wife, Natalya Solzhenitsyn, and his son Yermonly were there, and everyone was waiting—but the writer never showed up. Mrs. Solzhenitsyn explained that her husband was “not feeling well,” but a friend of the family revealed that he was, in fact, fine. A month before, the family had applied for U.S. citizenship, and a special ceremony was arranged for them for June 24. On that day, Mrs. Solzhenitsyn received her certificate of citizenship alone, and she told the reporters she would apply for naturalization for her three sons now that she had become a citizen. (8)

Obviously, Solzhenitsyn changed his mind at the last minute and could not go through with the ceremony. Why then had he applied for the citizenship in the first place? Joseph Pearce, who apparently knew the Solzhenitsyns well, offered the following explanation:

Years later the mystery surrounding his non-appearance was explained by Alya. Throughout the years of exile, her husband “never wanted to, and did not, become a US citizen, since he could not imagine himself to be a citizen of any country except Russia (not the USSR!).” During the early eighties, at the height of the Afghan war and at a time of failing hopes for short-term change in the USSR, Solzhenitsyn did in fact experience a moment of some doubt, but ultimately he decided to “remain stateless—right up until Russia’s liberation from communism, an event for which he had always hoped.”(9)

This explanation sounds reasonable. Nonetheless, it cannot explain away the fact that Solzhenitsyn almost became a U.S. citizen and had for some time lost “the animal indifference” and “the writerly assuredness” he eulogized in his fiction.(10) He must have been sick of the long wait, sick of being a refugee without a country, and sick of the role of a spokesman for a country that could not hear him and would pay no heed to his service. Above all, as a father and a husband, he must have sought the best way for his family to live.

Like any individual, he was entitled to have self-doubt and to give up his native land if need be. Yet for a writer of his stature and social role, Solzhenitsyn could not have afforded to become a citizen of another country. If he were a U.S. citizen, his return to Russia would have been much more complicated and frustrating, because his opponents, even some ordinary Russians, would have treated him as an American and raised doubts about his allegiance.(11) Such a move would have undercut his credibility when he kept propounding the necessity of nationhood, a core value in his thought. Fortunately, he was coolheaded enough to restrain himself from attending the naturalization ceremony.

This episode in Solzhenitsyn’s life shows that despite the writer’s careful construction of his relationship with his tribe, his role remains susceptible to change—any accidental, sometimes necessary, step might easily undermine the construction and force it to drastic revision. By writing about Solzhenitsyn’s attempted naturalization, I do not intend just to point out the folly this great man almost fell into. What I mean is to illustrate the fragility of his identity as a spokesman for his people.

In fact, I am always moved by Solzhenitsyn’s bravery and his acceptance of isolation as the condition of his work. “All my life consists of only one thing—work,” he once said. The village of Cavendish didn’t even have a doctor at the time, according to his biographer D.M. Thomas,(12) and, because of sciatica, the aging Solzhenitsyn would stand at a lectern when writing. What made him so tenacious, I believe, was not only his dedication to work but also his Christian faith, which had inculcated in him a sense of continuity beyond this life. The belief in the afterlife can enable one to live this life fearlessly. At an interview before departing for Russia, Solzhenitsyn was asked if he feared death, and he replied with obvious pleasure on his face: “Absolutely not! It will just be a peaceful transition. As a Christian, I believe there is life after death, and so I understand that this is not the end of life. The soul has a continuation, the soul lives on. Death is only a stage, some would even say a liberation. In any case, I have no fear of death.” In another context he said, “The goal of Man’s existence is not happiness but spiritual growth.”(13) That may account for the spiritual strength with which he completed his work in exile.

His words remind me of my meeting with a group of Chinese poets in River Falls, Wisconsin, in the summer of 2001. One of them was my former schoolmate. He greatly admired the small midwestern town because its climate and landscape brought to mind the northeast of China where we were both from. I asked him, “If possible, would you mind living in this town alone so that you can concentrate on writing poetry?” He answered, “I need a friend at least.” That was a typical Chinese answer. The Chinese mind does not rely on a power beyond humanity for spiritual sustenance. This explains why very few Chinese exiles in North America have lived in isolation and why most of them have been city dwellers. Gregariousness is only a surface characteristic, and deep down it is the absence of the religious belief that produces a different outlook on life.

The writer Lin Yutang (1895 – 1976) discusses the Chinese ideal of life at length in his book My Country and My People (1935).(14) He points out that to the Chinese the essence of the ideal life is the enjoyment of this life. In the absence of a belief in an afterlife, the Chinese hold dearly on to this life and try their hardest to make the best of it. As a result, most Chinese fear death and the isolation that leads to loneliness. Their ideal of life, according to Lin Yutang, is “brilliantly simple” and is a “concentration on earthly happiness.”(15) Confucius, the man who has influenced Chinese culture more than anyone else, once replied when asked about death, “I don’t know enough about life, how can I know about death?” It is the deliberate focus on this life that makes the Chinese afraid of missing out on the joy this life offers and that makes them believe the best death is inferior to the worst life—a theme, the novelist Yu Hua dramatized eloquently in his novel To Live (1993).

Not as fortunate as Solzhenitsyn, the exiled Lin Yutang never managed to return to his native land. He too refused to become a U.S. citizen, though he lived in the United States for three decades.(16) Lin Yutang, a man of encyclopedic erudition, sharp wit, and practical vision, viewed himself as a cultural ambassador. Before he earned his B.A. from Harvard (1922) and his Ph.D. from Leipzig University (1923), he had been known as a rising scholar in Chinese lexicography in China and had taught at Tsinghua University. His life exemplifies how the writer’s role, whether as a spokesman or a “renegade” of the tribe, can be shaped, or misshaped, by national and international politics. His first English book, My Country and My People (1935), was written when he was still in China. He had been encouraged by his friend Pearl Buck, who also helped him with its publication. The book became a bestseller in the United States. A year later, in 1936, at the age of forty-one, Lin Yutang emigrated to America in order to devote himself to writing in English. When he was working on his most popular book, The Importance of Living, which would come out in late 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident occurred—and the Sino-Japanese War broke out. To support his motherland’s struggle, Lin Yutang began to publish articles in the New York Times, the New Republic, the Nation, and the Atlantic condemning the Japanese scheme to annex China and persuading the American people to support the Chinese cause. He even drastically revised the last chapter of My Country and My People before it went through its thirteenth printing, to make it more suitable for the united Chinese efforts to resist the Japanese invasion.

At the time, few Chinese officials in the United States had access to the public media, so Lin Yutang literally became a spokesman for China. His public role was acknowledged by the fact that, during his half a year’s visit to China in 1944, President Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang received him no fewer than six times.(17) The Nationalist government not only appreciated his propaganda writings, which had helped China gain the U.S. public support, but also liked his staunchly anti-Communist views.

It would have been foolish and selfish for a writer like Lin Yutang to remain detached while his motherland was burning. However, his view of himself as a cultural ambassador more or less determined the nature and even the quality of his writing. He admitted, “My advantage is to be able to speak about Chinese culture to foreigners while I can speak about foreign cultures to the Chinese.”(18) During his lifetime, he published over sixty books; in English alone, he published forty titles, among which, seven are novels and the rest are nonfiction. The nonfiction list includes long and short personal essays; biographies of ancient Chinese figures; translations of ancient Chinese texts, such as Laotsu and Confucius; a volume of Chinese art theories; a history of the Chinese press; a bibliography of the Chinese masterpiece Dream of the Red Chamber; a political treatise; and public lectures. Obviously, he was a man of many facets, but his energy was diffused and his writing career was actually in decline after the late 1940s, when he was in his fifties and thought of returning to China. But that return would be out of the question as a result of the Communists’ takeover in 1949.

Lin Yutang was an accomplished literary scholar and understood the logic and nature of literature. In the prologue of his first English book, he writes:

the only way of looking at China, and of looking at any foreign nation, [is] by searching, not for the exotic but for the common human values, by penetrating beneath the superficial quaintness of manners and looking for real courtesy, by seeing beneath the strange women’s costumes and looking for real womanhood and motherhood, by observing the boy’s naughtiness and the girls’ daydreams and the ring of children’s laughter and the patter of children’s feet and the weeping of women and the sorrows of men—they are all alike, and only through the sorrows of men and the weeping of women can we truly understand a nation. The differences are only in the forms of social behavior. This is the basis of all sound international criticism.(19)

Here, he argues for human similarity as the guiding principle of writing, a principle he adhered to in My Country and My People. Even today, many of the views and insights expressed in this book are still relevant and refreshing. To my mind, Pearl Buck’s assessment of the book is still sound: “It is, I think, the truest, the most profound, the most complete, the most important book yet written about China.”(20)

However, Lin Yutang deviated from the principle of similarity as he continued to write about China. Such negligence on his part had something to do with his vision of himself as a cultural interpreter of his nation for a Western audience. He was not satisfied with his remarkable achievement in his English essays and understood the hierarchy of literature, as he once wrote, “My ambition is that all my novels will last.”(21) On the one hand, he knew that literature had its hierarchical order in which the personal essay, as a minor genre, remains at the bottom; on the other, he did not concentrate on fiction writing at all, especially in his later years when he often wrote a book a year without a clear literary purpose except for financial need. Among his novels, he was most proud of Moment in Peking (1939), a mammoth novel he wrote in one year, modeled after the style of Dream of the Red Chamber. Like the fate of his other novels except Chinatown Family, this book has long been out of print in English, but it’s still read by the Chinese in translation, especially by readers in the Chinese diaspora. Ambitious and vast in design though the novel is, it is regarded as a minor work and has some inherent weaknesses. The most salient one is that the novelist had no eye for details, which prevented him from becoming a major fiction writer. Indeed, the novel offers a good deal of details of jewelry, clothes, furniture, gardens, and foods, but they feel like they were prompted by the author’s reading of other books, not obtained from the author’s own observations or imagination. In other words, they are bookish and derivative details, which do not reveal the characters’ psychology or the quality of their daily life. As a result, the prose tends to remain on the surface of things and does not have enough of the texture that provides material sensation.

There are two other weaknesses that must have stemmed from Lin Yutang’s vision of himself as a cultural spokesman of China. First, the narrator tries too blatantly to present Chinese culture to a Western audience. There are passages that read like miniessays about Chinese women’s education, Chinese medicine, and Chinese belief in the balance of the Five Elements in making marriages.(22) These passages are not blended into the dramatic context, block the flow of the narration, and result in prose that feels crude and unfinished. Such crudeness is not merely a technical blunder. It reveals the novelist’s inadequate vision. Just as a creative writer should aspire to be not a broker but a creator of culture, a great novel does not only present a culture but also makes culture; such a work does not only bring news of the world but also evokes the reader’s empathy and reminds him of his own existential condition. If a novel by which the ambitious author will stand or fall, he should imagine what kind of cultural order the book may enter into should it succeed. Lin Yutang obviously did not entertain such a vision and indulged himself too much in explaining China. Throughout Moment in Peking, the narrative reveals that the book was written only for a Western audience.

The other weakness related to his “spokesmanship” is a benign presentation of the life of modern China, a period when the country was battered by wars and upheavals and when people’s daily life was precarious and often disrupted. Among the oversized cast of eighty-odd characters, there is not a single evil person, which cannot be true to life. Granted, the author believed in Confucianism and the goodness of man, but such a sweetened narrative tends to soften the story to the genre of popular romance.

The translation of Moment in Peking is still read by Chinese readers mainly because it attempts to portray a panorama of modern China through the saga of three families. For a similar reason, Lin Yutang’s Chinatown Family, a novel about the American immigrant experience, has just been brought back into print by Rutgers University Press. This novel is not an essential piece of fiction in his corpus, but, because it is about the American experience, it is still read in the United States. Among all his books written in English, only this novel and his masterpiece of nonfiction The Importance of Living remain in print in English. This fact indicates that often it is not the language but the subject matter and the content that determine the life of a book.

In his seventies, Lin Yutang spent five years (1967-72) compiling a large dictionary, the Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage, which he believed was the pinnacle of his literary career.(23) Interestingly, Solzhenitsyn also aspired to write a wordbook with an eye to preserving the purity of the Russian language that was violated by the Communist revolution and threatened by Western linguistic and cultural influences, and, in the early 1990s, he began to contribute a glossary to the Soviet Review Russian Speech.(24) Like most writers in exile, both Solzhenitsyn and Lin Yutang were obsessed with language, but Lin differed from Solzhenitsyn in intention—he attempted to serve as a linguistic bridge between English and Chinese. Initially, he embarked on his project with a mind to supersede the two Chinese-English dictionaries already in use (“the Mathews” and “the Giles”), which he thought could no longer meet modern readers’ needs. Such a purpose was easily achieved when Lin Yutang’s dictionary was brought out in 1972. However, six years later, Beijing Foreign Languages Institute published A Chinese-English Dictionary (1978), which is not only more updated than Lin’s dictionary but also more handy to use. The compilation of this official dictionary was ordered by Mao Zedong and attended to by Zhou Enlai; an editorial staff of over fifty people, Chinese and non-Chinese, spent eight years working on it. Even since its publication, it has remained the standard Chinese-English dictionary and has been revised and updated regularly. Lin Yutang had a staff of three for his lexicographic project. It stands to reason that the dictionary by Beijing Foreign Languages Institute easily dislodged the position occupied briefly by Lin Yutang’s dictionary.

In fact, in recent decades, reference books have been the forte of publishers in mainland China, where labor is cheap and where it is easy to gather collective efforts for a project that requires minimum creativity. For instance, the editorial staff of A Great Chinese Dictionary (1990), compiled by Wang Tongyi, was larger than two hundred people, fulltime and part-time. It was a mistake for Lin Yutang to take on his dictionary project in the first place, and it was shortsighted for him to claim that it was the peak of his literary career, never mind that he might have had no inkling of what he was competing against in mainland China. An exiled writer must avoid pitting his individual effort against any collective effort, because his principal asset is his creative talent and energy, which should be used primarily for creative work—great literature has never been produced by collectives.

Unlike Solzhenitsyn who secluded himself and did not travel unless he had to, Lin Yutang, despite having New York City as his base, led a colorful, somewhat peripatetic life. He traveled through Europe frequently and was fond of the climate and lifestyle of southern France. In the mid-1940s he spent all his fortune, $120,000 in total, inventing the first portable Chinese typewriter. He did succeed in making such a machine, but owing to the Civil War in China, no manufacturer was willing to produce it; and the model typewriter was later junked. Consequently, the invention, potentially revolutionary and lucrative, bankrupted him. In 1949, he worked for the United Nations as a senior official in Charge of arts and literature, but soon quit to write full-time. In 1954, he moved to Singapore to take the office of the founding principal of Nanyang University, but he resigned half a year later, having been sabotaged by the Communists. Throughout those years, he longed to go home, but this was impossible because of his anti-Communist stance. He often went to Hong Kong in his later years and stood atop a hill, gazing at his homeland beyond the border. The rivers and mountains were in view, but he could not return.

When Lin Yutang went to Taiwan to live in 1966, Chiang Kai-shek offered to have a house built for him as an expression of the Nationalist government’s gratitude for his service, as if the writer were an official who had finally come home from a long stint abroad. Lin Yutang himself designed the house with the help of a noted architect. The house, white and topped with blue tiles, was exquisite, with a garden and a fish pond, constructed in a combination of the Chinese and the Spanish styles. Lin Yutang loved his house and seemed at home living there, though in reality it had been built with public fund. Since his death in 1976, the house has been a museum of his life and work.

Although not as fortunate as Solzhenitsyn and never physically present in his homeland again, Lin Yutang did return to mainland China through his literature. In 1987, the translation of Moment in Peking was finally published in China. Following the publication of this book, there appeared books on him and his literary accomplishments, though criticism of this kind is full of revolutionary clichés and patriotic platitudes. His collected works, in thirty volumes, were published in 1994. To date, millions of copies of his books have been printed in China, and he has become one of the most popular authors. There have been two competing TV series adapted from Moment in Peking, one made by Taiwan and the other by the mainland. The people of his hometown, Zhangzhou, Fujian Province, even built a museum dedicated to him with the help of the funds donated by his overseas fans. Yet beneath all the publicity, again we can see that it was his literary writings that met some cultural need of the newly opening China and thus paved the way for his return. Only through literature is a genuine return possible for the exiled writer.

In truth, other than slaking the writer’s nostalgia, the writer’s physical return to his native land has little meaning. The pages of literary history are studded with the names of exiled titans whose works, despite the authors’ inability to go back to their native lands in person, were eventually embraced by their peoples. Dante, who accepted exile as the state of his historical being, never returned to Florence—and even his ashes were not allowed to return in spite of the repeated efforts made by some of his fellow citizens to have him back—but time and Italy have crowned him with poetic laurels. Joyce, who made exile the fundamental condition for his writing as if separation from Ireland was also an act of creation, was buried in Zurich, but his works have brought pride to the Irish and revolutionized modern fiction. The Chinese writer Eileen Chang died in Los Angeles in complete obscurity (in 1995), and for decades, her writings were unknown to Chinese readers, but her works of fiction are read widely as modern classics now. Only literature can penetrate historical, political, and linguistic barriers and reach the readership that includes the people of the writer’s native country.

As a matter of fact, in our time the intense attachment to one’s native land is often viewed as an unnecessary and anachronic feeling that tends to debilitate migrants. I would even argue that, for many displaced people, nostalgia is also blended with fear—the fear of uncertainty and of facing the challenges posed by the larger world and the fear of the absence of the clarity and confidence provided by the past. In essence, nostalgia is associated mostly with the experience of a particular type of migrants, namely, exiles. For most migrants, this attachment can become unreasonable and even unjustified, as the narrator of Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame refutes: “We know the force of gravity, but not its origins; and to explain why we become attached to our birthplaces we pretend that we are trees and speak of roots. Look under your feet. You will not find gnarled growths sprouting through the soles. Roots, I sometimes think, are a conservative myth, designed to keep us in places.”(25) The debunking of the tree metaphor makes it clear that human beings are different from trees and should be rootless and entirely mobile. This is indeed a radical idea, which, in a way, the novel dramatizes, just as its protagonist Omar Khayyam is destroyed after he returns to his native place. But human beings are not always rational animals, and even the same narrator in Shame cannot help but feel shamefaced at times and admits, “And to come to the ‘roots’ idea, I should say that I haven’t managed to shake myself free of it completely. Sometimes I do see myself as a tree, even, rather grandly, as the ash Yggdrasil, the mythical world-tree of Norse legend.”(26)What is fundamental here is the playfulness manifested in the metaphor of the ash Yggdrasil, which, existing in the domain of Scandinavian mythology, has little to do with the narrator’s native place, but which is transplanted into his being through artistic imagination. Thus, art has become his way of reconciliation and transcendence.

The acceptance of rootlessness as one’s existential condition—especially by some writers from former British colonies holding a British passport and using English as their first language—exemplifies the situation most migrant writers face. Very few of them are like Solzhenitsyn and Lin Yutang who had been well-established authors before they left their native countries. For most migrant writers today, displacement makes them more vulnerable and their existence more haphazard, since they cannot fall back on any significant past and must struggle to survive in new places. In his novel The Enigma of Arrival, V.S. Naipaul poignantly describes such a writer’s predicament by reflecting on the eponymous painting by Chirico. The new arrival at a Mediterranean port wanders through the deserted streets and the bazaar of the town, passing strange people and entering mysterious gates to reach the interiors of temples. But finally, exhausted by the adventure and growing forgetful of his mission, he will “get back to the quayside and his ship. But he wouldn’t know how.” Naipaul writes, “I imagined some religious ritual in which, led on by kindly people, he would unwittingly take part and find himself the intended victim. At the moment of crisis he would come upon a door, open it, and find himself back on the quayside of arrival. He has been saved; the world is as he remembered it. Only one thing is missing now. Above the cutout walls and buildings there is no mast, no sail. The antique ship has gone. The traveler has lived out his life.”(27) The depiction of the stranded traveler, to whose arrival Naipaul drew a parallel to his own arrival in England and English literature, speaks allegorically to all the migrants who by chance or by force of circumstances can no longer return to the places of their departures. Their ships are gone, and left on their own in a new place, they have to figure out their bearings and live a life different from that of their past. With the uncertainty that comes with freedom, with the bitterness of betrayal, and with the loneliness intensified by confusion and self-doubt, they will have no choice but to find a way to survive, and, if fortunate, some fulfillment.

Naipaul’s portrayal of the writer’s predicament is quite poetic despite its melancholy tone of voice. In reality, the struggle is much more painful and maddening. In a letter to his sister Kamla, Naipaul says, “So you will see that the reason why I am remaining in England is really my writing: and I think this is something you will sympathise with, and encourage me. The short-term solution of returning to Trinidad and paying off the debt will cripple all of us in the long run; whereas if I can do something big—with effort—all of us will benefit. Bear with me, I beg you. I am not having it easy: I am not starving, but I worry about my responsibilities towards you a great deal, and I feel ashamed of myself.”(28) Naipaul here implores his sister not to ally herself with their mother who wanted him to go home and help the family financially. In addition, he begs his sister to send him money so that he can finish his books in secret. He had told his mother earlier, “I don’t see myself fitting into the Trinidad way of life. I think I shall die if I had to spend the rest of my life in Trinidad.”(29) He must have meant an intellectual death in his native country, which, ironically, had offered him the scholarship for Oxford. When he begged for his sister’s support, he had written his first two books, but neither had yet been accepted by a publisher. He was a beginning writer and had to justify his literary pursuit even to the people closest to him. To most others, that must have been like courting failure.

How different was Naipaul’s situation from that of Solzhenitsyn, who, when banished into exile, had won the Nobel Prize, and from that of Lin Yutang, who, before sailing for America, had written a bestseller in English and had earned the largest royalties ever in China by a single author at the time.(30) It was difficult for Naipaul even to justify his writing to his family, let alone to his native country. It would have been insane for him to think of himself as a spokesman for his people, from whom his emigration to England had obviously alienated him. For a writer like the fledgling Naipaul, he must think how to write well and get published while surviving economically. Any ambition beyond that was a luxury.

I still remember vividly my first reading of Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River, a book that changed my life. It was in late December 1992, three years after I had declared in the preface to my first book that I would speak for the unfortunate Chinese, and I was in New York to attend the Modern Language Association convention, hunting for a teaching position. Before this trip, I had looked for a job two years in a row without success. As I walked from hotel to hotel to meet with the interviewers, I could not drive this passage from my mind:

If you look at a column of ants on the march you will see that there are some who are stragglers or have lost their way. The column has no time for them; it goes on. Sometimes the stragglers die. But even this has no effect on the column. There is a little disturbance around the corpse, which is eventually carried off—and then it appears so light. And all the time the great busyness continues, and the apparent sociability, that rite of meeting and greeting which ants traveling in opposite directions, to and from their nest, perform without fail.(31)

This is how book 2 of the novel begins, when the narrator laments the death of Father Huismans, a Belgian missionary who collected African masks and carvings, which can be construed as either preserving the indigenous culture or looting it. His death is like a ripple in a river that occurs and then disappears while the stream keeps flowing, just as the column of ants is undisturbed by the loss of a single member of their tribe. To me, Naipaul’s passage captures the true relationship between the individual and the collective. Perhaps, that passage pained me even more than Naipaul’s narrator Salim, because people of my generation from mainland China had been indoctrinated to believe that there was a unstated contract between yourself and your country. As a citizen, you were supposed to serve your country, and, as for your livelihood, your country would take care of it for you. But in America I saw that such a contract gave you a false sense of entitlement (in China, it would never have occurred to me to look for a job—such an idea was alien to us). Here you had to work like everyone else to put food on your table and had to learn to live as an independent man.

Naipaul’s novel moved me so much that I wrote two poems in response. One of them is “The Past,” and the other is the following:

In New York City

In the golden rain
I plod along Madison Avenue,
loaded with words.
They are from a page
that shows the insignificance
of a person to a tribe,
just as a hive keeps thriving
while a bee is lost.

On my back the words
are gnawing and gnawing
till they enter into my bones—
I become another man,
alone, wandering,
no longer dreaming of luck
or meeting a friend.

No wisdom shines
like the neon and traffic lights,
but there are words as true as
the money eyes, the yellow cabs,
the fat pigeons on the sills.(32)

As I wandered in downtown Manhattan, those lines echoed in my mind. They marked the beginning of my doubts about my claim as a spokesman for the downtrodden Chinese. Gradually, I came to see the silliness of that ambition.

Naipaul in his essay “Two Worlds” speaks about the necessity of maintaining the distinction between the writer as a social being and the writer who writes. He quotes from Proust’s early book Against Sainte-Beuve to argue that the self who writes a book is not the same as the person who exists in everyday life.(33) At first glance, this argument against the writer’s social functions seems spurious, if not inane. How many significant writers have promoted justice with their pens? How many of them have been regarded as a conscience of the people? Some have even endeavored to save the soul of a nation. The assumption is that to become a good writer you have to be a good person, that the writing person and social being are one. But if we examine the issue, we see that both Proust and Naipaul are right. Even the most socially conscientious writers like Solzhenitsyn and Lin Yutang could be accepted by their peoples only on the grounds that they had written lasting literary works. Their social functions in their lifetimes have been largely forgotten; what remains are the books secreted from their writing selves. This is a cliché but still holds true: a writer’s first responsibility is to write well. His social role is only secondary, mostly given by the forces around him, and it has little to do with his value as a writer.

On several occasions, I said I would stop writing about contemporary China. People often asked me, “Why burn your bridges?” or “Why mess with success?” I would reply, “My heart is no longer there.” In retrospect, I can see that my decision to leave contemporary China in my writing is a way to negate the role of the shopkesmanship I used to envision for myself. I must learn to stand alone, as a writer.

That said, I do not mean that a writer should live in an ivory tower, answerable only to his art. I can even admire those writers, portrayed by Nadine Gordimer in her essay “The Essential Gesture,” who have managed to function as both a writer and an activist and whose art responds to social exigencies. Before I turned to writing seriously at the age of thirty-two, I had never planned to become a writer. During my first eight years of college teaching, I never used the word “art” in the classroom, having my doubts about writing as an art, not to mention its value, its integrity, its autonomy, and its effectiveness in shaping society, though I had kept writing poetry and fiction. I could agree with Gordimer wholeheartedly that a writer must be “more than a writer” and must be responsible to the well-being of his fellow citizens.(34) For a long time, I was deeply moved by Derek Walcott’s line in “The Schooner Flight”: “either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.”(35) However, as I continued writing, the issue of the writer’s essential gesture as a social being grew more complicated to me. Writers do not make good generals, and today literature is ineffective at social change. All the writer can strive for is a personal voice.

But for whom does the writer speak? Of course not just for himself. Then, for a group? For those who are not listened to? There is no argument that the writer must take a moral stand and speak against oppression, prejudice, and injustice, but such a gesture must be secondary, and he should be aware of the limits of his art as social struggle. His real battlefield is nowhere but on the page. His work will be of little value if not realized as art. Surveying contemporary history, both of the East and West, we can see many blank spaces unmarked by literature: genocides, wars, political upheavals, and manmade catastrophes. Take the example of the Anti-Rightist Movement in China in the late 1950s. Millions of people suffered persecution, tens of thousands of intellectuals were sent to the hinterlands and perished there, yet not a single piece of literature with lasting value emerged from this historical calamity. The victims were the best educated in Chinese society, and some of them are still alive but too old to produce any significant work. Many of the accused Rightists were both writers and activists, and some still write petitions and articles and organize conferences. But without a lasting literary work, their sufferings and losses will fade considerably in the collective memory, if not altogether. Is that not a great loss? What was needed was one artist who could stay above immediate social needs and create a genuine piece of literature that preserved the oppressed in memory. Yes, to preserve is the key function of literature, which, to combat historical amnesia, must be predicated on the autonomy and integrity of literary works inviolable by time. In Andrei Makine’s Dreams of My Russian Summers, the narrator meditates on how to bear witness: “And they [the Russians who were busy writing personal memoirs] did not understand that history had no need for all these innumerable little Gulags. A single monumental one, recognized as a classic, sufficed.”(36) As this implies, the writer should be not just a chronicler but also a shaper, and alchemist, of historical experiences.

The writer should enter history mainly through the avenue of his art. If he serves a cause or a group or even a country, such a service must be a self-choice and not imposed by society. He must serve on his own terms, in the manner and at the time and place of his own choosing. Whatever role he plays, he must keep in mind that his success or failure as a writer will be determined only on the page. That is the space where he should strive to exist.

1. Quoted in Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2001), 228 >>back
2. Ibid., 231 >>back
3. D.M. Thomas, Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998), 458. >>back
4. Ibid., 468 and 475. >>back
5. Pearce, Solzhenitsyn, 279. >>back
6. Ibid., 274 and 282. >>back
7. Sten Lee Meyers, "Solzhenitsyn Returns, on Russian TV," New York Times, February 9, 2006. >>back
8. Dudley Clendinen, “Solzhenitsyn Secluded as Wife Becomes a Citizen,” New York Times, June 25, 1985. >>back
9. Pearce, Solzhenitsyn, 254. >>back
10. For example, in Cancer Ward, Oleg, after his release from the ward, went to the zoo, observed a spiral-horn goat for a long time, and was moved by it. “Oleg stood there for five minutes and departed in admiration. The goat had not even stirred. That was the sort of character a man needed to get through life.” Cancer Ward, trans. Nicholas Bethell and David Burg (New York: Bantam, 1969), 503.
In The First Circle, Innokenty tells his sister-in-law’s husband, Galakhov, who is a famous but not significant writer, “And a great writer—forgive me, perhaps I shouldn’t say this, I’ll lower my voice—a great writer is, so to speak, a second government. That’s why no regime anywhere has ever loved its great writers, only its minor ones.” The First Circle, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Bantam Books, 1969), 415. >>back
11. Some Russians still found Solzhenitsyn’s “Americanness” problematic, even though he remained a Russian citizen. At a town meeting, one of the attendees rebuked Solzhenitsyn, “It is you and your writing that started it all and brought our country to the verge of collapse and devastation. Russia doesn’t need you. So … go back to your blessed America.” Quoted by Edward E. Ericson, Jr., in “Introduction to the Perennial Classics Edition,” The Gulag Archipelago (1918-1956) (New York: Perennial Classics, 2002), xv. >>back
12. Thomas, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 458 and 467. >>back
13. Quoted in Pearce, Solzhenitsyn, 282 and 249.>>back
14. Lin Yutang, My Country and My People (New York: John Day, 1935), 100-108.>>back
15. Ibid., 101.>>back
16. Lin once explained, “Many people have advised me to get naturalized, but I’ve told them here is not a place to settle down, so we would rent rather than buy a home.” Quoted by Xiping Wan, On Lin Yutang (Xian: Shanxi People’s Press, 1987), 46.>>back
17. Taiyi Lin, Biography of Lin Yutang (Taipei: Lianjing Publishing, 1990), 203.>>back
18. Quoted in Zeng Jijin, “Standing at the Crossroads of Eastern and Western Cultures,” Chinese Writers, no.4 (2006), 109.>>back
19. Lin Yutang, My Country and My People (New York: John Day, 1935), 15.>>back
20. Pearl Buck, “Introduction,” in ibid, xii.>>back
21. Lin Yutang Quanji [Collected works by Ling Yutang] (Jilin: Dongbei Teachers University Press, 1994) 10:314. >>back
22. See Moment in Peking (New York: John Day, 1939), 53-54, 96-97, and 257. >>back
23. Taiyi Lin, Biography of Lin Yutang, 242. >>back
24. Pearce, Solzhenitsyn, 260-61.>>back
25. Salman Rushide, Shame (New York: Knopf, 1983), 90.>>back
26. Ibid., 92.>>back
27. V.S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival (New York: Knopf, 1987), 98-99.>>back
28. V.S. Naipaul, Between Father and Son: Family Letters (New York: Knopf, 2000), 283.>>back
29. Ibid., 277.>>back
30. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Lin Yutang was nicknamed “King of Royalties,” and his income from his writings surpassed any individual author’s in China.>>back
31. V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River (New York: Vintage, 1989), 85.>>back
32. Ha Jin, Facing Shadows (New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1996), 62.>>back
33. V.S. Naipaul, Literary Occasions (New York: Vintage, 2003), 181-82.>>back
34. Nadine Gordimer, The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, and Places, ed. Stephen Clingman (New York: Knopf, 1988), 290.>>back
35. Derek Walcott, Colleted Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1986), 346.>>back
36. Andrei Makine, Dreams of My Russian Summers, trans. Geoffrey Strachan (New York: Scribner, 1997), 238.>>back

Originally published in The Writer as Migrant (The University of Chicago Press), 2008.