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Ha Jin, Intellectual Badass and Really Nice Guy

I took a few poetry classes* with Chinese-American novelist Xuefei Jin when he taught at my college**. (And he even wrote me a gradudate school recommendation letter.) He had yet to become a literary big shot when I met him — a couple years after I graduated, he won the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner prize for “Waiting,” a novel set in China. His most recent novel, “War Trash,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

I met up with Jin again a few years back at a book signing for “Waiting” here in DC; he is humble, friendly, and a genuinely nice guy. (His personal story is an interesting one, too: he was born in China and served in the army during the Cultural Revolution; he later emigrated to the US and earned his Ph.D. in English.)

All of that by way of saying that I was thrilled to see that Jin has been included on Foreign Policy/Prospect magazine’s list of the world’d Top 100 Public Intellectuals.

*Jin began his writing career as a poet; one time, when we discussing a poem by an author we were studying in our modern American poetry class, he said, “if I could one day write a poem as good as this, I would die a happy man.” I wonder if, had someone told him then that he’d go on to achieve such literary acclaim, he’d have believed them.

**I never in a million years, as a twenty-year-old college kid, would have thought I’d one day live across the Taiwan Straight from Jin’s homeland.