July 9: “Ocean of Words” by Ha Jin

Good day to you, Story366! I’m winding down my writing retreat in Fayetteville, having spent a wonderful three days writing, teaching, and blogging. I spent a some of Friday out and about, too, hitting the campustown and the city square, both of which are impressive. I trolled a used bookstore, Dickson Street Books, and scored some collections for Story366, and ate a pretty incredible burger at a tavern called Hugo’s. I also had drinks with some old Bowling Green friends, LewEllyn and Chris, in a cool bar that I can no longer name. Fayetteville is a pretty great town, and as I head back to Springfield, I know I’ll be drawn this way again.

FYI: Three Razorbacks who wrote story collections that I reviewed on Story366, Susan Perabo, Mary Troy, and Steve Yates, all have sent me suggestions on where I should get drunk and fat this weekend. Thanks to them. It worked.

In any case, today’s author is from somewhere very far from Fayetteville, China, to be exact. Ha Jin won a National Book Award a while back for Waiting, and wrote many books since, including 2014’s Ocean of Words, the collection under the Story366 microscope today. Ocean of Words is made up of linked stories, its protagonists members of the Chinese military, a military that Jin was a part of for six years before emigrating to America and becoming a writer and creative writing professor. It’s a really different book than just about anything I’ve read, the only thing coming close being Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, from the POV of a North Korean soldier. While that book stretches the truth a bit and takes advantage of suppositions, Jin’s book is probably—is—more realistic, especially when you take a Kim Jong-un out of the equation. It’s the hallmark of diversity, revealing a world, a character, a set of values that I’ve not run across before in fiction.

As I often do, I’m writing about the title story of the book, in this case “Ocean of Words,” which is also the last story in the collection. This was a bit tricky, as it is a collection of related stories, and reading “Ocean of Words” first might not have been a bright move. Still, when I went back and read a couple of the other stories, I got a pretty good idea of how Jin maps this book out. The stories certainly stand alone, but I probably would have been more informed had I not read the last story first. I still liked “Ocean of Words” quite a bit, and the fact that this story’s antagonist is the protagonist, more or less, of a story I read later didn’t phase me, but made me admire the complexity of this book even more.

“Ocean of Words” is the story of Zhou Wen, a soldier at the Radio-telegram Station (something to do with communications, it sounds) who is not liked by his fellow soldiers. Most of Zhou’s comrades dislike him because he’s so anti-social, off reading books when everyone else is socializing, His commanders don’t like him, either, and this is key, as it’s the last year of service for Zhao, and when he’s released, he’s going to need a job. This might seem like a doable task, a really smart guy with military service in his background, but there’s a trick: Zhao would have to be a member of the Communist Party to get a job, and guess who grants him membership in the party? His commanding officers in the Army, who don’t like him, think him a standoffish bookworm.

There’s one more hang-up, however, and that has to do with the Ocean of Words, which is the name of a book, an enormous dictionary passed down to Zhou by his father, more or less the Oxford English Dictionary for China. Zhou reads out of it a lot, catching the attention of an officer, an officer who wants to buy it from Zaho at first, but then demands it when money becomes an object. Zhou’s refusal doesn’t bid well for his dreams of becoming a Party member. Luckily for Zhou, he runs into another figure in the story, a figure who values Zhou’s intellectual pursuits more than his fighting or telegraph skills. I’ll not reveal any more, as that would be too much. You’ll have to read for yourself.

What’s really interesting about Ocean of Words—Jin’s collection, not the giant dictionary—is its perspective. It’s unabashedly getting inside the minds of Chinese soldiers, painting them as real people, with real problems. Of course they are, but not often in fiction, in the U.S., do we ever hear that perspective, have illustrated so eloquently, from so many different points of view. Remember, in “Ocean of Words,” it’s Zhou’s intent and desire to become a member of the Communist Party—how man protagonists are motivated by that in the stories I read? Yesterday, I found it refreshing and original when Edith Pearlman wrote from the perspective of a TV star, a late 1940’s variety show sidekick, a character I hadn’t seen before. Today’s book, today’s story, takes that so much further, giving us (American-types) insight into people we can certainly imagine, but not really understand, not unless someone like Jin illustrates it for us, extensively and beautifully. Sometimes books entertain me, sometimes books leave me in awe of the writer’s skill. Ha Jin’s Ocean of Words does that, but I truly feel like I also learned something today, about people I never would have thought about otherwise.

Thus ends my retreat to Fayetteville, more less, just some packing and some last-minute story-fixing to do before checkout. It’s been a blast, but I need to see those boys of mind, and that Karen, too.