Arts & Culture

Writer combines fiction and history

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, November 28, 2011

Ha Jin’s rule for writing is straightforward: Make the story “interesting.” Applying that rule is more complicated.

The author ­— whose real name is Jin Xuefei but who has, per Chinese tradition, adopted a pen name — spoke to a crowd of nearly 100 last night in Martinos Auditorium as part of the Year of China. Jin read from his latest novel, “Nanjing Requiem,” and described his writing process.

For Jin, inspiration hit after he arrived in the U.S. as a graduate student. Though he had learned about the Rape of Nanjing when he lived in China, the role of Westerners had been downplayed. One historical figure in particular — Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who served as the dean of Jinling Women’s College — captured his attention. Vautrin played a key role in establishing a refugee camp at the college, and Jin decided to make her the focus of his novel.

But the road to writing the novel was not easy. Jin, a professor at Boston University, spent his sabbatical in Berlin working on a manuscript. When he returned, his wife and son read the manuscript and told him it just did not feel right. Though discouraged, Jin sat down to revise it. After he sent the new manuscript to his editor, he received the same feedback: Vautrin’s story felt important, but something about it “didn’t gel.”

The problem, it turned out, was Vautrin herself. Several other authors had written biographies of her, and she had led a life without scandal. As a fiction writer, Jin found it difficult to sustain the novel’s energy without inventing information about her.

The solution, he decided, was to introduce a new fictional character. Anling, the fictional Chinese protagonist of the novel, was introduced as an assistant to Vautrin. Through Anling, Jin broadened the novel beyond historical fact. Anling’s husband’s sympathies with the Japanese, for instance, allowed Jin to explore the role of the Japanese, both as agressors and victims.

It only took four months to pen a manuscript after Jin decided to insert Anling’s character. Though Jin’s decision to include a fictional character necessarily shifted from focusing on Vautrin’s voice, Jin decided this was worthwhile. Her voice already existed, whether in the other books about her or in Vautrin’s diary. “What she needed,” he said, “was a story.”

The change allowed Jin considerably more creative license, as he could provide his own interpretation of events in her life without betraying history.

An instance only briefly mentioned in Vautrin’s diary, for instance, became a pivotal plot point in the story. The scene finds Vautrin blaming herself after the Japanese capture women in the college to serve as prostitutes for the army. Jin does not delve into Vautrin’s psychology in the scene and instead focuses on Anling’s perception of her.

Certainly, blending history with fiction created its share of complications. For example, a reader of fiction might expect details such as a character’s height, but Jin did not necessarily have those details about the novel’s historical figures.

In the end, Jin decided to limit his research to focus on telling the story. The final blend of fact and fiction, Jin said, was important only insofar as the story became believable — and, of course, “interesting.”