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Book Excerpt: 'The Boat Rocker' by Ha Jin


Ha Jin (Jerry Bauer)

The Chinese-American novelist Ha Jin is a uniquely versatile talent, having written acclaimed books in both English and in his native Chinese. His latest work, The Boat Rocker, follows the story of Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin, a fiercely principled reporter at a small news agency that produces a website read by Chinese all over the world. His newest assignment, however, presents a unique challenge — Feng must investigate his ex-wife, Yan Haili, an unscrupulous novelist who has willingly become a pawn of the Chinese government in order to realize her dreams of literary stardom.

On October 23, Ha Jin will appear at Asia Society to discuss his life and career with Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, and the author Emily Parker. The conversation will be available worldwide via live webcast.

In this excerpt from The Boat Rocker, the reporter Feng Danlin receives a new assignment — and learns that his life will soon take an interesting direction.


A week before the fourth anniversary of 9/11, my boss, Kaiming, barged into my office, rattling a three-page printout in his hands. “Look at this, Danlin,” he said, dropping the papers on my desk. “This is outrageous! How could they claim that George W. Bush had agreed to endorse a book by Yan Haili? Everyone can tell it’s a lie the size of heaven.”

I picked up the printout, an article from The Yangtze Morning Post. It raved about “a landmark novel,” not yet released. I had recently signed a book contract myself and was used to the hyperbole of the book business, but it was the novelist’s name, Yan Haili, that took my breath away. She was my ex-wife. That brassy bitch — she never stopped vying for attention.

The article, printed in the newspaper’s literary and art supplement, gushed that her novel, Love and Death in September, was an exotic, whirlwind love story, set by turns in North America, China, Australia, England, Russia, and France. Haili had been working on a potboiler for as long as I’d known her. She’d called it “a fabulous transnational romance.” It was yet another project that she hadn’t been able to finish. She had never succeeded in finding the center of the story, nor could she connect the various episodes into a plot with a satisfying ending. She had shelved the book again and again, and I’d thought the project was long abandoned. But now — I scanned the article in disbelief — her publisher was claiming the Administrative Office of the Chinese Communist Party had been contacted by the White House, and that President Bush would endorse the English translation of Haili’s novel! Why? Because the book “embodied the cooperative spirit between the United States and China in the global war on terrorism.” Shoot me if that was true.

The bitch will never change, I realized. I wouldn’t let her get away with it this time. I’d figure out a way to expose all her chicaneries and vanity. Even if she begged me on her knees, I wouldn’t relent.

This is nonsense,” I said to my boss. “The White House must be more interested in the author than in the book — I mean, in Yan Haili, to find out if she was secretly acting as a Chinese agent.”

That’s giving her too much credit,” Kaiming said. “She’s not smart enough to conduct espionage.” He knew how much I hated my ex-wife — that our marriage had lasted only three years before she’d found someone else, and that I couldn’t wait to get even with her. He sometimes called Haili “the heartless woman” in front of me.

I said, “So what do you want me to do? This is an arts and culture story — I never write about this kind of thing in my column.”

"This time you will. This goes beyond books — I believe it’s only one piece of a larger scam.”

I was pleased but didn’t show it. I said cautiously, “Won’t this be a conflict of interest?”

"Conflict of interest? We’re dealing with a bunch of scumbags who never do anything by the rules. You can’t handle them by acting like a gentleman. I want you to throw all your fire into this case.”

"If you want me to expose this scam, you’d better have some idea how it got started.”

"I met Jiao Fanping, her publisher, in Beijing last month. Only he’s not a true publisher — he’s nothing but a profiteer. I want you to write something to expose their scheme before they embarrass lots of us Chinese here in America. We must nip this in the bud.”

"I’m afraid it’s already blooming into an evil flower.”

"We can still pluck it off.”

"This will become personal.” I tried to smile but felt my face tight.

"I only want you to do the job.” My boss smiled.

"I’ll see what I can do.”

Pleased, Kaiming rose and headed back out to his office, the tail of his pale blue shirt swaying a little. His shoulders were so thick that he appeared to be slightly stooping.

Outside the window, two toddlers were playing noisily in a canary kiddie pool on the neighbors’ lawn. It was early September, and still warm. Beyond the lawn were the boxwood hedges, and then a length of flimsy pier that dipped into the edge of Little Neck Bay. In the distance flocks of seabirds sailed through the sky like shattered clouds. A rust-colored tanker lay at anchor, silhouetted against the pale shoreline and the curving belt of the Cross Island Parkway. As I gazed out, I began to think about Kaiming’s reasons for assigning me Haili’s story, despite my personal involvement. Of the 14 reporters in our company, GNA (Global News Agency), I was the one known for my exposés, shining a light onto the towering corruption of Chinese politics and media in my regular column. My acid tongue was legendary, my comments heart-stabbing, my views uncompromising, and my predictions sometimes even oracular. Naturally I was hated by officials and celebrities, and cursed by those I’d exposed. Yet when everyday people of the Chinese diaspora discovered my writing, it was, in their own words, “like discovering a new continent.” Most of GNA’s readership consisted of Chinese living abroad, but some of my columns made it past the partly erected Great Firewall into the mainland. Here in New York’s Chinese community, dignitaries steered clear of me, regarding me as an annoyance best avoided. My boss had probably put me on the case of Haili’s “landmark novel” for another, more pragmatic reason: unlike most of the other reporters for our Chinese-language website, I was fluent in English and wouldn’t swallow my a’s and the’s. That would facilitate my investigation of the Americans’ involvement in this whole affair. (He knew that the White House’s endorsement was a boast.)

The Boat Rocker. A novel by Ha Jin.
Courtesy of Ha Jin

I reread the Yangtze Morning Post article. When I got to the end, I felt incensed. This was unmistakably the book Haili had been working on all those years, but it had never occurred to me that she would have the temerity to exploit the tragedy of 9/11. According to the article, the book follows a young couple, a princely American man and a bewitching Chinese woman, whose coming honeymoon to Bali is annulled by the groom’s disappearance in the collapsed World Trade Center. He’d been in the North Tower. They had just been married the weekend before. The bride, wrecked by her husband’s death, almost dies, herself, of grief. For months, wherever she goes, she thinks she can see glimpses of his strapping figure in crowds or at street corners. Sometimes when she picks up the phone, the voice she hears is his. His laughter echoes in her mind and makes her eyes brim with tears. The man had dreamed of becoming a watercolor painter with a studio in Paris, on the willow-lined Seine. How remorseful she is for not having persuaded him to follow his passions! For almost half a year after his death she can’t go to work, fearful even of crossing streets and riding elevators. But now, she’s finally found the courage to write this book, which is said to be “utterly autobiographical,” because she wants to share both her joy and her pain with others.

I knew Haili’s current husband, Larry Clements. He was American, but that was about all he had in common with the tragic lover in Haili’s book. Just two weeks back I had run into him in front of Lincoln Center, beside the leaping fountains. Larry was an utterly unremarkable-looking man: in his early forties, wide-framed, with an incipient potbelly and a mop of salt-and-pepper hair. I no longer felt the hatred I’d once had for him. I’d come to realize that Haili had married him not because he was the better man, but because she’d been looking for someone who could give her a green card and an auspicious beginning in America. So Larry, a stock analyst on Wall Street with his own office, must have been her ideal catch, and she must have been the seducer, not the other way around. Larry always dressed in a suit and tie. He had expensive taste and was an opera aficionado. A typical petty bourgeois, in my opinion, probably a philistine.

According to the Post, Haili had already started promoting her book in China — she’d made several public appearances in Beijing and Shanghai the month before. The article described her as a beautiful, enigmatic young lady from New York, who had “elegant manners,” “a lithe figure,” “a lovely velvety voice,” and “dreaming eyes full of memories.” She wore a jade heart necklace (her love charm), which dangled above her fair-skinned cleavage. She emanated grace and culture. “Her whole person, her body language, enunciates the profoundest theme of life: Love! No wonder it’s universally agreed that style is the person. In Yan Haili’s case, the writer’s personal beauty and her gorgeous prose dovetail — I venture to say they enhance and deepen each other.” It was reported that Haili had captivated her young audience the moment she began to speak about writing her book, a process that had been so painful and so personal that, talking about it in front of the crowd, she’d had to pause now and again to collect herself. The audience, especially the college students among them, fixed their admiring eyes on her the whole time. Without question, her words had struck a chord in their hearts. Many girls couldn’t stop brushing away their tears.

I knew better than anyone else how pretty and charming Haili was. She was a beauty who could make people break off mid-conversation when she entered a room. But she was certainly not a gifted writer, despite her excellent taste as a reader — she loved magical realism, Agatha Christie, Marguerite Duras, and D. H. Lawrence. (“If I could write a book like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I would die happy,” she often gushed. Of course, ditto for me.) When we were a young married couple in China, I helped her revise and edit her stories and prose poems, and she submitted them to magazines and contests. Even with my help, she’d seldom succeeded in placing her pieces, much less seeing them in print. Lacking in confidence but ebullient with creative ambition, she adopted a pair of pen names, Quill from Heaven and Azure Dragonfly, as most Chinese writers do, both for self-protection and to show their modesty. Since our divorce, seven years ago, I’d been following her publications, which mostly seemed to be small write-ups, the size of a block of tofu, in community newspapers. She also posted linked stories on her blog, which, I realized now, must have been chapters from her novel. They were embarrassingly amateurish. Her passages were marred with double and triple exclamation marks. She dropped pretentious expressions right and left, calling mung-bean noodles “dragon’s beard” and aniseeds “octagonal stars.” I used to try to curb this “poetic” impulse of hers, but it had only gotten worse after we parted ways. I couldn’t see how she could possibly have developed into a published novelist overnight.

I often wondered what had happened to her youthful wanderlust. Was she still longing to see the world? I doubted it. She was so comfortably ensconced in New York — “the capital of the world,” she loved to brag. Back in college in Changchun City, she used to dream of serving as a diplomat, traveling the globe and hopping from country to country. “Every morning you would wake to find a new foreign sun,” she’d say. She’d even aspired to become a sort of female Odysseus — a woman who existed only in her interminable wanderings and who wouldn’t fear meeting her death in a distant land or even at the bottom of an uncharted sea. When she confided her secret thoughts to me in the aspen grove behind her ceramic-tiled classroom building, I was blown away, never having even thought of stepping foot out of our native Jilin province. Her wild spirit fascinated me and opened a vista in my mind’s eye. Yes, yes, I told her, human beings must go anywhere their hearts lead them — our experiences must live up to the passions we are capable of sustaining. So I urged her to pursue her vision, to, in her own words, “build a home in the sky and eventually glitter like a star on a cloudless night.”

She worked hard on her English, a subject in which she came out number one of the 78 students of the year 1994 in the music department of her normal university. She said to me, “English means freedom to me. It will give me a pair of strong wings.” I agreed, nodding like an idiot.

What had happened to her dreams of liberation, which, to her, could only be expressed in the English language? Where were her wings? As far as I knew, she had stopped writing in English long ago, seeing more opportunities and a larger readership in China. She claimed that she was now already “free and happy.” How true the caveat is: Contentment shackles your soul.

Our two editorial assistants, both interns, were unfamiliar with the art and literary scene in China, so I preferred to do the research by myself. I began looking for more press coverage of the novel on China News Service and SINA News. I found that her publisher, Jiao Fanping, had granted an interview to The Readers’ Guide Weekly a few days before. In it, he claimed that Random House had just purchased the novel for an undisclosed large figure, and that negotiations with major European, Japanese, Latin American, and Taiwanese publishers were all under way. “There’s every indication that this extraordinary book will become an international best seller,” Jiao avowed. “Just last Friday I heard from Hollywood that they were interested in acquiring the movie rights to this novel. How about that! This is absolutely phenomenal and fantastic, a breakthrough in our country’s effort to export our cultural products.”

I knew of Jiao Fanping, the only son of a high official in the State Council. Jiao had made his fortune on the Chinese stock market and then started building his own empire, which began with a small publishing house and a few cafés and dumpling joints near college campuses, all in Beijing. In recent years he’d been branching out into the music and movie industries. His statements about Haili’s book had to be bald-faced lies. I doubted she had completed the novel yet, let alone shopped it around to foreign publishers. Until the book’s actual appearance, she would still belong to the vast army of unpublished novelists.

I went down the hallway to my boss’s office. “Kaiming,” I said, “the scheme surrounding my ex-wife’s novel might be bigger and uglier than we thought.”

“That’s why I want you to look into it — nobody but you can uncover the whole thing.”

“Believe me, no reputable publisher will consider the book seriously. It’s just a shallow romance.”

“Well, you know in China there’s no distinction between a literary novel and a romance novel. All the genres are just lumped together. Most readers can’t tell the difference anyway.”

“That’s true. The Japanese don’t make such a distinction either. But still, quality is quality — I don’t think any decent publisher here will give Haili’s book the time of day.”

“You never know. It can be brought out as a romance novel here and then advertised as a literary novel back in China, where they’re planning to make most of their money anyway. I want you to expose those frauds.”

“You know that I can’t help but be biased.”

“That’s all right — you can use it to your advantage.”

Kaiming grinned, baring his square teeth. I had known him long enough to see that he’d wanted to harness my personal feelings for this job all along. He often stressed that we report every major piece of news from a unique perspective. By his definition, “Genius is originality” (which I doubt, because the world is overpopulated with original asses). If GNA kept doing news in a peerless fashion, Kaiming believed, we would become an indispensable source for the Chinese-language media around the globe. He also stressed, “Truthfulness is our only way to survive in this news business and to make money in the long run.” He himself specialized in political commentary and most times could predict the developments of current events; His opinions were highly valued, even by some experienced China hands in the States. He was regarded as a walking encyclopedia of Beijing’s top political circles, where he had secret sources. He knew how to get things done. In the case of Love and Death in September, he seemed to see my feelings about Haili as the most powerful fuel for our investigation.


Excerpted from The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin. Copyright © 2016 by Ha Jin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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