Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
Nan Wu is a Chinese graduate student in political science at Brandeis University
when the Tiananmen Square massacre changes everything for him. Because of his
activity with a prodemocracy group, it is now impossible for him to return to
China to take up the academic career he had been working toward. His wife,
Pingping, is already with him in Boston; their six-year-old son, Taotao, who has
been living with his grandparents in Jinan, is finally able to join them. Nan
has not seen his son for four years, and Taotao doesn't remember his father.
Reunited now in exile, they must all begin a new life.
Nan soon decides that political science, the field of study assigned to him by
the Chinese government, does not interest him-at heart, he wants to write
poetry. He is haunted as well by thoughts of Beina, the woman who broke his
heart in China. He knows he doesn't truly love Pingping, but the economic
survival of his family takes priority over all his private desires. He quits
graduate school, and he and Pingping move to Atlanta, where they buy a small
Chinese restaurant in a shopping mall. Slowly Nan develops his cooking skills
and the restaurant thrives, but he is troubled by his continuing dissatisfaction
with life. His poet friend Dick meanwhile, takes an academic job at Emory, and
through him Nan learns what it means to survive as a poet in Americato win
grants, to be published by a respectable press, to be invited to speak, and to
read from one's work. His daily work at the restaurant keeps him drained and
uninspired. But the larger problem is that he must decide whether to write in
Chinese or in Englishhe is caught between two languages, and each expresses a
world of alienation for Nan.
In a narrative style that reflects the slow accretion of daily experience with
the texture of events both large and small, Ha Jin masterfully and movingly
presents the strugglefraught with difficulty, anxiety, and exhaustionof an
immigrant family building a life in America.
- From the beginning, the novel presents a structure of very short chapters.
Why might Ha Jin have chosen this means of organizing his story, and what is its
effect? In what ways does the pace of the novel reflect the rhythms of daily
- What is likable about Nan's character, and what is less so? Do his
continuing infatuation with Beina, his lack of love for Pingping [pp. 23,
5760], and his emotional distance from his son affect your opinion of him, and
if so, how?
- The use of language is an important focus of A Free Life. Ha
Jin writes Nan's mistakes and mispronunciations into the dialogue when Nan is
speaking in English; when characters speak in Chinese their speech appears in
italics. What is the effect of the occasional misuse or noncolloquial use of a
word or phrase in English, as when Nan says, for instance, that Sam is
"bibulous" [p. 260], that a poet is "well endowed" [p. 305], or when he says in
a job interview that he and his co-workers "all got laid together" [p. 25]?
- The Wus' friendship with Janet and Dave Mitchell involves them in the
emotional events of Hailee's adoption from China, as well as the discovery and
treatment of her leukemia. At one point Nan is amazed at how emotional Dave
becomes when having to choose between two orphan girls; he thinks, "Probably it
was their Christian faith that had instilled in them the sense of guilt and
enabled them to commiserate with the babies more than theythe Wuscould" [p.
313]. Do you think Christianity is the reason for the Mitchells' sensitivity?
Does the episode suggest something about cultural difference or about Nan's own
powers of empathy?
- Responding to Mr. Liu's statement that China should attack Taiwan to
maintain its territorial integrity, Nan says, "For the individual human being,
what is a country? It's just an idea that binds people together emotionally. But
if the country cannot offer the individual a better life, if the country is
detrimental to the individual's existence, doesn't the individual have the right
to give up the country, to say no to it?" [p. 320]. Do you agree with this
statement? What are the reasons that Nan feels he must say no to China?
- When they deposit the $50,000 check and the woman at the bank looks at
them strangely, Pingping realizes, "There was no way this woman could imagine
the sacrifice and labor this check embodied" [p. 185]. Would you agree that most
native-born Americans are no longer capable of the self-sacrifice and
unremitting labor that the Wus engage in? What are the effects of a capitalist
and consumerist economy on people's values and behavior, as seen through the
eyes of Nan and Pingping?
- Throughout the story, Nan holds onto the memory of Beina and wants to see
her again "in order to preserve her in his memory as a lovely woman beyond his
reach, as someone who still possessed his soul, so that the flames of
inspiration would blaze in him again" [p. 562]. How do his feelings change after
he sees Beina in Illinois [pp. 586-90]?
- Nan tells Dick that "zer core of American culture" is "obsessed with two
s's ... self and sex" [p. 307]. How does Nan react in episodes related to
sex [pp. 3134, 8690, 54446, 59599]? What is the difference between Nan's
self-absorption and the self-obsession he sees in Americans?
- When the Wus sell their restaurant to their friends Shubo and Niyan they
are shocked to learn that Shubo won't let Pingping work there [pp. 61315]. What
does this incident, as well as Nan's later visit to his parents in China [pp.
55760] make clear for Nan about the bonds of friendship and family? How does he
respond to the celebration of Halloween in their suburban neighborhood [pp.
27173], and why?
- After paying off the mortgage on their house, Nan has a brief period of
elation which is followed by a profound sense of disappointment: "The struggle
had ended so soon that he felt as though the whole notion of the American dream
was shoddy, a hoax. . . . He should feel successful. But somehow the success
didn't mean as much to him as it should" [p. 418]. What is the cause of his
dismay? How is his distress affected by his conversation with Shubo about the
idea that immigrants must sacrifice their own dreams for their children and
grandchildren [pp. 42021]?
- Observing the culture of moneymaking on his trip to China, Nan thinks, "Now he wanted all the more to live and die in America. How he missed his home
in Georgia" [p. 568]. Throughout the story, Nan has felt almost no nostalgia for
his life in China. Is this lack of emotional connection to his native culture
partly the reason that Nan is willing to risk writing in English? What had come
to define "home" for Nan?
- The story's arc brings to Nan's attention only belatedly what the reader
perhaps already feels: that Pingping has proven herself from the beginning the
stronger and steadier character. She has left her native country to be with a
husband she knows does not love her, she accepts his moods and his anger, and
she works daily with their son to make sure he succeeds at school. How do
Pingping's pregnancy and the loss of the baby girl affect their marriage [p.
469]? How does Nan come to realize Pingping's worth [p. 612]? What does his poem
"Belated Love" [pp. 61920] express about his new knowledge?
- How would you describe the prose style of the novel? What are the notable
aspects of the narration and what kinds of details does it bring into focus? Do
you assume that the narration is mainly from Nan's point of view; is it a more
objective third-person narration, or does it shift between the two?
- 14. Regarding his poetic vocation, Nan thinks, "The truth was that he had
been frightened by the overwhelming odds against writing in English
artistically, against claiming his existence in this new land, and against
becoming a truly independent man who followed nothing but his own heart. To date
he had tried every way to wriggle out of the struggle" [p. 472]. How do the
poems at the end of the volume reflect Nan's new independence? What does the "free life" of the title mean for him?
Monica Ali, Brick Lane; Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss;
Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog; Ma Jian, Beijing Coma;
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake; Nam Le, The Boat;
Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters; Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin and
Speak, Memory; V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas; Boris
Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago; John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath;
Mo Yan, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out.
About the Author
Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. He is the
author of the internationally bestselling novel Waiting, which won
the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award; War Trash, which won
the PEN/Faulkner Award; The Crazed; In the Pond; the story
collections The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award,
Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short
Fiction, and Ocean of Words, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award; and three
books of poetry. He is a professor of English at Boston University and lives in
the Boston area.
Ha Jin is available for select readings and lectures. To inquire about a
possible appearance, please visit www.knopfspeakersbureau.com or call
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