Chang-rae Lee Gets Personal

Acclaimed novelist Chang-rae Lee talks about his latest book, The Surrendered, and what makes it his most intimate yet

By Sung-Min Yi

Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel may surprise readers familiar with his work. Gone are the thoughtful but emotionally distant men who narrate the books in the first person. Gone are the subtly shaded musings on suburbia and the immigrant experience. For his fourth novel, The Surrendered, Lee has penned an epic that follows three survivors of the wars in East Asia over the course of 50 years.

It is perhaps ironic that Lee’s biggest book—469 pages—may be his most personal. June Han, one of the novel’s main characters, is dying of stomach cancer, the disease which took Lee’s mother’s life while he was in his 20s. And the book opens with a horrific accident inspired by Lee’s father’s experience (his younger brother’s leg was severed by the wheels of a train) as he fled Pyongyang during the Korean War.

Born in Seoul, Lee moved to New York City as a child, and grew up in Westchester. After graduating with a degree in English from Yale University, he worked as a financial analyst for a year before deciding to pursue fiction writing full-time. His critically-acclaimed first novel, Native Speaker, became a bestseller. The book also touched many Asian American readers who could appreciate, in addition to the brilliant prose, the subtle nuances of a bicultural main character, Henry Park. His two novels that followed, A Gesture Life and Aloft, were equally well-received and helped solidify Lee’s place as one of the most respected novelists of our time.

Last month, KoreAm spoke with the award-winning author at his publisher’s ofices in New York. Lee, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University, was just launching his national book tour.

Congratulations! It’s the first day of the book tour.
It’s great because it’s what you hope for, but then at some point it tips over into, “God, am I really this person who talks about himself all the time?” [Laughs.]

Your latest book has a lot of resonance with your family’s history. Did that affect how you wrote the book, and how you feel about it now?
That definitely is one of the reasons it was more emotionally present and visceral for me. Just knowing that my father had had this horrible thing happen to him. You know this is not theoretical stuff. I’m sure it still haunts my father. And I wanted the feeling of the novel to be as harrowing as I could make it. I wanted people to feel as if they’d been cleaned out.
Also, frankly, I’ve been thinking about these issues because of the last eight years of being in a war. Every day in the New York Times is some horrid story of bombing, but also a lot of stories about guys coming back injured, or having seen stuff that’s happened, stories about Afghanis and Iraqis and refugees. It’s like every day. But as a novelist, particularly as someone who’s writing about this, I really did take it in. Because in the end, all wars are the same. If you read the Iliad, it’s the same. Three thousand years, it’s always the same. There’s suffering, and then there’s something else.

My father has a similar refugee story as your father’s, and it’s difficult not to think of their stories being played out again through today’s wars.
Yes, that also gets me. Just ordinary people, your father, my father, the millions of other people who are there, their lives were changed forever because of forces completely beyond their control. And yet, they are the ones who have to bear the weight of that history. It always comes down to these individuals. This is not a war novel. It’s about the aftermath of war.

How does this novel differ from your previous three?
The first three books have a postmodern sensibility, in the idea that they are books about their subjects, but on top of all that, they are about themselves. They are about the way that this person is going about telling his story. This book is not that worried or anxious about how to tell a story.

One of the first things a reader of your work would notice is that the book is written in the third person, while your earlier books were written in the first person.
Right, it’s in third person, and of course you can play God—well you can play God in everything—but you can more patently play God. [Laughs.] But I didn’t feel that way. I felt as if I was wanting to tell, in fact, a fairly simple story. It may not seem so simple because lots of things happen, but in fact for me, it was a very simple story, which was what happens to people who have lost everything, and have been ground down to nothing. It’s a very simple idea, and the kind of simple idea that I did not have with the other books.

Did you feel like your relationship with the characters ended up being different?
Yeah, absolutely. I felt a tenderness for them that I never felt for my other characters. I really felt as if I was seeing them on a little stage, over there. And it wasn’t God-like in the sense that anything can happen to them, but really worrying about them. And in that way, I think I had an emotional connection to them that I never had before with my characters.

What inspired the decision to write a book of this scale?
My sense is that I didn’t want all these forces of history to be channeled through just one person. I wanted to be able to show multiple expressions under it, and different expressions that have all these things in common. It just naturally felt as if I needed to widen the canvas.

I want to switch gears for a bit and talk about Native Speaker. I really got swept up in the language, but many of my peers took issue with the politics of the book. Did you get a lot of that?
That’s the problem sometimes with ethnic fiction. It’s easy for someone to be annoyed or disappointed or frustrated by a novel because it suggests something about their kind—as if there is a “their kind” that’s monolithic—that doesn’t quite jive with their feeling. And then I’m accused of having all these political agendas, or blindnesses, or bigotry or something like that.

You’ve been quoted in other interviews saying that you thought it was interesting that Native Speaker was considered an immigrant story, while you view it as essentially a postmodern novel.

It is an immigrant story. I’m just saying I tried to make it not just an immigrant story. One of the reasons I wrote Native Speaker was I was frustrated because I just saw plain old immigrant stories. And I didn’t want to write a plain old immigrant story because I had nothing to add to it. ‘This is my immigrant life, and it was tough, and there was struggle and hardship and love.’ I didn’t write that kind of story. [Laughs.] And Native Speaker in many ways came out of, maybe, my frustration with those stories. Because I knew that, not that those stories weren’t true, but that as a writer, as an artist, you don’t want to repeat yourself or someone else. You want to try and write a book that couldn’t have been written before and by anyone else.

In your past books, your Asian American characters have strained relationships with Asian America at large. In Native Speaker, Henry Park is a spy on a Korean American politician, and so there’s that strain in the book. In A Gesture Life, Doc Hata attends a medical conference where he meets another Japanese person, and he feels their distance more than their connection. In Aloft, there are the very funny references to academic Asian American kinds of things, really wry and funny.
All these people are a little unsettled in their ethnicity. Even if they want community. And I think they all do. But I think they all recognize, or find out, like Hata does, that community is maybe more a hope, something abstract, than actually real. And this isn’t to say we’re all individuals. Of course, we are. But it’s my view of how life for an Asian American really is—which is not as an Asian American, because there are so many different experiences of being Asian American.
I spent a year in Hawaii, in Honolulu, and being an Asian American there is completely, completely different from being an Asian American in Seattle, versus then being Asian American in San Francisco, versus then being one in L.A. [There are] very clear differences in how people are treated, and how they treat you, and how they think of themselves, and what part of the culture they own.… It’s so funny to me. It’s so dependent upon not who we are, but place. To be Asian American in Hawaii … wow. That’s like being white. [Laughs.]

It’s a pretty stark contrast to how you grew up.
It was sort of like, you really did kind of have two lives.

Like a Duboisian dual consciousness.
Exactly. I had a life in my Westchester suburb—which was kind of working class suburb, it wasn’t a fancy suburb—in which I was completely accepted and I had lots of friends, but how I thought about myself was completely different from how I’d think about myself when I was with my Korean friends. We’d meet in the city, go to dances, that kind of thing. It was sort of like being free. But feeling liberty and feeling comfortable and feeling completely like I was with brothers, rather than feeling like I was with friends. There was a slight difference. The feeling is I didn’t know that I was uncomfortable before. Now, it’s not that the level of discomfort was high…

It’s more of a noticing.
Yeah. I didn’t know that there was that noise. Until I experienced the kind of wonderful silence of being with friends. Just that it was easier. Or different.

Because that’s something that comes across in your novels, too: Regardless of the character’s dissonance and distance they feel from their respective communities, there is that sort of ache.

There is an ache. Because the ache is really there. And whether or not ultimately that is a good ache, I don’t know. Sometimes that ache leads to blood. In fact, most of history is that ache leading to something horrible. But luckily in our lives, that ache can be pleasurable and meaningful.

The Novels of Chang-rae Lee

Native Speaker (1995)
Lee’s debut novel follows Henry Park, an industrial spy whose marriage is falling apart. The book deftly uses his profession as a metaphor for the process of assimilation. The novel won the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award.

A Gesture Life
Lee did years of work on a novel about comfort women before deciding he was more interested in telling the story of a man who vainly tried to help one. Franklin “Doc” Hata is a septuagenarian Japanese of Korean descent whose experience as a former Japanese Army medic during World War II has so scarred him, he lived the rest of his life driving away those who tried to get close to him. After this book was published, the New Yorker named Lee one of the 20 best novelists under 40.

Aloft (2004)
Lee’s funniest novel focuses on Jerry Battle, who is closing in on his 60th birthday. He enjoys flying his Cessna far above his Long Island neighborhood to escape the messy situation on the ground. His first wife killed herself. His son Jack is running the family business into the ground. And his daughter Theresa finds out she is pregnant and has cancer. Theresa’s boyfriend seems to be a stand-in for Lee, a writer who writes about the “Problem of Sort of Being Himself, which is to say the problem of being Asian and American and Thoughtful and Male.”

The Surrendered (2010)
Each of the characters—June Han, a Korean War orphan; Hector Brennan, an American GI; and Sylvie Tanner, an American missionary—witness a moment of senseless brutality that sends them reeling for the rest of their lives. But it is not their trauma Lee is interested in. It is the ways that the will to live can be warped or honed, and how it molds a person in the ensuing years. A grim, ambitious novel.