At 29, Chang-Rae Lee won the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award for his debut novel, Native Speaker. A Graham Greene-esque story of subterfuge and alienation set in the immigrant communities of Queens, Native Speaker is now required reading in many ethnic studies classes for its thorough examination of self-ambivalence and cross-cultural tensions. Lee’s next two books, A Gesture Life and Aloft, address similar themes but expand into new contexts, as does his latest work, The Surrendered, in which three outsiders try to establish themselves in foreign territories. But here, Lee shifts the focus from assimilation to retrospection. Rather than braving the challenges of the new, these characters are confronting the struggles of their pasts: addiction, abandonment, and the horrors of war. For someone who writes convincingly on suffering and perseverance, Lee has a reputation for being almost too well adjusted—“the most unwriterly writer,” one profiler noted. Lee spoke with the Rail from Los Angeles while on tour promoting his new book. He was indeed comfortable, at one point joking about a recent book signing at a Costco in Issaquah, WA. Mainstream appeal hasn’t fazed Lee, one of those rare writers who both charms academics and inspires shoppers in sleepy towns to shout into their cell phones, “Chang-Rae Lee is here! Come on down!”
Dave Kim (Rail): The Surrendered is not so much a book about identity-forging, which to me was the focus of your three previous novels, but one where identities, whether cultural or familial, are pared down to basic human instincts and needs. Was this an intentional shift of focus, perhaps a directional change as a writer?
Chang-Rae Lee: Not at all. It was determined by the subject matter and how I initially invented these characters and then how they developed. June, for example, is a Korean woman living in New York and as a writer I think of every possibility, about the ways in which she thinks about life and herself. I could have written about her entry into this country and all the difficulties she had, but for the purposes of this book it wasn’t really relevant. The most relevant thing was, as you said, stripping away the layers, going back to an elemental condition. And this angle didn’t come out of any intention on my part or some kind of reprogramming. I was focused on these characters and their circumstances, these very fundamental questions about life and death.
Rail: You seem really interested in primal drives in the novel: hunger, sex, physical strain.
Lee: This is such a corporeal book. This is a book all about the body. June is dying of cancer and so she has pain and hunger. Hector is this invincible body, but he’s held captive, cursed by its duty—it only brings him unhappiness. Sylvie is addiction and a kind of sexual inhibition that is also a form of hunger. Sex is the way she feels alive and also punishes herself. I never thought about all of this while writing the book, but these are the ways in which I saw these characters developing.
Rail: Right, and it’s not about this struggle of the hyphenated American or a recounting of immigrant woes. Earlier in your career, you talked about your frustration with readers’ responses to ethnic lit, how people assume ethnic writers simply recount personal histories rather than create characters and drama from scratch. Has this frustration changed the way you choose your subject matter? Are you still frustrated?
Lee: I am, in general, in the abstract, a little frustrated with the idea that maybe some Asian-American readers only pick up my books because they think I’m going to write about things that are about them. And on the other hand, there might be readers who don’t pick up my books because they assume, “Oh, it’s just going be another Asian-American story and I have no interest in it,” rather than, as I’ve said before, knowing that these are invented fictions that have their own universes and sets of rules.
Rail: I’m sure this issue will continue to bug you for a long time.
Lee: [Laughs.] It will. But, you know, that’s just the world. I think in general, critical expectations haven’t changed so much, but there are more and more Asian-American writers writing. More readers are getting experience with those writers and seeing how they are doing very different things; readers will start to accept. Jewish writers don’t all write about the Holocaust. They don’t all have to write about being Jewish in America anymore. So I think that’s going to start happening for us, as you see more Asian-American writers. And there will be—there are so many coming up. I’m very confident that we will be taken singly as well as in a group.
Rail: The major characters in The Surrendered have this paradoxical impulse to cling to people for life and, often simultaneously, push these same individuals away. Could you talk a bit about these embrace-plus-expel relationships? Why are the characters functioning this way?
Lee: With all these folks in the book, the moment they feel human satisfaction, they interrogate it, mistrust it. They see it not as an end in itself but as a momentary turn of the wheel. And that wheel will eventually turn to something else, something darker, so they don’t see this thing that they cling to and need as the final stage. They have this sense that people will change. And that’s why it’s push, repeal.
Rail: Maybe this has larger implications on a national or cultural level, with invasions, pullouts.
Lee: I think on a national scale we tend to not think enough about the other turn of invader history. We tend to focus on what we’re trying to get at now, whether it’s war or peace. We don’t take a longer view. In my book, the characters take a longer view because of the searing experiences they’ve had. So they see this wider scale and know that the other side is coming. It’s amazing to me that nations don’t.
Rail: Hence this testy, 60-year dance between the two Koreas. In your travels, did you ever stop by the Unification Observatory, that big Foucauldian tower that looks out over the DMZ? It’s quite the tourist attraction.
Lee: I did. It’s a strange spot. I bought some North Korean soju there.
Rail: How did it taste?
Lee: I’m afraid to drink it. [Laughs.] But it has a great old-fashioned label that’s straight out of 1957.
Rail: I remember seeing a lot of relics from the war there, too. You quote Thucydides early in your novel, telling us, “War is a stern teacher.” I got the “stern” part with the many instances of suffering you look at in this book. What’s war teaching us?
Lee: It exposes humanity. That’s ultimately what I take away from that line by Thucydides, though it’s probably drifted a little from his original context. War exposes human possibility in every direction. That’s what’s frightening about war. It’s not just the carnage and suffering, but man’s capacity for boundless action. There are great moments of mercy and tenderness in war, but only because of what’s crying out for it. But what I wanted to get across in this book was not any kind of thesis. And maybe it goes back to the question of there being so much physicality in it. Unlike my other books, which are really all about thought processes and psychology and a kind of self-viewership, this one, I realized very quickly, would not be like that. It would be a book that may seem old-fashioned to people and not very hip, but a story where I wanted the reader to be absolutely, viscerally involved. I wanted to give a certain bodily experience to the reader. Because I don’t think that I can explain war. I don’t want someone to come away with a set of ideas about it. The only way to explain the inexplicable, for me, in this story, was to try to make this visceral, emotional connection.
Rail: In researching for this book you looked at a lot of war photographs, images of ruined landscapes and cities. War photography is arguably our most trusted resource for documenting and understanding conflicts, but for thousands of years, war was looked at in hindsight, through writing. What does writing offer that visual depictions can’t?
Lee: Because we’re such an image-infused society and have an image-infused consciousness, I don’t think we see images of warfare as startling anymore. I think we can move on from them in a way that their impact is just not that great. We can see a newspaper photograph of body parts after a bombing in Baghdad, and look at it as if they’re just pieces of meat. And I think that’s where writing comes in. With writing, because it goes about its subject at a different pace, the engagement is much slower. It’s asking you to experience whatever the writer’s asking you to look at almost atomically. That’s what I hoped to do with my difficult scenes in this novel. I didn’t just want to recount pictures of suffering—I wanted the reader to be able to live inside that moment, suspend the action, which a photograph can’t always do. A photograph defies your getting into it—at least in our age it does.
Rail: You also visited Korea and spoke to survivors, people who experienced the war firsthand.
Lee: I found that most people didn’t want to talk about the war. Maybe all Korean society’s really about is getting on and moving forward. [Laughs.] In some ways I think June is a metaphorical figure for all of Korea. Her stubbornness, her will; a certain kind of resilience and movement that I think recent history has shaped in Koreans and Korean culture. I’m thinking of the occupation of the country by the Japanese before World War II and then the Korean War, which destroyed everything. The people who were children and young adults during that time—so many of them left the country and led the diaspora. Looking at the kinds of things that they had to see and do to survive, it makes perfect sense to me why these people seem, to some extent, to thrive everywhere. They’re not dwelling on the past. I’m not saying that’s a good thing.