Current Issue

Feb. 24, 2010

Vol. 110, No. 9

Features

Love, war, memory

A new book marks a departure for Princeton’s Chang-rae Lee

By Shirley Leung ’94
Published in the February 24, 2010, issue


Princeton professor and ­novelist Chang-rae Lee in his home office, where he does his writing.
Peter Murphy
Princeton professor and ­novelist Chang-rae Lee in his home office, where he does his writing.

Chang-rae Lee spent four years writing his latest novel, "The Surrendered," much of which takes place during the Korean War. But he has been thinking about a Korean War story for more than two decades.

One image in particular has stood out. As a boy of 12, his father was among the throngs of North Korean refugees heading south to meet up with American forces sent in 1950 to protect Korea from the communists. To escape, his father’s family boarded boxcars, and when there was no more room inside, Lee’s father and an 8-year-old brother rode on top. But one night the train halted, restarted, then stopped again. Lee’s father noticed that his sibling was missing. He jumped off and found his brother lying on the ground dying, his leg amputated by the wheels of the train. The 12-year-old carried his brother back to the train car and to his family, where the little boy died.  

Lee, who first heard that story when he was in college, never could shake the image from his head, and it forms the foundation of The Surrendered’s arresting first chapter. The novel, as Lee puts it, evolves into one about the lingering effects of war on the human psyche and spirit, and the private odysseys of those who have experienced such conflict. But it is not his father’s story.

“I didn’t know if I felt comfortable using it, fictionalizing it,” says Lee, now 44, and since 2006 the director of Prince­ton’s Program in Creative Writing. Still, Lee felt the story of war was important at a time when America is at war. “What I realized is that I could make it into a fiction, that it could be a project that was wholly my own.”

“The Surrendered,” published by Riverhead Books   and due out next month, is the fourth novel by the critically acclaimed writer and represents his most ambitious effort yet: a 469-page epic that spans five decades and three continents, weaving together the stories of three main characters — a Korean refugee, an American soldier, and a missionary’s wife — who are linked inextricably by war and love. Early reviews of the book have been positive.

The Surrendered is a departure in both substance and style from his first three books. Lee, who came to the United States when he was 3, no longer explores the immigrant experience or suburbia — or some combination of the two — as he did in his earlier books. And his introspective first-person protagonist? He’s gone, too. More than anything, Lee’s fourth book showcases his breadth as a writer, unequivocally demonstrating that he is much more than an Asian-American writer who inhabits the same worlds over and over.

“Great literature always questions and redefines the social boundaries that seek to categorize it,” says Princeton English professor Anne Cheng ’85, who specializes in comparative race studies. “So Lee is an author who continually insists that we rethink what is Asian-American, what is American.”

Lee says he doesn’t have a “cultural agenda,” though his previous works involved characters who think about culture and how they fit into it. “If I’ve redefined anything, it’s because I feel my works, considered singly or together, don’t fit neatly into a category or literary tradition, such as ‘Asian-American’ or ‘ethnic American,’ ” he says. “My stories may broach certain themes, but I hope they ultimately transcend subject matter with their craft and artistry.” To Lee, his earlier works highlighted the “great tragedy of passiveness, the inability to speak or act,” while The Surrendered is about trying to stay alive both physically and emotionally. “It’s a book that is awed at life. It takes the stance that life is awesome,   in all the ways awesome means — frightening, glorious, ­mystifying.”

By literary standards, Lee has had a charmed life.   He published his first book, Native Speaker, in 1995, scooping up several literary awards including the prestigious Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Soon after his second book, A Gesture Life, was released in 1999, The New Yorker named him one of the 20 best American fiction writers under 40. Lee was just 33.

Still, so unassuming is Lee that if you ran into him on campus, you might mistake him for a graduate student. He has a refined boyishness about him, casually dressed on a recent day in jeans, a white turtleneck, a dark sweater, only flecks of gray giving away his age. “He’s a very sweet-tempered man. I very rarely see him irritated about anything,” says poet and fellow Princeton professor C.K. Williams, who counts Lee among his best friends.  

After moving to the United States, Lee’s family settled in Westchester County, an affluent suburb of New York, where his father practiced psychiatry and his mother was a homemaker. He went to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and later Yale University.  

Suburbia became a popular setting for his books, and Lee says Westchester was comfortable. “I didn’t hate it,” he says, but “I wouldn’t say I loved it.” He still lives in the suburbs, in Princeton; Lee acknowledges it’s a good place to raise a ­family, and there are plenty of opportunities to play golf — he maintains a 10 handicap.  

Growing up in Westchester, Lee spoke English to his parents, and they would speak Korean back to him. The family maintained some Korean customs, like celebrating Korean New Year, but “it wasn’t a terribly traditional home,” he recalls. There wasn’t a Korean community near their home, so the Lees went to a Korean church in Flushing, “certainly more socially than for religious reasons,” he says. “This was just the reality of our life, and if anything affected me it was my observations of my mother’s anguish and difficulties of being an immigrant and outside.” Lee himself straddled two cultures, but “the condition was more a source of fascination and wonder than of trauma or struggle.”  

As for his father’s memories of the Korean War, Lee did not learn the most tragic details until he was a senior at Yale. His father had been reluctant to discuss his experiences, but finally opened up when Chang-rae was taking a course in modern Korean history and needed to interview him to complete a paper. What Chang-rae learned startled him — not only the death of his father’s brother and the uncertain fate of relatives who were left behind in North Korea, but how his father dealt with the tragedy.

“I’ve been haunted by that story [of the train accident] since hearing it, not only by the horror of the accident but also the picture of my father as a boy, a boy who had to experience his brother’s death so directly and egregiously,” Lee wrote in a recent essay about The Surrendered. “I was struck, too, by how unperturbed my father had always seemed to me, this cheerful, optimistic man who certainly didn’t appear to be haunted by anything. But of course this was not quite true. The events of the war had stayed with him, and always would.”  

After graduating from Yale in 1987 with a degree in   English, Lee spent a year working on Wall Street as an analyst before quitting to pursue fiction-writing full time.  

His first book, Native Speaker, was about Henry Park, a Korean-American who struggles to blend into American society. He marries a Caucasian woman and becomes a corporate spy. Both his marriage and his career are unraveling as he tries to figure out who he really is.

The book garnered rave reviews, and scholars and critics have compared it to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, for Lee’s portrayal of Park as an Asian-American man who is invisible to society. Park’s career as a spy is a metaphor for how he feels and for what he is: an outsider who is relegated to observing rather than being a part of society. Is this how Lee feels, too? “I related to him, but in some ways not at all,” he says. “That’s always what happens in fiction-writing. You accentuate murmurings to yourself that become shouts on the page. Of course, it had a lot to do with what I was thinking.”

Lee says he wrote Native Speaker as a way to show how people’s command of language shapes who they are: the halting English of Park’s father, the perfect enunciation of Park’s wife (who is a speech therapist), the multilingual politician on whom Park is assigned to spy. “I was interested in the powerful, central role of language in the formation of identity,” Lee says.  

His second novel, A Gesture Life, is about Franklin Hata, a Korean who is adopted and raised in Japan and then immigrates to America. Readers meet Hata as an old man who lives a quiet life in a New York suburb, but his memories of being a medic treating Korean “comfort women” during World War II begin to haunt him.  

Lee felt compelled to write about comfort women to raise awareness about this oft-forgotten part of history. After writing the first 200 pages of the novel, he stopped because he didn’t like how it was turning out. It wasn’t distinctive, he recalls. Then he thought about a character like Hata, telling the story of comfort women through the men who inter­acted with them. “That’s what intrigued me: Who were the men?” Lee says. A Gesture Life grew into a book about how one copes with and rebuilds life. “In the end, that’s what the book is about,” he says. “It’s really about conscience and guilt.”  

With his third novel, Aloft, Lee broke his own mold. His protagonist is not Asian-American, but rather an Italian-American businessman named Jerry Battle who nonetheless has made himself into something of an outsider. The story, set in Long Island, is about an Everyman in the twilight of life, a widower and father of two grown children who suddenly finds trouble in suburban paradise. The 2004 book, like his others, drew comparisons to classics. “Jerry Battle, the ruminative narrator of Chang-rae Lee’s affecting new novel, is a spiritual relative of both John Updike’s Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom and Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer,” wrote New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani.        

In Aloft, Lee says, he was more interested in telling the story of a character turning 60 — the age of his father and of his wife’s parents at the time. It’s an age when one is not too old yet no longer young, and mired in generational pressures. As for Battle’s ethnicity, Lee says he wanted to write a book through the lens of someone who is comfortable with American culture. “It’s not an accident he’s white,” Lee says. “I did it because I was interested in the character.”  

Despite their differences, Lee’s first three books are much more similar to each other than to The Surrendered. “These heroes are struggling,” Lee says of Park, Hata, and Battle. “They are struggling privately with their place in their community or culture, and all three books examine their trial.”  

The characters in Surrendered aren’t struggling to fit in. Far from it. They’re focused on staying alive. Take, for example, his portrayal of one main character, June Han. She is a Korean orphan who comes to the United States after marrying an American. She is dying of stomach cancer but wants to find her lost son before she draws her last breath. “June is not too wrapped up about how Asian-American she is,” Lee says. “She’s thinking about motherhood. She is thinking about passion. She is thinking about what it means to live. She’s thinking about survival.”

In many ways, Han represents a new kind of character for Lee, a protagonist who is Asian-American but doesn’t dwell on her hyphenated existence. Her ethnicity is nearly irrelevant to the story, which may disappoint readers who expect Lee to be a literary voice for Asian-Americans.

Lee views himself as a writer who happens to be Asian-American. And though he says he is “happy to be called an Asian-American writer because that’s what I am,” he acknowledges that the “label bothers me when it’s seen as proscriptive of what I might or should write about.”

Others in the literary world believe that Lee and others like him no longer should have such labels.

“We’re all beyond that,” says Russian-American author Gary Shteyngart, a former student of Lee’s when the professor was teaching at Hunter College in New York. “American fiction and immigrant fiction are fairly synonymous. Major authors of the day — Junot Diaz, Chang-rae Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri — these are quintessential American writers.” Shteyngart, Lee’s most successful pupil, has made a name for himself writing about Russian immigrants in his novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan. He teaches a class on immigrant fiction at Columbia University, and he says he is “amazed” by the popularity of these writers.  

“There is clearly a need for these books, and not just for the members of their respective communities,” says Shteyngart. “We have really tapped into the American ethos.”  

Susan Choi, who teaches fiction in Princeton’s creative writing program, says Lee is different from other Asian-American writers because his novels haven’t focused on their own communities and issues. She believes that he has made it easier for a generation of Asian-American writers, herself included, to be accepted as part of the mainstream literary world.

“I don’t feel pigeonholed as a writer in part because Chang came ahead of me,” says Choi, who is Korean-American and the author of three novels, most recently, A Person of Interest.  

For Lee, writing always has gone hand in hand with teaching. Since his debut novel, he has juggled writing and teaching gigs, first at the University of Oregon, then at Hunter College, and at Princeton since the fall of 2002. “It’s a companionable lifestyle,” he says. Without teaching, life would be a solitary existence, with days on end spent in front of his Macintosh. “It’s truly unglamorous work. It’s nice to come out and have responsibilities, and a schedule, and interactions with the world.”  

Perhaps no student is more grateful for Lee’s commitment to teaching than Shteyngart, who a decade ago applied to Hunter’s fine-arts program in part because Lee, who was teaching there, was one of his favorite authors. As part of his application, Shteyngart included 30 pages of a novel he was working on. Lee asked him to send in the rest. Passing the manuscript on to his book editor, Lee told Shteyngart he was confident the aspiring novelist soon would get a book deal. He did.

Shteyngart says Lee’s biggest influence has been showing him how to write authentically. “Chang-rae taught me to write about the blood and guts of the immigrant experience,” he says. “I haven’t seen such honesty in fiction. Being more honest, not just creating a stylized image of immigration for the Ameri­can reader. There is something so true about Chang-rae’s works ... even though it’s written in the confines of ­fiction.”

At Princeton, Lee teaches three courses a year, starting each semester with the same advice: “This is your chance to make some art and to think like an artist.” His courses are, like other Princeton creative writing classes, graded pass or fail. “If I had to give grades, and I had people begging me for an A- over a B+, it would ruin the whole thing,” says Lee, who taught two introduction-to-fiction-writing classes last fall and is teaching advanced fiction-writing this spring.

He presses upon his students the importance of storytelling, not just wordsmithing. Each class begins with a discussion of a published story to study the author’s technique. Students’ work is read aloud and critiqued; Lee typically provides a detailed, page-long overview as well as handwritten notes in the margins.  

“What I really appreciated about him was his comments,” says Alexis Schaitkin ’07, who took one of Lee’s workshops and had him as a thesis adviser. “He has a really wonderful way of pointing out the problems, where it doesn’t work, but in a way that is motivating, not critical or discouraging.”

Though Lee teaches at 185 Nassau Street, home of Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts, he shudders at the thought of doing his own writing there. “It’s the wrong association,” he says, sitting recently in his spacious campus office. This place, he explains, is about “other people’s work.” He prefers to separate his two worlds.

Lee writes at home, three to four days a week. His house — where he lives with his wife, Michelle, and two daughters, ages 9 and 12 — is less than two miles away, close enough that he walks or bikes to 185 Nassau Street but far enough for him to write unhindered. He’s at his computer by 7:15 a.m., after his daughters are off to school. He writes until lunchtime, picks up after 2 p.m., and works until 5. When he’s nearing the end of a book, he writes in the evenings, too.  

There are stretches where he is just thinking — about how to craft a scene, develop a character, or determine a story line. “Sometimes it takes an hour and half to write a sentence. Sometimes the subject is not apparent,” says Lee. “It appears, disappears when you create.”  

But on the days when he’s on a roll, he knows it. “I break out in a light sweat,” he says. “That’s not because of any physical exertion. There is a nervousness that comes out, an excitement.”

Of all his books, Lee says, The Surrendered was the most difficult to write. The first chapter, mirroring his father’s war experience, was the easiest, taking only a couple of days. “It really was the chapter that wrote itself,” he says. But the others took months. To make the story his own, Lee spent six months on research: conducting more interviews, reading, and traveling to Korea and Italy, where parts of the book take place. One newspaper in Korea sent him wartime photos from its archives, which he used to develop scenes and characters.  

Lee already is working on his next novel, an immigrant story involving a Chinese character. As usual, until he’s done with the manuscript, he doesn’t discuss what he’s working on — not with his editor, his wife, or even fellow Prince­ton novelists-in-residence Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides. “Novelists,” he says, “tend to be very private people.”  

It’s not that fiction writers are antisocial, he explains. But when you’re writing a novel, you’re creating a world — and you want that world to be all your own, uninfluenced by others.  

“I could write about anything. But there are very few things that I really should write about,” he says. “Those things I should write about, I don’t know about [yet], but I have to figure those out.

“Going back to my dad, I didn’t know I had to write about that. In the end I figured out that I should,” he says. “This is a great way of connecting with the material in a way that maybe I was denying before.” 


Shirley Leung ’94 is the business editor at The Boston Globe.

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CURRENT ISSUE: Feb. 24, 2010
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Princeton professor Chang-rae Lee talks about teaching students how to think like an artist.