The Rumpus Interview with Chang-rae Lee

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I have been stalking—I mean reading—Chang-rae Lee since his first book, Native Speaker, was published in 1994. I interviewed him for a radio show in Seattle, and was struck then, as I am now, by how articulate he is about his work. The Surrendered, Lee’s fourth novel, following A Gesture Life, and Aloft, is an epic, timeless book that reads both as modern and classic, simultaneously. While he has moved away from the issues of identity and ethnicity that have previously informed his work, these themes of betrayal, and the way our memories haunt us, are still at play. Intertwining the lives of three disparate individuals, Lee takes us into a Korean orphanage just after the Korean War, and to New York City, New Jersey, and Italy in the mid-eighties.  The result is a haunting story with a massive historical sweep.  But there is also an intimacy with characters, each one trying to reconstruct his or her life in the wake of personal and historic tragedy.  Lee and I talked last week via phone, he at home in New Jersey, where he teaches creative writing at Princeton, as he was gearing up to go on the road for this new book.

The Rumpus: So let’s talk about The Surrendered.  It’s timeless, and yet, it’s set in two distinct time periods and places.  (Korea in the 50’s, NY and NJ in the 80’s) What was it about the Korean War that drew you to this story?

Chang-rae Lee: I’d always wanted to write something about the Korean War because of my heritage. My father lost his brother during the war, and I fictionalized that episode, which was told to me very briefly without much detail. I always thought at some point I’d write about it, and when I began I found I was even more interested than I’d anticipated.  I felt a strange and unexpected passion for it. I knew I had a familial connection, but there was something about writing about those people, particularly Korean orphans. And in a strange way American GI’s, many of whom I’d had accidental conversations with over the years.  I had a visceral connection to the period.  By visceral I suppose I mean emotional.  But every fiction requires so much that is not that so I did a lot of other research and a lot of thinking, a lot of struggling there.

Rumpus: What did you do and read to put your characters in a space and time set so different from our own?

Chang-rae Lee: I don’t consider this a historical fiction, and yet the feel of it has to be convincing and authentic.  So I did a lot of reading of first person accounts from

Koreans and combatants and aid workers.  And I spoke to relatives.  A lot of wonderful photographs were made available to me from that period—1950-1956—and those were given to me by a Korean newspaper in Seoul. Ruined villages, refugees streaming through a river valley, GI’s and orphans and orphanages, those tiny details that you can only see in a picture.  It’s not that I wrote those details, but photos can give you the confidence that you have a real feel for the landscape. Then you can invent with a solid kind of faith, and recreate a feel and flavor of the time, and, one hopes, a tonality, a sense of that time having been lived by those characters.

Rumpus: When you say you don’t see yourself as writing historical fiction, I think I know what you mean, but can you talk about that a bit?

Lee: I don’t think this is a book about the Korean War. It observes what went on in the war, but it’s much more interested in the private, singular expression and consequences of war in general.  My friend C.K. Williams thought this was a cosmic war novel, about any and all war.  How the cost and anguish and suffering is expressed by modest figures.  I wanted to present a sweep and scope of larger events, and a grander backdrop, but most important was to set against that a very singular, real and modest people struggling with every day and human struggles.

Rumpus: In all your work there is this interesting play between the present and the past.  Everyone in this novel—as well as in Native Speaker and A Gesture Life–is haunted by terrible tragedy. The past sits with them, as it does for all of us, at all times.  The very structure of your novels seems to emerge from this.  Can you talk about how the present and the past inform each other and how you work might reflect this technically?

Lee: The past, as you suggest, is absolutely present at all times and the present is born from the past. I wouldn’t want to suggest that the past determines the present.  I think a lot of this book is a presentation of a kind of destiny and then a secondary presentation of what someone would do with that destiny, that they are in some measure in control, and have volition.  All of my books really do look at that to degrees of difference.  Technically, I do enjoy the flashback!  But not just for informational material.  I want the flashbacks to feel that once you’re there they have their own unity, their own kind of atmospheric sensibility; I want the reader to be transported.  The novel is a big, complicated, unknowable thing before it’s written. By definition it uses and plays and delights in time. It delights in the interlacing of chronologies and the consequences of that interlacing.  And those have personal and psychological expressions in a character.  Aside from other issues of writing, psychological characterization is what narrative can do best.

Rumpus: And it’s also how memory works… In many ways your characters were powerless in the past and the agency of their current lives is in the choice of how they navigate the present.  They construct their lives in the wake of their losses.  How does this inform the narrative voice?

Lee: I like that question because I think their pasts are treated with a voice that sees their role as those of innocents.  That’s reflected in the past time sequences.  They’re less “written.” When I’m describing wartime activities or violence I don’t want to be too ornate, to prettify the picture.  Once we trace them to the present, the prose becomes denser.  I’m more interested in the psychic intricacies that they build up and try to run away from, and how they self-construct. A lot of my work is about self-construction.  Here, it’s those folks who are deeply wounded and bewildered.  They’re not just victims of trauma; they’ve been shaken so forcefully that they don’t quite know how or where to stand.

Rumpus: Having just taught your first book, Native Speaker, last semester, and reading this book directly afterward was interesting.  You use spying to examine the immigrant experience here in the States. Issues of secrets and betrayals are also at the very heart of this story.  What compels you about this theme?  You’re not examining race and ethnicity at all in The Surrendered.

Lee: Not at all.

Rumpus: I’m wondering if that was a conscious choice or if this story just didn’t lend itself to that.

Lee: I could easily have gotten into those issues.  But I really had no interest.  As you say, it’s mostly because of what the story required. It wasn’t hurtling toward those kinds of questions toward identity.  There is secrecy and betrayal but that’s more part and parcel of the kind of anguish that the people go through.  And maybe that’s modes of survival, rather than modes of consciousness, which was what I was looking at with Native Speaker and Gesture Life, even Aloft.  A certain kind of character influenced by society or culture.  Here it’s a mode of physical survival.  Not just life or death; these people are very bodily.

Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about that in regards to sexual identity.  You write about sex a lot in this book.

Lee: No one ever mentions that though!

Rumpus: Really?  It’s so weird how sex gets talked about or doesn’t get talked about it.

Lee: Not one mention!  And there’s a lot of sex.

Rumpus: There’s a lot of sex!  And there’s a lot about smells and bodily functions, and I’m wondering what you were playing with there, and why this is so important to the story.

Lee: It’s so important to the story.

Rumpus: Do you think people are scared to ask you, in particular, about the sexuality?

Lee: I think because of these big issues of life and death that maybe sex feels like a crass question.  But for Christ sake, this is a book that is so interested in an elemental human condition.   And one of the ideas about surrender is an erotic surrender, too.  These folks are surrendered by destiny; they surrender to each other in certain moments, but there is a lot of erotic surrender.  I’m fascinated in this book by how people get through the day.  The aches and pains and wellings that they have.  Not just erotic, but of illness. I spent a lot of time on June and her body and how she struggles with this flesh of hers that doesn’t recognize her will to live.  Hector struggles with his beauty and his imperviousness.  He’s immortal and yet he desperately wants to die, to erase himself.  And Sylvie has her problem with drugs.  I think they all wanted to forget they were trapped in their bodies.  What is Eros but the life force?  That’s what these folks are trying to tap into. It’s a mode of survival and enduring.  And being present.

Rumpus: Can we talk briefly about this theme of the absence or loss of children?  You’re a father—I wonder what it must be like to write about that, and what draws you to that story.  And of course these orphans have lost their parents.

Lee: Obviously loss of family is huge and critical, but I think really it’s more about losing a sense of family.  The horror of that kind of incompleteness. Writing this book, I tried not to think about my father, which does no one any good fictionally.  I did try to imagine not just the horror of that moment, but the horror of having witnessed it, and the lifelong void.  And I think that’s what’s so frightening.  That’s what haunts me.  Not just what happened to my father, but what happened to me, and what I see happen to so many families. My first cousin just died; he was only 33. I could see the void in his parents’ faces.  It’s not just the loss of that person, but the idea of this dead space in the family which for me is quite startling.

Rumpus: It’s interesting how the domestic and the historical echo each other—that really spoke to me.

Lee: Well, your books are about family bonds that are forged and influenced by larger historical forces…Look at June with her son.  I wanted to suggest something about how she might bring ruination on her own family life.  Even, and especially after, what had happened to her. I was afraid of making her monstrous, a hard instrument of this world.  Which was captivating too, to think of how deeply she could wound herself by neglecting her son.

Rumpus: We have a lot of empathy for her.  There are really interesting characters in this novel.  I’d like to go back to what you were saying about historical novels teaching the reader about a space and time.  But there can be a lack of intimacy with characters.

Lee: Right!  Historical novels are about costumery.  I think that’s the magic and mystery of fiction. I don’t want to write historical fiction but I do want the story to have the feel of history. There’s a difference.

Rumpus: And are you working on anything now?

Lee: I’ve been sketching out for the last six months.  A different kind of immigrant novel.  With a China angle.  Because China is so ascendant.  And I’m fascinated by that as it has to do with American dominance, or the wane of American dominance.  But I haven’t quite found the language of it yet, or my way into it, the perspective.  I’m just thinking about the whole picture.  I always try to write a book while publishing one, but it just turns out I need a year off.  This book almost killed me.


Jennifer Gilmore is the author of the novels Golden Country and Something Red. She has written reviews and essays for numerous anthologies and publications including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times Magazine, Salon and Tin House. You can reach her here: www.jennifergilmore.net. More from this author →