Chang-rae Lee, born in South Korea in 1965, immigrated to the United States with his family when he was three years old. After attending Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale, and then working on Wall Street, Lee enrolled in the University of Oregon’s MFA program, graduating in 1993 with the manuscript to his first novel, Native Speaker. The iconic novel, which addresses the immigrant experience from a language perspective and was published in 1995, catapulted Lee into the life he has now: a visible author, and professor of creative writing at Stanford. After Native Speaker, Lee produced A Gesture Life (1999), Aloft (2004), The Surrendered (2011), and On Such a Full Sea (2014), all published by Riverhead.
Lee’s latest novel, My Year Abroad, released from Riverhead last month, carries forward his signature themes of assimilation, alienation, and identity conflict, but with new and delicious sensuality, peppered with light-hearted humor. Narrating the story is Tiller, a directionless twenty-something navigating his dubious adulthood. When Tiller meets the charismatic chemist and investor Pong Lou, he’s remarkably inspired and latches on. Pong appreciates Tiller’s sincerity, and uncovers Tiller’s superpowers of taste and smell. He invites Tiller to accompany him on a business venture trip to Asia, which becomes one sensorial celebration after another. Alternating between Tiller’s recent past and his present-day life, as surrogate family-man for single mom, Val, and her ten-year-old son, Victor Jr., the narrative becomes what Lee calls, “a conversation with Tiller and the world.” Filled with brilliant characters who live, eat, and drink bountifully, but are still oddly unsatisfied, Lee’s novel poses eternal questions: Why are we so hungry? Why don’t we feel fulfilled?
I talked with Chang-rae Lee via Zoom on the second day of his book tour (he had spent the previous day signing sixteen hundred books), and we discussed how the past and present are in conversation, how characters become real, and his delicious moment-by-moment discovery of the writing process.
The Rumpus: What has it like, releasing a book during a pandemic?
Chang-rae Lee: Normally, I would have been in my first city last night, feeling excited. The whole point of a book tour is to meet thoughtful people, interested in your work, who ask questions. They make me feel inspired again. It’s good to discuss with readers, other than your friends and family. [Laughs] Zoom events are usually the format where I get to see the person hosting or moderating, but no one else. I miss that connection to readers. On the other hand, it’s kind of nice to be home.
Rumpus: I love the new book, especially Tiller, the narrator. Like your previous work, the narrator drives the story, and we can’t see what’s coming next.
Lee: Especially in this novel. On the surface, it appears to be an adventure tale or travelogue, but it’s so much more. My continued interest in that form of storytelling started with my last novel, On Such a Full Sea. That narrator is also a character who goes off into the world and meets a variety of interesting characters, and I really liked that. Part of the lure in that, for me, is the process: the excitement and curiosity and even a bit of fear, not knowing where you’re going to go. That keeps me coming back to my desk every morning. So much of writer’s block is when the writer sees or knows too much. If the plot is all mapped out, or if you know the characters too well, discovery and newness and feeling fresh might feel impossible. It might be too much knowledge.
Rumpus: So, your characters lead you?
Lee: They beckon that way. I’m curious, for example, with Tiller, what’s the next sensation for him? What will he hear or see? Not just something fun or bizarre or interesting, but that which will expose yet another tiny little layer of him.
Rumpus: This was definitely a multi-sensorial novel. What led you to write it this way?
Lee: As Tiller was going out in the world, I didn’t want him to be a detached observer, who just comments on everything. I really wanted him to plunge into the world, and he does. He kind of gets a baptism by sauce. [Laughs] Taste and flavors are interesting to me, but ultimately that’s not what I care about. How do Tiller and Lee, as bodies, savor this life? How do we process the pain and pleasure that life gives us?
Rumpus: Tiller, has this baptism almost accidentally, whereas the mentor, Pong, is very purposeful.
Lee: Yes. Pong is the guide and mentor, while Tiller is a neophyte of sorts. He’s about to be introduced to all these things in the world that will hopefully shake him out of his complacency, his sense of ordinariness, and his lack of confidence. I really wanted this novel to be a full-on bodily experience. People say I’m so interested in food, but it’s so much more than that. Ultimately, that’s not the point. Food is a way of experiencing some spark of vitality that otherwise couldn’t be seen before.
Rumpus: Food connects us to who we are.
Lee: Yes, we can’t avoid it. At the beginning of the novel, it’s clear that Tiller is someone who feels like he has no talents, but suddenly Pong recognizes he’s a super-taster, or a super-smeller.
Rumpus: Pong tells Tiller something like, “The important thing is that you figure out what people want and then you give that to them, and sometimes they don’t know what that is.” It turns out, this is very important to Tiller’s past and present story, isn’t it?
Lee: It’s both, right? The story is a conversation with Tiller and the world. He’s observing, he’s tasting, he’s savoring, he’s experiencing, but at the same time, the world is asking things of him, and is exposing him. So, I believe this is not just about seizing the world; it’s about letting the world seize you, for better or worse, and being in a position of vulnerability and wonder.
I was feeling like I had lost that. Here I am, and I’m established, and I have my life. Things are fairly orderly, but of course the pandemic hit us. It’s an example of the realm taking a chunk out of us. We have to accept that this is not anomalous. This happens all the time. It’s our asteroid that hit us.
Rumpus: Yeah, it had the audacity to hit us! [Laughs] Was Pong modeled after someone you know?
Lee: I’ve met a lot of people like Pong, particularly one fellow I befriended, but Pong is kind of an amalgam of all these people. The immigrant-striver, for whom the world is not a scary place. They really feel so energized by all the opportunity and chance for fortune. There’s a certain kind of kind of pluck and zeal for the next interesting thing. They don’t want to rule the world, but they see it as their playground. That’s the kind of immigrant mentality that I feel like maybe I’ve lost. When I first came to this country, I saw my parents’ generation being settled, established and privileged enough. So, the original inspiration for the book was not Tiller, but Pong. The more I thought about him, the more I wanted to tell his whole story. Then, an important question surfaced: Why am I interested in a guy like Pong? Why do I find him so appealing? That’s where I came up with Tiller: someone who needed to be shaken and brought back to life.
Rumpus: Pong tells the story of a watermelon, which brings the reader into the terrible history of the Cultural Revolution in China, where the Red Guard destroys the artists and poets and elder sages, people China had previously esteemed. Pong’s watermelon story tells how one leader [Mao] can change the mindset of a whole country. This is still socially relevant today, isn’t it?
Lee: Absolutely! I wrote about the Cultural Revolution and the scary things that came out of it, like the thought mobs that upturned all the intellectuals and artists, during the reign of Trump and his followers. It was one of the reasons why I was making sure that this part of the story came out. I wanted to show something about Pong’s background and where he’d come from, but also the amazing and scary power of believing a truth that’s given to you. The Red Guard were zealots. They believed that everything they were taught was absolutely right and absolutely correct. In an instant—just like the Taliban did, blowing up some of their country’s monuments—they erased the country’s history and art. Pong’s own father said something like, “I’m just a piece of dust or dirt on the heels of a shoe.” He felt so small in the path of people with power. I wanted to balance out Pong’s striving pluck with what was under-girding all that.
Rumpus: Pong is the lone survivor of his family, but carries the story of what his parents went through. Is this why he lives the way he lives?
Lee: Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons. When you think about it, every immigrant has an amazing story, even if they come from a modest background. Some say it was just dumb luck, or chance. Others say something dramatic happened to get them into this country. All of their stories are inspiring. That’s the tragic thing about some people who are anti-immigrant, as they live their established, mainstream lives: they forget how most people in the world have no safety net. Most people can’t depend on any system of safety. They’re balancing on a proverbial tight rope, and anything can push them off. I think that’s what drives immigrants when they come to this country. I wish those who are anti-immigrant would remember why these people want to come, and what’s really driving them.
Rumpus: Do you consider yourself a first- or second-generation immigrant?
Lee: Actually, I’m kind of one-point-five. [Laughs]
Rumpus: I ask because I’m third-generation, and it’s easy to forget how desperate life is in developing countries.
Lee: It’s easy to forget.
Rumpus: In the book, Tiller is “one-eighth Korean” and we find out that Val is about the same, but their world has been suburban America. They have no real connection to another country. Their unlikely pairing, like many other couples in your body of work, reminds the reader to remember what love really is.
Lee: In the context of this book, I wanted Tiller to have an aftermath, where his life is more settled. Not to have it be blissful, or an anodyne, but fraught in a different way. To me, that’s the drama of love. Obviously, it can be explosive and super passionate, but really what love is, as Leonard Cohen says, “…it’s not a victory march.” It can be a slog, a quiet and slow walk. I wanted to have Tiller at a different pacing. With Val, he doesn’t want to see pain or unhappiness in Val because he loves her so much and they get along. Through that, he has to face life and love, but in a quiet way. There’s no malignant character out there, waiting to pounce. It’s all phantom, it’s all intramural, within the walls. That might be the scariest thing for him.
Rumpus: Tiller says, at one point, that he is going to be “the fuel for her depletions.” I felt like that’s a genuine part of his love.
Lee: Well, that’s a very hard thing to do. This is part of Tiller’s maturation process, to learn how to love somebody. That’s how you really grow up. To be loved? Yeah, you need that to have some kind of normal life, but to be a grown-up in the real world, you have to learn how to love somebody when it’s not easy.
Rumpus: The story goes back and forth between Tiller’s past and his present. Why did you decide to structure the book like this?
Lee: The two stories are having a conversation. Even though events happened in Tiller’s past, I wanted the reader to experience the past as present, as if they were happening simultaneously. I thought it would be more effective than using flashbacks. I also wanted Tiller to have a conversation with himself across time. He’s in these frenetic, sometimes garish moments, that could somehow inform or maybe give him wisdom for this moment now, which is of a totally different tenor, with a new set of problems.
In one world, Tiller has no control. When he’s traveling with Pong, he goes off into the world, and he’s a pawn, he’s a puppet. In his new world, present life with Val, Tiller sees that his will can abide. The question is, does he have the stuff to make the right decisions, do the right things, or to love in the right way? All those things are even harder, right?
Rumpus: His day-to-day life proves to be harder. There’s the absent Clark, Tiller’s father, divorced from Tiller’s mom and whipped around by life. Does Clark fuel Tiller’s desire to have Pong in his life?
Lee: Oh, absolutely! Even though Tiller is not an orphan, he kind of feels like one. He feels like he’s been orphaned. He loves his dad, but they have more of a pleasant arrangement than a father-son relationship. I think Tiller is realizing you know there’s this whole bit about his mom disappearing, and a lot of missing parenting. There are missing parent figures. The book is also about parenting and mentorship, and how those two things are sometimes aligned. Tiller latches onto Pong so readily, once he feels comfortable. Tiller even calls himself a tick because he’s not going to let go, and he’s going to take everything he can from him. That’s one of his depletions that he doesn’t really want to talk about. He doesn’t really go into it, but we see the scenes of his mother. In another book, this might be all about them, but I didn’t want to go into it that much. What I did want to do is say this is the bassline of Tiller’s song.
Rumpus: At one point, Tiller looks at Minori, Pong’s wife, as she does yoga. He has a little bit of lust and then he catches himself, and says, “This is what I remember my mom looked like….”
Lee: Right. Tiller’s mom is this veiled figure throughout his life. She appears through her singing and the records she had, and the way Tiller focuses on Val. I think his affection for his absent mother moves over to Val, in a weird way. Everything gets mixed up. That’s Tiller’s life.
Rumpus: You faithfully go to your desk every day. How do you do it? Go from novel to novel and continue to make something surprising and new?
Lee: Well, it’s a kind of a mystery, to be honest. [Laughs] It takes me a long time to settle on a project. I start by feeling my way into a character, and possible narratives. The mode of the language and the sound of it is very important to me. All those things have to align. I need to feel like I can sustain the story. I try not to embrace the whole thing all the time. I’m sketching out one little, tiny corner. If I step back and look at the bigger thing, it gets overwhelming.
I think that has allowed me to focus on the important things: who is this consciousness that I’m trying to expose and prod and coax? Because that’s essentially what books are, or what literature is: these presentations of different consciousnesses in different circumstances. It doesn’t really matter what it’s about; what matters is that we gain a new perspective, through this consciousness that we haven’t quite heard from yet. That singularity, that distinctiveness, only comes from really doing the work in the small. The story will reveal itself, as you go through a living character. It has to be a moment-to-moment discovery.
One of the great lessons I learned from a teacher—his name was Ehud Havazelet, a wonderful writer who died in 2015—he said, “plot is character in the moment.” I love that. I tell my students this, especially when they worry about what’s going to happen in the story. It depends on who that character is in that moment. We need to hear from them and through them, which includes everything: the world in which they live, the place, the time, and their sensation of language. It might also include nods to other books, since we, as writers, are the result of our reading and learning. Not that we’re parroting anything, but all of this ends up being in us. That’s where we find our distinctive voice. You can’t can’t engineer it. You can’t fake it. You can’t posture yourself into having a distinctive voice. I tell my students, “The only reason we want to read you is that you are you. You can give us something that we have not quite heard from anyone else.” That’s part of the mystery of how to get there.
Rumpus: Has this book been influenced by specific authors?
Lee: For this book, it’s written in the great tradition of the youthful narrator. There are so many voices I’ve enjoyed over the years, but I don’t think about those things when I”m writing. They’re kind of in my bloodstream. Some people say that all my narrators have a certain cousin-ness.
Rumpus: [Laughs] Totally! I always say your narrators are on a quest to find peace.
Lee: You’re absolutely right. They’re looking for that peace. I don’t know why, because I’ve had a peaceful life already. I don’t know why they keep looking for it. [Laughs] Maybe I’m afraid that peace could be broken at any time.
Rumpus: Do you think that you’ll ever write the story of your own family’s journey over? In a nonfiction or memoir format?
Lee: Well, I’ve written some shorter pieces of nonfiction for the New Yorker, but I think I might write the whole story of my family one day. We’ll see.
Photograph of Chang-rae Lee by Michelle Branca Lee.