Chang-rae Lee: On being Korean American, a novelist, and his family

By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

Chang-rae Lee is a Korean American novelist who has written four novels. He is currently teaching at Princeton University. (Photo by David Burnett)

Born in Seoul, acclaimed novelist Chang-rae Lee immigrated to the United States at age 3. Lee knew from a young age that he wanted to be a writer.

For the most part, he has stuck to his goal, though there was a stint in his life when he worked on Wall Street. But that, too, was a writing job.

“They needed people who were decent at figures,” Lee said. “But it was actually a job that involved a lot of writing. They needed people to write reports about companies, whether or not the companies would do well.

“It was a time when Wall Street was in a boon, and they’d hire someone with half a brain,” he said jokingly.

“So I thought I’d try it out.”

Chang-rae Lee’s “The Surrendered” was published on March 9 by Riverhead Hardcover. (Photo by David Burnett)

But it didn’t take him long to figure out that the job wasn’t for him.

“After a year, I just wanted to write. I felt like I had a story. I’d always loved literature. I’d always loved writing. So I thought I’d give it a shot.”

Lee graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor of Arts in English and from the University of Oregon with a Master of Fine Arts.

Lee’s first novel, “Native Speaker,” is about a well-assimilated Korean American who still feels alienated from American society — which makes him a fitting spy. It was published in 1995 and won the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Lee has earned considerable acclaim for his work. Though some have the impression that Asian Americans write in a niche genre, Lee considers many of his contemporaries mainstream. To Lee, the amount of well-known writers will only grow. “If you think about it, writing careers take a long time,” he said. “I’ve been publishing now for 15 years. I think it’ll take more time. I think we’ll be seeing more well-known and eminent Asian writers.”

Lee has said that since he took so long in writing his latest book, “The Surrendered,” he has forgotten its origins. However, it was through revisiting a college essay about his father’s experiences in the Korean War that made Lee’s new book come together.

Lee said his father had been reluctant to talk about his experiences as Lee was growing up. Lee’s father finally agreed to give more details for Lee’s college assignment.

“I think he only agreed to talk because it was for an assignment — to help me out. I had no idea what he was going to tell me. I was shocked when he did. We never really talked about it since,” Lee said.

At about 12 years old, Lee’s father, Young Yong Lee, fled Pyongyang in North Korea and headed south.

During the trip, he lost his cousins, his sister, and saw his younger brother die — Lee said his father’s story haunted him.

“The Surrendered” is Lee’s fourth novel and explores the effects of the war from multiple perspectives. One of the perspectives is from a starving 11-year-old Korean refugee who loses her siblings on a train heading south.

Though Lee is not a historical fiction writer, he strives for a certain authenticity in his novel. “I hope that what I’ve written feels true to people, not to their own personal experience, but that it could be true. I’ve heard back from some older readers who have gone through the war. I think they felt that the story was authentic and realistic. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to feel it was false or misleading.”

Lee is currently a professor of creative writing and humanities council member at Princeton University. ♦

Chang-rae Lee will sign copies of “The Surrendered” at Costco in Issaquah and will speak at the Seattle Public Library on March 14 and March 15, respectively. For more information on the appearances, see the community calendar.

Stacy Nguyen can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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