Chang-Rae Lee is universally recognized as a writer to watch. In
addition to winning the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for his debut
novel, Native Speaker, Lee was also deemed one of the twenty best
American writers under forty by the New Yorker, just a few years after
being named a finalist for a similar list compiled by Granta. But when I
meet him in his small office at Hunter College, where he directs the MFA
program, he discusses these accolades with great modesty. "Well, you know,
it's nice to be included," he says softly. "I could have easily not been included
and not been upset about it and been very happy for the people who were
included. It was just nice to know that the editors like my work."
In his second novel, A Gesture Life, Lee presents Franklin Hata, who has
recently retired from the medical supply store he used to own in a small New
York suburban town named Bedley Run. Although he's worked hard over the
years to fit in, something is not quite right, and we perceive from the start
that it has to do with Hata's past, a past he keeps deliberately hidden from us
for much of the novel. Eventually, the story comes out: Hata was a medical
officer in the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War assigned
to work with a group of Korean "comfort women"--women forced into serving
the Japanese invaders sexually...and the tragedy that he bore witness to there
continues to reverberate, decades later, despite his best efforts to contain the
RH: When you started writing A Gesture Life, you wrote
directly about the comfort women. Why did you end up abandoning
C-RL: I just felt for a lot of reasons that it wasn't working out the way I
wanted, both in terms of voice and narrative. It's a difficult story to tell,
because at least in the particular form I was telling it in, I couldn't find
anything to tell other than the horrendous crime, and it was just unrelenting.
I found that it was simply too much for me to handle--and, in a strange way,
because it was so straightforward, I couldn't find the drama in it.
But there was a character, just a side character in the original story, someone
who came into a scene and left a scene. Then my mind followed him outside of
that scene, and the more I thought about him, the ways in which his character
expanded became more complicated. I imagined that he became a prosperous
man living in another country, with a family, albeit not a really typical one,
and the more I thought about him, the more modulated and complicated and
interesting his story became. So once I got onto his voice, I immediately
understood the ways in which this story could branch out and widen in scope.
RH: It widens the ramifications of the story. If you had written
directly about what the comfort women went through... They're
raped; they die; it's grim, but also final. Hata's story is a story
about the impact of what happened then.
C-RL: For me, that is what fiction should do--bring home for the reader
not just an act, historical or not, but the aftereffects, what happens in the act's
wake. And, most interestingly, how people live in that wake. They do, and
they do so well. That's what's so chilling about human nature sometimes, and
that's the stuff a fiction writer just drools over when he finds it.
RH: So that Hata's story is not just about what he's done, but
about how he lives with what he's done.
C-RL: Right. How he's constructed himself, how he thinks he should
construct himself. And Hata in some ways is dealing with the same kinds of
ideas as Henry Park, the narrator of Native Speaker. He's not as self-
conscious of that, perhaps, but I hope he says enough that it becomes pretty
clear what he's thinking about.
RH: Henry Park is different from you in many ways, but he's
also, let's say, more similar in certain aspects than Hata is. Was it
harder for you to imagine the perspective of a man in his
C-RL: I don't think it was harder in the sense of veracity. I didn't worry
so much or focus so much on being an older man. What I focused on, and what
was tough, was trying to figure out how a rich life could be affected by certain
actions in the past, and in doing so try to describe a more mature man than I
am. That was where I had a lot questions for myself: Am I actually appreciating
the intricacies of these aftereffects as much as I should be? I think, in the end,
all stories tend to focus on characters who are mature to the same level.
Whether they're seven years old or 75 years old, they have this richness of
experience accrued over their lifetimes.
RH: Given the way that he constructs his present so as to
obliterate as much of his past that he can, the way in which you
get to sort of dollop out these hints of his past throughout the
narrative, with increasing focus, creates a effective dramatic
C-RL: I knew that that's the only way, given his character and
personality, by which I could, as you say, parse out these details. He would
never give a huge confession, so the narrative would have to provide an
acknowledgement of what happened without any real show of emotion when
he tells you these things. That was very important to me, that he was going to
just let you know what happened and let it sit there, and the distance between
the act described and the calm and placid person telling you about it would be
so great that there would be some drama in the telling as well. That for me is
part of the drama of the story: How is he going to begin to tell you all these
things that he doesn't want to tell you? That's such a hard thing to do with a
first-person narrator who's the only one controlling the story, the only one
we can depend on--and yet, the last person, in some regards, who should be
telling the story.
RH: Many unreliable narrators, like in Remains of the
Day, can't tell you what's going on because they simply don't
know. But Hata knows everything, he simply doesn't want
you to know.
C-RL: Right, his unreliability has to do with his own feelings and
emotions and psyche rather than a stubborn ignorance. It's a very delicate
line and sometimes in this book I wasn't comfortable with it. I didn't want to
give away him too much, and yet I continually had to tell the story. Given that
it's a fairly quiet book, if I don't tell the story well enough, it's completely dull,
right? So there was this real struggle on my part in knowing and feeling
comfortable with the book, and I didn't really have many people read it at all,
so I wasn't quite sure if it was working when I was writing it.
RH: Do you usually have people look at your stuff?
C-RL: No, just really mostly my wife. I like to work pretty much
continuously until I'm done with what in my mind is a very solid draft. This is
something I also tell my students: when you're feeling confident about a
character in a story, write the whole thing through because, in some ways,
you don't want to be influenced, even by good ideas. For example, in this story,
I didn't appreciate the scope of my own story until I was halfway into it, and if
someone had said, "Focus on this part of his life, or that part of his life," I
might not have ever come to that realization.
RH: One of the things I like about both your books is the way
you subtly play with genre.There are elements of Native
Speaker that could make it a political thriller, but then there's
so much about identity and character that it becomes something
else entirely. A Gesture Life starts out very much in an
Anne Beattie, John Cheever mode, the life in the suburbs sort of
thing, and then veers into territory they never would have gone
C-RL: Well, in no sense am I an experimental writer or an avant-garde
writer, but I've always liked to mix conventions. The stories are conventional
at one level, but the characters in them have a little self-consciousness of the
conventions. Certainly, in Native Speaker, I was playing with the
convention of a thriller or a spy story, but totally not interested in that type of
story, or rather, I was interested to a mechanical extent, and then tried to go
I don't know. I think it just reflects who I am. I'm a fairly conventional guy,
but I'm bored with myself a lot. And I get bored with the conventional stories,
too. You know, I'm a real fan of Cheever and Beattie, but I could never tell
those stories straight through because of who I am.
RH: There's no way you could consciously say, "I'm going to
write a John Cheever story except the protagonist is going to
be a Japanese war veteran."
C-RL: Right. It just sort of happens that way. I mean, Cheever is part of
my canon, and Graham Greene's political thrillers are part of my canon too.
But I'm trying to figure out my own kind of story which, of course, I never
will. I don't think I ever will. I hope I never do. Once I do, that's death.
RH: And there are questions that you want to address in your
writing that none of those other writers were prepared to ask.
C-RL: Or interested in. All writers do what they can do, and that seems
to be what I can do okay. I start out writing a book and then I really try to
critique it. How in the hell am I going to continue writing this story? Then
somewhere along the line I try to find some other angle.
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