On Nov. 8, Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee gave a talk on writing at Vassar College. As the guest speaker for the English Department’s annual William Gifford Lecture for Visiting Writers, Lee explained his creative process to the students and faculty members who filled Taylor 203. Preambling the hotly anticipated speech was an introduction by Henry Noble MacCracken Professor Robert DeMaria as well as comedic allusions to the then-pending election results by the Hemingway Foundation/ PEN Award winner.
Regarding his 2014 novel “Such a Full Sea,” a story set in a dystopian America where descendants of Chinese migrant workers toil in labor camps, Lee spoke of how the initial plot he had in mind evolved. “The book I originally set out to write was about modern, contemporary factory workers in China. It was a book that I’d been wanting to write for a while…as an American citizen, [I] was fascinated by the rise of China and its influence in all things—politically, economically, environmentally as well,” Lee said.
Wanting to gain a more intimate look into the everyday lives of Chinese factory workers, the writer took a trip to visit the subject of his infatuation. To gain access to one of budding superpower’s 1.9 million factories, he posed as a potential investor. Toting an empty briefcase, Lee pored over the mundane details of the workers’ quarters: the placement of the beds, the spartan and clean setup, a lone potted plant in one of the dorm’s windowsills.
Despite the visit, Lee was dissatisfied by the work he produced after returning home to Princeton, NJ. Disheartened by the lack of emotional depth plaguing what would become the first draft of a 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, he experienced an epiphany while riding the Amtrak Northeast Regional line. The derelict neighborhoods of Baltimore his train passed by en route to Washington, DC instilled a new idea in him. What struck him most was their dilapidation, which had remained seemingly unchanged since the first time he road the popular train route connecting New York City to the nation’s contentious capital. With newfound inspiration, Lee embarked on creating the world of “B-more,” placing into it the characters he’d conceived through tours of spartan dormitories.
Much of Chang-rae Lee’s work can be traced back to his own upper-middle class upbringing as the child of Korean American immigrants. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Lee moved to the States with his mother, a former basketball star, and father, a medical student, at the age of three.
In an interview with New York Times editor-at-large Charles McGrath, describing the assimilation of his parents to American culture, Lee characterized his father’s difficulties with English and Western Culture as “slow but steady and inexorable.” Lee’s frustrations as a third-culture kid straddling Korean and American identities shaped the works he would write as an adult. The central themes of his works— the myth of the perpetual outsider, alienation, the fluidity of identity, linguistic relativity— take root in reality, flowering into critically acclaimed books.
In his debut novel, “Native Speaker,” the character of Ahjuhma (“Auntie” in Korean) was inspired in part by Lee’s mother. Like the Korean housekeeper who’s hired to tend motherless protagonist Henry Park as a child, Lee described his mother as being detached from her Western surroundings, intellectually and emotionally. “Not because she had that role in our house,” Lee explained to McGarth, “but because of the way she was so outside of things—you know, the great divide between her private human personality and the expression of it in public. I was always impressed by how interesting and smart, and sometimes even aggressive, she could be, but it was always in Korean. She was never that person in English” (The New York Times, “Deep in Suburbia,” 29.02.2004).
Lee ended his lecture by answering questions from the audience. Regarding questions that pertained to writing convincing narratives about race, he highlighted the importance of remembering what he referred to as “little bits of nothing.” He upheld the idea that a convincing narrative should be first and foremost concerned with character development rather than rhetoric.
Struck by Lee’s statement on writing identity, Clark Xu ’18, a student who attended the lecture, commented in an email, “I was surprised when [Lee] made the distinction between ideological writing and writing aimed at conveying experience. His comments sounded to me like something an experienced writer…would say … Ideological writing can feel flat, since the writer approaches the subject with the belief that he or she already knows the right thing to say, the right way to feel and think about experience. But, if we are to take seriously the paradigm of the literary project as a process of exploration between writer and reader…then we had better start by admitting our own ignorance and allowing the writing process to take on a life of its own and to make ourselves into instruments for expression of the world.”
The overarching theme of telling sweeping narratives of struggle through the most mundane acts of human experience resonated with many people in the audience. “I definitely think people focus more on rhetoric than they do individual people, especially considering the current state of things,” explained an Asian-American senior, alluding to the elections. “I have a lot of friends of color who sometimes fall into the trap of writing allegories to support political beliefs.”