Author of "Native Speaker", "A Gesture Life" and his latest novel "Aloft," Chang-Rae Lee talks language, politics, good literature, and delves into the minds of his protagonists.
"...I do read every single word and try to think that I don't want to just throw away something. I have a chance here. I try to work more the way a poet tries to work."
By Kenneth Quan
Interview with Chang-rae Lee
April 12, 2004
Transcription by Kenneth Quan
APA: I read recently that one of your inspirations is James Joyce. What is it about his work that inspires you?
Chang Rae Lee: Well yeah, pretty simply I think that it's beautifully written and moving work, so it's very emotionally satisfying for me, and resonant for me – particularly some of his early stories of youth and awakening. And I was reading those stories at a time when I was just getting really interested in literature – you know, thinking about writing. And when you're in that kind of period in your life, the things that you read at the time seem very important.
APA: Could you be a little more specific as to what period that was in your life? Was this in high school?
Chang Rae Lee: Yeah this was in high school.
APA: And at the time you were perhaps already considering a career in writing?
Chang Rae Lee: No, no, no - not a career. You know I was thinking about writing creatively and first starting to really do that.
APA: So regarding Joyce's work, was it both a thematic and stylistic sense that inspired you?
Chang Rae Lee: Yeah – definitely. And you know, a lot of his stories have the backdrop of - you know, these are stories of obviously Irish people – but his stories are always more about the idea that Irish people have no destiny over their own lives. You know that their destiny is in someone else's hands. And this yearning for a national and cultural identity – that also appealed to me but that was secondary, frankly because it was really mostly the language. The use of it.
APA: Are there any other particular authors that affected you in the same way as Joyce?
Chang Rae Lee: In the same time?
APA: Or just in general? Whether it be in that time, now? Or even modern writers?
Chang Rae Lee: It's hard for me to say. At the time, I can definitely say that the writers that I admired a lot – like James Agee, Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, Hemingway. These days, I read so many different writers that I'm just kind of omnivorous. It's hard to say. I'm not – I don't know – it's not the same thing.
APA: I understand. I guess it's similar to me in that I can say that about music. Music during my adolescence certainly meant more to me than…
Chang Rae Lee: Right! You enjoy music now but there was a special feeling back then because there were a lot of things that were happening while growing up. It's like your first love, you know. Not your greatest love necessarily but in some ways, it's very important. So, those writers spoke to me that way.
APA: That's a very interesting way of looking at that. Some in the press have compared you to the Japanese British author, Kazuo Ishiguro of Remains of the Day. Why do you believe they make that assessment?
Chang Rae Lee: Well, I really think it has to do with A Gesture Life – you know the kind of story that is, the kind of character in that story. You know I don't find it as obviously as anything than a flattering comparison, but you know… but I just think that it's an easy one to make.
APA: Do you believe it's valid?
Chang Rae Lee: Well, no. I think it's valid to say that A Gesture Life and Remains of the Day have some similarities but that doesn't make me like him. I mean I think it makes me like him from other people's view. First of all that we're Asian and that we live in other places. So there's something to that, but you know, I mean to compare me to some other writer who probably wasn't Asian-American, whose story had some similarities – that wouldn't bother me.
APA: Do you actually see your protagonist in that novel, Doc Hata, to being similar to Ishiguro's, I believe the character's name is Stephens?
Chang Rae Lee: Once again, I think there are similarities but you know Stephens is somebody who, and I very much enjoyed that book…but there are similarities in some of the most uninteresting ways. I mean there are similarities in that they're both veiled characters and very careful about how other people see them. But aside from that fact, not really. I mean it's like saying – I don't know – there're similarities but the similarities that are there are the least interesting because they have so many different things going on in each of their history – very, very different. Stephens is not really an actor in his story.
APA: He's a very passive character.
Chang Rae Lee: He's completely passive and I don't think Doc Hata's that way at all. He's passive in certain respects but he's very much involved in what he does. So I think that A Gesture Life is just a much more active story and in that way, very different.
APA: I agree. In your debut novel, your protagonist Henry Park is a well educated 30- something professional from Upstate New York. I read a little bit on your bio, it sounds to me that this Henry Park is very similar to Change Rae Lee. How much of your life inspired the narrative and character in Native Speaker?
Chang Rae Lee: Oh well, again, the outer form might be similar but that's about it – it's the least interesting thing. His concerns, Henry Park's concerns, are sort of like more concerns, but you know more intensified and more dramatized, made more extreme for the sake of fiction and I think that my life is very undramatic and not terribly interesting. You know, I just had a very normal life. If I had tried to write about my life that way, just describing my life, I don't think that it would make for terribly exciting reading.
APA: How about the personal relationships of Henry's family, in particular with his father?
Chang Rae Lee: Oh yeah, well that's completely different.
Chang Rae Lee: Yeah, for example, like my father and I have always gotten along very well. We're sort of similar people, he's sort of intellectually oriented, very quiet, very gentle guy, one of the mildest, nicest guys you'll ever meet. Unlike Henry Park's father who…people always assume, “Oh, it must be his father” but in fact it's the opposite of my father. In fact, exactly not my father.
APA: Thank you for giving me some insight on a question I've had for many years.
Chang Rae Lee: Yeah, most people assume that. And one of the things that's so frustrating about it is that people who are Asian-American and who are non Asian-American assume that sometimes. And I think sometimes the implication is that “Oh, you really didn't have to create that, that was just something that you recounted.” You know, that recounted stories are much more easy and simple to write than stuff that's completely made up. And I think that's one of the things that sometimes, particularly ethnic American writers face because they write about people who look like them and then people automatically assume that it's people who are them or someone in their family. I can't imagine how many questions I got about whether “Doc Hata was someone in your family or you?” Well no – I just made him up like every other writer does.
APA: And that goes for any other of your characters, too.
Chang Rae Lee: Right. Then it's “Oh, hmm – what a big surprise!” I really don't think that white writers get that question that much.
APA: That's true.
Chang Rae Lee: They don't assume it's someone they knew unless it's clearly autobiographical. They don't make the jump as quickly with Caucasian writers.
APA: I also found out that you had, one time or other, had worked on Wall Street as an analyst. How much of that decision was based on pressure either from your family or from yourself to pursue that career?
Chang Rae Lee: Well I think it was both. I mean it really wasn't pursuing a career, it was more trying something out. It was a year after college and I really can't say that it was a serious type of thing. I did nothing to train for that in college.
APA: What was it that you majored in college?
Chang Rae Lee: English.
APA: You majored in English and you were able to work as an analyst on Wall Street?
Chang Rae Lee: Yeah – I mean it was a different time.
APA: Well, you know, hey I majored in Sociology and I ended up working as a financial consultant at one time.
Chang Rae Lee: Right, right, right…there are all kinds of quacks in the financial services industry.
APA: Yeah, there are.
Chang Rae Lee: So that was really more like a new thing to try. Clearly there were advantages - some of those advantages had to do with expectations from family and myself. I always wanted my parents to be happy and proud of me and make good on all of the work that they did. I went into writing with a heavy heart.
APA: Because it was something you wanted to….
Chang Rae Lee: Because it was something I wanted to do but I knew that it would be a difficult thing.
APA: Right. I'm going to try to ask more about your writing. It seems that you use distinctly different writing styles to reflect the voice of the protagonist in each of your books. Would you care to extrapolate on the contrasts between Henry Park in A Native Speaker, Doc Hata in A Gesture Life, and Jerry Battle in Aloft?
Chang Rae Lee: About the differences?
APA: About the differences in the voices that you gave to each of them.
Chang Rae Lee: Well the voices, for me especially in first person story-telling, the voice is of primary importance. And the voice reflects and articulates that particular character and what that particular character is interested in and troubled by, and so the voices are different because the people are different. It seems to be an obvious thing to say but it has to be said. For example, I think that Henry Park and Doc Hata have very different voices because of their position in life and their gage of themselves and how they fit into the culture. You know, how they work. Jerry Battle too is someone who has a very particular perspective in how he fits into the culture and how it's very different from Henry Park and Doc Hata. He's someone who feels he can say anything about anyone at anytime – he's very free. And why does he feel that way? Because of who he is and how he's grown up, you know – he's never questioned his context in the same way that Henry Park and Doc Hata have questioned their context. So that's why Jerry has an ability to go on these rifts, these long rifts on himself, his family, his culture – so that the actual tonal differences partly has to do with that liberty that he has. Whether it's a true freedom or not, I can't say but at least within his own perspective, he does have the freedom. In Doc Hata's case, he's someone who's trying to find, he's someone who's trying to be very careful in how he presents himself – in his language.
APA: I compared and looked at all three books at the same time and it really amazed me how you were able to distinctly capture the essence of the characters through the language. Because it not just what they say but it's how they say it, the cadence…
Chang Rae Lee: Oh yeah, absolutely! In the case of Doc Hata, you'll notice is very circumscribed and he does have moments of lyricism where it does flow a little bit better but very few and I try to really, really tone that down, Everything is just kind of manicured in the way that he thinks about things. You know he's both trying to tell you the story and trying not to tell you the story.
APA: Right! Like you said it's almost like he's trying to cradle the words – it's very powerful and succinct in what he says.
Chang Rae Lee: Right. And Henry Park is different still because he's still someone who's trying to figure out his language. He's someone who…I mean for me, Native Speaker is not an immigrant story, it's not a spy story. It's a story of language and how language forms. Everyone in the books has a certain relationship to language – the English language, the Korean language and they use it as a tool of power for control over one another and Henry Park can speak a lot of languages because he's a spy and he can go into different places and pretend he's someone else. You know his wife is a speech therapist and John Kwang is a politician and he's speaks political speak. You know, everyone has a particular play and character to their language and how that language figures into their life. The most tragic character of course is the Ahjuma, the lady who works in his family home, who doesn't have a name, who can hardly speak the language.
APA: Who's supposedly carrying on this affair with his father.
Chang Rae Lee: Right, right. So for me, Henry Park is somewhat of a shape-shifter that way with his language. He has a lot of different ways of telling.
APA: Also, you can tell by his language, his age, too. I think out of all the characters in your work, I obviously identify with Henry Park the most. Because I feel so akin to him and so close to him in age.
Chang Rae Lee: You do feel the age. Right.
APA: You definitely feel the age and every one of these characters' language.
Chang Rae Lee: Doc Hata is the oldest of the three and Jerry Battle feels more like a middle-age guy, just beginning to feel a little more ruminative and thinking about all the things that have happened to him in his life.
APA: But the thing about Jerry Battle is that he sounds more like a kid.
Chang Rae Lee: Yes.
APA: He always sounds like he's skirting his responsibilities.
Chang Rae Lee: Right, right, right - and for me that's, that's very American. Because he's endlessly a child, he doesn't want responsibility and he's playful in certain ways and everyone else is more mature than he is.
APA: Right, I felt that way about him too.
Chang Rae Lee: Language is so very important. The next book is not going to be a first person narrative but language is still very important. The thought that your sense of the world, the reader's sense, comes from the language. That's something I'm very careful about – that's something that I think about all the time.
APA: I always did admire how not one single word in any of your prose is ever wasted.
Chang Rae Lee: Well I try not to – I do read every single word and try to think that I don't want to just throw away something. I have a chance here. I try to work more the way a poet tries to work.
APA: Right, right and I do admire your work for that lyricism to it. Although it's prose, it reads very much like poetry – it's words that are meant to be read aloud.
Chang Rae Lee: And I'm happy that you feel that way because that's how I write, I think it all the time. I don't just read it, I have to actually hear it – it's very oral for me.
APA: Thematically, throughout all of your novels, it seems that you explore themes on finding a sense of identity in relation to one's environment and surroundings, do you find this to be an ongoing struggle in your own life?
Chang Rae Lee: I think “struggle” is too dramatic a word for my own life. It's not struggle, it's more a perennial consideration. I mean it's something that I'm always conscious of but it's never something that I'm wound up about it but I put all of my consideration into them to try to intensify the book because that's the way we regular people are… most of us, of course, have very predictable quiet lives. And that's how we make sense of things in the extreme so I wouldn't call it a struggle, I would consider it a “consideration.”
APA: And how is this “consideration” reflected in your characters?
Chang Rae Lee: Well, it's how it is in actually all of my narratives; I bring out my worst fears of all my considerations, my just daily-in-life consideration. And my worst fears end up on the page – you know about emotional distance, love and social alienation. I can't use those terms and say that this is my own life because if they don't necessarily vibe for me then it certainly won't for the reader. But I do think about them for other people – “other people” being my characters.
APA: You speak as though you consider your own characters as though they're real people.
Chang Rae Lee: Yeah, well I see them that way. That's the only way I can see them. If I can't see them that way, then there's no way you'll ever see them that way.
APA: Do you actually imagine yourself as being those characters? Or do you see them as another person wholly different…
Chang Rae Lee: No, I mean it's a little bit of both. I, of course, have to see them outside of me. Particularly, in Aloft because it's more of a contemporary book and it's a book about family, so it's a little closer to my own life than the other books are. And in Aloft I tried to think of all the characters – the son, the daughter, the father, all the associates, everyone in that book - as how I would be if I were in their situation and gender and class. So I put myself into every character but they're all different because their individual situations are different.
APA: It sounds to me that you almost act as a method actor.
Chang Rae Lee: Yeah…yeah I do! Because the only way I know anybody is – you think you know other people but you kind of project yourself on them, too. Right? That's how you make sense of them – or if they're not like you then that's how you think of them, “they're not like me.” You always have to, in the end, compare people to yourself. It's not good or bad, it's just different. I put myself into, say, Theresa's place, she's Jerry's daughter and if I were Theresa and had her education and had her relationship with her dad, how would I feel and how would I be affected. And I just do it that way. In that sense they're not such different people – they're all just versions of me.
APA: Well since we're talking about Aloft, let me ask you about your main character, Jerry Battle, who's a 60 year-old Caucasian man who is unable to honestly communicate to those around him and shirks his responsibility as a father, son, and lover. It seems that out all of your characters, he is the least likable. How did you get the idea to write a story on him?
Chang Rae Lee: Well he is very unlikable as you describe. But you know that for me is the challenge. First of all I didn't want to write about a guy who'd done all the right things all his life. We never do – that's not a story. We always want to write a story about the people who had done all the wrong things and are just figuring out what the hell to do now. So that was an initial interest. And also I wanted to write about someone at about that age. My parents are that age, my in-laws are that age, and my wife's father, my father-in-law is an Italian-American guy around that age. I thought it would be interesting instead of writing about my own father or a character based on my own father, once again the least interesting aspects about him, his age, his ethnicity and where he lived – which is really all that I took from my father-in-law – and just try to think about who that person was and in this moment, all the pressure that's on that person and the responsibilities as you say, he shirked. And for me that's interesting because I'm a certain age and all of my friends' parents are that age and it just seemed those folks were dealing with lots of questions – much more than they thought they would be dealing with. Like early retirement would be the answer, everything would be easy and just glide to the finish when it's not really how it is at all. And that's when I thought that I had to think of a guy who's actually been a pain in the ass to everybody but try to make him likable at the same time. A guy you don't feel you should like but that you're charmed enough by him to keep reading and feel empathy for.
APA: I guess, on the peripheral surface, the most glaring difference that people will notice in “Aloft” from your previous works is that it doesn't necessarily deal with themes of Asian-American identity. Yet you still very much explored Jerry Battle's cultural identity as an Italian-American. There is a little about that.
Chang Rae Lee: Yeah there is a little of that. I feel like one of the things I like about writing about an Italian-American guy, having thoughts that sounded like his and kind of go against the grain of what people expect of him, an Italian-American landscaper on Long Island. Some people will read the book and think, “I've never had an Italian-American landscaper who talks like this and thinks like this.” They always just want Tony Soprano or some “goomba” who's kind of an idiot – that bugs me. Once again, a book is not a realistic portrayal of how someone, anyone thinks - no book is. It's an articulation of what I think a person like Jerry thinks and feels and wants to feel and that's why I wrote it the way I wrote it because he has the same kind of feel and reach and depth that anyone else has. One of my first ideas was what kind of language should he have – then I thought I've met a lot of Italian-American guys who have a lot of learning and lot of depth and sensitivity.
APA: What is it about the issues of identity that fascinate you so much?
Chang Rae Lee: Well I think it's always about this drama between the self and his or her context because it's all about the interplay of those two things, it's not just we are ourselves. And we have problems, not because of who we are, it's always because of who we are in a place. For example, if I grew up in Los Angeles on the West Coast as opposed to New York where I wasn't living in an ethnic enclave, I was just living in the suburbs, I'll have a very different life, I'm sure. I think in my core I would be the same but I would probably have a different view of the world and of my own place in it. Right? Even just going to UC Berkeley or UCLA versus going to Yale - very different thing for an Asian-American.
APA: Or just going to the East Coast as opposed to the West.
Chang Rae Lee: Right, right, right - and not that I'm saying that we're made only by our context but we are made by our interplay in it. So something that I say in a group here at Princeton might go very differently with a group at UCLA. So that affects what I say, how I see myself – it affects all these things.
APA: It's interesting that you mention, about how what you say may be taken differently. Have you found that to be true?
Chang Rae Lee: When I go to Berkeley, it's a very different feeling than it is in Cincinnati. It's like this critical mass at Berkeley – more than half are Asian. There is definitely a different type of feeling – it's almost tribal in way. I don't really know what it is. For me it's a nice feeling – I love walking around San Francisco and LA for that reason. I can walk around certain parts of town and feel…I was walking around Downtown San Francisco and more than half the people are Asian. That doesn't happen in New York unless you're in Chinatown.
APA: What are your feelings about the state or politics of Asian-American identity and how we see ourselves within the American context in the 21st Century? And do you happen to agree with them?
Chang Rae Lee: I really don't know how we feel – there are a lot of different ideas and lot of groups. I see everything from grassroots that help the immigrant population to Republican enclave of well-to-do-Asians who identify with the more monied classes and all the trappings, so it's really hard to say who we are. We're still figuring out…I think we're figuring out that we're many people. Perhaps this one of our strengths and this is one of our weaknesses that we don't have core issues and coordinating that are really important. I'm sure that the Republican Asian-Americans feel that there are no problems. That they're not discriminated against and that they have no issues. And a different portion of us think that “No, they have it all wrong.” Our brethren are being mistreated and exploited and they have no voice. So I really don't know. I suppose it's too varied for me to know whether what we're doing is right or not.
APA: Do you aspire in your work to be a voice in the Asian-American community? Because it seems to me that the work…you can't pigeonhole your work as being strictly a discussion on Asian-American identity. I happen to find that you have very universal themes running throughout your novels.
Chang Rae Lee: Yeah, I try not to think about particular issues in Asian-American identity. I do for those characters but I really try not to be didactic in anyway. I really do try to write literature here. And I think that sometimes politics gets in the way of literature. I think all good literature though has a universal message about how humans should interact, how we should treat one another…but that's how I hope it's happening for me. That's how I hope it will happen for me. If I didn't think that way, I wouldn't have been able to write Jerry Battle. And again, I think Jerry talks about identity, the way he views his daughter and his son, and his future son-in-law. Those are ideas of how people look at each other. Race and ethnicity will always be there in Asian-Americans but it will be there the way I think it should be there, as part of real study of character and culture.
APA: I'd also like to ask you that a few years ago, there was some talk of making A Gesture Life into a film. What is the status of that?
Chang Rae Lee: We're still trying – Wayne Wang is still trying to do it. I think he's trying to attach a star to the project…someone to play Hata. They're trying to get Ken Watanabe – you know the guy who was in The Last Samurai. So I'm hoping that works out or someone like him works out.
APA: Have the screen rights been bought yet?
Chang Rae Lee: Yeah…I wrote the screenplay. Wayne and the producer hired me to do that. It's all set to go, as long as we get a studio to hook up with it.
APA: Every writer has a visual idea of how their character would look like. How would you imagine Doc Hata to look like in the screen version?
Chang Rae Lee: I didn't imagine anyone as I wrote him. I knew he wasn't somebody…I don't know. I think Ken Watanabe can still play it if he does it right…if he carries himself in a different way then when he plays a samurai warrior. I think he can do it if he does the right thing but that's what actors do, they change themselves.
APA: How about with Native Speaker?
Chang Rae Lee: Oh well, nothing's happening with that. It's a difficult book to think about, although a lot of people seem to be interested.
APA: Actually, I would think that out of the three, that one would be the most accessible because it has a crime, detective film noir setting.
Chang Rae Lee: Right, right – you would think so but…
APA: Well, I also read recently that the screen rights to Aloft has been bought by Warner Bros. and Scott Rudin of The Hours and The Wonder Boys. What is the current state of that?
Chang Rae Lee: Well they just hired a screen writer, Scott Conrad, to do it. So they're moving along right now. They're really well right now – it looks really good.
APA: How involved would you be in the production?
Chang Rae Lee: No, I'm not involved at all aside form a little consulting.
APA: Do you know when we can expect a release for it?
Chang Rae Lee: Oh, I don't know. It's really dependent on how fast they have the script, whether they think they're satisfied with it. And then, whether they can find a director and actors…so I don't know. It's not my business so…
APA: Just one last question. You had mentioned that you were working on your next novel. I did read that, prior to working on Aloft, you were working on a novel based on the aftermath of the Korean War.
Chang Rae Lee: I'm still doing that. That's what I'm working on now. That's as much as I'd like to say right now.