Chang-rae Lee is the author of four novels: “Native Speaker” (1995), “A Gesture Life” (1999), “Aloft” (2004) and “The Surrendered” (2010). His novels have won several awards and citations, such as the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the American Book Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, ALA Notable Book of the Year Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Literary Award, the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, and the NAIBA Book Award for Fiction. He has also been awarded numerous fellowships, including those from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and The American Academy in Rome. Chang-rae Lee was born in Seoul, Korea, and educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, Yale, and the University of Oregon. He is currently a professor in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, where he teaches creative writing.
Since publishing my first novel in 1995, I’ve been periodically asked certain pointed questions about the origins of a story or character, in particular about the Asian-American figures in my books, the underlying assumption being that I’ve taken someone personally known to me, or even a blood relation, and then proceeded with the writing. While I’m sure all writers have been asked this on publishing a book, I can’t help but feel that because my characters share my “ethnic” heritage that this seems to some readers more clearly true in my case. By extension, there’s an implication that I’m more recounting a story than writing one, that I report on what I’ve experienced, rather than employing my full experience and imagination to create a piece of truthful art. This is something that I’ve heard other writers of color express as well, and it’s a particularly frustrating feeling for me. As a novelist, I’ve always been a bit leery of writing anything too directly sourced in or inspired by my life or that of my family.
The hesitation is not so much about privacy or a sense of decorum or even to bristle against the aforementioned assumption as it is one of process and craft. Fiction writing, it seems to me, is about the joyous, hard task of creation and the nearly infinite range of exertions that act entails, which is to fashion out of the nothingness a world of language and characters and plots that will seem to the reader to possess an unimpeachable and inevitable reality (whether realistic or speculative, whether physical or wholly in the mind). This “reality” is of course completely constructed: a particular character, say, is shaped into a convincing existence not simply by the bestowal of a “personality” and “history” (regardless from whom it’s drawn) but also because he or she is set forth within a series of actions and settings and other figures, all of which will (one hopes) somehow more deeply illustrate the character and develop the larger story and its concerns. Those entrancing, arresting characters of great literature—whether Anna Karenina or Jay Gatsby or Sethe of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”—are surely recognizable to us as “people” and reveal through their tribulations enduring truths about humanity, but in fact, they don’t really exist very well outside of their fictive realms. They only feel “real.” They’re not meant to be actual people, their being and function tightly circumscribed by a complete lingual universe that in turn begins to re-engender itself, character-in-a-plot creating more plot, and further characterization, and then further plot, and so on and so forth. Poor Anna Karenina is trapped in her life/world, but so wonderfully trapped that she becomes her world; there is no excising or separating her from it, and there’s such an exquisitely binding reciprocity of character and language that the story (ultimately, in retrospect) has no easy beginning or end. Anna simply is, and always was and will be.
This is what novelists spend countless hours aiming for, to try to capture some singularly authentic sense of life, and while some writers might find models in real-life people, I’ve found that such models can become distractions to my writer’s eye, attributes of “reality” obscuring what the contrived universes of my stories actually require, and sometimes demand. That’s why I never chose to focus on my or my family’s actual experience in creating characters for my first three novels, settling upon a young Korean-American “spy” (in “Native Speaker”), an elderly Japanese former war medic (“A Gesture Life”) and a middle-aged Italian-American landscaper (“Aloft”); all three protagonists were reflections of my then-pressing cultural and intellectual concerns, absolute embodiments of my consciousness, if containing very little of my “life.” In fact, I would say that despite speaking for them through their psychologically intimate first-person perspectives, I found myself keeping a certain emotional distance from the characters so that I’d retain the sort of literary focus I felt I needed.
Yet in the writing of my recently published novel, “The Surrendered,” I found myself engaged in a quite different process. The inspiration for “The Surrendered” has its roots in a project I worked on more than 20 years ago, while I was still in college. I was taking a seminar on modern Korean history, and I decided that I would conduct an interview with my father to fulfill the writing assignment, conceiving a reporter-at-large-style piece that would offer personal testimony and narrative set against a historical backdrop. I wasn’t sure if he would agree; my father was 12 years old on the eve of the Korean War, and although over the years I had asked him a number of times about his experiences, his responses were typically vague and hurried; he never seemed to want to talk about that time, only briefly mentioning that his sister had died during the war from an untreated bout of pneumonia. But as I was taking a course with a special focus on Korea, he agreed to speak in more detail about that period. My father’s family was originally from Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, and they had joined the throngs of refugees who were heading southward in the attempt to get behind the line of American forces. He first recounted a story about his favorite older cousin, who was pregnant and just about to give birth as the rest of the extended family was frantically packing up and leaving. My father was dispatched to tell his cousin that everyone was departing—explosions could be heard in the distance—but even though she and her husband desperately wanted to go, she had already started her labors. She couldn’t be moved. Everyone soon left, and that was the last time they were seen alive. To this day, no one knows what happened to them, whether they perished or survived the war and had ended up living in North Korea.
Telling that story of his cousin seemed to break the grip of something on my father. He recounted again that his sister had died of pneumonia during the refugee march, and then added, casually, that in fact his younger brother had died during their travels too. This last disclosure surprised me. I knew that he had lost a brother, this from asking him, as children often will, about how many siblings he had, matching the number against my uncles and aunts, but I remembered him saying that his brother had died in a subway accident. As I didn’t think there was a subway in either Pyongyang or Seoul during his childhood, I asked him when his brother had died and how.
My father cleared his throat, as is his habit when he’s uncomfortable or nervous. And suddenly I wasn’t sure at that moment if I was doing the right thing, asking this of him. But then he told me the real story, the story of how his brother had been killed not by a subway car but a boxcar of a train full of refugees. They were among the hundreds riding the cars. The car holding the rest of their family was packed tight and so he and his brother, along with many others, had to sleep on top of the boxcar, exposed to the elements. In the middle of the night the train halted violently and his brother, who was eight years old at the time, fell off, the train then lurching forward for a short distance. My father jumped down and went back and found his brother; the boy’s leg had been amputated at the knee by the wheels of the train. My father carried him back to the car, to the rest of their family, as the blood—and his life—ran out of his brother.
He said nothing else; his face had become a shield. Yet I thought I could see the contortions on the other side, the twisting grief beneath the surface. He was transported back to that dark place. Suddenly gone. I didn’t know what to say or do and after a moment he excused himself. We’ve not spoken about that incident again, but I’ve been haunted by that story since hearing it, not only by the horror of the accident but also the picture of my father as a boy, a boy who had to experience his brother’s death so directly and egregiously. I was struck, too, by how unperturbed my father had always seemed to me, this cheerful, optimistic man who certainly didn’t appear to be haunted by anything. But of course this was not quite true. The events of the war had stayed with him, and always would. In recent years I began to consider writing a novel about the war, and although I didn’t start at the incident of the train, what happened to my father and his brother kept coming back to me. After writing some initial chapters, I finally decided to try to write that scene, wondering whether a larger story might be instituted. Naturally the details changed quite drastically as I began to write, the story expanding in every direction, developing its own logic and aims, and soon enough it was not my father’s experience at all but rather a story centered on a Korean orphan girl named June, a diamond-hard shell of a girl who, after witnessing her entire family perish before her eyes, will resolve to survive the trials of life at any cost.
That written scene, drawn from a kernel of what happened to my father, became the first chapter of “The Surrendered,” even though it wasn’t written to be first in sequence. Not surprisingly, “The Surrendered” is the novel of mine I’m most emotionally connected to, and while I always kept in mind the larger concerns and themes that were intellectually and philosophically engaging me—the effects of mass conflict on the human psyche and spirit and the private odysseys those who’ve experienced conflict must endure—a more basic human impulse began to take hold of me as I wrote, an urge of wanting to convey in the most unfiltered manner the bodily sensation of war, and of suffering, and of enduring, to make this world of words as intensely visceral as possible.
I felt this was the right aesthetic choice for the book as well, perhaps the only one, but it surprised me how deeply sourced this book was, that the potential “distractions” of real life were in fact helping to hone my perspectives on the story, focus my imaginative storytelling to write passionately, not about my father but about June and the other major characters who encounter her. Early on in the writing, it occurred to me that June should be tilting against death as an adult, and I decided to make her furiously struggle against a terminal case of stomach cancer, which my own mother succumbed to nearly 20 years ago. June doesn’t share any major personality traits with my mother and father; her story is now wholly her own. Yet there she is, in great part formed by my parents’ most pointed burdens, which were of course mine as well, if vicariously, my amazement and sadness for what befell them—and my wish to honor them—driving me onward.
Will my approach to writing novels change profoundly? Unlikely. I’m sure I’ll always privilege the poetics of what a particular novel requires, over everything else; and yet within that aesthetic rubric, I suspect I’ll be more open and indeed vulnerable to the possibilities of personal history, not just for their surfaces or facts but the enduring power of their emotional legacies. Which are mine.
Click here to view this excerpt as it originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of DiversityInc magazine.