Interviewed by Maud Casey
Chang-rae Lee’s first novel, Native Speaker, was published in 1995 when he was twenty-nine years old. A fierce portrait of a heartbroken man who is the son of Korean immigrants, Native Speaker makes use of the conventions of political thrillers and then transcends the genre through its inimitable voice and its keen attention to language. It would be the first of three idiosyncratic first-person narratives featuring notably different men whose surface lives mask tragedies. A Gesture Life (1999) takes up with the elegant, restrained Franklin Hata who lives a seemingly quiet life in the fictional Westchester town of Bedley Run yet who is still embroiled in his experiences as a medical officer serving with the Japanese army in Burma. Lee’s third novel, Aloft (2004), is concerned with Jerry Battle, a deceptively exuberant Italian-American suburban patriarch embattled on multiple fronts–his large, multi-ethnic family, love, business, his past–who would rather remain suspended above the earth in his Skyhawk plane than deal with any of it. Lee has been deservedly lauded for these novels and has been awarded the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, a Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, a NAIBA Book Award for Fiction, an Asian American Literary Award, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Oregon Book Award, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award; he was selected by The New Yorker in 1999 as one of the twenty best writers under forty.
On the face of it, his most recent novel, The Surrendered, may appear quite different from his first three novels. Omniscient in its narration, the novel has three protagonists, visits three continents, and spans fifty years. Still, the intersecting, intimate stories of June Han, a Korean woman orphaned during the Korean War, now dying of inoperable stomach cancer; Hector Brennan, an Irish-American veteran of that war, now working as a janitor in a mini-mall in New Jersey; and Sylvie Tanner, the missionary wife who helps run the orphanage in Korea where the three characters first meet, are very much concerned with what happens after tragedy in much the same way as are Lee’s first novels. Lee began thinking about The Surrendered soon after Native Speaker was published, though the seeds of the novel were sown when his father began telling stories from his own experience during the Korean War. His father, like June Han, was a refugee on a train heading south during the war; like June, he had a younger brother who died in his arms after falling from the train. “I’ve been haunted by that story ever since hearing it,” Lee writes in an essay on the genesis of the novel, “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 didn’t appear to be haunted by anything. But of course this was not quite true. The events of the war stayed with him, and always would.”
In March, soon after the release of The Surrendered, Lee was in Washington, D.C., for a reading at Politics & Prose bookstore. This interview took place in Postscript, the bar in the lobby of the Madison Hotel.
Maud Casey: My first question requires a little build-up but, don’t worry, there’s a question at the end. In his essay “Quickness,” Italo Calvino describes what he calls magic objects: “The moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the magnetic field, a knot in the invisible relationships.” J.H. Dunant’s book, A Memory in Solferino figures prominently in your new novel, The Surrendered. (A Memory in Solferino is a 19th century account by a Swiss man of the aftermath of a battle fought between the Austrians and the French in 1859 near the Italian hill town of Solferino, a battle so bloody it inspired the founding of the Red Cross.) Dunant’s book seems to become just such a magic object. The actual account is important but then the book as an object is a deeply sensual connecting force over generations and between characters. Hector smells it; June touches it. Could you talk a bit about when you came across Dunant’s book and how it made its way into The Surrendered?
Chang-rae Lee: It obviously had something to do with the Red Cross. I was wondering where the Red Cross came from. I was simply curious. It may have been because I was thinking about Sylvie’s background and who were her parents and what their histories might have been, what were their connections to Samaritan work and that kind of thing. That’s probably why I thought, Well, OK, maybe they were with the Red Cross. The first part of the book is actually quite boring, a quick history of all the generals and dukes. In fact, Hector at one point is looking at it and I describe him as thinking [Lee rolls his eyes in imitation boredom], All right, I’m going to put this book away. But once you get to the eyewitness account of that battle, which is this immense battle between hundreds of thousands of soldiers and then, particularly afterwards, when the wounded soldiers are housed in churches…when I read that, I thought, Oh my goodness, this hits the tenor of the scenes my characters will experience but it is also a talisman, this thing that is both–I use this phrase [in the novel] but I don’t think it’s about the book–a lash and a charm. It binds them; it captivates them. In Hector’s point of view, it’s more about Sylvie than about the thing itself.
MC: But he does, in fact, read the account.
CRL: He does but he’s not really thinking about it too much more after that. But I’m so glad that you mentioned the sensuality of this object because it connects up with–and this is something that people haven’t really asked me about–the fact that there’s a lot to do with the body and sensuality in this book.