An Interview with Chang-rae Lee - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Chang-rae Lee

by Mimi Wong
March 15th, 2021

“My editor said, ‘Well, at some point you’ll just have to write a straight Marxist novel.’”

In 2014, I attended a reading celebrating the publication of Chang-rae Lee’s novel On Such A Full Sea hosted by the Asian American Writers Workshop and moderated by fellow Korean American writer Catherine Chung. The event took place at Chambers Fine Art, then located in New York’s Chelsea art district. After the conversation between the two authors, I waited on line to have my copy of the book signed. When it was my turn, I asked about endings, how Lee knows when he’s arrived at the right one.

Nearly seven years later, I can’t remember how Lee worded his answer exactly. But I would have a second chance to ask him again. In December of 2020, we spoke over a video call about his sixth novel My Year Abroad, which was published in early February (all of his books have been published by Riverhead). Over the years, Lee hasn’t shied away from experimenting with genre. His debut Native Speaker (1995) explores immigrant identity through the eyes of an industrial spy, while On Such a Full Sea foretells a bleak future in an America deeply divided by race and class. Though strikingly different in tone from Lee’s previous dystopian work, My Year Abroad revisits and expands on many of the same themes, including the consequences of late capitalism and globalization. Those themes would prove inescapable in 2020 and well into the new year, if not our foreseeable future.

Lee’s return to realism finds its foothold in Tiller, an aimless American college student whose adventures working for a cocksure Chinese immigrant businessman named Pong lead him to the other side of the world and back. Tiller eventually seeks refuge with Val, an older woman and her young son, Victor Jr. How Tiller ends up where he does awaits the reader’s discovery.

Timely and unsettling, the sprawling narrative mirrors much of the disorder in our current lives. With each turn of the page, I could never be entirely sure what was going to happen next. The unpredictability of the plot only underlines the increasing blurriness between the realm of fiction and our distorted reality. Even after closing the book, I continued to wonder about the fate of Lee’s protagonist, someone who is at times passive and perhaps complicit. How does it all turn out for Tiller, and for the rest of us?

—Mimi Wong

I. “A BLOODINESS THAT STAINS YOU”

THE BELIEVER: Where are you Zooming in from today?

CHANG-RAE LEE: I live in San Francisco because I teach at Stanford. For a long time, I taught at Princeton. So I lived in Princeton and, you know, I’m from New York. Five years ago, we moved out here when I took the job here. We didn’t want to live down in Palo Alto, so we thought the city would be nice.

BLVR: As someone who grew up near Palo Alto, I don’t blame you.

CL: The weather’s good, but we just thought, at this point in our lives, the youngest [of our children] is in college and the older one’s working, and so we thought we didn’t want to just be an empty nest couple in the suburbs. It’s no fun.

BLVR: You can still have some semblance of a life in the city, in San Francisco.

CL: Yeah, there’s just more going on, and it’s nice up here.

BLVR: Do you miss New York?

CL: Sometimes, I miss friends. I used to live in New York, and I didn’t think I wanted to live there   again. It’s just too much. Also, I didn’t think it was very good for my work. It’s just too busy, too much noise, both literally and figuratively, and I need a quieter place, which is why the suburbs worked for me that way. But San Francisco’s a nice compromise because it’s pretty quiet, you know, and it’s as quiet as you want it to be, so that’s good.

BLVR: They still have some of the conveniences.

CL: I can still go get a bánh mì when I want. It’s really good.

BLVR: I just finished reading My Year Abroad, so I’m still processing. It’s your first novel since On Such A Full Sea, which is one my favorite books of all time. I’m curious, what happened between writing On Such A Full Sea and this novel. What led you to this story?

CL: I had been interested in China for a long time, which is how On Such A Full Sea came about. So there was definitely some lingering interest in Asia and China as a place for activity of all kinds. I also had befriended a fellow, who is kind of the inspiration for Pong. This was a long time ago. But something about him really captured me. This particular fellow is a real immigrant. He didn’t really consider himself American but had spent his whole life in America. There’s something about him being a newer immigrant that really appealed to me. I loved his energy, and I loved his resilience. [He had] an enthusiasm for everything. He was just a kid in a candy shop. 

I was born in Korea, but I grew up here, and obviously I’m very integrated. I no longer live an immigrant life. I felt like I had lost some of the zest my parents had. Often that [life] wasn’t joyous, and was also full of anxiety. Just that kind of energy and worry and ambition for no other reason than to survive. So something about him just made me rethink some of the things that I had thought about or that I had felt earlier in my life and that I wanted to connect with again.

I tried to figure out a way to tell a story without him narrating the story directly, or exclusively. ‘Cause I didn’t want it to just be about him. I wanted it to be about him as an inspiration and as a mentor and as a kind of guide. I tried to figure out, For whom would he be this guide? And I finally settled on a young kid, college-age, not really knowing what’s going on with his life, not really that jazzed or interested in anything. Someone who is partly Asian, but not really, and who is not really connecting with that part of himself. So I just started writing that story about a bored suburban kid who is looking for something. He has no idea what he is looking for, but of course Pong is someone who captures him.

As you probably can see, there were so many other things in the novel that I wanted to talk about. There are three or four novels in there. One’s maybe a coming-of-age novel, one’s an immigrant novel, one’s a midlife-crisis novel, and one’s a novel about feeling existentially famished.

BLVR: There are so many different threads to pick up on. One person I want to ask you about is Tiller, the protagonist of the story, the college-age student. He describes himself as a “lone witness” to Pong’s life. I’m curious how you balance writing someone who is young and naïve—there’s this feeling that things are just happening to him in the book— with writing an older character who is still actively making decisions, making the mistakes that eventually lead him down the path that he goes on.

CL: He doesn’t know it, but he’s being manipulated. He’s being shown the world, and he kind of wants to be manipulated, too. He’s passive, but there’s a price to that, of course. I thought that was probably appropriate to his character and his psyche, which is that of someone who’s always inclined to follow, to latch on. And he talks about that a lot. He almost considers himself an orphan. He says that at one point, even though he has a father, Clark. Clark is totally hands-off, very laissez-faire. I think Tiller feels like he’s out alone in the world and doesn’t mind. He says something about being a tick, that he just latches on to people and is willing to go along on their path. So I wanted him to find someone he would have a symbiotic relationship with, to start. But of course, [the novel] can’t end there. It has to go other places. And the other part of this narrative is the domestic story with Val and Victor Jr.

BLVR: Tiller seems to connect with other characters through absent parent figures, whether it’s the mother who’s gone or his distanced relationship with his father Clark. Pong himself also lost his mother. Were you conscious of why you may have been excavating that absence?

CL: Half-conscious, thinking about Tiller and why he felt so bereft, but also lackadaisical. Sometimes people are bereft, but very active and angry. But he’s the other way. I knew that he had some kind of great loss in his life that he didn’t really understand, or wasn’t wanting to understand. The greatest loss we all feel is when we lose our beloved. And so I said, he probably lost one of his parents.

For me, losing a mother is quite different from losing a father. I don’t know if that’s a retro idea. I lost my mother when I was twenty-five. She died of cancer quite young. And even though I was an adult, a young adult, and starting my life when she died, I still think about her every day, which is amazing these thirty years later, you know? My dad died about three years ago, and I wonder if it had been the opposite, would I have thought about my father every day? And I have to be honest and think, I would say no. I loved my father. He was a wonderful man, a very gentle, kind fellow. But I think for certain relationships, particularly mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, there’s a bloodiness there that stains you. With me and my mom, we were able to talk about lots of things before she died. We resolved a lot, and I understood what she meant to me. I think she understood what I meant to her.

I didn’t want to write about that because it’s less interesting. I thought about Tiller’s relationship with the memory of his mother as something that he hadn’t really accessed and mulled over enough. So I thought that would add drama and tension and anxiety, and then I’d have him go out into the world with this great hollow feeling that he doesn’t know how to feel.

BLVR: Do you mean “less interesting” because you personally had closure for yourself, so you wanted to give a character something more to wrestle with?

CL: Yeah, absolutely. Not that I have full closure. I don’t, but I don’t think we ever do. I have more closure than Tiller does. I think that’s why he is drawn to certain characters, and particularly women in the novel. He doesn’t really know how to be with them. He’s always looking for clues. Obviously, the relationships that are sexual or romantic are different from a maternal relationship, but it’s all mixed up for him, too. Especially with Val, who’s an older woman and a mom, although I didn’t think their relationship was so Oedipal. I wanted to put him in a situation where he was faced with dealing with Victor Jr., a kid. I don’t plan these things, but I believe I wrote something about him imagining Victor Jr. being alone without a mom. That was the moment where he’s really scared the most because he really understands what that loss feels like.

BLVR: I saw masculinity as a big idea that you’re tackling in this novel. It reminded me of Native Speaker a bit—a character who’s bouncing back and forth between examples of toxic and tender masculinity, and trying to figure out what type of man he wants to be.

CL: Well, there’s so many different kinds of men in the novel, right? Nefarious, crazy.

BLVR: A lot of them seemed very troubled.

CL: Everyone’s troubled. Pong’s probably the least troubled. He’s just in a bad situation. But yeah, Tiller is modeling himself after masculine roles, ideals, performances. That’s definitely something he’s doing throughout the book. He doesn’t know it, but I think that’s why he’s so curious about all these people. He’s curious about how men behave and how they are comprised psychically.

BLVR: The greatest love in the book is Tiller’s love for Pong.

CL: For sure. It takes him a little while to understand that. He’s just tickled by Pong who’s a model, and also a kind of aspirational mirror. Tiller wishes he could be so assured and, in his own Pong way, kind of debonair, even though he’s maybe awkward looking. That’s one of the things that I didn’t think about when I was conceiving the book, but as I was starting to really get into it, I realized it was about a kind of brotherhood, which is a form of love between men that isn’t physical or sexual. But a love that most men are just not equipped to do. You know what I mean?

There have been lots of articles recently about how men are so lonely, especially during the pandemic. Grown men are so lonely because, unlike women, they don’t have circles of friendship where they really engage with each other in substantive, emotional ways. And I think that happens from the time of youth. It happens from the age of ten. And it’s not middle-aged men, it’s all men. One article said that boys are willing to emotionally engage with one another up until about the age of six or seven. And then certain socialized gender roles come in to play, and they have to be so protective and defended. Tiller is not someone who presents like he’s got a lot of guards up, but he does. The book is a way for him to just be broken down and down and down and down. I mean, literally, too. But I really wanted him to experience a lot of trauma and beleaguerment, especially at the hands of Pong.

II. RUNAWAY CIVILIZATION

BLVR: Tiller and Pong connect through food. That’s one way that they find each other. Food plays such an important role in the book. I found this interview that you did recently, in which the interviewer asked you, “What is a snack you couldn’t write without?” And you answered, “I can’t eat when I work, because I love eating and when I eat I can’t do or think about anything else.” I had never thought about that, but I feel exactly the same way.

CL: Well, it’s true, right? Because writing is so hard you need everything, and that’s what I try to tell my students all the time. It’s like, I know you’re all so smart, and you’re so competent and capable, but you can’t really write creatively. You can be smart and just write a really cogent and brilliant little essay about something. But to write creatively, you have to have so much going on. You have to have such an appreciation of everything, all the levels of action, language, and character psychology. Put away the phone, put away the food, put it away. Okay you can have cigarettes if you need the nicotine, and coffee if you need the caffeine. But don’t sit there and want to love the coffee. You can’t love the coffee. If I’m really wanting to eat, I really want to eat. I really want to taste. You know, I love wine. But I can’t mix those two. It’s just not possible. 

Tiller doesn’t start out thinking of himself as someone who’s really into food. He’s just somebody who doesn’t know what he’s into at all. I think it’s in the first scene that he goes to the yogurt shop and they ask him to taste things. What Pong is doing for him is uncovering capabilities that he never thought he had, never knew that he had. [Food as a motif is] an easy way for me in the book to talk about characters’ hunger, how famished and bereft all of them are. And then I just like it because I get to talk about food. Food is so central to my life and a lot of people’s lives, it’s just what you organize your day around. Your real day, not your intellectual day or your cultural day, but your real day, which is just about bodily functions. That’s also why I think I’m into talking about bodily functions in the book. I haven’t in any of my other novels. [My Year Abroad] is a book about the corpus, not just up here [points to his head], because I think those two things are so married, and maybe that’s where the idea about food comes in. Food is not just about taste. It’s not. It helps make right or wrong sense of everything else. I think for me, and for other people who enjoy food, the world doesn’t seem right when something [like food is missing]. And I see it in my daughters, too. My one daughter in particular, if she doesn’t have a certain kind of meal during the day, she’s in a bad mood. It’s not because she’s hungry. 

BLVR: In the novel, on the other side of food is this booming wellness industry . There’s a need for food, to satiate our hunger, but wellness, in opposition, serves as a way to control those desires.

CL: That’s exactly right. Wellness is about trying to control the chaos of our bodies, our emotions, our blood sugar levels, our everything. That’s what is always so funny about the wellness thing. I do a little yoga, and I’ve been to the studios, and all the things they talk about make great sense, except at some point the practice tries to arrest all your nature. The world is the problem. Because we have too much anxiety, we’re overworked, we don’t sleep well. Our bodies react to the world because the world sucks. Life as we built it sucks. So we’re just like this human pimple, and wellness is all about trying to control the things we can’t control. Wellness is about controlling or mastering life. I think Tiller is realizing you can’t really do that.

BLVR: Well, as you say, wellness is about trying to take control because there’s so much out there that feels out of one’s control. And I think what you’re able to highlight in this novel is the chaos of this hyper-capitalistic, globalized world that they’re living in, that’s very now, that you don’t even have to set in a dystopian future.

CL: You don’t.

It’s just totally now. I don’t plan my novels out. But there’s one section where [a character] Chilies starts talking about his Marxist theories, and it’s supposed to be a joke of course because he ends up being a real capitalist himself. But I’ve always been interested in that because I always feel like we have a runaway civilization, and capitalism is the prime engine of that runaway disease that we have, which is all about continual growth. Continual consumption, continual hunger. I wanted to have a little fun with that idea, but have Tiller in the cauldron of being mashed up and used up. My editor said, “Well, at some point you’ll have to just write a straight Marxist novel.” I’ve benefited from capitalism as much as anyone else, but I think we all feel now it’s totally unsustainable.

BLVR: That’s an interesting use of the word “disease” because we’re currently living in the consequences of one.

CL: We are, and of course we spread it easily because of our globalized world, from the ski slopes of Northern Italy straight to Wuhan.

BLVR: You said you don’t plan your novels as you write, so how do you know when you’ve arrived at the ending?

CL: Sometimes I don’t. Especially with this novel, it was a little bit more difficult because there are two main storylines—past and present. I think [how I choose my endings] is more a question of whether or not I feel like I’ve exhausted all my thoughts about the characters and ideas in a book. If I start to repeat myself thematically or emotionally, then I feel like, Okay, maybe it’s time to end. I don’t always know if I’ve covered all of what I wanted to cover, or if I’ve figured [a book] out. I never know, but maybe that’s as much as I can do.

This novel was even bigger than what you read. It’s not that I conceived of it that way, but I let myself go because I felt like I wanted to have this big, big story. I wanted to allow a lot of crazy, random shit inside of it, ‘cause I just thought that was right, unlike On Such A Full Sea, which is quite engineered. I always thought of [On Such A Full Sea] as me just presenting you this aquarium and everything in it. That’s the whole point of it, in terms of psyche too, in terms of thinking and psychology. Whereas this book, I wanted to invite whatever disaster, complication, or weirdness into it just to see what would happen, because I thought that’s what Tiller wanted. He is desperate for it, you know? This is my long way of answering your question. It was a harder book to end for that reason because I kind of wanted him to not ever stop.

BLVR: In some ways, I think the chaos is reflective of where we are now. Every day, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

CL: The truth is it’s always been like that. We just have the scrim of order, rationality, and verifiability. But the truth is anything can happen at any time. You don’t know what’s happening in the background. So it’s just been exposed now.

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