Interview: Chang-rae Lee

“I went to a high school where everyone stood up as the teacher entered the room and sat only when told to. If you were late, you were locked out of the classroom. It was very formal to say the least. So when Chang-rae Lee, prize-winning author, Yale graduate, and Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton, actually replied to an e-mail I had sent him without any form of address and beginning with ‘BTW’ I was actually quite taken aback.”

This youthfulness is unexpected but refreshing in a 49-year-old Ivy League professor. Perhaps it is why his latest novel, On Such a Full Sea, has drawn so many comparisons to The Hunger Games. Even Aloft, centred upon a middle-aged man, has a youthful optimism.

Lee seems to have always enjoyed a cheerful disposition; as a child fascinated by fighter pilots he “always imagined (him)self as an ace”, soundly ignoring the impossibility of his dream considering his poor eyesight and motion sickness.

Lee was born in 1965 in South Korea, before emigrating to America at the age of three. He went on to attend the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University, worked on Wall Street for a year, and then studied for an MFA at the University of Oregon. His five novels have seen him win the PEN/Hemingway Award, and be shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize and a Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

A recurring theme in all of his works is that of isolation stemming from race, age, gender, or wealth. In his most well-known novel, Native Speaker, the non-native English-speaking protagonist speaks English just too precisely to be a convincing ‘native’. This attention to fine detail is certainly a trademark of Lee’s, a self-professed “obsessive person” who writes and rewrites his sentences “a dozen times or more”.

His words are carefully considered and beautifully constructed – he is obviously a lover of language and this is evident in the sheer range of his literary influences which include, among others, the works of Zola, Homer, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and D.H. Lawrence.

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There is no Surrealist stream-of-consciousness for Lee. For him, writing is a craft which “without a certain furious attention to the sentence at hand”, he becomes lost. He disdains chemical enhancement in writing, saying, “Writers have to be observers extraordinaire, but also must have ability to quarrel with what’s at hand, as well as to question the very self who observes.”

The fact that the self is so important to him also curiously seems to be linked to his love of golf. Golf is in many ways the ultimate sport for the career observer, as the player has no control over anything after they have hit the ball.

According to Lee, when one is playing golf “an infinity prevails, which of course can lead to greatness and beauty but more often invites tragedy.”

Although that might be seen by some as rather pretentious, Lee is also self-aware and understands how he is perceived but also how that itself is out of his control. He comments that due to On Such a Full Sea, his latest novel, “maybe in the end (he)’ll be seen as a Marxist writer”. This might sound incongruous coming from a Yale-educated Princeton Professor, but by highlighting this absurdity Lee has definitely shown that he understands his own privelege. 

Ursula Le Guin (author of The Left Hand of Darkness) wrote a scathing review of On Such a Full Sea in The Guardian. her criticism largely based on the fact that the novel treats its themes superficially; she argues that, “Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially. As a result, his imagined world carries little weight of reality.”

But Lee does not seem like a superficial person. His novels touch on such serious issues as suicide, racism, class, gender inequality, and sex; he is not an author to be taken lightly. His response to Le Guin does not mention her by name, but he does pointedly say “It’s always fascinating to me what a given reader will bring to a novel, this particular set of implements, baggage, lenses. It’s also sometimes startling that certain readers’ sets aren’t wider.”

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Despite Chang-rae Lee’s body of work primarily being based in the form of novels, my personal favourite is his short story Sea Urchin, in which the teenage narrator finds himself in a Seoul restaurant and tastes sea urchin for the first time.It makes him sick, but he returns the next day for more. This story links food and sex in a clever, subtle way, and I suppose these are two words that apply very strongly to Lee; very clever and very subtle.