Chang-rae Lee: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 12.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.
>> Chang-rae Lee immigrated to United States from Korea in 1965
when he was just three years old.
He attended some of the country's most prestigious schools -
Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale, earned an MFA.
And then like most aspiring writers,
he became a financial analyst on Wall Street.
[ Laughter ]
>> That, fortunately, did not last long, and soon he turned to fiction.
His novels immediately attracted wide critical praise.
"Native speaker" and "A Gesture Life" are searching
and powerful stories about the special challenges
of immigrant life, the fragility of identity and the burdens of memory.
His work can be dark and very serious as we've seen
in his new novel "The Surrendered" or even comic and poignant as we saw
in his previous novel, "Aloft."
Now, a professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University,
Chang-rae Lee is a novelist who reminds us not only
that we're a country of immigrants, but that the process
of immigration is always more fraught
and more complex than we imagined.
Please join in welcoming him.
[ Applause ]
>> Hi!
>> Hi!
>> You know, it seems like I can never run away
from that one brief year on Wall Street.
[ Laughter ]
>> I worked literally 365 days to the day, and I quit on that day,
so I could say to my father I worked a year and I'm gonna quit now.
But sometimes I see I get e-mails from friends and acquaintances
from that time, and you know, they always say, "Oh,
it's great that you've started writing books and da-da-da."
And you know, but they always, of course say,
but you would have made a lot of money.
[ Laughter ]
>> You know, I'd like to have a two more zeros
in my account, but that's okay.
I was just gonna talk a little bit about "The Surrendered,"
a book that came out in the late spring.
It's a book that I've been thinking about writing for a long time.
And I guess I'll just say a few words, and I hope that's--
I hope that you people will ask questions 'cause I much rather
respond to questions that you might have.
But one of the questions I always get is about, you know,
where stories come from for writers.
People are always curious.
Even people who know me well, you know, sometimes look at me,
and think, "Why did you write that book and where did that come from.
You know, what's wrong with you?"
Or, you know, what's-- why that obsession.
And there are lots of reasons.
You know, sometimes, it's stuff
that I've been thinking about for a long time.
Sometimes it's an accident.
You know, my second novel, I read an article in the newspaper
about Korean comfort women and I decided, "Boy,
I can't believe I don't know about this, so I'm gonna look into it,"
and thus a novel came to be.
But this particular novel, I was--
I've been thinking about writing it for a long, long time.
It's a novel that takes place partly during the Korean War.
Its main character meet during the Korean War and it follows their--
their relationships and their struggles after the war.
It's really a postwar novel rather than a war novel.
But it's a book that, obviously, I'm Korean-American, and I'd thought
about writing a book about that time for a long time, you know,
ever since I became sort of, I guess, a writer in earnest.
I guess I'm still a writer in earnest.

And obviously, it's my background that, you know, that spurred me on,
and particularly my father and my mother's experience during the war.
This was 1950s, so they were young, you know,
young kids about 11 and 12 years old.
They never talked about their experience during the war.
A lot of people, you know, of their generation never wanted to talk
about the war and still never want to talk about the war.
So, it's something that I didn't know about.
You know, writers often write to fill in their questions,
to you know, to satisfy some curiosity
about a particular subject.
And it was particularly something that was, you know,
important in my life back in college.
I was taking a Korean history class, Modern Korean History class seminar.
And for that seminar, I had to write something about my family,
kinda autobiographical piece.
And I ended up kinda cornering my father and asking him
about his experience during the war.
His family, just for a quick background, was from Pyongyang
which is now the capital of North Korea.
And on the eve of hostilities, like many thousands of other refugees,
they had started to move southward
to escape the fighting and to get to the south.
So he told me a little bit about that time.
That was the first time we'd ever talked about it.
I was just kinda idly writing notes, you know,
not really thinking about what I might hear.
He got into this story of how they moved southward, you know,
on foot, sometimes on trucks.
And on this one particular night, that he focused on by a train.
And if you think about it, it was a car along many cars of train,
you know, many train cars all put together moving very slowly
through dark countryside.
He was actually on top of the train
because there was no room inside the trains.
These are, you know, cargo cars not resident, you know,
not passenger cars as we know them.
So he and his family, and particularly he
and his brother were on top of this train.
They kinda balanced on top with lots of other refugees.
It turns out, of course my research that I found out,
that this was often the case.
And one night as they're chandelling along at this low speed,
the train hit something way up ahead, it lurched,
and his younger brother who was about eight
or nine years old fell off in between the cars.
And unfortunately, his leg was amputated.
And my father jumped out.
And unfortunately, his brother died of blood loss.
It was an amazing story to hear.
And my father really, you know, probably devoted
about five sentences to it.
You know, it's amazing to me to think of my father, someone who'd,
you know, he's-- my father is a psychiatrist, very mild mannered
and someone who'd never, you know, none of his actions
or things we talked about,
the way he conducted his life whatever portray that something
like this had happened to him, which I taught was amazing.
But of course, that story stayed with me.
And for many years, I thought, you know, I--
that would maybe be some kind of lynchpin
or something for a longer story.
So, I started this particular novel about five years ago,
not writing about my father but writing
about three other characters -
one character in particular a young girl, a Korean girl named June,
who at the start of this book, begins a journey
as my father did with her twin siblings.
It's-- you know, again, as I mentioned, my father only described,
you know, just a few things on that trip, so obviously,
I had to reinvent everything and elaborate
to a great extent everything that happens in this book.
And of course, as all books are, you bended tales and you create things
for the purpose of the book, not so much worrying
about what happens in real life.
So, this is a book that in some ways was galvanized by that experience.
And that experience was the spark of it.
So, I'll just-- what I'd thought I'd do is I'll just read the first page
or two about it just to give you a sense
of how it sounds 'cause I believed that prose should sound
like something that the writer wants it to sound like,
it's not just about storytelling,
it's not just about showing you what's happen.
And then I'd love to hear some, you know, questions from you
about really anything you'd like.
Korea, 1950.
The journey was nearly over.
The night was unusually chilly, the wind sharpened by the speed
of the train as it rolled southward through the darkened valley.
The cotton blanket June had stolen was large enough to spread as a tarp
and at the same time wrap around her younger brother and sister
and herself, but it was threadbare
and for brief stretches the train would accelerate
and the wind would cut right through to them.
It had not been a problem the night before but now they were riding
on top of the boxcar, as there was no more room within any of them,
even as the train was more than a dozen cars long.
A massive phalanx of refugees had met the train at the last station,
and in the time it took her siblings to relieve themselves by the side
of the tracks they had lost their place and had had
to climb the rusted ladder between the cars, June running alongside
for fifty meters until her brother was high enough on the rungs
so she herself could jump up and on.
There was a score or so of people atop every car,
groupings of families and neighbors, mostly women and the old
and the young, and then a cluster or two like theirs,
children traveling by themselves.
June was eleven; Hee-Soo and Ji-Young had just turned seven.
They were fraternal twins, though looked as much alike as a sister
and brother could, only the cut of their hair distinguishing them.
>> June knew they could have waited in the hope of another train
with room inside but it hadn't been cold
when they stopped just before dusk and she decided they ought
to keep moving while they had the chance.
To keep moving was always safer than lingering in one place,
and there was nothing back at the depot to eat, anyway.
There were a few scruffy soldiers drinking and playing cards
by the depot shack, though their presence could only mean trouble,
even for a girl her age.
She was tall besides and she was wary of soldiers and any stray men.
They were some two hundred kilometers south of Seoul,
past Chongju, and June was now thinking
that they would make their way down to Pusan,
where her uncle's family lived,
though she didn't know whether they were still there, or even alive.
The train sped up on a slight decline and June curled her arm
around her siblings, spooning them tightly.
They lay as low as they could between the ridges
of the steel roof of the boxcar.
They were on the front end of the car and as
such they were fully buffeted by the rushing wind.
They were fortunate to have a blanket;
many others on top of the cars did not.
It was too early to sleep but it was cold and it was better
for the twins not to be active, especially given
that the two had shared only a few crackers early in the day.
June herself had eaten nothing.
They had eaten well the day before, as June had found,
below a footbridge, a GI's abandoned pack of canned rations,
a small bar of chocolate, and a sleeve of crackers.
Her brother and sister were so hungry that they'd bolted
down the chocolate first as June was smashing the cans open
against a rock.
She'd cut her finger and gotten some blood on the food but they ate it
without hesitation, two tins of stewed beef and one of sardines
in tomato sauce, afterward each taking a turn to lick the insides,
carefully, with the deftness of cats.
She made them save the crackers.
They'd been by themselves on the road since their mother
and older sister were killed two weeks before, at first traveling
with some people from their town but then blending
in with the endless stream of other refugees moving southward along the
pushed-up roads and embankments of the river valleys.
At another time it might have been a pretty journey,
the hills just turning the colors of pumpkin and hay and pomegranate
and the skies depthless and clear, but now everywhere one looked most
of the trees had been felled for fuel and there was only a hazy,
oppressive brightness refracted from the shorn hillsides.
There were formerly cultivated fields of potatoes and cabbages,
and then the terraces of rice paddies, but all had been stripped
and then abandoned during these first months of the war.
I'll stop there thanks.
[ Applause ]
>> As I said, the first chapter then goes on
and we follow the lives of the other characters.
But enough about me and this book,
I hope that someone of you have a question.
>> Hi, could you please talk a little bit
about your writing process and your daily routines
when you're working on a manuscript?
>> Yeah, my writing process is a very ordinary one.
I really treat it like a job.
You know, I have young girls, 9 and 13, and so, I mean, you know,
I help get them together for school.
I make breakfast.
One of us will take them out to the bus and then at about 8:30
or 8 o'clock or so I sit at my desk and work 'till lunch.
And lunch, as I said, with someone else is very important.
If I don't know that I'm going to have a good lunch
or I don't know what's gonna be there for lunch,
I have a lot of trouble writing actually.
[Laughter] So, I-- that's sort of my, the beacon, you know,
it's pinging at the end of that long morning.
And then after lunch, you know, you have a little bit of lunch coma.
[ Laughter ]
>> So I rest a little bit, maybe listen to some music, read,
and then work a couple of hours
until the girls come home, and then it's over.
But it's a, you know, I'm a very slow writer.
I don't know why that is, I wish I could be like some other writers
who could just toss off a thousand words in the morning or
and like them but I just can't do that, so it's pretty painstaking.
And I must say it's difficult work, it's very difficult work.
And I always distrust people
who say it's not difficult work especially my students who say that.
>> I saw that you are an English major.
And with your story of your father, I wonder if he approved of that.
And when did you first know that you wanted to be a writer as a way
of making your living, and when did you started thinking
of yourself really as a writer?
>> Well, I don't-- it took me a long time to think of really
to accept the fact that this is really what I wanna do
for a living, you know.
And obviously, I quit my job because I thought
that I should give myself a chance at doing so.
But well before that in high school, you know,
I had some great English teachers
and I always love books, I always love reading.
I hang out with the library a lot as a kid.
And you know, if you are someone who's, you know, who loves to read,
at some point, I think you wonder, well, could I give this experience
to someone else, you know, could I crop this language and story,
create these characters, and you just wonder that.
And you know I started doing a little bit of that
in high school and really enjoying it.
But you know, part of my background, because my folks are, you know,
we're all immigrants and we didn't really have a safety net gear,
we didn't have any other relatives.
And you know my parents sent me into these nice expensive schools,
I never thought that it would actually be something I did
for a living.
And it, you know, it wasn't, you know, my parents didn't come here
to have their son become an artist or writer, right.
It's honorable, but it obviously it's not something that's bankable.
So, I think it took me just a long time to just abuse myself
for that notion that, you know, that I could do this and
or that I could-- I should try
to honor what I really did want to do, yeah.
>> So, when did you actually really think of yourself as a writer?
>> Probably after my first novel is published.
And then I thought, you know, and regardless of what people thought
of it, I thought, you know, I did absolutely--
I didn't enjoy the process
because as I said writing is sometimes tortuous,
but I got a lot of, you know, that sense of fulfillment out of that.
>> I was wondering, I'm an International Studies major,
and a lot of times Korean-Americans are referred to as a model minority,
and that they go to grade schools like Yale and then--
>> It does for no good, though--
>> -- such as yourself.
[ Laughter ]
>> And I was wondering about perhaps maybe Korean nationals would look
at your life and feel envious or seem--
I mean it seems like you've time and articulate,
that you've had this really ideal life.
And I'm wondering how they feel about you writing
about this incredible suffering, just like Korean national suffering.
>> Well, I don't know yet.
The book has not appeared in Korea yet, this book,
so I don't know yet how they feel.
But you know, I think it's a myth too.
I mean I think a lot of Korean-Americans and I know
that 'cause I get lots of notices from philanthropic groups
about Korean-Americans were struggling, and you know.
So, I think that's a myth about Korean-American's doing so well
and all of us doing so well.
And then of course, you know, it's, like anything else,
you know, everyone's different.
And what seems well, like that someone is doing well
in the outside might actually not be, you know, so great, so.
>> Nationals would be receptive to an American telling their story--
>> I don't know.
Maybe. I don't know, I hope so.
>> Thank you.
>> Thank you.
>> Anyong-haseyo.
Would you compare or how would you compare your fiction with that
of Richard Kim who wrote "The Martyred" and "The Innocent"?
>> Well, you know, those are wonderful novels.
I think my fiction is perhaps more interested in its own language more
than Mr. Kim's books were.
He's the beauty of his language, is a kind of spareness.
And it's often a directness that is kind of startling,
and I think that's what's wonderful about his writing.
I think my books, in this book maybe less so than my previous three tend
to be a little conscious of their own storytelling modes.
So, I think they much more are about their own language
and also just strictly and discreetly that story.
>> Hi. Can you tell me who your favorite writers are
and how they may have helped you find your own writing voice?
>> I have so many favorite writers.
You know, I-- but when-- I suppose I could mention a few when I was say
in 7th and 8th and 9th grade, you know, when I was really--
and maybe there are more particularly books
than anything else, and I mentioned those a couple minutes ago.
You know, James Joyce's collection, the Dubliners I thought was
such a beautiful collection and I didn't-- up until that point,
I hadn't had a real sensitivity to language
in a prose fiction than I did then.
Some of the Ernest Hemingway's stories particularly some of his
in the collection "In Our Time", the little vignettes of wartime,
and I thought those are really harrowing in, but you know,
they had a beautiful spark to them.
So those are some writers that-- you know, I'd always been attracted
to writers that, you know, when you're reading them
or you're reading a particular work where you feel it's almost not
that you're not even holding a book anymore, you know,
that something has-- something else has happened that you have this,
you know, very corporal bodily somatic experience.
And all the intellectual stuff is there.
All the symbolic and spiritual stuff is there.
But ultimately, it's a physical thing, because you know,
'cause it's an emotional thing.
And those are certain moments that, yeah, that I felt that.
>> How are you?
>> Great.
>> You mentioned before you worked with the writing on
and researching the comfort women, and I used to live in Seoul
where I was involved in the Reparations Movement on behalf
of the comfort women, and I think it's really a powerful issue.
And I was wondering if you could speak to your role
in either researching or using writing as a tool of empowerment
on behalf of women who experienced sexual slavery.
>> Well, I-- for that book, that book novel is called
"A Gesture Life," and I did do a lot of research for that book.
And one of the great moments of research
in my writing experience has been--
was going over to Seoul and meeting with, I would say,
about a dozen of the women survivors who were living in a house together
and the house was donated to them by some Buddhist monks.
>> The Nanometi [phonetic]?
>> Yeah, and this was probably 1995 or so that I went over there,
pretty early on in all the hub all about it
after it was revealed that this had happened.
And it was a great day, you know.
And those are some of the moments that, you know,
where research really just comes alive and is vital, you know,
and just sitting with these women and seeing their faces
and seeing all their differences, you know,
that they were individuals.
You know, they're not just all victims, right?
And things were perpetrated on them,
but they had all this different histories.
And you know psychologies.
And that was very instructive.
You know, I had to remember that I wasn't writing history.
You know, I'm writing a novel, which is entirely a different thing.
And I think that's why novels are important still.
I hope. I mean, you know, history is one thing,
and it's important to know.
But a novel can give you an intimate secret history
that maybe no one wants to look at and that isn't always so patent
or black and white, maybe isn't even all
that glorious, but it's very human.

>> Is it on?
How do you manage when you're writing about war and children dying
and things that are very difficult.
How do you manage everyday to go back and forth between the world
that you're creating that's so sad and tragic and then, I don't know,
taking your kids to soccer practice or something like that.
>> That's a good question, you know, sometimes it was hard.
You know, sometimes you need something called Pinot noir.
[ Laughter ]
[ Applause ]
>> Sometimes.
But you know, it is kinda hard.
This, you know, this book, unlike my previous three,
I did have a little bit
of difficulty transitioning back and forth.
You know, I'd come downstairs and my life with--
I was just sort of sit there, and my wife would say, "What happened?"
I'll say, I don't know what happened.
I can't, you know, I just, I don't know what happened.
>> Does it make it difficult in the morning sometimes
to go back to that world?
>> Yeah, every morning, I tell you, every morning is,
and I remember reading this about John Updike,
he said that every morning he looked at the paper
and make all these excuses why he wouldn't go upstairs,
and I know exactly that feeling, you know,
I read every word of the paper.
[ Laughter ]
>> Because it, you know, 'cause you know you're gonna like get
into stuff and that not just-- not that it's just difficult or unhappy
or sad, but that you kinda have to really work it, you know.
It's so frustrating sometimes.

Thank you for your question.
>> Do you feel like you've been labeled as an Asian-American author
and all these restrict what your subject matter will be
and what you can write about?
>> Well, I don't think it-- it doesn't restrict me.
I think I hope one of things I worry about is that, one, you know,
say one of you would see my name on this book, say,
and just naturally think that's sort
of a foreign name, and I don't, you know.
Not that your races do anything, but that you might just literally say,
you know what, it doesn't speak to me in this certain,
I don't know way, and that you might assume also
that it's really a book only for Asian-Americans or Korean-Americans.
And you know, that's something
that I absolutely don't-- wouldn't want to have.
I mean I would want Korean-Americans or Asian-Americans to look
at my work and really be moved by it and think, yes, you know,
he's connected with something there.
But if a non-Asian person, you know, were to read my books and think,
you know, I want them to have the same feelings.
So it's more about reader expectations than what limits.
I'm not limited because, you know, I mean that's why I write.
I mean writing is about liberty in the end.
>> You know, I just want to say I do feel bonded to you
by your name and by your ethnicity.
>> Thank you.
>> Thank you.
>> I love to read books about people who come
from different cultures and countries.
And I've read a great many by Chinese-American writers
but there haven't been very many of the Korean-Americans.
Except for--
>> Actually there have been.
>> Well, that I'm not aware of.
There may have been some that are not as well known.
So, I just wanted to say, I'm very happy that you're writing
because I'm interested in learning more about the Korean culture.
There's also a new book out called "The Calligrapher's Daughter"
by Eugenia Kim, and that gives another picture of life growing
up in Korea that was very interesting.
>> Alright.
Thank you.
Okay. Well, thanks a lot.
[ Applause ]
>> This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress.
Visit us at