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Chang-rae Lee on War, Alienation, and the Power of Reading

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We won't know the winner of this year's Man Asian Literary Prize, until Thursday evening, March 15th, when the name will be announced at a ceremony in Hong Kong, so here's the next best thing: an interview with one of the judges, Pulitzer Prize-nominated fiction writer, Chang-rae Lee.

Five of the seven books that made the shortlist for this year's are noted for themes that are deeply political: the first Pakistani novel to have been nominated, 80-year-old Jamil Ahmad's The Wandering Falcon (Riverhead), a novel that was written 30 years ago in what has been deemed a pre-Taliban era, and which has been noted for its relevance to our present moment; Amitav Ghoush's River of Smoke, which takes on the Opium Wars of 1840 and the secession of Hong Kong to British rule; Lang Yianke's Dream of Ding Village (Grove, Atlantic), which offers a scathing criticism of single-party rule, free-market forces informed by the Chinese communist machine and its culture all manifested in the unintended infliction of HIV in small communities; Kyung-Sook Shin's Please Look After Mom (Knopf), which, whether by design or chance, raises the question of whether progress in South Korea carries a price that is too high as well as a version of rural life in that country; Rahul Bhattachary's The Sly Company of People Who Care (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which brings us a rare vision of Guayana's colonial past and present, with the influx of Indian 'coolies' and emancipated slaves keeping step with his diamond-seeking protagnoist. 

Politics, it seems, is inescapable for a the best writers of our time, the ones whose work we read not only for the beauty of their stories but for the social commentary that underlies the work. And, appropriately, the politics of life, of war and violence, form the backbone of much of the writing of Chang-rae Lee.

RF: You often return to the themes of war and its dislocations in your novels, for example, A Gesture Life (1999) where, among other events, your protagonist, the Korean-born "Dr. Hata" who lives in the US, is haunted by the memory of his service with the Japanese Army in Burma, and, most recently, The Surrendered (2010) where June Singer, a Korean orphaned by the war, and forever defined by it, sets out with the father of her son, Hector Brennan, an American, ex-G.I., to look for her son. You write about violence the way some other writers write about sex, with unflinching attention to the details. To what do you attribute your skill in handling the painful subjects or war and violence? 

CRL: I think your use of the word 'dislocations' pretty well describes my approach to writing such scenes. For I don't conceive of violence as possessing its own life or character. We all know that violence has no such presence, that it exists solely as a reflection of who we are. It's the enacted mirror, if a deforming one, and as such I try to focus on the psyche's engagement of the act, whether in commission or witness, and how this engagement takes us out of time and place, and ultimately, perhaps, far beyond who we believe we are as moral beings.

RF: You have said that you are "fascinated by people who find themselves in positions of alienation or some kind of cultural dissonance... people who are thinking about the culture and how they fit or don't fit into it." Indeed, in Native Speaker, your protagonist Henry Park, the son of Korean immigrants, spies on the community from which he hails, a voyeur who "translates" the culture in a sense, for his employers. You moved to the U.S. when you were three and having lived here since, it seems impossible to imagine that you are anything other than wholly American. Do you feel that complete assimilation is ever possible, or are we always tied to the people who look and act and think like us because we share a cultural legacy? 

CRL: I don't believe complete assimilation is possible, at least not for anyone who has an active, open mind. Every step, every entry into the flows of existence can be seen as a beginning, a commencement of a brand new way of seeing oneself in the world. This is the case for everyone. Of course those of us who grew up on the threshold of cultures perhaps have a more developed sense of this 'being in a world' as opposed to simply 'being'; we are more conscious of the character of the realm, more skeptical of its sway, we have private quarrels with it and ourselves, and all this adds up to, I think, a special form of solitude. We would, like anyone, wish to belong truly and deeply but we know we can't, not wholly, not ever. It's when we try to fix our positions vis-à-vis the culture, when we try to deny the unceasing, dynamic nature of the exchange, that tragedies arise, whether it's in the soul of one person or an entire nation.

RF: The novel you are working on now is set in the future in "B-mor," which refers to the place that used to be Baltimore, where, in your novel, the descendants of Chinese nationals have been resettled. (Readers can listen to the opening pages here. Scroll to the Lectures & Readings, 2011, and click on the 8th  choice; Chang-rae Lee's reading is at around the 30:13 mark). You write fiction and, obviously, the stories you have written so far are imagined; nonetheless, they are "recognizable" to your readers. What made you want to shift away from the places and times that are familiar to you and create wholly fictional ones?

CRL: I don't actually think that I'm writing about the unfamiliar in this new novel. Sure, what's different is that it's set in a time and place that has not yet been, but aside from that the novel addresses quite familiar concerns, at least to me: the relationship between communal and individual identity, the nature of work and class, the legacies of race and culture. That said, I'm quite enjoying the different kinds of inventing that this story requires, as one can engineer whatever set of circumstances necessary for pushing story and character, which is of course what one does in any fiction; but in this one I find myself dreaming more widely about the realm, and feeling kind of unmoored, if in a peculiar and wonderful way, which only heightens the dreaming.

RF: The Surrendered was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and, also, the winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011. Upon receiving the award you said, "... literature endures because in order to thrive... we (need to) make ourselves vulnerable to the difficult and beautiful truths of our humanity, to remind us we are one." America has a strong tradition of publishing work that deals with these topics as well as those that are bring other lands and other realities into focus and yet as a nation it has waged more war than the entire world combined. Is that a reflection of a non-reading, TV-focussed culture or the reflection of a culture whose domestic and foreign bias is toward aggression or something else entirely? 

CRL: We are a bipolar society, at once capable of such far-reaching vision and impossible blindness, of such grand idealism and rank bigotry and callousness, and I think in great part this 'state of being' is a function of our power and position in the world, unprecedented in history, which may in essence be untenable, and certainly one given to hubris. And while I would like to think that 'reading-oriented' cultures (certainly ours is not) would tend to be more knowing, sensitive, and constructively engaged with the Other, the record of world history, its perennial cycles of colonialism and racism and even genocide, shows this not to be the case. So what are we Americans to do? I sometimes fear that we won't change until our position in the world significantly changes, that only when we're more vulnerable and subject to outside powers will our influence be more moderate, more consistently humane and aligned with our stated ideals.

RF: You are the director of the creative writing program at Princeton University and you have taught for most of your adult life. What do you feel is your greatest responsibility as a teacher? Your greatest challenge? 

CRL: I often think that the prime directive for me as a teacher of writing is akin to that for a physician, which is this: do no harm. This is not to say that I'm not tough on my students sometimes, especially the talented ones. I try to be as honest as possible, not by berating or humiliating them, but by calling it as I see it, as it were, with the understanding that I don't consider myself any kind of final authority, that my word is not the last. I think they get a clear picture of my opinions, and then it's up to them to do with them what they wish. As for what's the most challenging aspect of teaching, it's convincing younger writers of the importance of reading widely and passionately. They're so focused on the writing, and too often just work intensely at that, when in fact they should write less and read much, much more than they have been accustomed to in this e-culture of ours.

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