This Day In Literary History
On July 29th, 1965, the famous Korean-American writer Chang-Rae Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea. When he was three years old, Lee's father moved the family to the United States so he could finish his psychiatric training. The family moved first to Pittsburgh, then to New York.
As a young Korean-American boy, Chang-Rae Lee struggled to learn English. His parents only spoke to him and his older sister Eunei in Korean, so they could learn to speak English without a Korean accent. In his mind, Chang-Rae found himself trapped between two very different languages.
He didn't speak at all when he entered kindergarten, but by the time he was ten years old, he had become fluent in both languages and served as a translator for his mother, who had even more difficulty learning English.
Chang-Rae Lee's experiences as the son of Korean immigrants would shape his future writing career. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, an exclusive East Coast prep school, then went to Yale. Instead of following the path of most children of Korean immigrants and study medicine or law, Lee majored in English. During college, he began writing fiction.
After graduating, he became an equities analyst for Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette, a Wall Street investment bank, while writing part-time. He found his job unfulfilling, so, taking a cue from his old friend and prep school roommate, novelist Brooks Hansen, he quit to become a writer.
Lee's unpublished early novel, Agnew Belittlehead, won him a scholarship and entrance to the creative writing program at the University of Oregon. After graduating in 1993, he was hired as an assistant writing professor by the University. That same year, he married his wife, Michelle Branca. She bore him two daughters.
In 1995, Chang-Rae Lee's first novel, Native Speaker, was published. In Lee's offbeat tale, Henry Park is a young Korean-American man who suffers from identity issues, alienation, and an inability to grieve for his seven-year-old son, who was accidentally killed by his white playmates in a freak mishap. The novel opens with Park's wife, who is also white, leaving him.
In an intriguing twist, Henry Park works as an operative for a shadowy detective agency whose clients hire it to dig up dirt on people. His psychological problems begin to affect his job, so he seeks therapy. Henry suffers from alienation because he was unable to fit in with either his parents' Korean culture or mainstream American culture.
As he struggles to find himself, he asks his employers for a second chance and is assigned to infiltrate the campaign of John Kwang, a popular Korean-American politician and candidate for mayor of New York City - a task made difficult by the fact that Kwang reminds Henry of his father.
Native Speaker earned Chang-Rae Lee both the prestigious PEN / Hemingway Award and the distinction of being the first Korean-American novelist ever published by a major American press. His second novel, A Gesture Life, also dealt with identity and immigrant issues.
The novel, which won Lee the Asian American Literary Award, told the story of Doc Hata, a Korean who served in the Japanese Army during World War II. As a child, he had been adopted by a wealthy Japanese couple.
While serving as a soldier, Hata meets and falls in love with a Korean woman, who, like over 200,000 others, was forced to become a "comfort woman" for Japanese soldiers. After the war, Hata moves to America. A successful businessman, he fits in with his neighbors, but he is unable to connect emotionally with anyone.
He suffers from an identity crisis and is always at odds with his rebellious, mixed-race adopted daughter, Sunny. He adopted her when she was seven. Now a pregnant teenager, Hata forces her to have an abortion, hoping to save her from the failure that his life has become.
Lee's fourth novel, The Surrendered, published in 2010, a gut wrenching antiwar novel, follows three war ravaged characters.
June Han is a young girl who loses her family during the Korean War. Hector Brennan is the psychologically damaged American soldier who brought June to an orphanage, and Sylvie Tanner, the wife of the orphanage's minster, as a young girl witnessed the murder of her parents at the hands of Japanese soldiers in Manchuria.
Chang-Rae Lee's most recent novel, On Such a Full Sea, was published in December of 2014. It's a work of dystopic, post apocalyptic science fiction set in a future America where there are only two classes of people: the extremely rich ruling class and the extremely poor working class.
With China so polluted that it's become uninhabitable, a large population of Chinese refugees now lives in America, where, like other working class people, they reside in formerly abandoned cities which have been turned into self-contained labor colonies.
The main character is Fan, a petite young Chinese woman who, like other other members of her class, works to produce food for the elite. She's a fish tank diver. When her boyfriend disappears, Fan embarks on a surreal, philosophical, and poetic quest to find him.
Chang-Rae Lee still teaches creative writing.
Quote Of The Day
"The truth, finally, is who can tell it." - Chang-Rae Lee
Today's video features Chang-Rae Lee discussing his most recent novel, On Such a Full Sea. Enjoy!