New faculty member gets novel welcome to Princeton
By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ -- When novelist Chang-rae Lee arrived at Princeton this summer as a professor in the Council of the Humanities and the Program in Creative Writing, he received quite a greeting. Hundreds of people in the Princeton community were reading his novel "Native Speaker," which was selected as the first book in a program that encourages members of a community to read the same book at the same time.
A native of Korea, Lee immigrated to the United States at the age of 3. His writings explore the themes of identity, belonging and assimilation. "Native Speaker," his first novel, tells the story of a Korean-American outsider who is involved with espionage. The book won the Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the American Book Award and other honors. It was one of two finalists chosen for a proposed reading program in New York City that was later disbanded.
His second book, "A Gesture Life," is a narrative about an elderly medic who treated Korean "comfort women" during World War II. The novel, which won the Anisfeld-Wolf Prize in Fiction and the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction, earned Lee a spot on The New Yorker magazine's list of the 20 best American writers under 40. "A Gesture Life" was chosen as the fifth book in Seattle's reading program.
Before coming to Princeton, Lee was professor of English and director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Hunter College of the City University of New York and on the faculty of the University of Oregon. He was at Princeton last fall as an Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council.
Alexander Nehamas, the Edmund Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities, has described Lee as "one of the most prominent and promising Asian-American authors of this generation." As Lee settled into his new home in Princeton, he talked to the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about his approach to teaching writing, what draws him to explore certain stories in his fiction and why he doesn't want to talk about his new novel.
Are you excited about the Princeton Reads program selecting your book?
I am excited about that. Princeton seems in some ways the ideal situation because there can be intimate dialogue about the book (between readers and me), and I think in the end what people enjoy is meeting the writer and getting his or her thoughts on the project and what he was considering during its genesis. And of course, the other aspect that's wonderful for me is that I'm new here -- not just to the University but to the town -- so it's wonderful for me and my family.
Do you enjoy getting feedback from readers on your books?
I do. It's sometimes shocking, it's always enlightening, and I think one of the things I enjoy most is that I'm reminded of why people read. Sometimes I forget because I'm so focused and not thinking about the real world, but readers' questions always expose how they read and their particular love of reading, which is always fascinating.
What are some of the most interesting or startling comments you've heard?
There have been so many -- frankly, I tend to block them out. They all come from such different life experiences and reading experiences. What's fun for me -- it may be because of the kind of books I write and who I am -- is that my work enjoys a fairly diverse audience. You have your typical serious literary reader, but also a lot of newer immigrants read my books, and their reading tradition and experience in English is not always the same as the first kind of reader. Sometimes their reactions are just as compelling as any "literary" reading of the work, and I think that reconnects me to why people read and why it's so valuable to our human experience.
You've been described as "an infectiously enthusiastic teacher." Tell me what you're like in the classroom.
I don't really know what I'm like. It's hard for me to say. With my writing students, I tend to let them try to discover what they're passionate about in terms of the writing and the reading, rather than hand over any specific aesthetic or tradition. Someone's personal language is utterly specific, and presumably they're in my class because they have a passion for the language, whether they know it or not. So in class we're not just talking about story and mechanics and how to write a dialogue -- we're also talking about tonality and rhythm, and how the sound of the language is their own story. But you can't give someone a language, a voice. You can only try and tease it out.
Do you think you can teach writing? Some people don't believe it can be taught.
You can certainly teach people to write competently. But what I try to do after that is lead them to an artistic approach to the discipline.
What do you like about teaching?
What I've enjoyed over the years, and my wife will tell you, is how excited I get when I come across certain students who are just at the cusp of doing something really fine. It reminds me of when I was starting out and trying to figure things out. The consciousness that the students display at that moment is very exciting to see.
Of course, sometimes it's hard because it's a completely different practice from the practice of writing. When I'm a teacher, I'm thinking about their needs and what might stimulate them, and when I'm writing it's completely the opposite. I'm moving to the rhythms of my own world. So in that sense it's sometimes hard (to do both), but I don't think those two things are necessarily opposite or can't work. What I've also realized is that my students need to see me as a writer. If they don't see or sense that, then a lot of the experience is diminished.
Are you currently at work on a new novel?
I'm just finishing it up. I probably don't want to talk about it too much.
Sometimes I think it's bad luck.
I have heard that you don't like to show your manuscripts to too many people?
Yes. I'll try to get as much of it done as possible without any input so that it feels wild and pristine, and that way it's completely me. You can always get a lot of feedback at every moment and I think that's sometimes dangerous -- at least for me -- mostly because it's hard to reject a nice idea or a good suggestion, but that suggestion may not ultimately be you, or what the story wants. But after that first big push, then of course I talk to my editor and my wife and friends. But in that first period it's pretty important that it be private.
Tell me how you work, how you pick your topics and research your novels.
Each book is very different in terms of how I come to it. With each one you come upon a story and a set of characters that completely fascinates you, which you can't quite get out of your head. It begins a series of endless questions about those characters and situations and the resulting implications. And if I continually have more questions, that's when I feel comfortable and want to write a book. "A Gesture Life" and "Native Speaker" were that way. I had so many questions about what went on in those novels, and in some ways I still do.
You still think about the characters in those novels, like Henry in "Native Speaker"?
Mostly only when people ask, but once they do I'm thrust back into his world, and the issues still seem personally relevant to me. I think it's because they're still unanswered.
Is it easy for you to write?
For me it's the most difficult thing. I rarely write easily. I could spend the whole day just trying to write a nice paragraph, and other days I write more but the work is no good. It's always a mysterious process.
Do you see yourself always writing about Asian Americans, or are there other areas that interest you as well?
I think I'll write about lots of different people through the course of my career. At the moment I'm fascinated by people who find themselves in positions of alienation or some kind of cultural dissonance. The characters may not always be Asian Americans, but they will always be people who are thinking about the culture and how they fit or don't fit into it. That's one of the notions that I just keep exploring.
Editor: Ruth Stevens