A novel way of viewing Korean lifeLee Chang-rae has established himself as one of America’s respected young writers with only two books, “Native Speaker and “A Gesture Life.” Mr. Lee, 37, is now visiting Seoul; he held a news conference and gave a lecture Wednesday. Here are some questions.
What is the purpose of this trip?
I came to give a lecture for the Daesan Foundation. I also want to do some research for my fourth novel, whose setting is Seoul after the Korean War. I think Seoul changes a lot every time I come.
What you have been doing lately?
I teach at Princeton University, in the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing. And I just finished my third novel called “Aloft,” which will be published next January or February in the States.
What’s the new novel about?
It’s about an American family in contemporary times in Long Island, New York, a marriage between a white man and a Korean woman. They have two children who are each half-American, half-Korean. The book is narrated from the point of view of an old man, the father, like in “A Gesture Life,” who’s looking back on his life, such as his relationship with his children.
Your two previous books were about identity as an Asian-American. Can’t second-generation Asian-American writers free themselves from their identities?
I think minority writers should write everything. They can write on what they worry about or think about such as self and a society where they don’t quite belong. But I don’t feel comfortable when the public and media assume I should write about certain topics because that limits my imagination. Even though I write about certain kinds of people it’s not because I have a narrow imagination. Think about John Updike; he always writes about certain kinds of people but his imagination is remarkable.
Your two books are no longer published in Korea. Some say it’s because of bad translation. How do you feel about it?
I’m not the right person to talk about Korean translation because my Korean is not good. So I can’t really say much about it, but I hope a lot of Korean people read my books, like people in other countries do. It’s very strange that French readers feel closer to my books than Koreans. I think I heard that Koreans don’t read as many books as others do. I guess people are more likely to watch movies, play video games or talk on cell phones everywhere now.
What is your fourth book about?
It’s about the Korean War. For most Americans the Korean War is the “forgotten war,” and there haven’t been many books written about it compared with the Second World War and the Vietnam War. I’m more interested in the post-war story rather than the war itself. It’ll be about searching for a new place, a new country and a new life.
Who are your favorite writers?
I have so many favorite writers. I like Don Lee, who wrote “Yellow.” I also like Susan Choi, who wrote “The Foreign Student.” I like writers with distinctive voices who are careful with the sound of language, not just about the story, such as Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner and Whitman. There aren’t many Korean books translated into English and when I read them I feel like I’m missing something.
by Kay Park