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A Conversation with Chang-rae Lee

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 37, Number 1, 2014
pp. 120-134 | 10.1353/mis.2014.0010

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Chang-rae Lee’s novels are often peopled by characters who don’t quite fit into the cultures in which they find themselves. They are stories of cultural identity and assimilation, tales of immigrants who both belong and don’t belong in two places at once. From his Pen/Hemingway Award–winning debut novel, Native Speaker, to his Pulitizer Prize finalist The Surrendered to the New Yorker’s inclusion of Lee—along with such touchstone writers as David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Edwidge Danticat and Jeffery Eugenides—as the future of fiction, Lee has long been considered a great American writer. That said, not all great writers are household names. If 2013 could be considered the year of George Saunders, perhaps 2014 will be the year of Chang-rae Lee, whose new book, On Such a Full Sea, is being met with excitement—so much so that the Los Angeles Times asked in its review of the book, “Who is a greater writer today than Chang-rae Lee?”

David Naimon:

Tell us about your early writing career, pre–Native Speaker. Was Native Speaker your first project, or did you have other things you wrote that never came to fruition?

Chang-rae Lee:

I wrote a big, ambitious, crazy novel about a cult in NYC based around a psychotropic mushroom that “played” a fixed “show” in all who ingested it; it was inspired by Pynchon and DeLillo and was very consciously superliterary and also pretty awful. I knew that even as I wrote it. But it wasn’t a complete waste of time. In fact, I’d say the writing of that book taught me about the focus and endurance one needs to write a novel, the kind of consistent dedication and discipline.


Looking back at your writing career across your first four books, how do you think you have changed as a writer?


I’ve been widening my perspective with each book, although I didn’t have any conscious intention of doing so. Perhaps this comes simply from aging and maturing, the natural shift of focus from private selves to seeing those figures and consciousnesses in a broader context. Perhaps I’m more interested in context and circumstance as I go along: how the larger forces and influences shape one’s being.


Your books often explore that cultural dissonance of the immigrant experience, of belonging and not belonging. The new book continues to explore similar themes yet stakes out totally new territory in terms of genre and form. Do you see On Such a Full Sea as a continuation of your previous work or a departure from it?


A continuation, in the sense that I’m me, and I can’t help but have a tendency toward certain things. It’s like a plant toward the sun. It just can’t help but turn a certain way. The kind of things I’m interested in—an individual self and the context around that self, and how that context forms, influences and sometimes defines a person: those issues put toward the lens of immigrancy. In this case, I’ve taken that same sensitivity, those same interests, and put an entirely different context around it, a speculative one. I found it very fun to think about how a radically different and speculative environment would affect the people inside it.


Given that this is your first novel that takes place in a dystopic future America, were there dystopian literary touchstones for you that inspired the writing of On Such a Full Sea? Or did you primarily draw on your own imagination in building this world?


I’d certainly read the dystopian classics, as we all have as schoolkids—Orwell’s work, Huxley’s work. Those were obviously in my constitution somewhere. But I wasn’t thinking of those books, and I wasn’t thinking of this book, in the writing of it, as “dystopian.” I kind of feel like I’ve been writing dystopian books all along. If you think of an immigrant coming to a place called New York City, called Queens, walking around those streets, listening, savoring...

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