An Interview with Change-rae Lee

Chang-rae Lee is the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of five novels: Native Speaker (1995); A Gesture Life (1999); Aloft (2004); The Surrendered; and On Such a Full Sea (2014). Born in South Korea, Lee moved with his family to the United States at the age of three. He previously taught at Princeton University, where he was a creative writing professor and the director of Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing. Since 2016, he has been the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the English Department and Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. This winter, fiction editor Angela F. Hui was able to speak with Lee over the phone. This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

AFH: The theme for our winter issue is Feast, so I want to start off by asking about your numerous essays on food. You’ve written in the New Yorker about the Phillips Exeter dining halls, Thanksgiving dinner as an immigrant family, eating sea urchin in Korea, and your wife’s family’s Italian food, among other food-related topics. Why are you drawn to writing about food?

CRL: Well, it’s kind of hard to say, exactly. A lot of those times, the New Yorker has a certain theme for an issue. They write me and say, “Would you like to write about food?” and I say, “Hm, sure.” But I think it comes naturally to me, too, probably because of my upbringing, the way that our family life proceeded when I was a kid. We were an immigrant family without much of a social network, certainly no relatives, and we spent a lot of time in the private little world of our house. Back then you really didn’t have much to do, especially when the weather wasn’t very good. Of course, not all Asian people are into food, but my parents—particularly my mother, she enjoyed cooking, and I enjoyed hanging out with her. Little by little, I ended up starting to cook with her and thinking about food.

AFH: One of the things that kind of predicated my day was that generally after breakfast my mother would ask me what we should have for dinner. My father would have already left for work and she was wary of trying to decide all the time. So it would be up to me, essentially, to decide what our family would have to eat that day. It’s just part of my constitution, even to this day, waking up and deciding what I’d like to eat and what other people would like to eat. Not that that happens every time I sit down to my writing desk, but when I do any kind of writing about my own life, that always comes up.

CRL: I’ve also written straightforward food pieces, because I’m fascinated by the living chemistry of it, the exciting things that can happen by accident—often the delicious things that can happen. I like the combination of food being intentional and engineered but also improvised. It just feels right to me. And writing is a lot like that, too, obviously.

AFH: And do you feel like food-related memories stick with you in a different way, in terms of sensory experience?

CRL: Yes, and I’m sure others, particularly academics, have written about this. For me, it is, as you say, a sensual, sensory happening. I don’t think of myself as an intellectual person. I don’t. I know that’s what I do all day, think about questions of what people are like and politics and things like that, but essentially I feel as if I am just this mass of flesh, and I enjoy that, I hope, in the best way, whether that means doing a little exercise or some yoga or eating. That, to me, is how I anchor myself to this life. It’s a way that I can shape the day—my human day. My artistic day is a little different. That’s shaped by all the other things that happen and have happened to me intellectually and culturally throughout my life.

AFH: You mentioned that food can be central to the immigrant experience. I’m wondering if you have thoughts on how often food or descriptions of food are associated with immigrant or ethnic literature, particularly Asian American literature.

CRL: I think it’s true that for immigrants, food is what they know, aside from a lot of hard work, obviously, and projecting oneself out in the world with some trepidation and uncertainty. Food is a refuge. It’s a way to preserve where they’ve come from, or where they think they’ve come from, or where they would like to believe they’ve come from. It’s a bulwark against all the noise, chaos, and unpredictability of what’s going on in the real world. Most immigrants have essentially no control or very little control over their lives because of their circumstances, because they don’t have enough money. They have no political voice or power. Often language is a huge issue. And so, where can we go to have a place where we feel like we’re the people we want to believe we are and hope we are? It’s around the table. It’s making things together. It’s not about flavor. Those flavors are important to us, they do something to us physically, but really it’s about having something we create and cling to at the same time.

AFH: It’s interesting what you say about food as a way of imagining where you come from or where you think you come from. How do you think food can be a way of constructing a particular background or identity?

CRL: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it, about background and identity. People have memories, of course, but the nature of memory is such that it often morphs; it is reformed and sometimes deformed by our experiences now, to become what we need it to be or want it to be more than maybe it really was. There’s this difficult process of idealization or sometimes rationalization about things. It’s a way to capture a way of living that maybe better suits us in the moment. That’s what all memory does.

AFH: It’s interesting for me to think about the way I remember my mother, say, or my father, or our family when we were all younger and how important food was to us. There’s a scene in my first novel, Native Speaker, about a bunch of Korean immigrant families getting together and having a group picnic and doing sports. I was writing from personal experience. I remember those gatherings so well. I certainly idealize them. I think at the time I maybe wasn’t as happy to be there as I am thinking about it now. So why is that the case? We all like to think that there are things in our lives that were halcyon moments. I recognize that and yet I still don’t do anything to think about those times differently.

CRL: I’m thinking about the character of Ahjuhma in Native Speaker, who is always doing a lot of cooking and who is also notable for her refusal to speak most of the time. The main character’s wife tries to get her to talk, but she just wants to cook and do her job. In writing about Ahjuhma, were you thinking about how food can be a form of speech or an alternate form of expression that isn’t talking?

AFH: Certainly, it certainly is. It’s the way that my mother and I communicated. I think there was a fairly small window of time in which we shared a language equally, before I started mostly speaking English. Her English got better, but there was only a short window of time when we were on the same page as speakers. But as people we were always on the same page, especially with the things we would do for each other. Much of that was her cooking for me and our family, her showing me how to make things and just allowing me to share that time with her. She didn’t really approve of it because she thought maybe I should be out playing football with the guys, which I also loved to do. She would say, “In Korea, men don’t cook, and you shouldn’t do this.” I would say, “Yeah, but I enjoy being with you,” and she did like that.

CRL: We shared and communicated in a way that didn’t need to be verbal. So much of our relationship, particularly as an immigrant mom and son, was not verbal. It couldn’t be. The verbal part always got us into trouble, misunderstandings, and easy ways to intentionally misunderstand each other.

AFH: Since we’ve talked about how food is central to a lot of Asian American writing, I’m wondering if, when you write fiction, you’re conscious of your work being categorized as Asian American literature. Do you see your work as being in conversation with that category, or are you just writing what you’re writing?

CRL: I don’t try to contextualize stuff while I’m writing. I think that just naturally happens. I’m looking at certain people in a certain place and moment, and if I’m describing that world and that person then all the cultural, social, economic, political things just come along with it. I think genre is more for critics to see afterwards, to say one piece of writing is in conversation with another piece of writing. But I don’t explicitly do that. That’s not my interest and not why I write. This is not to say that the conversation isn’t happening. It’s just not happening with my intention.

AFH: What would you say are your biggest literary influences?

CRL: It’s hard to say. I can tell you the books I’ve enjoyed reading over the years, the writers I enjoyed reading when I was fifteen, when I was in college, and later on, but I don’t know if that means that they’re influences. People always ask that question, but I don’t know what it really means.

I think I’ve always been drawn to writers who seem to have a very conscious, present engagement with the language they use to tell the story rather than people who are interested in spinning yarns. But I don’t know why that is. Is it just because I’ve always had an interest in the possibilities of language and lyric? I don’t know.

AFH: So you would say you’re more drawn to prose-driven writing than plot-driven writing?

CRL: Yeah, I think so, and not for any other reason than it just delights me more. I guess I’m more delighted by a well-told story where a great part of the action is the drama of the sentence rather than just seeing what’s going to happen next. I don’t want to boil it down to that, but for me that’s where the action is. The drama doesn’t always have to be so lyrical or quote-unquote “poetic.” It can be spare, it can be stripped down, it can be surprisingly plain sometimes. But that’s where I feel that my energy as a reader wants to go.

AFH: As a writer, would you say that’s also your focus? More on the sentence than the overall plot?

CRL: Well, I’m interested in the overall plot for sure. It’s just that it’s my obsession or my tendency to focus on the sentence. I think writers are assumed to have certain ideas about their work, and I’m sure that they really do. I think we all have tendencies that we can’t help. And mine is to think about and listen to the sentences beyond what they’re just denoting. That’s my tendency. I don’t know if it’s my interest. It’s just what I have to do. Some people wash their hands all the time, and they don’t want to do it.

AFH: So it’s almost a compulsion?

CRL: Almost, yeah. Maybe pathology in some cases. That’s how I see it, or how I think it is.

AFH: Your writing reads as being very closely attuned to the aesthetic quality of each sentence. But at the same time, your novels often play with genres that aren’t known for their focus on prose. Native Speaker is about a spy. On Such a Full Sea is about a dystopian future. We often think of those genres as being about plot, with prose taking more of a backseat. Was that a tension you wanted to highlight intentionally? Or did it just happen that way?

CRL: I think it just happens. I’m just like anyone else. Genre pushes certain buttons in everybody, even if we’re not fans of it. It’s the way that certain genres work in terms of their narrative schemes and structures and certain tropes of action and character. I’m as subject to them as anyone else. I get delighted by them and excited and stimulated in certain ways. When it comes to certain genre tropes, I’m not worried about not inviting them into my writing. At the same time, I can’t stay there. It’s just not what I’m interested in, ultimately, as I write sentences and think about the psyches of my characters. They’re not quite going to fit into those structures and into those traditional tropes. That’s good, and that’s fine. When I step back and think about whether I meant for these things to happen—not at all. But as a writer, I’m not shy about inviting certain kinds of storytelling and certain kinds of stories. I don’t mind holding them pretty close and seeing where they take my personal, distinctive voice.

AFH: Would you say you were trying to engage certain genre elements in order to subvert them?

CRL: I think any time you encounter and dance with genre, I don’t think anything can happen but subversion, if you’re doing that dance right. We all want to do the dance, but we don’t want to do the exact steps. Because then it’s death. Then there’s nothing going on. That’s the artistic impulse. I think that’s been a part of me since I was a kid. I never liked to follow directions. I never liked to follow the assignments. Not fully. It always bugged me. It wasn’t because I was such a rebel or a radical. I wasn’t, and I’m not. There’s something about me that’s just resistant. As I said before, I’m inviting genre but then resistant to it. As an artist, that enables me to continue to do my work. Otherwise I’d be bored to death and not want to do it.

AFH: I think I can guess the answer to this. But when you’re writing, do you see yourself as writing for a particular audience? Or are you just writing what you want?

CRL: Yeah, I’m just writing for the audience that I am. I’m the test of it. Not to say that I’m the ideal reader; I’m not. But I can only know what I enjoy and find fascinating. I can’t know what someone else wants. What’s real enough, or bright enough, or funny enough, or sad enough—I’m the only one, really. Not that I’m right, it’s just that I’m the only one there. That’s who I am. The who I am is all these other things: I’m Asian American, Korean American, a man who is sixty-four years old, and I’m a father. All these things are there and, I hope, reflected in the work, to make the melange of it all as distinctive as possible.

AFH: With regard to your writing about food, do you see yourself similarly engaging with and subverting expectations about that kind of writing, whether in Asian American literature or just in general?

CRL: I hope I do. I don’t think any writer would like the idea that he or she could write something and someone could say, “Yeah, any decent writer could have written that.” I’m sure that happens, but that’s not where we want to go. We love to be able to write something and say, in the end, “Only I could have written that.” Maybe that’s as much as we can hope for.

AFH: Given our Feast theme, I’m wondering if there are dishes or meals that are especially important to you and that you haven’t written about elsewhere, or any foods or eateries that you associate strongly with different places.

CRL: I could write about a thousand different dishes, because all those dishes come from a particular cohort of people, a situation, a certain mood that I was in. They contain so much for me. To other people, it’s just food—you either like it or you don’t. But for me, there are these little worlds that come with food. The other day, I made tteokguk, which is a Korean rice cake soup. You make a little broth of kelp and dried anchovies, and there’s just this particular flavor that my mother would get out of her broth that I was trying to capture again. I was trying to get the feeling of that to my adult daughter. I was asking her while we were eating, “Do you taste that particular combination of fishiness and the sea?” That, for me, is why life is worth living.