“I really love coming to California,” said Chang-Rae Lee with a grin as he took to the podium in Encina Hall’s Bechtel Convention Center on Wednesday evening. Even with his kind and casual opening remarks, Lee was as poised and literary as one would expect the best-selling author to be – his black and dark gray hair matched almost impossibly to his suit, his glasses rectangular, his voice precise and his presence just as knowing and intelligent as it is portrayed in any of the numerous publications that have reviewed his novels or published his articles.
Recently named by the New York Times Magazine as one of the most influential American novelists writing today, Lee has been published in an array of notable print, from the New Yorker and the New York Times to Conde Nast Traveler and Food and Wine.
Lee’s numerous literary awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Asian/Pacific-American Award for Literature, were mentioned by Jones Lecturer Shimon Tanaka. Tanaka began the evening with a writerly and complimentary review of Lee’s works, culminating in high praise for Lee’s most recent novel, “The Surrendered.”
Tanaka remarked that Lee is “one of the most celebrated American writers today,” and subsequently pointed to the intention and implication behind his use of the word “American” as opposed to “Korean-American” or “Asian-American.”
“Chang-Rae Lee resists the compartmentalization faced by most Asian-American writers today,” Tanaka said in his introduction, alluding to the fierce affirmation of individual identity that the evening would become.
Before Lee read from “The Surrendered,” he mentioned that he was “desirous of engaging” with the crowd and would only be reading a short passage, in order to allow for more Q&A.
“The Surrendered” is a novel that “tackles the wounds and cost of conflict on individual souls,” said Lee, who described it as a book full of violence, misery and moments of hopelessness. “But I’m going to read from a section with a lot of hope,” Lee smiled, before describing the scenario (a Korean War veteran’s birthday evening at an Irish pub) and diving into his work.
Lee read from the thick paperback with the ownership that only the given writer of a work could, with breaths placed precisely at the right moments, intonation as natural as if he were typing the page out before his small but captivated audience.
After the passage was read, Lee opened the floor for questions, as promised, answering each with consideration. Questions ranged from his methodology to his self-identification.
“Writing is the hardest thing,” Lee said, when asked if he ever ran up against difficulties. Lee described his strategy as “sitting at the desk as long as I can, butt in chair.”
Lee’s distaste for external duty became very apparent after questions about whether or not a writer “has a duty” to his past and heritage, and the manner in which he refers to his works as “American” rather than “Asian-American.” Lee explained that he understood the category of “Asian-American literature” as a classification that grew out of exclusion; but he was wary that the acknowledgement of “Asian-American literature” in turn defined and confined Asian-American writers. Lee posed thoughtful hypotheticals to the audience: must Asian-American literature deal with themes of immigration, family, generations? Who is the necessary generator of Asian-American literature?
The Asian-American artist is always an individual,” Lee said. “The artist is always an individual.” Of one of the Korean characters in “The Surrendered,” Lee remarked, “Enduring life doesn’t have anything to do with her cultural identity.”
That is, after all, what Chang-Rae Lee’s writing and Chang-Rae Lee himself seem to be most concerned with: the individual, enduring life. “What a phenomenon people are!” exclaimed Chang-Rae Lee. “If you meet – if you really meet a person, how interesting.”