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Chang-Rae Lee on assimilation, his influences and teaching writing

The Herald interviewed award-winning author, Chang-rae Lee yesterday, who came to the University as part of Asian American History Month. Lee's debut novel, "Native Speaker," won the Pen/Hemingway Award and the National Book Award in 1995.He followed that up with "A Gesture Life," which was released in 2000. His most recent novel is "Aloft," which was released in 2004.

Many have commented that your novels, particularly the first two, are stories about assimilation and grappling with the "American Dream." To what extent has your background - emigrating from Korea to the United States at a young age - informed your writing?My experience as an immigrant in an immigrant family is absolutely essential to my life and to my writing. Not that I'll always write about those things. ... I've always thought a lot about - even before I thought about being a writer - about belonging and difference and about feeling like there is an outsider (sensibility) to our life, whether we wanted it or not. ... The books are about the problems about being an outsider, the problems of assimilating. It's all about the kind of complicated engagement that we had as a family, being in a place that didn't really recognize us and didn't really see us and didn't really understand us, but that we wanted to be in.

"Aloft" is your first novel that features a protagonist who is not Asian-American. Did you approach this character differently than the previous protagonists?I was really thinking about a character in a particular time of life in a particular place in America, a classic post war suburb. And I actually thought about, "Well who is this guy, is he Asian, is he an immigrant, is he someone who's been there for a while?" I decided that I wanted to write a story about someone who felt like he completely was at the center of the story, that he completely belonged, that he was at the core of his social and cultural community. Someone who never questioned it. And in that sense I think he had to be not an immigrant, probably white, probably middle-aged. Because it becomes a different story entirely if I place a Korean-American man of that age in that locale and in that situation - the whole story is different.

Many people peg you as a voice for a young generation of second-generation Korean- or Asian-Americans. What do you make of that?Well, I think that they might - and if they do, that's fine. I don't think of myself that way. I just think of myself as, you know, a writer. And one hopes a serious one. And one hopes one that's read for some time. I'll always write about certain things, but I'll also write about things that surprise people. So, it's never good to be at the head of any kind of movement, because the movement's not defined very well.

Who are your literary influences?Well, early on, I loved Hemingway. I loved Joyce. I loved American writers like Dos Passos. I always loved writers who had a real deep relationship with language - whether it was poetic lofty language or whether it was language like Hemingway's. As long as they had a distinct voice and a distinct relationship with the way that they were making their mark, I always felt like I had a connection with them.

Could you explain your writing process and how you go about creating a character?Mostly, a character is just sort of impaled upon everything that I look at, and he just doesn't go away. It's not so much that he's created but that he keeps appearing. The more he keeps appearing, I just ask more questions and then soon enough there's a story. It's always with the characters, never with the real situation. Again it's almost accidental, and it's quite mysterious why I'm interested in particular people, like in "Aloft."

You're the director of creative writing at Princeton. How does writing influence your teaching or vice-versa?Well, they're sort of opposing activities. Partly because one wants to write when one's teaching. The biggest thing is that teaching is about thinking about other people's imaginations and thinking about other people's artistic needs and considerations. And writing is completely the opposite. Writing is about being completely self-centered and thinking about only what you're thinking about. ... That said, I enjoy the teaching. Everytime after I come out of class, I find that I've enjoyed it. Does it help my writing? No. The one thing that it does help is that I see the very nascent passion that younger writers have and sometimes I forget. You can forget about the swell of heat and passion you got when you were that age or younger and starting out.

Do you have any advice for bourgeoning writers?The only advice would be to read a lot and everything. And to have a lot of passion for it. Instead of wanting to be a writer, to write. A lot of people want to be a writer, it seems to me, and they do everything they can to be a writer, except write.


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