“Love is a Kind of Reverse Hunger”: A Conversation with Chang-rae Lee

By Cameron Shenassa and Chang-rae Lee

Chang-rae Lee has written five novels, including his most recent On Such a Full Sea. His first novel Native Speaker won the PEN/Hemingway award. He teaches creative writing at Stanford University and is currently at work on a new novel that centers on the life of a young Chinese-American man having an affair with an older woman. Cameron Shenassa spoke with him about the rise of China, how immigrant narratives have changed since Native Speaker, and the unpublished novel that Lee wrote as a young man.

Cameron Shenassa: Could you talk a little about the new book? Where are you at with it and what does it mean to you at this point?

Chang-rae Lee: Similar to my last book, On Such a Full Sea, this novel is a continuation of my interest in China, the Chinese diaspora, and how Chinese people are influencing and changing the world. I really believe that China will be the major power very soon. They have so many people, so much know-how, so much gumption. And they really don’t give a damn about anybody either. They think of themselves the way Americans do. They consider themselves exceptional in certain ways. I think that’s great for them. I’m accepting the Chinese century that’s coming, so my current book is my way to inquire about that and figure out where that energy comes from.

CS: I know you went to China before beginning On Such a Full Sea. Did that influence the book?

Lee: Yeah, I went to do research, but the book is based more on a relationship and friendship I had with a particular guy back on the east coast [of the United States]. He’s a unique person, but also a classic example of a kind of entrepreneurial, can-do attitude, never-give-up personality. He had a small tofu factory in Pennsylvania. He partnered with an Indian guy to make a wedding hall. He’s a low-level real estate mogul in town. He’s also a big time trader and a kind of fixer for other immigrants and people in the Chinese community. These are all sidelines, of course, to his main job as a chemist at one of the big pharmaceutical companies. And he’s a sweet guy, too. I was just amazed by his energy, his brilliance.

CS: This person you just described to me is unreal. Is there a sense that people like that, characters who make it into your work, are larger than life?

Lee: You would never think about it if you met him. He’s just a regular suburban dad, and only during conversations with him do you find out that he’s doing all these things. I just thought to myself, this is not how most Americans are today. This is how an immigrant is, but an immigrant who is supercharged and ultra-literate in all the ways people are these days. This is a different kind of immigrant—not the kind of immigrant who looks for a niche, scratching something out so that the next generation can do something more intellectual or cultural. This is a different sort of figure. He is actually more adept. He has a hand in everything that’s going on—not just in the country, but everywhere. He has production facilities, but also provides chemical mixes for industrial processes, and, because of his contacts in Asia, he can have those things cheaply produced. He’s uniquely suited to take advantage of global opportunities. But he’s not a corporation, he’s just this guy. To me, he’s just a charming fellow, and I wanted to try to capture a little of that.

CS: I was re-reading your first book Native Speaker and one of its themes relates to being a traitor and selling out one’s culture or ethnic community. My own father is an immigrant from Iran, and I often struggle with wanting to write about being American while having a foreign father. It can feel false in some ways. How do you navigate feelings of falseness in your own writing? Do you ever feel like you’re telling someone else’s story or shaping it to adhere to a mono-cultural expectation?

Lee: When I was writing Native Speaker I was working with stuff that I had been avoiding for a long time. I was attuned to but not interested in pushing those questions because I was busy and focused and just trying to move ahead to the next thing. And that was the problem of the first [unpublished] book I wrote. I wasn’t writing anything that was ultimately personal. It was cold and intellectual and highly theoretical, so when I wrote Native Speaker I felt like I was finally not being a traitor by writing that story because it was the stuff I had been brewing in for a long time and not admitting that I was brewing in it. I always tell the immigrant or minority writers that I work with that you don’t have to write the immigrant story. Don’t write it unless you feel like you have some angle into it that’s important to you. The last thing you should do is write your dutiful story about whatever you think you should be dutiful about.

CS: Were you reacting against formulaic immigrant stories?

Lee: I was reacting against those dutiful intergenerational stories that both honored and questioned certain practices and mores and highlighted cultural bifurcations. I really wasn’t interested in those things, and I think it comes out in Native Speaker.

CS: There is also a question of readership. As an Iranian-American, I have this nagging feeling that I should engage in a specific type of representation. Does that complicate things for you?

Lee: It complicates things a little, but you can’t thread that needle. Even if you’re the only Iranian-American to write a story or novel in the next hundred years, how could you possibly engineer it to say all the things you need it to say? To honor all the things you want to honor? To discredit all the people you want to discredit? You couldn’t. If it’s going to be a good novel that we’ll remember, one that tells us something about an Iranian-American experience, then that’s as much as I think you can do.

When Native Speaker came out, a lot of people didn’t know what to think of it. There wasn’t a lot on family matters, which people have come to expect from this kind of novel. I remember some reviews of the book just not understanding why I would bother with other things like political angles because they wanted that first story. We all think we want an origin story, which is the story of the ethnic writer writing a story about their ethnicity. I didn’t want to give them that story. I was tired of that act.

CS: I was just thinking of Bill Buford’s memoir Heat, which is about his apprenticeship in a professional kitchen. He talks about the relationship between hunger and serving people, and says that cooking for someone requires starving the self. Much of the pleasure of cuisine comes from this give and take, and I draw that connection to writing as well. There’s a hunger in writing, and there’s something that you’re asking from the reader. We want something from them and we’re writing with that goal in mind.

Lee: Right, we’re vampires in a way. Readers are vampires of writers, and writers are vampires of readers. It’s mutual, right? As for my protagonist’s hunger, I guess I had to write a whole book to start to figure it out. I think he’s looking for a different kind of vitality – a vitality with meaning. I mean he’s a young kid, so he’s got plenty of energy. It’s not some kind of mid-life crisis. But I guess he’s looking for a vitality that is going to place him in the world rather than just pull him through it.

CS: Possessing vitality but craving meaning— when were you in that moment in your life?

Lee: I think I’m trying to be in that moment now, perhaps because I spent so much of my life working, getting everything together, and just being a good immigrant boy in many ways. But then what is the point of it all? That’s what I think a lot of people figure out—immigrant or not—and I thought it’d be interesting to write a story from a younger person’s point of view who’s maybe figuring that out early. The ultimate idea is that he has so much love for the world, but he doesn’t know what to do with it. And that love is a kind of reverse hunger. Maybe it’s unrequited love, but he feels like he has to give it. He has do something to make it real.

CS: You were saying earlier that you began to realize the extent to which your psyche has been formed by minority experience. How do you engage with that in writing without resorting to tropes?

Lee: I think it’s difficult not to resort to tropes. That’s what we fight all the time. We always fight our initial impulse to do the thing that will be least contested. We’re social creatures and we generally want to gather, but being an artist is a different thing. And that’s the other human impulse that’s paradoxically just as essential, but totally at odds with our social impulse. The artist wants to tear away and cause trouble and I think if you stop looking for ways to cause trouble as a writer then you start writing stuff that feels false. When I was writing Native Speaker, I was getting into this other story and the book turned out differently than I had expected. The political story, the spy story–that other stuff was comfortable, both for generating, and for getting a certain reception. It’s familiar enough. But in the course of my career I’ve found that it’s more fruitful and more interesting to follow the uncomfortable stuff, even if you don’t have a handle on it and it’s out of control. I’ve made choices that were uncomfortable. I’ve done that with all of my books.

CS: I’ve started calling that uncomfortable thing the “loose dog.” It’s the thing in the story that you’ve already written down; it’s already on the page. Although you want the story to go in one direction, you have a dog that’s gotten loose and you need to follow that dog.

Lee: Absolutely, I love that image because the dog has its own instinct. The question becomes how to continually release that dog so that it’s part of the process rather than just an accident.

CS: When were the most fruitful times for your writing and what were you doing in those times?

Lee: After I quit working in my early twenties [as an equities analyst], I was in New York doing odd jobs. I wrote for a free newspaper downtown. I was the restaurant critic and they only paid me in food. I was the assistant to the dean of the Fashion Institute of Technology. There were some cool people there, though, so I liked the atmosphere. I painted houses and apartments. I just cobbled together a living, but I would write all the time. I was twenty-three years old and I would write 10-12 hours a day. I would just kill it.

CS: Was it a productive period?

Lee: [Laughs] It wasn’t, but I was incensed in a way. I had an edge. My mind was firing with a project [the first unpublished novel]. It was a cool project and I loved working on it. My friends would call me all the time and ask me to have a beer and I’d tell them that I don’t have the time or any money, but they’d offer to buy me one. So I’d go out for a quick beer and come back and work again. I think I did that partly because I had quit a well-paid job and thought to myself, I don’t want to fuck this up because I didn’t put the time into it.

CS: That’s a good incentive.

Lee: Yeah, until that point I had done everything in my life that I was supposed to do: go to good schools and get a great job on Wall Street. But to throw all of that away—I thought that I must really want to do this so I have to give it every chance I can. I’m proud of the effort I put into that book and it really taught me how to just sit there all day, which I still can do if I need to. I just wasn’t mature enough to know how to use that time.

CS: What do you mean?

Lee: I wasn’t thinking about what I needed to think about. And that was just inevitable, I think. If I had actually written a great novel, it would have been an accident. It would have been more circumstance if I found the story and it was straightforward and I was able to do it. I took on too much and I thought I could handle it, I couldn’t and that’s okay. I learned a lot about writing, and when I went to my MFA program I was lucky because I knew that I wanted to write Native Speaker.

CS: Did you have a first chapter going into the program?

Lee: No, nothing, I was just thinking about it and thinking about it. I’ve never been a big note taker. I often take notes and then lose them, but when I landed in Eugene it surprised me that my classmates didn’t know what they were going to write. I thought everyone would come with an idea of what they were going to work on. Maybe I had that attitude because I had already worked so hard on my unpublished novel and put it to bed. In some ways, maybe I had already had my writing program before joining the workshop.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Cameron Shenassa is a writer, teacher, and instructional designer. His stories, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart, PANK, and others. He lives in Chicago and is a citizen of Luxembourg.

Chang-rae Lee is the author of five novels: Native Speaker (1995); A Gesture Life (1999); Aloft (2004); The Surrendered, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and On Such a Full Sea (2014) which was a Finalist for the NBCC and won the Heartland Fiction Prize.