Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 9, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Chang-rae Lee Finds a Home
Apparently novelist Chang-rae Lee knew that 100 copies
of "Native Speaker" would be given away at the Princeton University
Stadium on Community Day, Saturday, October 12. But when he was told
that this would take place in conjunction with a football game, he
was frankly astonished. "You don’t mean there’ll be a football
game that day?" he quickly asked Leslie Burger director of Princeton
Public Library, at the library’s September 23 press conference.
"Oh yes," she replied, "Princeton versus Colgate."
Burger clearly enjoyed the author’s surprise as much as she enjoyed
presenting the township’s new resident with his own bar-coded Princeton
Public Library card and matching mini key-chain card.
Meeting with the press after just one month in town, Korean-born Chang-rae
Lee says he’s pleased with his new surroundings. His wife Michelle
Lee, is an architect and the couple are parents of two young daughters,
ages five and two. The family had been living in Bergen County, and
Lee was commuting to his job as director of the MFA program in creative
writing at Hunter College, CUNY.
"One of the reasons I came to Princeton University was not just
because it’s a great college, but we really thought this was a community
we would like our children to grow up in," says Lee. "I had
always met younger people who said they grew up in Princeton and that
they loved it and talked about going back. I’d never felt that way
about where I grew up."
Among Princeton’s virtues — for an author, at least — is its
interest in books. Burger describes Princeton Public Library, with
its 140,000 volumes, as a library that is busy serving "a small
town with a voracious reading appetite." She reports that 85 percent
of all Princeton residents have a library card. The town’s voracious
writing appetite is nothing to sneeze at either. Its list of notable
authors, both present and past, is mythic.
This year, the library has launched Princeton Reads, a community-wide
book discussion program, modeled on the "One City, One Book"
project that originated in Seattle in 1998 with a city-wide reading
of "The Sweet Hereafter" by Russell Banks. This was around
the time that the Oprah Winfrey Book Club was drawing thousands of
women and men into reading and discussing serious fiction, many for
the first time in their adult lives. Since that time, One City, One
Book has successfully spread to Chicago, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Reno,
Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Greensboro, North Carolina, and many other
communities. Seattle has kept at it and has selected Lee’s most recent
novel, "A Gesture Life," for its next community-wide read.
New York City, on the other hand, announced the selection of Lee’s
"Native Speaker" as one of two finalists to begin its program
in February, 2002, but the program collapsed amid argument and community
dissension. Cultural historian Ann Douglas of Columbia University
was quoted as calling "One City, One Book" a notion "fit
for the provinces."
Yet Princeton has embraced the program. Bookstores are
reporting brisk sales, the library is loaning and re-loaning dozens
of copies, and the Friends of the Library have donated monies to give
the books away at Princeton Stadium Community Day. During the month
of October, more than a dozen readers’ groups will meet to discuss
the book, and Chang-rae Lee will give a public talk, with questions
and answers, at Princeton High School on Wednesday, October 23, at
7:30 p.m. (609-924-9529, ext. 220)
Unable to explain why "Native Speaker" has been chosen for
the One City, One Book program, not only here but also — almost,
in New York, Lee says: "I’ve always been nice to librarians. I
used to spend a lot of time in the library when I was a kid, and maybe
it’s coming back to me in some way."
At the Princeton Library in late September, wearing a gray suit, with
a crisp white shirt with black pinstripe, a quiet gray tie, and polished
black shoes, Lee appeared as a paragon of Ivy League rectitude. Lee,
37, was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the U.S. at
age 2 with his mother and sister, joining his father who was studying
medicine in New York. Lee’s father is a psychiatrist; his late mother
was a homemaker.
Lee grew up in affluent Westchester, New York, attended prep school
at Exeter and went on to earn his B.A. at Yale in 1987, and his MFA
at the University of Oregon in 1993. "Native Speaker," his
first novel, was published in 1995, and won the Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN
Award, the American Book Award, and other honors. This was followed
by "A Gesture Life," published in 1999. Lee is noticeably
challenged to find himself re-immersed in a book he completed more
than seven years ago.
Lee says the idea of having an entire town read and discuss his novel
is both exciting and daunting. "Obviously no one writes a book
so that it will become part of a book club of any sort," he says.
"When you write a book you only think about one person, yourself,
the reader, and you write to that person. The writer is the first
"Native Speaker," which came so close to being chosen by New
York City, has connected with American readers for its exploration
of the immigrant psyche. This is a subject, Lee says, that captures
the imagination of a lot of readers, particularly American readers.
"I think every citizen has an affinity towards the idea of the
immigrant," he says. "And sometimes that affinity isn’t so
positive. But it’s one of the central dynamics of our culture and
of the broad citizenship that we all share."
In "Native Speaker," Harry Park’s father is a scientist by
profession who becomes a successful New York greengrocer. Chang-rae
Lee’s father was a medical student who, after some period of study,
sent for his wife and children to join him.
"I think Korea, for a lot of people, is not just physically small
but it’s socially small," says Lee. He says his father had no
thoughts about becoming an American originally, "but of course
there’s a reason why he decided to leave. He could easily made a fine
career there. I think there was some interest on his part to explore
a whole different land."
Although some Asian-American groups have objected to the way "Native
Speaker" reinforced certain stereotypes, Lee says his purpose
was to go head-on into these stereotypes in order to explore them.
"Henry Park is someone who understands that maybe that’s the way
he is, but who also acknowledges that that is a stereotype," he
explains. "I think he’s quite dissatisfied with his silences,
his inaction, his veiled persona."
Lee says many readers have challenged him for making
Henry’s father a greengrocer.
"Of course I could have made him an astronaut or this or that.
But one of the things that I wanted to do, I wanted to give that particular
greengrocer some humanity, to offer him a real human moment."
Because the Korean greengrocer tends to go unnoticed by so many, Lee
says he wanted to write about one "in the hopes that I could give
him a typically complicated, sometimes contradictory, sometimes not
so pleasant life and personality; to make him real."
Lee is curious as to how Princeton readers will respond to his novel,
but he does not expect to be surprised. Over the years, he has got
a lot of feedback, ranging from diatribes against his portrayals of
Asian-American characters to expressions of pleasure.
"I don’t think I’ve not heard something about the book. And I
like that. It would worry me if people had a very narrow response.
People bring so much of themselves to everything they read and it
should be celebrated that they disagree and want to talk about it.
As long as they love reading.
"There’s been talk of the demise of readers — but that doesn’t
seem to be true at all. I think people recognize that television and
movies can only give you so much."
Growing up in Westchester, Lee did not experience any significant
discrimination. Yet his Asian features seem always to have defined
him. "People often ask me if this is an autobiographical book,
and of course from the facts it’s not autobiographical, but the feeling
of being both within and without at the same moment, that is a feeling
that was very strong in me. As I’ve grown up, clearly the culture
has changed a bit, and I’ve changed, and I don’t have that sense any
more — but maybe I should."
"There’s a point in the book when Henry Park complains that his
mother doesn’t want to borrow a cup of sugar because she thinks it
might be shameful. And that kind of tiptoeing around the majority
is a feeling that I did have. Not because I thought anything horrible
would happen, but that it would just make things easier."
With so many best-selling authors in Princeton, Lee seems a little
uncomfortable with the celebrity of Princeton Reads. He says he would
have recommended any number of books by such eminent Princeton colleagues
as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, et al. "As
long as it’s a serious book, it almost doesn’t matter what book it
is," he says. "What matters is that people can find a way
into it and then for it to be a catalyst for discussion. That’s what
we’re really talking about here; a way for people to bring all their
education and all their intelligence and all the intellectual energy
that they can’t normally share with people, and really have an exhilarating
and dynamic back and forth about it. In the end, any good book will
Lee says he’s "a little bit blown away by" all the accolades
that have come to him so early in his career. "I’d still be very
happy if I’d written these two novels and they’d got fairly good reviews
and I could just keep writing," he says.
"Sometimes it’s a pain. But you know I have a very, very small
amount of fame — it’s a nice and workable amount. My life has
only changed for the good because of it."
— Nicole Plett
609-258-5144. Gates open at 11 a.m. Bring already-read books to donate
to a library book drive. Door prizes and free copies of "Native
Speaker" by Chang-rae Lee. Lee will sign books from 11:45 a.m.
to 12:15 p.m. at the library’s "Princeton Reads" exhibit.
Community Information Fair to 2:30 p.m. Admission includes Princeton-Colgate
game beginning at 1 p.m. $6. Saturday, October 12, 11 a.m.
Princeton Reads. For all the details on the month-long program
call 609-924-9529 or log on to www.princetonlibrary.org.
Corrections or additions?
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