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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

reader."

"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

do."

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

Chang-rae Lee, Community Day, Princeton Stadium,

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.


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