Chang-rae Lee Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Seoul, South Korea, 1965. Education: Yale University, B.A. 1987; University of Oregon, M.F.A. 1993. Career: Assistant professor of creative writing, University of Oregon, Eugene, 1993—. Agent: Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A. Address: Creative Writing Program, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon 97403, U.S.A.
Native Speaker. New York, Riverhead Books, 1995.
A Gesture Life. New York, Riverhead Books, 1999.
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Chang-rae Lee, the first Korean-American novelist to be published by a major press, focuses on the experiences of first-and second-generation immigrants. His novels explore the nuances of intergenerational relations, the problems of assimilation, and the relationship of culture and memory to identity. While these concerns link him to other contemporary Asian-American writers, Lee's fiction also draws heavily on other influences. Lee experiments with form in his first novel, Native Speaker, which is part detective story, part minimalist chronicle of a failing marriage, reminiscent of John Updike. His prose style has been compared to that of both John Cheever and Kazuo Ishiguro.
In Native Speaker, Korean-American Henry Park must negotiate the dual forces of alienation and assimilation to establish a coherent ethnic identity. Park, an undercover investigator for a private firm whose specialty is infiltrating ethnic enclaves, describes his work as creating "a string of serial identity." Lee presents Park's skill at intelligence gathering and impersonation as an extension of his bicultural childhood, in which his Korean identity of home differed widely from his American identity at school. But Park's ability to assimilate, to portray American-ness, veils his persistent inability to establish a workable ethnic identity. We meet Park in the midst of a separation from his Caucasian wife, Lelia, who has left Park a list of traits that define him, including "stranger," "emotional alien," and "false speaker of language." Park's desire to reunite with Lelia leads him to confront this habit of presenting facades; to restore his life, Park must find and then "speak" a self that is his own. In this tightly woven narrative, Lee integrates Park's memories of childhood, his quest to regain Lelia, and his increasingly dangerous undercover assignment as an aid to the Korean-American politician, John Kwang, in order to explore the complex process of identity formation.
Lee's second novel, A Gesture Life, revisits the themes of alienation and displacement developed in Native Speaker. The narrator, "Doc" Hata, is doubly displaced, as an ethnic Korean raised in Japan who immigrates to America after serving in the Japanese Army during World War II. Hata runs a successful medical supply business and becomes a leading civic figure and prototypical private, suburban resident in Bedley Run, a rich community in upstate New York. From the outside, his life, like his impeccable Tudor home, seems complete, but from the inside, both are sterile and isolated. Hata's adopted daughter, Sunny, a Japanese orphan, remains distant and aloof, and Hata himself never fully connects to his new community or to the woman who becomes his lover; instead, Hata remains a marginal character in his own life. His commanding officer in Japan is the first to suggest that he leads the "gesture life" of the title, following the form but missing the essential meaning of any activity, but his daughter too finds this emphasis on gesture to be the central fact of Hata's life. In this novel, Lee emphasizes Hata's personal history and the displacement itself more than Korean cultural background as the cause of Hata's reserve.
For the narrators of both of these novels, form often substitutes for essence, as they assimilate by learning in detail the language, gestures, and attitudes of Americans but have difficulty expressing their selves through these gestures. But the brilliance of Lee's novels lies precisely in his focus on these minute details of daily life, and in his ability to convey emotional depth through these detached narrators.