Author and professor
Born July 29, 1965, in Seoul, South Korea; immigrated to the United States, 1968; son of Young Yong (a psychiatrist) and Inja (Hong) Lee; married Michelle Branca (an architect), June 19, 1993; children: Annika, Eva. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1987; University of Oregon, M.F.A., 1993.
Addresses: Agent—International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Equities analyst, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, c. 1987; assistant professor of creative writing, University of Oregon at Eugene, 1993-98; professor of writing, Hunter College, City University of New York, 1998-2002; professor of creative writing and humanities council member, Princeton University, 2002—.
Awards: "New Voices" Award, Quality Paperback Club, c. 1995; Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award; Oregon Books Award; American Library Association Notable Book of the Year Award for Native Speaker, 1995; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, for Native Speaker, 1995; Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Native Speaker, 1996; named one of the 20 best American writers under the age of 40 by the New Yorker, 1999.
Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee published several books in the late 1990s and early 2000s which explored themes of identity and isolation. Often praised by critics for his ability to write deep, heartfelt characters, Lee's first novel, Native Speaker, was the first novel by a Korean American to be published by a mainstream publisher, G.P. Putnam's Sons' imprint Riverhead. In addition to being a very successful and popular novelist, Lee was also a professor of creative writing who worked at the University of Oregon, Hunter College, and Princeton.
Lee was born on July 29, 1965, in Seoul, South Korea, the son of Young Yong Lee and his wife, Inja. Young Yong Lee had attended medical school in Korea, and went to the United States when Lee was a toddler for additional training to become a psychiatrist. After Young Yong Lee established himself in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he brought his family to the United States, including his wife, Lee, and Lee's older sister, Eunei. Lee was three years old when he immigrated to the United States. The family lived in Pittsburgh for approximately six months, before moving to New York City. His father eventually found a position at Bellevue.
Lee's parents wanted him to assimilate to his new country and to that end, would only speak to him in Korean at home so that he would learn English without a Korean accent. His mother did not learn English right away, and though she had a full life in Korea, she did not have as much of one in the United States. She pushed her son to do better. After living in Manhattan while he was a small child, Lee and his family moved to the suburbs, where he spent the rest of his childhood.
As a child, Lee inhabited both cultures and languages. He did not speak in kindergarten, but linked English and Korean in his head. His family was greatly involved with a Korean Presbyterian church in Flushing, New York, where he got to be around other Korean kids. By the time he was ten years old, Lee translated for his mother when she had to deal with English-speaking people. He also was an avid reader as a child.
Lee did not always take the expected route for Korean-American children, which "tends more toward law and medicine," according to Charles McGrath of the New York Times. He applied for admission to and was accepted at Phillips Exeter Academy, a high-profile East Coast prep school. After graduating from Exeter, Lee entered Yale University in 1983. He majored in English, and while he wrote short stories on his own time, he did not show them to anyone.
When Lee graduated in 1987, he found a job working as an equities analyst on Wall Street at Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette, an investment bank. As in college, he wrote fiction on the side. He soon realized that his job was not fulfilling and that he wanted to write full time. Lee was also inspired by his roommate and friend from prep school, Brooks Hansen, who was working as a novelist. Lee soon quit his job at the investment bank to work on a novel.
Lee completed an unpublished novel, Agnew Belittlehead, which he used to gain entrance and a scholarship to the creative writing program at the University of Oregon. Lee earned his M.F.A. in 1993, and was then hired as an assistant writing professor by the University of Oregon. That same year, Lee married an architecture graduate student named Michelle Branca, with whom he later had two daughters.
In 1995, Lee published his first novel, Native Speaker, a complex book with many plots and themes. At its center was the character Henry Park, a young Korean American who works for a private surveillance company as a spy for hire. Park has self-identity issues, and has recently suffered from personal tragedies. Park's young son died unexpectedly and his wife, a white woman who works as a speech therapist, has left him at the beginning of the novel. Before she departed, she gave him a list of his faults, including his emotional distance.
Park also reflects on his father, an immigrant to the United States who works as a grocer, and the values he imparted to his son. Park does not fit fully into the culture of his father's world nor that of mainstream America, and disavows who he is. He must confront his conflict and pain in the two cultures. Despite these problems, Lee's character is a good observer, especially about language and its power. He uses these skills to infiltrate the campaign of a Korean American running for office as a New York City councilman.
Lee received generally good reviews for Native Speaker, which sold well. The novel received a number of honors, including being selected as a finalist for the Quality Paperbook Club's "New Voices" Award. Pam Belluck of the New York Times wrote, "The book has been acclaimed as a lyrical, edgy, and perceptive tale of the second-generation foreigner, the child of immigrants stranded in a noman's-land between the old culture and the new."
While Lee appreciated the positive attention for him and his book, he did not want it to be regarded as an autobiographical statement nor as an author who was hot for the moment. He told Maureen Dezell of the Boston Globe that he felt some pressure "to represent Koreans and speak to all things Korean. There's this essentialist attitude that ethnic American writers must speak to their 'true' ethnic experience. Otherwise, people don't think it works. In my case, people have told me the book isn't believable because it isn't thought out like an Amy Tan story . Well, Amy Tan and I are from different generations. I'm Korean-American, not Chinese." Yet the novel deeply affected other Asian-American readers, including Korean Americans, for its exploration of truths about identity and assimilation, and related sacrifices.
As Native Speaker continued to do well, Lee signed a contract for his second novel in 1995. He had his topic already chosen. The book was to be about Korean comfort women, the 200,000 sexual slaves for the Japanese military personnel during World War II. Such women were not treated humanely, and were forced to have multiple sex partners per day. Lee saw that these women could have been related to him, members of his grandmother's generation. To do research for this novel, he went to Korea and met with women who had survived the experience.
Lee wrote a portion of the book and realized that what he had written was not living up to the comfort women's stories and the women he met. He put this idea aside and wrote another novel related to his original concept. Lee focused on a minor character in the unfinished work, a Japanese soldier who came to visit the comfort women and just talk to them. As he was working on these novels, Lee left Oregon to take a job at Hunter College in New York City. In 1998, he was hired to set up a graduate writing program at the college. Lee and his family settled in Bergen County, New Jersey.
Lee's novel, A Gesture Life, was published in 1999 and it again focused on issues of assimilation, immigration, and identity. The central character was Doc Hata, who had been a soldier in the Japanese army in World War II. Hata was Korean and a very intelligent child. He was adopted by rich Japanese parents when he was young. Hata was very concerned with pleasing his parents and living up to their expectations, as well as that of the army when he joined. He was also in love with a comfort woman.
The focus of the novel was Hata's current life in the United States, where he came as an adult. He is now an older gentleman who struggles with his past and present. While Hata seems to fit in suburban American since he is respected by his neighbors and is the former owner of a successful medical supply business, Hata is unable to connect emotionally with people nor know himself fully. One person Hata is unable to connect with is his mixed-race daughter, Sunny, whom he adopted when she was seven years old. She is rebellious and becomes pregnant as a teenager, though Hata forces her to have an abortion late in her pregnancy so she can do what she wants in life. Hata also fails at romance with a local widow because of opportunities missed.
Lee's exploration of Hata's outsider status and the effect of traumas on people was praised by critics and sold well, though some believed its nonlinear plot sometimes dragged. Some newspapers named A Gesture Life as one of the best books written in 1999.
As Lee worked on his next novel, he left Hunter College when he was hired by Princeton as a professor of creative writing in 2002. Lee tried to lead a normal life, not traveling in literary circles. He was very involved in his daughters' lives, and enjoyed playing golf. Some believed that he was too nice and concealed his feelings, not unlike the main characters of his novels thus far.
Lee's third novel, 2004's Aloft, also featured an older gentleman who is lost in life. This time, his character was a white man named Jerry Battle, who was about 60 years old; the character was loosely based on Lee's father-in-law. Battle was retired from his family landscaping business, which he ceded to his son. His son was trying to transform it into a home renovation business. While Battle worked as a travel agent on the side, he did not have great relationships with his children, his elderly father, or his girlfriend, who leaves him. Battle's wife was a manic depressive who accidentally drowned when their children were young. Battle was able to escape from his reality by flying his small plane and looking down on the orderly landscape below. The novel was full of metaphors and Lee's meaningful character nuances.
As with Lee's other novels, critics praised his prose and how he was able to get into the heads of his characters. Aloft did well even before it was published: the movie rights were sold while it was still a manuscript. Many of the reviews for Aloft were positive. Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times, "Although the plot often strains credulity, he writes with such uncommon grace, such complete understanding of his hero's inner life that the reader is happy to overlook the story's occasional lurches."
Though Lee often wrote about alienated men, he claimed they were not based on himself. Peter Greer, a teacher of Lee's from Exeter, told the New York Times' McGrath, "There's this undiscovered country in Chang that's a source of a lot of what comes out in the books. To a certain extent, I think Chang has internalized the experience of his parents. It's out of sympathy with them that he's able to project that sense of alienation."
Native Speaker, Riverhead (New York City), 1995.
A Gesture Life, Riverhead (New York City), 1999.
Aloft, Riverhead (New York City), 2004.
Boston Globe, May 11, 1995, p. 65.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 19, 2004, p. 12.
Entertainment Weekly, March 12, 2004, p. 117.
Houston Chronicle, March 28, 2004, p. 19.
Independent (London, England), July 16, 2004, p. 23.
Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2004, p. E10.
Newsday (New York, NY), March 22, 2004, p. B2.
New Statesman, March 20, 2000.
New York Times, July 10, 1995, p. B1; August 31, 1999, p. E8; September 5, 1999, sec. 7, p. 6; February 29, 2004, sec. 6, p. 44; March 9, 2004, p. E1.
Ottawa Citizen, July 11, 2004, p. C9.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), March 19, 2004, p. 29D.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2004.