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The Korean inside Lee Chang-rae

20 years after ‘Native Speaker,’ Korean-American novelist discusses distinct Korean-ness in his works

Two decades ago, Lee Chang-rae’s “Native Speaker” addressed issues of identity, assimilation and language that immigrants faced while settling in a foreign country.

In the book, Lelia says to Henry Park, “You look like someone listening to himself. You pay attention to what you’re doing. If I had to guess, you’re not a native speaker.”

The Seoul-born, Korean-American novelist has often said the same of his own experience growing up in the U.S. ― that he felt very conscious of his surroundings, that his “temperature was a little off from that of the water.”

However, things have been slowly changing for both Lee and the Asian-American community over the past few decades. At a press conference Wednesday for the retranslation and republication of “Native Speaker” in Seoul, the 49-year-old Lee talked about coming to terms with his identity, thoughts on revisiting his first novel, and reasons why he’s drawn more and more to Korea as he grows older.

Korean-American novelist Lee Chang-rae at a press conference in Seoul on Wednesday. (RH Korea)
Korean-American novelist Lee Chang-rae at a press conference in Seoul on Wednesday. (RH Korea)

“I think that the temperature difference is the same, but my perception of its importance is different,” he said. “It might have been more frustrating in the past or emotionally dramatic ... maybe I’m just a little wiser, but I see it more as a phenomenon in my life ... it bothers me less and less.”

Nonwhite authors are gaining a firmer footing in the American literary scene as well, Lee added.

“Twenty years ago, I was very much seen as someone from the outside, someone unfamiliar, maybe exotic.

“But now with African, Indian, Pakistan writers all writing in English, I think that Korean-American writers are more and more just seen as American writers. ... They’re allowed much more room for their work than maybe I was.”

Since his debut with “Native Speaker” in 1995, Lee has come to occupy a solid place in American literature. The 1996 winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and a Pulitzer finalist, Lee is now considered by many to be a Nobel Prize hopeful.

While the author’s early works ― “A Gesture Life” (1999) and “Aloft” (2004) ― probed deeply into the individual consciousness of his characters, his recent books ― “The Surrendered” (2010) and “On Such a Full Sea” (2014) ― tend to address more universal themes, such as the aftermath of war, the distortion of the world economy and, in his words, “what kinds of forces are forming and deforming people and the way they live.”

“I think as you get older, you naturally think more about context than self,” Lee said.

But looking back, “Native Speaker” still holds a special place in Lee’s heart, and its themes of personal identity and alienation “continue to be very important to me and my knowledge of myself as a writer,” he said.

“It’s very much a book that a first-time writer would write, trying to understand the architecture and aesthetic of his own voice and language. ... I’m very pleased when I read it now and realize (the book’s theme) wasn’t just some faddish idea I had, but an interest that has continued to endure in my own heart.”

Even now, Lee does not plan to consciously engineer himself to address certain issues. “We writers write about what troubles us, what obsesses us,” he said, echoing a passage from “Native Speaker”: “You could tell about a person not from what he believed but by what worried him.”

But Korea will always be a part of Lee’s novels, whether in small or large portions.

“The Korean stuff will just be there, because that’s who I am,” he said. “I am an American writer, but again, there’s a foundation of who I am that is undeniably Korean.”

Lee finds himself drawn to Korea more as he grows older, and tries to build knowledge on the country “because ... it’s like getting to know a relative that you’d like to see more,” he said.

He says he comes every year to teach a course at Yonsei University, “and it’s one of my favorite things each year.”

When visiting, Lee enjoys dining at modest places like small sundae guk restaurants.

“You just eat with everybody and they discharge you. It’s like being at somebody’s house. I feel some kind of intimate understanding of this one little part of Korean culture, and I like that,” he said.

By Rumy Doo  (