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A Native Writer Yearning For Pizza, Bagel And Sushi

Born in Seoul, Korea in 1965, Chang-Rae Lee immigrated to a suburb of New York at the age of three. In 1995, he wrote his first novel "Native Speaker," about a Korean-American who is also a spy, and the character’s attempt to get the goods on a corrupt Korean-American member of the City Council from Queens. It got respectful attention in literary circles when it was published, but it achieved front-page publicity this year with the report that it was one of the two finalists chosen by a group of about 15 librarians, teachers and bookstore owners who wanted to promote a kind of city-wide book club. Their idea, inspired by similar efforts in cities like Seattle and Chicago, was to have one book read by all New Yorkers.

The group splintered; the idea fell apart. Before that happened, Lee, who will start teaching creative writing at Princeton in the fall, spoke last month at the Book Expo at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. Here is an excerpt:

Because I’m here with such wonderful writers and such wonderful New York writer -- writers that really give shape for me to what it means to be a New Yorker -- I thought I’d just read a few pages from "Native Speaker," which is my first novel, which came out in ’95. I think part of the reason I’m here today, there’s talk that New York will be reading "Native Speaker" for its "One Book, One City" promotion this fall.

I was quite pleased by its selection, although a little bit horrified by all the reaction about the book. But in any case I’m honored… I wrote this book out in Oregon when I was doing my graduate study there. And I must say that, for me, this book is really for me…about immigrants and language and identity and assimilation. Part of it was really just my love letter to New York, because I missed New York so much. I was in Eugene, Oregon living in this really musty little shack and not able to get my pizza, my bagel and my sushi -- and just thinking, "Gosh, what the heck am I doing here?"

And I thought ‘well I’m writing this book, obviously, it’s set in New York, but part of the wonderment for me about this book still is how odd it is about things in New York and the experience of it.

I’m not really a native New Yorker. We lived in Manhattan for a little bit, but I’ve always lived outside. I lived in Westchester. I live in New Jersey now. I’m probably going to be moving farther down the coast towards Princeton. So, I’ve always been a New Yorker in terms of arrival. I’m always someone seeing the city from outside, always coming and going. For example, today, I came in the car and if you come in from the Lincoln Tunnel it’s the most fabulous view. I do that when I commute in. The wonderment of it is unceasing for me and I’ll be on the bus with all these other people at 9 o’clock in the morning. And the bus driver has probably seen that view coming down the ramp of the Lincoln Tunnel eight, nine, ten thousand times. But every once in a while he’ll just stop and say, particularly on a day like this, he’ll say "Look at that!" And everyone will look at that and appreciate it.

In some ways I’m almost glad that I haven’t been such a New Yorker…In some ways I always sort of want to be an interloper. It’s quite exciting that way. I thought I’d just read a few pages from this old book. This little section is about the narrator’s father who is a green grocer in New York.

"For him, the world - and by that I must mean this very land, his chosen nation - operated on a determined set of procedures certain rules of engagement. These were the inalienable rights of the immigrant.

"I was to inherit them, the legacy unfurling before me this way: you worked from before sunrise to the dead of night. You were never unkind in your dealings, but then you were not generous. Your family was your life, though you rarely saw them. You kept close handsome sums of cash in small denominations. You were steadily cornering the market in self-pride. You drove a Chevy and then a Caddy and then a Benz. You never missed a mortgage payment or a day of church. You prayed furiously until you wept. You considered the only unseen forces to be those of capitalism and love of Jesus Christ."

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