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 characters 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 Im 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 Id just read a few
pages from "Native Speaker," which is my first novel, which came
out in 95. I think part of the reason Im here today,
theres 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 Im 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
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 Im writing this book, obviously,
its 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.
Im not really a native New Yorker. We lived in Manhattan
for a little bit, but Ive always lived outside. I lived in
Westchester. I live in New Jersey now. Im probably going to
be moving farther down the coast towards Princeton. So, Ive
always been a New Yorker in terms of arrival. Im 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
its the most fabulous view. I do that when I commute in. The
wonderment of it is unceasing for me and Ill be on the bus
with all these other people at 9 oclock 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 hell just stop and say, particularly on a
day like this, hell say "Look at that!" And everyone will
look at that and appreciate it.
In some ways Im almost glad that I havent been such
a New Yorker
In some ways I always sort of want to be an interloper.
Its quite exciting that way. I thought Id just read
a few pages from this old book. This little section is about the
narrators 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
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