Chang-Rae Lee Chang-Rae Lee: Literary Hero or Exploiter?

o Asian American male has ever enjoyed the kind of approval lavished on Chang-Rae Lee by the American literary establishment.

     But then no American novelist has ever loaded such mind-blowing guilt trips on his Asian male protagonists. Naturally even those AA readers who amply appreciate Lee's luminous, high-bandwidth prose come to wonder if there isn't some connection between the accolades and the deplorable moral profile of Lee's AM characters.

     In his first novel Native Speaker (Riverhead 1995) the narrator is Corean American Henry Park who has built a career with a shadowy private multinational intelligence firm by spying on notable Asians. This creepy professional life jeopardizes Park's marriage to a WASP princess, alienates him from society at large and, on some metaphysical plane, brings about the death of his young son. Park's no stereotypical Asian male in the conventional sense, but he does evoke not so subtley the stereotypical suspicion that Asian men are given to sneakiness, double-allegiance and profound social alienation. The effort earned Lee the PEN/Hemingway Award and the American Book Award, not to mention the prestigious job of director of the MFA program at CUNY's Hunter College.

     Lee's second novel A Gesture Life (1999) ups the angst ante. Turns out elderly narrator Franklin Hata had been, in a dim distant past, an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army who played a role in the deaths of two young Corean comfort women. The man's not exactly a monster but the skeletons in his closet aren't of the wholesome all-American variety either. The moral burden of Hata's past keeps him from cementing a promising relationship with an eligible widow -- not to mention developing a normal relationship with his adoptive daughter. AA readers might be excused for being flabbergasted at the sheer randomness of saddling the protagonist of an AA novel with the guilt of WWII sex slaves. The novel elicited high praise from the NY Times's Michiko Kakutani and won Lee a secure place among America's most promising young writers.

     The protagonists of both novels find redemption -- or at least the hope thereof. But the bleakness of their predicaments hardly advance the Asian American male quest for recognition as feeling, well-adjusted human beings. Instead, Lee's novels seem to confirm that, hell, yes, there are good reasons why Asian men can never fit comfortably into American life.

     That dark view finds little support in the outlines of Lee's own life.

     Chang-Rae Lee was born in Seoul, Corea on July 29, 1965. His family emigrated when he was either two or three, depending on source. He grew up in Westchester, New York and attended New Hampshire's elite Phillips Exeter Academy. He graduated Yale with an English B.A., then went to the University of Oregon for a masters in creative writing. A year as a Wall Street analyst convinced Lee to commit to a full-time writing career. In addition to his two novels, Lee has published stories and articles in The New Yorker, The New York Times and Granta magazine. He now lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter.

  &nb Does Chang-Rae Lee's literary success expand possibilities for Asian American men? Or is he merely exploiting and reinforcing existing stereotypes?



[This page is closed to new input. Vote and continue this and related discussions at the new Interactive Area. --Ed.]
yo yo yo...western men do treat women like sh$t..but compared to asian women and their men, we treat women very english/irish/german/french/etc women would never put up with concubinage..which asian women put up with for hundreds of years..I have gone out with both asian girls and white girsl..asian girls born in the US are by no means befitting of the stereotype..but to be blunt from my travel experience...asian guys (I am talking about nationals from asia, not asian-americans) treat women like dogs/s*** compared to europeans. They are treated like the lowest form of life in many asian countries.
   Saturday, March 01, 2003 at 04:39:55 (PST)    []
I am an avid reader of essays. One of the most moving pieces I've ever read was by Chang-Rae Lee entitled "Coming home Again." Highly recommended. It tells the story of his relationship with his mother as he progresses in school. It is beautiful, if sad. It made me want to read more from this writer. I rarely read fiction, but I picked up 'A Genture Life' and enjoyed it. However, it did not move me as did the essay. I hope to see more non-fiction from CR Lee. He is an exciting, emotionally deep writer.
   Friday, October 18, 2002 at 17:54:08 (PDT)
To An Avid Reader,

I agree with your comments about popular taste and the lack of self reflection in the part of the white media. It's really about survival and control nothing more.

You, I, and my others know that CRL is simply a sacrifice to the white altar until the Asian American presence is developed into it's maturity. He represents a quantitative aspect of Asian American perspective, not necessarily a qualitative.

And in that sense, his quantitative presence hopefully will set a stage for more qualitative insight in to Asian American struggle.
Open Minded AM
   Friday, August 16, 2002 at 13:49:20 (PDT)
Chang-rae Lee is one of the finest writers we have going. He is a true shepherd of language, and his willingness to languish in thought and perception places him squarely in the camp of Nabokov, another writer who made great and revitalizing art of America from a multicultural remove. I spit on the pomp and presumption of anyone who would take anything away from the power and the prospect of Mr. Lee, who's audacious and auspicious start portends a great next chapter in the life of America's culturally complex life and art.
Chase    Saturday, August 10, 2002 at 06:32:03 (PDT)

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Just my personal opinion of Chang Rae Lee:

With Native Speaker, he opened doors, and it was a breakthrough. The writing was good, the style was evocative, nice plot blah blah blah we all know the story.

His second novel had some very good scenes, great scenes in fact, of Doc Hata being overly obsequious as an Asian man in America. In some ways, it's like Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, where the stiff, proper butler is so obsessed with manners and behavior that he can't confess his love (an allegory for Asian American/British men?). But it was less effective for me because Lee was combining too many different plot ingredients--the comfort woman PLUS adoptees PLUS interracial romance PLUS racism etc etc. Still, it was worthy and indicitative of a serious writer.

But Lee ain't ALL THAT. KA Leonard Chang is considered a LESS SERIOUS writer because he writes more "popular fiction" (combined detective fiction with classic literary style in "Over the Shoulder") rather than Lee's "high serious" literary style, but in fact, Leonard Chang is technically better and less pretentious; Don Lee is also less pretentious, more earthy and sensual of a writer. May I also add that Heinz Insu Fenkl's "Memoirs of My Ghost Brother" is great? What I'm trying to say is, CR Lee has been important in showing us that Asian Americans can write well. But there are other KA writers who are in fact much better. For e.g., Susan Choi's writing is exqusitie and much more sophisticated than Lee's, and she also depicts a Korean man better than Lee himself!

I like Lee very much. But he is NOT the end all and be all of KA writers. Check out these other KA writers like Don Lee and Susan Choi and Leonard Chang!
Fan of Others Besides Lee
   Friday, May 24, 2002 at 20:11:45 (PDT)
Just let you know there is a wrong spelling..

'the narrator is Corean American Henry Park....'

It should be Korean not Corean


Yoon-Hee Choi
   Tuesday, April 30, 2002 at 09:23:08 (PDT)

[Check out our Corea Spelling Policy. --Ed]
I find it so unfortunate that there are so few Asian American writers acknowledged enough for their work that this even stirs up such anger among AA readers. Of course the book, narrowed down and catergorized enough is a representation of AA men, but it doesn't have to be. It is also a documentation of the horrific facts of war- or about shame and fear and secretiveness that can eat away at someone. Lee does hold a huge responsibility to Korean Americans because he is the only one I have ever heard, anyway, getting such affirmation and attention. I know that racism against AAs is overlooked and socially acceptable and it makes me very angry, too, but I think to make a statement like he is exploiting AA men and validating stereotypes is just as closed minded as saying that he is making a blanket statement about all AA men. This is not a novel about AA men amd how they should be perceived in America. It is about a very specific INDIVIDUAL in a very specific time in history and his own unique experiences. It's about cultural shame, identity, fear and illusion.
The writer and protagonists happen to be Korean American males.
I happen to have woken up at 12:30 this morning.
-its all gravy.
rebecca    Saturday, April 27, 2002 at 23:18:57 (PDT)


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