MY YEAR ABROAD: An Interview with Chang-rae Lee

by Jocelyn Sears

In My Year Abroad, Chang-rae Lee’s sixth novel, narrator Tiller Bardmon is an unambitious college student, drifting aimlessly through a suburban American existence, when he meets Pong Lou, an immigrant entrepreneur who upends Tiller’s life by taking him under his wing. Fast-forward less than a year, and Tiller is navigating life in the Witness Protection Program with his thirty-something girlfriend, Val, and her eight-year-old son, Victor Jr. My Year Abroad unspools the story of how Tiller’s highly conventional existence becomes anything but. In this interview with Jocelyn Sears about his new novel, Lee discusses narrative voice, representing the body, and the things that haunt his fiction.

Jocelyn Sears: Your first three novels are all narrated in the first person by their protagonists, and then your fourth and fifth explore other points of view. The Surrendered uses a third-person voice that moves between characters, changing from chapter to chapter, and then On Such a Full Sea features a collective narrator who speaks in this wonderfully elastic, shape-shifting “we.” Why did you decide to return to a singular first-person narrator for My Year Abroad?

Chang-rae Lee: It’s funny you ask, because the original conception I had for the novel was to have it in a very different voice: either third person close to Pong, the big object of interest and affection for Tiller, or directly in Pong’s voice, in first-person direct, because he was the original inspiration for the book. His character, the kind of person he was, this charismatic, plucky, immigrant entrepreneur, who just by virtue of his knowledge, reach, boldness—all those things, his talents—was enrapturing. Not to Tiller yet, because he didn’t exist, but just enrapturing to everyone around him.

JS: So, it wasn’t just that you hadn’t thought of writing in Tiller’s voice, but Pong existed as the focus without Tiller.

CRL: Exactly. As you can imagine, novels evolve, or the conceiving of a novel is not right. For a long time, that’s all I had: Pong and his story, his exploits, and obviously his circle and sphere of friends and associates. But as I began thinking about him and his story, I realized that I also had this other interest, which was not just about him as a discrete character who is moving about in the world but as someone who was inspirational. I asked myself, as we all do as novelists, “Why am I so interested in this character?” I realized that I was interested in him, not just for who he was, but for the kind of stimulation he could give to a different kind of character. A character who was a little bit lackadaisical, self-styled as flying under the radar, and maybe a little bit too comfortable with that. Someone who had lost, in some ways, a savor for life. And strangely enough, I decided that that this person would not be an older person who’d gone through life, but a younger person who, very early on, had been sort of muted—both self-muted and maybe muted by circumstance, in his family life and in his upbringing. I thought, “Yeah, that’s the excitement here for me.” Obviously, Pong is a certain kind of character, but why is he so important to this other person? As I became more interested in that person, then his consciousness, his psyche, and then, ultimately, his voice became apparent to me.

I tried a couple of different things, as I always do. I sketch out not just different scenarios, but different modalities of narration, and those, of course, include point of view. And then once I decide, “Yes, it’s going to be first person,” I even then do—just for me, privately—demonstration passages to see if I enjoy the voice, and if the voice can, in my view, sustain and explore all the things that I want to get to. Because, of course, it’s not just what happens, but how you tell it, right? That’s what I tell my students all the time. It’s not just a matter of knowing the story and knowing who the characters are: it is absolutely all wrapped up in the way the language proceeds, the way that we hear it, the way that we experience it, word by word by word. Once I got onto this version of Tiller’s voice, I thought it could contain, sustain, and maybe even deepen its investigation in all the things that he’s going through, all the things that he’s going to go through, and the world around him.

JS: Tiller has an appreciably different narrative voice from your other first-person narrators. He’s less lyrical, his sentences are often more abrupt, he uses considerably more slang. How did you approach writing Tiller’s voice, as opposed to some of your prior narrators?

CRL: I knew that Tiller was twenty years old, and I have been educated in a voice that I wanted to achieve, or to find, from probably two areas of my life: my teaching and my role as a dad. I’m always around college kids and people younger. It’s strange, I’ve been teaching for twenty-four years, but the kids never age. They’re always the same age; I’m the one who’s aging. But I think over the years, and particularly in recent years—because my daughters are growing up and are now around college age—I’ve gotten accustomed to the way they talk and the way they think. Not to suggest that I tried to make Tiller “the most authentic twenty-year-old voice.” That’s not what I was looking for. But I definitely wanted to try to capture some of his youth, capture the culture that he grew up in, capture some of his expressions, and try to honor that, because I thought that would be just much more interesting for me.

Also, his voice allowed me to do something that I haven’t allowed myself to do, which is have a lot of fun—with his engagement with the world and how he talks about it. In my other stories there are some lighter moments, but those stories have been, in general, fairly serious. They have serious subjects like war and real moral reckoning. Stuff that I really wanted to talk and write about. Not that you can’t be humorous about those things, as many great writers have done before, but it just wasn’t my interest, and maybe just not my speed at the time I was writing those books. Maybe that’s why I also found Tiller. I wanted to have a slightly different relationship and positioning on the subject at hand. Something that was a little bit lighter, maybe more delighted, confused, playful.

JS: My Year Abroad is stranger and more absurdist than your earlier novels, and it comes in the wake of On Such a Full Sea, which is a dystopian novel set a century or two in the future. I was wondering how you’ve been thinking about genre as it relates to your work. Do you think you’re maybe less interested in writing realist novels at this point in your career?

CRL: Yes. I mean, although obviously I would acknowledge that my previous novels before On Such a Full Sea have been in the realist vein, I never actually considered them to be realism. They all have nods to genre conventions: the spy novel, the war novel, but also a lot of them have quite dramatic, almost operatic sections. I don’t know where that comes from, but they’re not quiet that way. Tonally they can be quiet, but lots of things happen in those novels that are quite extreme in terms of, say, violence or in other areas. So I don’t know if I’m doing something that profoundly different, maybe just exploring the absurdist or bizarre possibilities more consistently in this novel, or letting that come in more consistently and having fun with it. I think writing On Such a Full Sea loosened me up a bit. I went into that novel fighting certain fears about letting loose completely. Even though I read speculative fiction sometimes, I’m not a huge fan of it, so to do it was a little bit unsettling. But I found that I really enjoyed it, and so with this novel, even though it is set in contemporary times and could have been much more realistic, I like the idea of making things as weird as possible and reveling in that weirdness. Not for weirdness’s sake but to get to an idea that this is maybe what Tiller needs, to be shaken from his moorings. I hope it’s still in service of trying to investigate and uncover who these people are, rather than just for shock value. I mean, there is shock value, I’m sure, but I didn’t want it to just be purely sensational. Ultimately, I think, as I hope with everything I write, it has to do with that human moment, that it shows you something about that human possibility.

JS: You mentioned how Native Speaker works, in part, in the vein of the spy novel, and My Year Abroad actually reminded me of Native Speaker in some ways, in its interest in hidden identities and how one’s presentation of oneself toward others is partially a kind of exploration. Tiller and his girlfriend and her son are literally in the Witness Protection Program. In Native Speaker, Henry Park, who is the son of Korean immigrants, works as a kind of corporate spy, investigating an up-and-coming Korean American politician in New York. I was wondering how you were thinking of these ideas of secrets and the identities one presents in My Year Abroad.

CRL: Tiller, as he tells us, is one-eighth Asian, which is a funny percentage. It’s like, “Huh, that’s kind of weird.” Although it’s not the central focus of the novel, I wanted it to be a through line—a kind of night-light for him, that’s always on and sort of shows the way, though everything is still obscured, where you can kind of stumble into a room and into the world of your experience. I think he has been not just ethnically or racially but psychically and psychologically hiding in a place where it’s not so wonderful but it’s safe. It’s not so exciting, but he can abide it. And that state of affairs is a kind of stasis, a kind of compromised living, where he doesn’t really have tenets or principles but just is existing.

That was what I wanted his condition to be at the start of the novel, but through the course of things, he’s asked—and sometimes forced—to come out, as it were. To reveal himself and try to find himself, both through action and word. So, I think there is a questioning of veiled behavior or veiled self. There’s this little passage about his friend, who talks about going skiing, where he’s with all these privileged, mostly white folks, and he, as an Asian person, is not seen because he’s ski-goggled, covered from head to toe. Going through that kind of daily existence is, at once, quite easy or painless, and privileged, but also, in many ways, false. People don’t see him, for who he is. And it’s not Tiller that’s doing the ski goggling, but he identifies with that.

JS: You’ve previously mentioned in interviews that before writing On Such a Full Sea, you were working on a novel set in contemporary China that focused on workers in the factory towns outside of Shenzhen, but that you put that project aside after questioning whether a social-realist novel had much to add to existing journalism on that topic. It seems to me that the latter portion of My Year Abroad takes up some of the concerns from that earlier project but through a funhouse mirror. Do you see those projects as connected?

CRL: I’m obviously still working through all the interest I have in China and its power and influence, both economically and culturally in this world. And also, of course, my fears about China: all the horrible things its government is doing—to Uighurs, political dissidents, Hong Kong. But I was having fun, a little bit, with ideas about capitalism and its overreaches and how it consumes us, not just in our economic lives but in our psychic lives. So, there is a part of this book that has fun with Marxist lessons about capital consumption, about labor. It’s a small part of it. But in writing this kind of bizarre and absurdist fantasy, I didn’t want to lose the prevailing context of what’s going on. Even if you write fantasy—and this is not a fantasy novel—I think you need some anchoring to the kinds of forces and things that are going on in our society: globalization, the reach and maybe limits of capitalism, economic inequality. All those things that I lampoon a little bit in this novel but, I hope, still bring up as something to be questioned.

JS: How do you understand the role of the character Chilies, an entrepreneur and the personal chef for a sketchy Chinese tycoon, who gives these Marxist discourses to our American protagonist on his year abroad?

CRL: Of course, Chilies is also a rabid capitalist himself. But maybe he’s gone through the stages of capitalist grief and has come out the other side thinking, “Okay, I’ve been schooled myself, and now I’m going to school others, particularly these Westerners who come over here and think that they’re the masters of the realm.” I think there’s a lot of interest in that, in the novel, about Western incursions and the Western imagination, as it finds itself in Asian things and Asian places. You know, the idea of people coming to the East and finding wellness, wisdom, riches—something that, of course, has been going on in much of modern history—and so, I tried to have a little fun with that, too. But, I hope, underscoring certain things in a serious way.

JS: One theme that runs through your novels is the violence and abuse that women often endure from men, particularly women’s vulnerability to sexual violence. That trend continues in My Year Abroad, and the novel also features a male character who is drugged and assaulted and goes on to have very complicated and ambivalent feelings about that experience. How do you think about the role of sexual and gendered violence in your work?

CRL: It’s something that that I think has haunted me and my work throughout my career, and it’s clearly something that I can’t stop thinking about. We are such impassioned and capable creatures in the realm of sexuality—which is, of course, never divorced from the realm of power and dominion and inequality. I’m always interested in every encounter, especially when it’s an encounter of passion or sexuality. I don’t think I could ignore the possibilities of a certain kind of sexual violence, at worst, or at best a certain kind of disjunction and misalignment that leads to much unhappiness. In this novel, too, I didn’t want to make everything so serious, but I wanted to make sure that there was, in each of the encounters, a sense of things not being equal. Particularly for Tiller, as a young man who is typically someone who has power, force—both physical and of the society behind him. I wanted him to experience the threat and the spectacle of maybe being violated. For me, it’s maybe something sadly inevitable, in certain contexts. I hope, of course, that in his other life and his other storyline with Val that there would be a better alignment of interests and power.

JS: I’m always struck, when reading your work, by how intensely you foreground the body. Your characters are never just minds moving through the world but bodies moving through space, these fleshly beings encountering a wide range of physical sensations and vulnerabilities, which is something that you really emphasize with Tiller, both in this idea that he might be a super taster—someone who experiences physical sensations very intensely—and as someone who goes on to experience pain and a wide variety of physical sensations, about which he feels a variety of emotions.

CRL: I’m glad that you mentioned that, because that was definitely one of the propelling interests of mine in the novel, which is about a kind of materialist view of the body, of existence. At base, even though we have this incredible brain, we are atomistic. We are made up of viscera, of nerves, of all these things that both make us alive and that we try to escape. It was an interest of mine to explore the ideas of a certain kind of conflict between an Epicurean vein of trying to seek pleasure and avoid pain—not in a hedonist way, not in terms of luxury or anything like that, but in a philosophical sense—and a different sphere, say Stoicism. We’re constantly tugging between who we are, the soul and the body. I think throughout my work, I’ve been interested in the body as a field of both reckoning and enlightenment. That goes from my books like The Surrendered, which are very much about the psychic and physical costs of war and how they’re ingrained in the body, to On Such a Full Sea, where there is so much want and craving. Maybe this is a follow-up to that: a different kind of exploration of what the body wants and craves and sometimes needs—even if it is painful, even if it’s egregious. I absolutely wanted this not to be a cerebral novel, because I didn’t believe that going out in the world and embracing it, and letting it embrace Tiller and Pong back, was a cerebral exercise. There are cerebral aspects to it, but it is a full-body experience. That’s what I wanted to try to capture and put on the page.

JS: You mentioned experimental and interesting voicing. The thing for me that stands out the most about On Such a Full Sea is this collective voice. And I was wondering if you see that in conversation with any models, people who are who are doing a “we” voice, or if you came to that fully on your own.

CRL: Well, there aren’t many examples of it in literature, and I don’t know why. It seems like it would be such a natural thing to do. I think it’s something that, when we read it and really enjoy it, we almost forget that it’s told in the “we,” because the “we” ends up having such a such a singular character, in a way, and a personality. One of the great contemporary novels is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, and sometimes you forget that that novel is kind of told in the “we.” I think that when it’s done well, it doesn’t feel generic or broad. It actually feels like some kind of encapsulation or condensation of intelligence and discernment that feels so singular. It’s like a super singular, rather than just a plural. That’s the way I think it is when it works best. This is something that I was thinking about when writing On Such a Full Sea. I thought, “I have to allow the voice of On Such a Full Sea to have its own unreliability, its own blind spots, its own sense of the fallible.” Because that’s what a voice is. A godly voice would be absolutely boring, because there’s no possibility for change, or for knowledge and enlightenment. That’s the story of any story, which is, “Gosh, I’m going to learn something, about myself and about the world.” That’s one of the things about the “we” voice that’s absolutely necessary, at least in my view.

JS: That’s such a lovely way of thinking about it. I’m very interested in this idea of blind spots. Your novels all consider the way that the past persists into the present, both in terms of individual experiences and memory, as well as larger histories. How do you go about formally interweaving memories and scenes from the past with scenes of the narrative present? What considerations govern those transitions, to get away from this sort of godly sense of things?

CRL: One of the hardest things to do, I think, is to introduce the past without feeling as if you’re breaking, in a bad way, the flow of the narrative and suspense—just the excitement of turning the page—and then also having that material not feel simply and directly explanatory. Because nothing is purely a case of cause and effect, right? For example, in this novel, I knew I wanted to bring in material and information about Pong’s life, and I was torn about how to get into it, whether I would try to weave it in the course of conversations, bit by bit, or have other parts of the novel just, through some point of view, show what happened. I decided to actually do something that I would not have probably done in the past, which is just let him talk for long stretches of time, and let Tiller and the reader just become imbued with his consciousness and his voice. It’s probably something that one of those stupid writing manuals would tell you not to do. But once I started it, I realized that I just liked it, and I didn’t mind “breaking” the narrative or having such a long and sustained departure. I think it was in the spirit of: they are on an adventure. They are on travels and so is the reader, and if there’s any book in which you can take such a long digression, which is essentially another journey, maybe this is the one where I should do it. Because this is a book that’s so much about exploring the world—exploring the outer world and the inner world—it felt right to me. I felt like this is a way to get the past into the moment and to have it feel alive. That’s what I always tell my students: you can talk about anything, you can take us anywhere. But just absolutely make it feel alive and urgent, and if you do so, you can do it for however long you want.

Chang-rae Lee’s My Year Abroad is out from Riverhead Books now.

Published on February 24, 2021