LKL reports from the evening with Korean American author Changrae Lee, chaired by Erica Wagner, as part of the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, 24 May 2010.
The Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, now in its fifth year, for the first time included Korean representation this year. With such a title, you might expect a wealth of Asian authors presenting their latest novels, perfectly translated into English, enabling Western readers to get new insights into Asia, aided by new works created by an Asian imagination. Alas, we are not deluged with such reading material, and when it comes to Korean novels the dearth is particularly acute. Possibly recognising this problem, the Asia House festival has more achievable aims: it is intended to encompass literature about Asia and Asians rather than, necessarily, literature written by Asians. “It provides a unique and imaginative opportunity for audiences to experience Asian and British Asian culture through literature,” says the festival’s publicity materials. That opens up a much bigger universe of potential authors and books; though it also means that much of the literature views Asia through a Western lens.
On many levels, Changrae Lee was an obvious choice to “represent” Korea in this year’s festival. Lee, author of A Gesture Life and Native Speaker (the latter, his debut, won several awards), is a professor of creative writing at Princeton University. He’s an author with a name in the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK. Topically, he has just published his latest novel – The Surrendered – which centres on the Korean War, 60 years after its start. And because he moved to the US when he was 3 years old, English is his first language, so Q&A sessions are no problem.
Against that… Lee moved to the US when he was 3 years old. He writes in English, not Korean. And although he says that Korea is the “background tonality” in his life, he also confesses that his Koreanness never directly encroaches on his day-to-day existence.
I wanted to ask Lee who he would like to see in the billing “representing” Korea at next year’s festival. But someone else got in first with a related question, and Lee had to confess that he is not familiar with Korean literature at all.
With all those caveats, what about The Surrendered? In part, the novel is based on one story that his father told Lee 20 years ago, when he needed some original material for a university project. His father told him of a tragic episode in 1950, when his family was on a refugee train trying to escape the battle front. On a crowded train, it was only possible to ride on top of the carriages. The train jolted, Lee’s young uncle slipped, fell between two carriages and was crushed to death. His father was 11 at the time, and his younger brother only 8. It was something Lee’s father had never spoken of before, and never spoke of again.
The incident reappears in the book, and the book is carefully researched to such an extent that, according to Lee, someone who was a child at the time of the war told him: “that’s just how I remember it”. But the research and all the added detail came not from interviews – Lee found that people don’t want to talk about the war – but from written first-person accounts (especially those of soldiers) and contemporary photographs.
The format of the evening – Lee started and finished by reading a passage from his novel, and in between was discussion and Q&A – should have worked well. Indeed, the discussion section, facilitated by Erica Wagner of The Times, was lively and there were plenty of audience interaction.
But when it came to Lee’s reading from his book, a Korean sitting next to me, one who is fluent in English, said that she found the passage hard to follow. I don’t blame her: I only caught less than half of the narrative. It wasn’t a question of not being able to hear (we were both in the front row) or of accent. Somehow Lee is not enough of an actor or orator to convey the meaning of his own work. Maybe the time would have been better spent in discussion, because that’s where the audience – and myself – were most interested.
Of Lee’s Korea-related work (his 3rd novel, Aloft, has no Korean connection), LKL prefers his second, A Gesture Life. The evening at Asia House would not have made me want to rush out and buy The Surrendered. But it has been well-reviewed, not least by Simon Schama, so it is on my ever-growing reading list.
LKL would be happy to hear your ideas of who should be invited to “represent” Korea at next year’s festival.