In 1968, at the age of three, Chang-rae Lee left South Korea with his family and immigrated to the United States. Lee’s parents adapted easily and quickly found their footing in their adopted country. After brief spells in Pittsburgh and New York City, the Lee family settled in an affluent New York suburb in Westchester County. Lee received an elite education at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University. After working on Wall Street for a year, he left his position as an equities analyst to devote himself full time to his writing. He received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Oregon in 1993, and two years later, he published his first novel, Native Speaker, which received the prestigious Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Lee has since gone on to write four additional novels, each of which won important awards. His fourth novel, The Surrendered, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and his most recent novel, On Such a Full Sea, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Lee taught creative writing at Hunter College and Princeton University before moving to Stanford University in 2016.
Many of Lee’s novels address central questions about Asian-American identity and the challenges of assimilation. Native Speaker tells the story of Henry Park, a Korean-American man who struggles in his personal and professional lives. Personally, Park struggles with his separation from his white American wife, who left him after the death of their young son. Professionally, he struggles with his assignment as a corporate “spook” sent to infiltrate and spy on a Korean-American politician running for mayor of New York City. Just as the dissolution of his quintessentially American family challenges Henry Park’s sense of belonging, his assignment to undermine the success of a fellow Korean-American threatens to make him a traitor to his own people. In other words, Henry Park’s dual identity as both Asian and American causes conflict, leaving him permanently unsettled and not quite at home anywhere. These themes of identity and assimilation form the foundation for most of Lee’s work and return in various guises throughout his subsequent four novels: A Gesture Life (1999), Aloft (2004), The Surrendered (2010), and On Such a Full Sea (2014).
In his second novel, A Gesture Life, Lee brings his themes of identity and assimilation into focus through the character Franklin “Doc” Hata, an elderly Japanese man who has lived in Westchester County, New York, for the past thirty years. Born in Japan to working-class Korean parents and mostly raised by a middle-class Japanese couple, Doc Hata has a complex identity long before coming to the United States. Though born Korean, he prefers to see himself as fully Japanese in language and culture, if not in blood. Ever since arriving in the United States, however, Doc Hata works hard to cultivate a new sense of belonging in his adopted country. Not only does he move into a wealthy township of good repute, but he also sets up his own business, purchases a home that he restores to perfection, and adopts an orphan girl of “like enough race” to start his own family. Yet for all the gestures Doc Hata has made to be celebrated as a model citizen in his township, he has increasingly lost sight of who he really is. Throughout the novel, Doc Hata worries that he’s compromised his sense of identity for the sake of assimilation.
Though the finished A Gesture Life centers on Doc Hata, when Lee started the novel, he imagined writing from the point of view of a comfort woman. The term “comfort women” refers to the more than 100,000 women across Asia who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II. Groups of these women were sent to army camps to provide soldiers with the “comfort” of sexual companionship. Horrified and fascinated by this traumatic history, Lee traveled to South Korea and conducted interviews with women who survived this experience in the war. Following Lee’s trip, he attempted to weave these women’s voices into a narrative, but as he explained to Dwight Garner in an interview for The New York Times, he ultimately felt he could not do these women’s stories justice. However, Lee recalled that many of the women spoke of soldiers who showed them kindness and just wanted to talk. With this in mind, Lee reframed the novel around Doc Hata, who suppresses his memories of his experience as a soldier in Burma during the final days of World War II, when he tried and failed to help a Korean comfort woman escape her tragic fate.