I'm fascinated by people who find themselves in positions of alienation or some kind of cultural dissonance,” says creative writing professor and novelist Chang-rae Lee of his literary creations. “The characters may not always be Asian Americans, but they will always be people who are thinking about the culture and how they fit or don't fit into it.”
Lee would certainly be in a good position to understand the outsider’s perspective. At age three, he immigrated to the United States from Korea. That experience of crossing a great cultural divide haunts his fiction, which typically explores themes of identity and assimilation.
These themes have clearly struck a chord with readers and critics. "Native Speaker," his debut novel about a Korean-American outsider who becomes involved in espionage, garnered numerous awards, including the Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the American Book Award. Lee was later named one of the 20 best American writers by The New Yorker magazine for his second novel, "A Gesture Life," the tale of a medic who recalls the experience of treating Korean “comfort women” during World War II.
Practicing the craft of fiction is only one of Lee’s passions. Described as an “infectiously enthusiastic teacher,” Lee enjoys helping students find their own literary voices in his role as professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts.
And yet, Lee admits, he didn't initially plan to be a teacher. “I kind of fell into it,” he recalls. After college, he attended the University of Oregon on a fellowship with the hope of writing a novel. The fellowship included a teaching requirement, and eventually he was asked to join the faculty. “Even though I had signed a book contract, I thought maybe I would try teaching. Then it just sort of kept on going.”
Teaching, he says, offers its own unique challenges, completely separate from the task of writing the perfect paragraph. “When you're a teacher, you're thinking about your students’ work and wondering about their concerns,” he explains. “When you're a writer, you're just completely focused on your own imagination. It is difficult sometimes to mix the two, as they are different activities entirely.”
For Lee, helping students learn more about literary craft has its own rewards. “What I've enjoyed over the years is how excited I get when I come across students who are just at the cusp of doing something really fine,” he says. “It reminds me of when I was starting out and trying to figure things out. The consciousness that the students display at that moment is very exciting to see.”