Chang-rae Lee Biography


Chang-rae Lee was born on July 29, 1965, in Seoul, Republic of Korea (South Korea), the second child to the physician Young Yong Lee and his wife, basketball player Inja (Hong) Lee. Soon after his birth, Lee’s father immigrated to the United States, settling in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and becoming a psychiatrist. In 1968, his father brought his wife, Lee’s elder sister Eunei, and Lee from Korea to the United States, moving to Manhattan in 1969. When his father secured a position at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, the family moved to the suburbs, where Chang-rae Lee continued to grow up.

Unlike her husband, Inja Lee did not immediately learn English but required her children to do so. Korean was spoken only at home and at the Korean Presbyterian Church in Flushing, New York, which the family attended. Lee was enrolled in an English-language kindergarten, where he remained almost completely silent. Later, he won acceptance at Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious preparatory school, where he edited a poetry magazine. He was admitted to Yale University in 1983 and graduated with a B.A. in English in 1987, writing short stories that he did not send out to publishers.

Lee took a job as an equity analyst with the investment bank of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette in 1987, a job which he soon quit in favor of writing. With a finished but unpublished novel, Agnew Belittlehead, written in the style of his early literary hero Thomas Pynchon, Lee received a scholarship in the creative writing department of the University of Oregon. In 1992, his mother died. In 1993, Lee earned his M.F.A. from the University of Oregon and became an assistant professor of creative writing there. On June 19, 1993, he married Michelle Branca, a graduate student in architecture....

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Chang-rae Lee entered the American literary scene with a stunning debut novel examining questions of Asian American immigrant identity, ethnic politics, urban alienation, betrayal, and espionage. He moved on to create a haunting novel examining personal guilt related to wartime atrocities and a father’s imminent failure to raise his daughter successfully, while keeping his protagonist Asian American. In his third novel, the characters are deliberately multiethnic and deeply steeped in contemporary American culture, as a father tries again to reconnect with his surviving family.

Characteristic of Lee’s fiction, many of his characters, regardless of their age or ethnicity, share a sense of initial emotional detachment from their most intimate partners and family members. This alienation is rooted in their perceived necessity to reinvent themselves in order to cope with a new life circumstance, whether as immigrant, father, or retiree. It is this need for reinvention, critics have suggested, that unites and ties Lee’s characters to the quintessential immigrant experience of starting afresh in a new land.