Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 734
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 With a finished but unpublished novel, Agnew Belittlehead, written in the style of his early literary hero Thomas Pynchon, Lee received a scholarship in the creative writing department of the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. Soon, the couple had two daughters, Annika and Eva.
Lee’s master’s thesis was actually the text of his novel Native Speaker, which was published in 1995 to great critical acclaim and commercial success. Native Speaker, ostensibly a spy story that deeply probes the Korean American immigrant experience of Lee’s and his parents’ generation in New York City, won Lee numerous literary awards. Among them were the American Library Association Notable Book of the Year Award, the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation, the “New Voices” Award of the Quality Paperback Club, and the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, all in 1995. Lee’s first novel won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in 1996.
For his next book, Lee wanted to turn away from examining the Asian American immigrant experience in America that had made him a famous new author. Instead, he sought to focus on the issue of Korean “comfort women,” young Korean women who were forcibly reduced to sexual slavery to service Japanese soldiers during World War II. After beginning to write the novel from the point of view of one such woman and traveling to Korea to interview survivors of this era, Lee felt that his novel did not capture their true voices. He abandoned his manuscript and started afresh, this time from the point of view of one of the potential male perpetrators. This new direction would eventually become his second novel, A Gesture Life, published in 1999.
In 1998, Lee accepted a position as professor of writing with Hunter College of the City University of New York, and he and his family moved to New Jersey. During this period, A Gesture Life was published. Telling the story of a septuagenarian Japanese American of Korean ethnicity struggling to come to terms with his war memories and his rebellious adopted Korean American daughter, the book again gained critical praise and found a substantial readership.
In 2002, Lee became professor of creative writing at Princeton University, joining the elite of American academia. His third novel, Aloft, was published in 2004. Here, Lee took the substantial critical risk of moving further away from Asian American themes and characters: The first-person narrator of the novel is a fifty-nine-year-old Italian American man. The reader learns that many of Jerry Battle’s problems originate from his troubled marriage to his Korean American wife, Daisy Han, whose suicide casts a substantial shadow over Battle’s surviving family.
By 2005, at age forty, Chang-rae Lee enjoyed a substantial literary and academic career. The author further succeeded to approach ever-new themes and topics for his novels. His sustained literary output has earned Lee critical praise and a solid readership.