Escape from Korea

Acclaimed novelist Chang-rae Lee speaks to Jane Ciabattari about his powerful new novel that follows the Korean War’s impact on the lives of its characters.

David Burnett / Newscom

It's not everyday that a novelist announces his new book is grim. Chang-rae Lee is refreshingly direct. The Surrendered, his fourth novel, is indeed a serious book, with a tragic tone of severity throughout that suits his subject matter, the far-ranging impact of war.

"Readers will likely find that this is a harrowing novel," he said. "It should be that. It’s a novel about the cruelty and anguish of war, all war, and I think it’s right that someone might feel a bit ravaged after having read it. I would have failed otherwise. After writing certain scenes I felt that I had been smashed. But I hope there’s a sense of renewal, too, for the reader of this novel, even after the ruination. And awe, at our human striving."

“Events can profoundly shape us, yes, but I think in essence provisionally. We do the rest."

Lee was born in Seoul, in the south, but his father’s family was from Pyongyang, now North Korea’s capitol. He came to the US as a boy and grew up in Westchester County. His first two novels ( Native Speaker, which won the Hemingway/PEN award, and A Gesture Life explore the Korean-American immigrant experience.

He has a lot to say about how his family history inspired The Surrendered. In a nutshell: "My father was a child on the eve of the Korean War and he experienced the loss of two siblings during his family’s travels as refugees: a sister died of pneumonia, and a brother was killed when he fell beneath the wheels of the refugee train the family was riding. I didn’t learn of this until I was in college, when I interviewed my father while doing research for an essay on the Korean War. In a few sentences he told me what happened and ever since I was haunted by the incident. After I began my writing career I’d often considered writing something about that war, though never quite feeling comfortable with how I might approach such a story, how I might circumscribe it and make it my own. Eventually I came to the realization that the incident of that train accident, of course expanded with fictive details and characters, might be a way into the novel, which eventually came to be the first chapter of The Surrendered."

Lee made numerous trips to Korea to flesh out the rest of that section of book, which dwells at length on the Korean war years beginning in 1950. This part of his impeccably paced story is seen through the perspective of June Han, a child of 11 who loses her parents and siblings during the violence and chaos of war, nearly starves, then is guided to an orphanage by an American GI named Hector.

"I’ve visited Korea a number of times in recent years, mostly staying in Seoul where most all of my relatives reside,” he explains. “Of course present-day Seoul is nothing like it was 60 years ago (or even 15!), and so I found that traveling in the countryside south of the metropolis was helpful, in getting a feel for the landscape of river valleys and the many hills. My paternal grandfather is buried on one of those hills, and in visiting his grave and looking out I could begin to imagine the novelistic play of images and scenes that up to that point I’d only seen in archival photographs, the long line of refugees streaming along a road, the agricultural plots, the modest rural housing and orphanage buildings. And, of course, the people and the soldiers."

The Surrendered also includes scenes of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1934.The last section of the novel reconnects June and Hector, now living New York and Fort Lee, New Jersey.

June is a character whose life is devastated by the war, her family members destroyed before her eyes, her personality shaped forever by her reactions afterward. As an adult, she could be considered an unlikable character. Was it a challenge to envision her shift from devoted and selfless older sister to insular adult, wife and mother?

"I never saw June as anything other than a difficult woman, “ Lee noted, “in part because of what she had to experience in the war as an innocent child, but also because of the choices she makes as a woman and mother, someone who does have a good measure of control over her life. Events can profoundly shape us, yes, but I think in essence provisionally. We do the rest."

During the years he was writing this novel, Lee was teaching in the writing program at Princeton, where he lives with his wife and two children. He took time off for a stint at Punahou, in Honolulu. “I’m not sure that being there influenced the novel, save for the fact that the easy going vibe calmed me and afforded me lots of time to write. I did learn to surf but am still a rank beginner. I’m better at body boarding, when I don’t mind trying pretty big waves. And folks in Honolulu love that Obama is our President. As do I.”

A central image in The Surrendered is La Chiesa Ossario in Solferino in Lombardy, a chapel inlaid with the skulls and thighbones of fallen soldiers. The 1859 battle there was captured in J.H. Dunant’s A Memory of Solferino, a book embedded in the text of The Surrendered. That violence led to the founding of the Red Cross. I asked Lee if he had visited the church while on a recent residency at the American Academy in Rome.

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“I actually traveled to Solferino on a previous trip, to see the Church of Bones,” he said. “I can’t quite remember now how I first became aware of Dunant’s story of witnessing a horrid battle there and the church that was erected years afterwards, but I know I was interested in the idea of mercy during conflict and so made a trip. When I saw the church itself, which is like no other church I’d ever seen, awash in that particular gray hue of old human bones, I was certain that I had found a revelatory image for the novel.”

To what extent is The Surrendered shaped by the 21st century and by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

"To a great extent. I don’t consider The Surrendered to be a ‘Korean war’ novel, but rather, as a poet friend described it, as a 'cosmic' tale of the costs of mass violence and suffering. I focus the story on the Korean War, but the real context for the story is much wider, encompassing the miserable annals of modern history, which is in great part the history of war. And particularly during the last decade, and particularly for us Americans, have the facts of carnage been omnipresent in our conscious and unconscious lives. Certainly they encroached upon and shaped my writer’s consciousness, and my approach to this story."

Next up for Lee: "I’m sketching out a new novel about a Chinese immigrant in present day America, with an eye to writing about China proper and its role in our global affairs and consciousness."

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in Bookforum,The Guardian online, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost Magazine.