My Year Abroad is Chang-Rae Lee's 6th novel, a Pulitzer Prize finalist that explores the surprising effects of cultural immersion—on a young American in Asia, on a Chinese man in America, and on an unlikely couple hiding out in the suburbs.
We chat with Chang-Rae Lee about his latest novel My Year Abroad and its commentary on Western attitudes, Eastern stereotypes, capitalism, global trade, mental health, parenthood, mentorship, and more.
What was the inspiration behind the premise of My Year Abroad?
It was the character of Pong Lou, the Chinese entrepreneur whom Tiller meets in their small college town of Dunbar, NJ. Originally I had thought that Pong would be the narrator of the story, with of course a comprehensive presentation of his life growing up during the Cultural Revolution and then his rise in America, but I realized early on that I was even more curious about why I was so taken by a figure like him, why in some ways I needed a character who was so capable, skilled and irrepressible. I suppose I was wanting some breath of life, and so decided to make young Tiller the teller of the tale and trace his path through the narrative.
Reading the first few chapters of My Year Abroad was like a walk in the park: like a comfortable coming-of-age book. Then, as the story progresses, it feels like we’re gradually increasing pace—getting more and more intense as the reader is nearing the end. It was spectacular. What was your creative process like when you were writing this and how different was it compared to your previous ones?
It’s somewhat difficult to recall what I was thinking at the time, but I was certainly interested from the beginning of the writing in the idea of escalation, if not ‘growth’ or ‘change’. In light of who I thought Tiller was, and what he was searching out both in the world and in himself, I felt confident that a story that really pushed him to all kinds of strange and unexpected limits and borders would be most elucidating. Perhaps the process of building character for me has in the past been about peeling back layers of psyche, but here my impulse was to pack on layer after layer, through incident and situation and other characters, to weigh him and sometimes burden him with the happenings of the world.
The book portrays a very unusual coming-of-age story. How did you end up on deciding Tiller’s character and using the first person perspective? How did you approach Tiller’s voice?
One gradually finds the voice, I think, rather than creating one and then simply going with it. I’ve never thought that a ‘voice’ should remain too static or be too consistent, but that rather it’s a kind of tonal practice and discovery, one that should also startle and unsettle and surprise if it’s got any real life to it.
The book has a hint of a comedic or absurd tone, even while there might be more ill-fated events in the book. What was the approach for this choice of tone?
All the crazy things that Tiller encounters and experiences surely begin to create that comedic/absurdist tone, I think, and so I let myself go with it completely.
Food was one of the many ways culture was highlighted—the writing was rich and generous enough to offer its readers a wide variety of food from fro-yo to Luk Chup, and even Choc-Nut (which is really famous here in the Philippines). Why did you put focus on food? Why is it important to continuously highlight this in the book?
The focus on food is there originally because those were the businesses of Pong’s that Tiller first encounters, but I quickly realized that there was a great desire and need of Tiller’s to savor all the flavors of life, both literally and figuratively, and so it was then a matter of putting him in other circumstances, normal and abnormal, that would meet his wishes. Ultimately it’s all about challenging him, prodding him, waking him up to who he is and what he’s all about.
Aside from Tiller, Pong is also an intriguing character. He is the kind of man which teenagers, like Tiller, would definitely look up to: a businessman with a credible career, a loving wife, and family. And yet, he also has a deceitful side. What was the inspiration for Pong’s character and what did you want to show readers about Tiller and Pong’s relationship?
Pong, like all of us, has many aspects and dimensions that are not always apparent to his beloved or even himself, and I wanted to be sure to recognize that. He’s incredibly talented and capable, for sure, and yet also, as his past reveals, absolutely fragile and like everyone else subject to fortune and fate, i.e. also powerless. I think Tiller needs to see that, and suffer the consequences of that reality.
This is your sixth novel. Has your writing process or areas of interest evolved since then?
I feel I’ve become more patient with myself, perhaps, not beating myself up so much about every little thing that doesn’t seem just right. Maybe this comes from writing all these years, or just getting older, I don’t know.
Has the pandemic changed or affected your creative process?
What would be your advice for aspiring writers?
Read a lot, and a lot of different things, including poetry and non-fiction.
What are you working on next?
An autobiographically based novel about growing up in NY in the 1970s.