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Chang-rae Lee on “Writing Across and Through Gender”

Feb 7 2018

How does a writer imbue his characters with a gender, gendered behaviors and attributes, that seem authentic, and not stereotypical, to the reader? How do the social aspects of gender inform the fictional universe of his novel?

For award-winning novelist and Stanford professor Chang-rae Lee, the ultimate freedom in writing across and through gender means not allowing gender to hem in his characters. Arguably, in Lee’s estimation, it means not thinking about gender at all: “I [try] not to think of her as gendered,” Lee said of his protagonist, the young Chinese-American fish-farm laborer Fan, from his latest novel, On Such a Full Sea (2014). “I haven’t yet written a novel in the voice of a woman, but I am considering one.” Yet, he continued, “I haven’t thought about how I might go about that.”

Author of five novels, Lee addressed the construction of female characters, and immigrant characters and stories, after reading a short excerpt of the National Book Critics Circle finalist selection On Such a Full Sea as part of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research’s artist salon series, which examines the arts through a gender lens created by Clayman Institute Artist-in-Residence and Stanford lecturer Valerie Miner.

In the age of #TimesUp and the cultural shift that demands that visibility and authority be given to female voices and female storytelling, the question about what it means for a male writer to write female characters carries particular political significance. For Lee, he “was a little nervous about getting things right as a male writer” when writing not only the character of Fan but also that of June, who featured in his earlier, Pulitzer Prize nominated novel, The Surrendered. But, he wondered, “What would it mean to get things right?” Lee’s rhetorical question points to the larger question of gender essentialism: If there is no one way to be a woman, is it even possible to construct a female point-of-view?

Shirking universalism, Lee instead explained that his characters—as, he insisted, is a truism for most writers—are born from a writer’s personal experiences and interactions in the world. Regarding the Asian, and specifically Korean, women in his novels, he said that these characters were inspired by his “experiences in [his] family and with [his] own mother,” the latter of whom, he described, “bore a lot of the anxiety of the family, who was the general of the family and the repository for a lot of our questions [about our lives].”

As a generational bookend to the novel, inspiration from an older generation of women was met by intention for a younger generation of women and girls. Lee wrote “a really scary children’s story” that was in large part intended for his daughter, at a time “when the world has turned.”

Lee, who joined Stanford as the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor of English and Creative Writing in 2016 and currently teaches courses on Asian-American Autobiography and graduate-level Fiction writing, has dedicated both his craft and his teaching to exploring the connections between writing and identity. The theme of identity, in both personal and communal, terms has been at the heart of all his writing, which he attributes to his place in American society as an immigrant.

“I think I've been consistently fascinated the question of persons who find themselves in a context that either fits too well or doesn't fit at all, by persons who feel they exist simultaneously inside and outside of a cultural or political space,” he told Stanford last fall in an interview. “It’s no surprise that as an immigrant I've always been extra conscious of this interplay.” 

To this end, he noted in his response to a question from the audience at the Clayman Institute event, “I am not the writer who is going to capture the imagination of the ‘American’ public in [a] grand way.” Indeed, he quipped, “I’ve never tried to write for any audience.”

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.