2003/02/06

I still continue to have contradictory expectations of Asian-American authors. I have yet to come across one that has managed to say something new about the so-called “Asian-American experience” while still remaining meaningful to me. Although thinking more on this issue, I think I would have preferred it if Chang-rae Lee had written about an entirely different subject altogether; it’s the fact that he chooses to write about an Asian man in American society without really writing about immigrant life (at least in a form that is recognizable to me). Perhaps Ha Jin’s new novel is more along the lines of what I’ve been subconsciously expecting.

[A Gesture Life, by Chang-rae Lee]

Started reading Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life, which made me feel slightly betrayed, since he’s writing about a Japanese man who “fell in love with a Korean comfort woman during World War II.” It’s all very well to explore controversial issues, but he’s a fellow Korean, and irrationally, I wish he’d show more nationalism. I know, I know, it’s art, and therefore, we durst not argue with whatever the dictates of his artistic conscience demand. (I like the sound of that, “durst not.”) Still…

Also, it may be just me, but I find his writing incredibly dull. There’s an Ishiguro-esque quality to his style, but Ishiguro makes the content of his writing interesting, the nostalgic and wistful descriptions lingering over faded, yet beautiful things. The nostalgic and wistful descriptions here linger over an ordinary middle-class American life, albeit that of a Japanese immigrant. It’s just…tiresome. I think maybe the style itself could potentially be parodic, or at least evocative of modern Japanese writers, but still, I don’t enjoy this story. (Then I feel somewhat guilty, because Chang-rae Lee is probably the only famous Korean-American contemporary writer. But who says Asian-Americans should enjoy Asian-American writing? I didn’t like Native Speaker much either.) What’s odd is that my friends and I have criticized most Asian-American writing for dwelling too much on the “oh, I rebelled against my roots but I can never escape them” theme, but for some reason, this is exactly what I dislike about Chang-rae Lee. Not enough about Korea, or of Korean heritage. I want him to distill the essence of my Korean-American existence, in the exact manner of that cliched phrase. I want to see him muse about speaking the language, about wearing hanbok, about passing by “Koreatown” in Flushing, about sappy “trot” music that the grandparents love singing. I don’t want to hear of a wholly American life, where the man has an American wife and a normal job, all of which is falling apart, but in a typically American way. I want to read about “feeling caught between two worlds” when the writer is a Korean-American, and therefore like me. How silly is that? A shared nationality still allows room for infinite variations.