Chang-Rae Lee, 44, spent a long time writing The Surrendered, his fourth novel, due out from Riverhead (the publisher of all his books). He began writing it after he finished his first book, PEN/Hemingway winner Native Speaker (1995), but he couldn't finish it, instead writing the novels A Gesture Life (1999) and Aloft (2004) in between. “This is a book that I've been trying to write in some ways for close to 12 years,” says Lee. “I tried to write it and put it away. In the meantime, I wrote my last two books just because I could sustain them.”
The Surrendered is a powerful book. It's not only ambitious and complicated, following several story lines across six decades and three continents, but its subject matter is difficult, tackling violence and the devastating aftereffects of the Korean War in both Korea and America.
The story follows June Han, who's a child of 11 when she and Hector Brennan, an American soldier, meet fleeing the war's devastation. They come together on the path to an orphanage where Hector hopes to find work and where June will find a temporary home. June has lost her parents to the war, then loses her two younger siblings, who had been left in her care, in a train accident. Hector has stayed behind in Korea because he has nothing to return to in America.
At the orphanage, Hector works as a handyman, and he and June meet the missionaries Reverend Tanner and his wife, Sylvie. Hector and Sylvie become secret lovers while June develops an obsession with Sylvie, hoping the Tanners will adopt her and take her home with them to Seattle. A fateful fire kills Sylvie and intertwines Hector and June's lives forever.
What stumped Lee in writing The Surrendered is how closely its story touches his own. Lee grew up in Westchester, N.Y., but was born in 1965 in Seoul to Korean parents who later came to America. His father never talked much about his past, and it wasn't until Lee was in college that his father admitted that the war had had terrible effects on his family.
“That first journey of June's is an imagined version of a journey that my father took, where he was with his family around the eve of the war. In his story, he's just traveling with his family, and one night, he said, he lost his brother in a train accident. The more I got out of him, the more I realized it was what would become the train accident scene in the book. But that always struck me as remarkable--here was a man who was so composed, who would never express in any way, consciously or unconsciously, any blowback from those times. I was amazed--he lived through the war and never talked about it. That obviously was the spark for The Surrendered.”
When he started writing The Surrendered, Lee says, he had “a lot of aspirations and a lot of passion for it, but then it befuddled me, and I had to question, 'Why am I so interested in this?'” Lee now understands that The Surrendered may have at its heart “a lot of wrestling with personal stuff”: --his father's story, his mother's early death from cancer when Lee was 26, which is the model for June's death by the disease in the book. “In his way, my father did his best not to exhibit any signs of what happened to him. The book is the opposite of that.” The other thing that's in the mix, Lee says, is the carnage of the past 10 years. Lee talks about watching the relentless violence in Afghanistan and Iraq on the news every day. The Surrendered, he says, “is really not just about the Korean War: it's about many conflicts, and I very consciously did that.”
At the core of the novel is a deep undercurrent of guilt--for war and what it buys its victors, which, for Lee, mirrors contemporary America: “I think that with any kind of consciousness about what we have, what we enjoy, what we take for granted, I believe that you can't go through the day without thinking, not how lucky I am, but how remorseful I feel, for the disparity and the remarkable prosperity we all have.”
Perhaps what stopped Lee from finishing this book for so long was that guilt, and also a kind of profound ambivalence. “I wouldn't be here if there hadn't been a war,” Lee says. “In a way, that's why I didn't want to write this book.”