Photo credit: Michelle Branca Lee
Upon first read, award-winning author Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel, My Year Abroad, is a surreal picaresque that revels in Lee’s facility for humor and pyrotechnic prose. Pulling its young hero, Tiller, from the comic banality of suburban America into an intoxicating, if terrifying, journey through the casinos, brothels, karaoke clubs, and luxury mansions of Asia, the novel’s indelible cast of characters and increasingly outlandish scenes made us laugh out loud. But beneath its rowdy exterior, My Year Abroad is a tender work, keenly interested in what it means — and what it takes — to be fully present for oneself and others. It was a joy to speak with Lee about his riotous and reverent new novel, and is a pleasure to present it as Volume 90 of Indiespensable.
Rhianna Walton: Something I was thinking about while reading is that My Year Abroad is very much a picaresque in the way it pops gleefully from one outlandish episode to the other with its plucky hero, except Tiller’s not typical of the genre.
Chang-rae Lee: No, he’s not, because most of the picaresque heroes are confidence men, they have a certain dark energy. They’re all tragic in a certain way, but they’re escape artists. The picaresque was definitely an inspiration for the book and for Tiller, but he’s sort of an unwitting and unwilling picaresque hero.
He doesn’t really understand that that’s his role in the novel. I would say he’s someone who’s caught up in a picaresque novel rather than a classic picaresque hero.
He’s caught up in the novel and in its traditions and conventions in the same way he’s just caught up in life. He’s a passive, lackadaisical fellow. He’s engaged with his mind, but not engaged in his flesh.
Someone also said it’s almost a kind of midlife crisis novel where someone is in the doldrums and trying to break out, although of course he’s only 20 years old.
It’s not quite that either because he depends just structurally on Pong to initiate and to activate him. Once so, then he can be hurled into the world and not mind the velocity, I guess.
Rhianna: In some ways Tiller’s a passive, Everyman archetype who describes his life in generalities. On the other hand, he has some really crazy talents.
He’s amazing at karaoke. He’s a supertaster, which is weird and hilarious. More important, he has a capacity for empathy, kindness, and observation that’s unusual in a 20-year-old kid.
I’m wondering how you think about the disconnect between Tiller’s mundane self-image and the startling ways he sometimes acts in the world.
Lee: As you say, it turns out he has these talents and gifts, but I guess the tragedy of his life before Pong is that he was never in a position to tap into those things.
I was drawn to this idea about people like Tiller who have so many talents, who have so many things to think about and say, so much empathy, understanding, and a kind of wisdom about the world, who because of circumstance, the way the world is, their personalities never bloom.
They know they’re famished and hungry for things — not material things so much, but for engagements, for experiences, for ways to gain new knowledge. They just are in a state where they don’t have any momentum, and they’ve never been given any momentum.
Tiller’s whole problem is that he’s not like other 20-year-old kids. He doesn’t have the same concerns. There’s this example, when he talks about his supposed year abroad in Europe where they would just go to the same beaches, to the same clubs, eat the same food, talk about the same things; it’s not that he wouldn’t have had a certain kind of fun on a superficial level at those things, but he’s already ruined that for himself, in a way, because he knows the lay of the land and so can’t move there. Not that he wouldn’t have if he hadn’t met Pong, but he’s someone who self halts: That’s probably going to happen, so I’m not going to do it.
In a certain way, he’s probably wise to the point of inaction. I don’t know if that’s a peculiarly Millennial thing, or an American thing, or a first-world thing, but it’s something that I see and that I was thinking about a lot. Young people today have so much information at hand about everything, about how relationships will go, about sex, about job stuff. And it feels like it’s already all done in their minds. And to do it is actually just to go through the motions and end up in some kind of mediocre experience.
Rhianna: Of course, Tiller finds that a lot of the mundane or mentally rehearsed experiences end up being really profound, like with Val and VeeJ.
Lee: Right. That’s what I think the revelation for him is, that, no, you can’t just play it out in your head. I don’t think he’s thinking this, but he’s finding this out with Val and VeeJ and his supposedly quiet, domestic life where things are supposed to be controlled, and secure, and settled.
He gains that ability to start to appreciate what’s worthwhile, and can see real dangers, but can also see solutions because of all the things he’s done with Pong, and that Pong has allowed to be done to him.
He’s not a puppet, because I don’t see Pong as really that nefarious. It’s just that Tiller’s been put into situations that had to run their course. He didn’t know the depth of those situations.
To get back to his talents, one of the things that picaresques do is that there are these capabilities that people have that only certain people access. They unlock. That’s the magic of the picaresque. Tiller was never going to be someone who unlocked them. Usually the picaresque hero is like, Oh, yeah, I’m this great, amazingly capable, resourceful person, and all this trouble happened to me, and I’m just telling you this story after the fact from jail or something.
Tiller’s not that person. But he is, like everyone else, capable of a lot of things. And in that way, he’s not that special.
I wanted Tiller to understand something about subjection, but in a very different way, where he’s party to it, willing but also startled, and in some ways remade.
Rhianna: One of the things I thought while reading was that while there’s so much comedy in Tiller’s unfurling talents, there’s a level of tragedy too in the self effacement that he engages in, and in the self-halting you mentioned, that I think a lot of readers can identify with.
Lee: Sure, he figures out, Oh, my goodness, maybe I can sing, but he ends up, of course, having to sing for other purposes — to Drum, to save himself. One of the things about the karaoke that I, of course, didn’t engineer and didn’t think about while conceiving the book— and this maybe jibes with what we’ve been talking about — is that we all have a song to sing. It’s just that sometimes we don’t know that we have the song to sing.
That’s something that with him is not a source of pride so much as a kind of glimmer of hope. It’s not like, Oh, I’m so great. It’s like, Oh wow, OK, I’m a decent human being.
I have something to give. I can move people. I thought about Tiller that way. I didn’t want him to be an edgy, hard, smart-alecky kind of guy.
He has his moments, but I think you’ll note that once he starts getting a little bit cocky is when he starts to get into trouble. When he thinks, Pong’s gone, and I can handle it. Of course, he does need Pong around.
Rhianna: I just keep thinking about that horrible yoga brunch.
Lee: Yeah, the whole yoga bit. The whole curry-making bit.
Rhianna: To a one, the characters in the novel are really captivating. As funny as they are, or as horrifying, they never feel like caricatures. They always feel like real people.
I suspect they have their genesis in popular ideas or stereotypes of specific class and ethnic groups, which you then exaggerate in specific ways, but is that accurate? How did you develop this colorful ensemble cast?
Lee: I enjoyed having fun with certain tropes and stereotypes, especially with some of the characters, like Chilies.
He’s a good example because he pretty much starts out as the crazy Chinese chef. He speaks with a heavy accent, and he’s a little malign. He’s dangerous in certain ways, he’s a cook with a big cleaver. But I wanted to turn that around and have fun with it because part of the story about Tiller is that he’s one-eighth Asian, and he’s trying to… It’s not that this is a story about feeling his Asian roots, but it’s in the background. There’s a little bit of noise there, through his mother and through some of his friends that he talks about growing up, and it’s part of who he is.
It’s part of why he’s just sleepwalking through life. He doesn’t want to be seen, doesn’t think he is seen for who he is.
And Chilies is someone I wanted to present to him as, Oh, OK, here’s a certain kind of character, but then have Chilies turn around and begin to have his own agency. It turns out he’s a huge capitalist even though he has a deeply held Marxist ideology. Chilies is going to teach this farang, this outsider, who’s maybe a little Asian but a pretender, about who has the power, and who’s going to run things, and what Tiller’s place is in his world.
That is why I’m interested in stereotypes. It’s always about placing people in certain contexts.
When they’re not in the context you believe they should be in or that they fit in, that’s when people understand, Oh, my god, this is not where I’m the master. This is not where I’m the establishment. When we go somewhere else, we’re immigrants there. And if we’re immigrants or tourists there without any money, we have a different kind of status.
That’s just talking about Chilies, but the others too, some of the doctors and Pong’s colleagues, even though they all present as a certain kind of finance bro or something like that, I wanted them to have a real side where they’re coming from some place. They’re not that way because we think they should be that way, but because of things that they’ve been holding inside, things that they’ve had to deal with. I hope that even the “dark hats” in the story feel like they’ve got their own reasons and trajectories.
All these people, even Pong, they’re all so hollowed out. They’re not shallow. They’re hollow. They’re all trying to fill that hollow with whatever thing, or function, or ideas that will make them whole.
Rhianna: Yes. If someone were to ask me what My Year Abroad is about, I’d say hunger and the characters’ attempts to satisfy it. What made you want to focus on appetite and the many forms it takes?
Lee: With all my books, it always takes me a while to figure out what they’re really concerned with.
With Tiller, I wasn’t sure either. I knew that there was something that kept pushing him, and I couldn’t decide what. Is it the fact that he lost his mom? Is it that he feels like he’s average? Of course, it’s never just about the main character of the book. It’s something that suffuses the entire landscape in and around the characters.
That was why I set it in this way where there’s all these episodes, because people are episodically, serially searching for the next thing that will somehow satiate us, even if it’s not forever, even if it’s not meaningful.
Obviously, the easy ways are food, alcohol, drugs, sex. I hope that the novel doesn’t feel like it’s just about those things. On the surface it’s about those things, but I make them surreal so that you don’t focus on them so much in the sense of them indicating a real addiction.
Instead, My Year Abroad is a novel where people are questioning through their acts, trying to figure out their place in the world and how they fit into it in an active way, in a way that’s not stupid or harmful.
Surviving for me is about eating. It’s about taking stuff in. It’s not just about food and sustenance, but ideas, other people, emotions that come from love and sacrifice, all those kinds of things.
When people stop taking those things in and feel like, Oh, I don’t need it anymore, that’s when death happens. You have to continue to keep consuming. That’s why there’s so much consuming in the book. It gets people into trouble, but the alternative is oblivion.
Someone else asked me about the yoga and wellness stuff, but I try to turn yoga on its head a little bit because the whole idea of wellness is that there’s something seriously wrong with you. My idea about wellness has always been that there’s nothing wrong with you.
You feel wrong because there’s something wrong with the world. Your context, your job. We’re all well. It’s just the world makes us unwell, and so we try to block it out. Sometimes we try to say, I’m going to be such an ascetic and stop taking everything in.
My interest in the book is that, no, I want to show how people, to stay alive, for better or worse, they just keep pushing. They go to the extreme.
Like Drum. His whole thing is about extremity — extreme poses, extreme ways of extending life — not because he really wants to live forever. It’s just he is interested in the idea, and that’s what’s sustaining him.
My Year Abroad is a novel where people are questioning through their acts.
Rhianna: If the novel’s central theme is hunger, its central message seems to be a sincere plea to fully embrace life. That jibes, I think, with what you’re saying.
There’s this wonderful sentence about embracing life in all of its rankness.
Lee: Rankness and glory.
Rhianna: You’ve got this pyrotechnic novel. The language is just exploding, and situations are exploding, but they’re all functioning as a metaphor for this essential idea that life is too much, and you have to take it all in. It felt optimistic to me.
Lee: I hope so because that’s where I wanted to leave Tiller.
It’s not about taking everything in so that you can just experience everything. It doesn’t stop there. It’s taking everything in in its rankness and glory so that you can really appreciate what living is, what breathing, and living, and surviving are, which is everything, instead of it being siloed into certain controlled, or engineered, or safe experiences, fun experiences.
The whole thing these days is “Oh, it’s not about things. It’s about experiences.” That has always seemed so empty to me because the experiences just end up being things for most people. They’re not really there. They’re just kind of like, OK, now that’s an experience that I can say I own. To constantly stay there is so hard. To constantly say, No, I have this bad relationship, and I’m going to just stay, I’m going to look at it, and examine it, and let it just destroy me a little bit, and see what I can make of it.
Tiller gets to the point where he begins to understand that it’s not just misery; all of this is adding up to something. That’s where I hope it feels optimistic.
Rhianna: When Pong’s talking about the jamu, he says people want “to live fully without having to be aware of living,” which seems like the absolute counter to what you’re saying.
Lee: Yes, absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. We want safety, and security, and comfort, but that’s only the one side of it.
It’s not that I think everyone should actively seek out misery.
But I would say misery is going to come, despite everything we do to avoid it. Do you shut down and just armadillo, psychically and physically, or do you go out with open eyes and just make the best of it, embrace it?
Tiller wants to armadillo the whole time. Even when he’s with Val, he wants to armadillo. That’s the tension of it. He realizes he can’t. That’s where he’s finally wised up a little bit.
Rhianna: I’d love to talk about the women in My Year Abroad.
The novel ties hunger to mothers and their absence. Tiller brings his mom up regularly, and when Pong addresses Tiller’s “hunger” late in the novel, he replies: “The easy answer, of course, was that I was minus a mother. For let’s be honest, who is entirely well, lacking one?” — a statement that applies to many of the key characters. I’m wondering how you connect the dots between mothering or its absence, and this feeling of being hollow that you’ve spoken of.
Lee: Well, that absence that Pong and Tiller feel is a foundational one, right? We can say whatever we want, but… Maybe it goes back to that idea about a place, a sense of belonging, a context in which you fit. That without that, having lost that early on, Pong, and Tiller, and others, they’re unmoored. They’re absolutely unmoored. So much of their energies, psychic and otherwise, in the rest of their lives are going towards trying to find that mooring, that latch.
Tiller considers himself an orphan, even though his dad is there. I think Tiller is [seeking] a female physical presence that he can’t quit.
Rhianna: Sex is another place in the novel where hunger is tied to a need for female presence, though often in violent ways that disrupt the usual narrative of men abusing women — in My Year Abroad it’s often men who are subject to sexual violation or abasement. I’m thinking of Lucky’s mom in Hawaii; the episode at the brothel; and what happens between Constance and Tiller.
I have to admit googling that one.
Lee: So did I.
Rhianna: There are positive depictions of sex too — Val and Tiller have a loving sex life — but I’m curious about why so many of the women in this novel seize power by causing sexual humiliation or pain.
Lee: Yeah. I think that in all those scenes the women are structurally, traditionally, historically in positions of weakness, of being exploited, of being subject or kept. Constance is a rich guy’s daughter. Obviously, Lucky’s mom was once a working girl. Same with the prostitute who has all the blood in Macao.
They start from a place where, normally, we know all the things that they have to do and are done to them. The last thing I wanted to do is just have those things happen. Because, A, it’s boring, and B, we know it. And C, no one learns anything from it. We know about that kind of subjection.
I wanted Tiller to understand something about subjection, but in a very different way, where he’s party to it, willing but also startled, and in some ways remade.
For me, it was just fun to write. But also, I wanted Tiller to have experiences that he couldn’t easily recount to his friends. I wanted experiences that he has to disclose to us because he doesn’t completely understand them.
I hope he’s at last privy to what those women’s needs and desires are, and to the machinations of their eros. Which normally he wouldn’t be. Normally he’s like, Women are objects. They’re there for me. That’s the tale of our civilization. But here I wanted to turn it around, have them turn it around on him, and hope he learns something.
We’re all well. It’s just the world makes us unwell.
Rhianna: He’s very open and understanding in those scenes.
Lee: I think most men would like the idea of, just theoretically, people love me. But to be the true object of desire, a physical thing, to be manipulated, sometimes dangerously, that’s a much more uncomfortable position, and one that should not be taken lightly. I wanted him to have that.
I guess I constantly wanted him to be inundated and a little beleaguered, but still survive in every way. In this context, with ideas about sexual roles. In other places, with ideas about mentorship or brotherhood. But in every way, I wanted him to be the subject of inquiry.
I thought that would fit him well because that’s where he’s always been. It’s just that he’s in a different place now; it’s a different kind of passive role, where he’s embracing that passivity. Maybe that’s what allows him to put himself in these positions and to remain there and to live them.
Rhianna: I’ve been wondering a lot about framing My Year Abroad as an immigration novel. As a reader, I didn’t experience it that way, but individual immigration stories, like Pong’s, are central to it. Do you think of it as an immigration novel or a novel where that is a primary theme?
Lee: No, I don’t think that it is.
There’s a lot of contextual stuff about Pong and his background. I debated whether to make it as long as it is. I decided I liked it because I wanted to… It’s so hard, especially with characters like Pong. He’s not a mainstream character that people know about. This has always been my frustration and challenge. Actually, it’s shaped me as a writer, to try to give enough context for things I just assume people will not understand, or appreciate fully, without me giving extra context.
But every book I write is, I think, in some ways an immigrant novel, because it’s always about being in places and situations where you find yourself unsettled or unmoored. At the most basic level, My Year Abroad is that.
We haven’t talked about Pong so much, but he was the original inspiration for the novel. It was just going to be a story about this plucky, charismatic, new Chinese entrepreneur. I wanted to show enough of that, and maybe that’s why I give a lot about Pong’s background, but in the end, I thought, No, I’m more interested in the story being inspired by someone like that.
As an immigrant myself, but an immigrant who is definitely very settled, very moored now institutionally and culturally, I feel very comfortable. Pong is someone — and he’s based very loosely upon someone I know — whose energy and pluck and aspiration for the next thing is something I felt like maybe immigrants of my standing in the country have lost. Maybe in that way I’m Tiller. As an immigrant I’m not like my parents were, or my friends’ parents or grandparents were. We’ve become too comfortable, too settled.
It’s not played much, but that’s definitely one of the anxieties of the novel: Should I be so comfortable? Why am I so comfortable even if nothing is happening?
All these people are striving in the novel. I think there’s an immigrant striving there, like a flavor of immigrant striving that’s different from a non-immigrant striving.
I love the idea of Pong’s immigrant pluck and charisma and bravery. Those are all the things that Tiller doesn’t have and I don’t have.
That’s something that I hope that comes through.
I spoke with Chang-rae Lee by Zoom on December 17, 2020.
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Chang-rae Lee is the author of Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, as well as On Such a Full Sea, A Gesture Life, Aloft, and The Surrendered, winner of the Dayton Peace Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Chang-rae Lee teaches writing at Stanford University. My Year Abroad is his latest novel.