Venturing out into the greater world often presents boundless opportunities. All you’ve got to do is take the first step out, even if it’s perilous. For 20-year-old college dropout Tiller Bardmon, he falls into a rabbit hole unexpectedly, thanks to his sensitive tastebuds and a friendship with Pong Lou, a shrewd Chinese-American entrepreneur acquaintance. Pandemonium ensures, obviously.
Tiller’s adventures are penned by Chang-Rae Lee, Pulitzer Prize finalist and award-winning author of Native Speaker and On Such a Full Sea, in his sixth and newest novel My Year Abroad. Keeping tight-lipped about his intentions with this narrative, Lee professes that “a novel should be about many things, most of those notions open-ended and mysterious. A novel should capture the vitality of human experience and the world, in whatever it chooses to focus on, in order to present something new and fresh.
“The decision [of pursuing this genre] is both spontaneous and ever-evolving. I can only speak for my own work, but the form and character of a story develop in real-time, afterwords are put on the page, and proceeds to hone and exploring. The end result is always a strange mutation of any instituting ideal.”
We, too, shan’t spoil too much on this thrilling and sharp-witted saga. The gist is Tiller’s recaption of his travels and heritage exploration when he ventures into China with Pong to fuel production for a jamu-based ‘health’ supplement and appeal to a fitness-focused clientele. Oh, and food is also the novel’s centre draw. “There’s surely an emphasis on consumption in the novel, of all kinds; I focused on food/eating as it’s the most regular and necessary function we have, other than breathing and going to the bathroom! So, it seemed to me a ready area for details and inquiry on our human condition,” the 55-year-old explains.
Tiller is defined as one-eighth Korean, as envisioned by Lee. Thus, there’s a mission to identify his roots and discover how traditions still impact modern society. Lee says, “What else is there to do, but to probe [our origins]? We focus too much in this life on defining things, ourselves, others; it’s the continual considerations that give us meaning, whether we’re investigating or reckoning ethnic and racial legacies or what we like to read, listen to, eat.”
The importance of cultural identity and its influence to strengthen one’s sense of belonging holds weight in this novel too. “Cultural identity is fine as a base of operations, as it were; a footing or foundation from which to strike out into the world, to explore and experience its wonders. Sometimes though it can be too comfortable, too insulating, and then suddenly belonging can morph into things like bigotry and nationalism, signs of which we see all over the world,” Lee explains on establishing societal familiarity.
We ask Lee about how second-generation immigrants can truly feel a sense of belonging with both their ancestry and birth or native home as touched upon in My Year Abroad and with him as a first-generation immigrant.
“It’s not clear that we can, fully. Yet my feeling is that nobody truly can, whether they’ve lived in the same place since birth or have just recently arrived, if one fully interrogates the practices and structures of that ‘home’,” he says. “In this regard, a sense of alienation can be something other than a negative feeling; it can be a kind of solvent, clarifying and exposing a place or state of being.”
On the other hand, works with Asian representation have received positive exposure in the media lately. Citing movies such as The Farewell and Minari, Lee deems it beneficial to push out more stories from Asian communities. “They’re certainly being created but we need more people in positions of power in the media who will invest in these projects and give them the kind of exposure and promotion that ‘mainstream’ projects receive,” he says.
When asked if there’s a contrast between his education profession and being an author, Lee—whose day job is a professor teaching writing at Stanford University—reveals that “[we] all have many selves, all related and all stacked atop one another in an infinite layering. I first became interested in writing fiction during high school, after an initial foray in writing poetry. I was, like many writers-to-be, an avid reader, and so naturally grew to wonder what it would be like to fashion characters and tales.”
And on the subject of the said jamu, which supposedly has cure-all properties of traditional remedies compared to science and modern medicine, Lee quips, “I’ve always felt comfortable with balance, especially in whatever one ingests!”
Published by Riverhead Books, My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee is available at Kinokuniya Singapore.