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Literature, Banh Mi, and More: A Conversation with Chang-Rae Lee

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with University’s artist-in-residence, Chang-Rae Lee. A Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and Creative Writing professor at Princeton, he offered his insights into UHS, literature, and the best banh mi in SF.

 

DA: What are some of the biggest takeaways you have gotten from your time at UHS?

CRL: At UHS, I’ve gotten a lot from meeting the students. You guys have so much energy and smarts. There are just some very lively folks at the school, so I really love that.

DA: I’m just curious, what’s the best thing you’ve eaten while in San Francisco?

CRL: The best thing? Oh gosh, that’s a tough one. That’s a really tough one. I tend to like pretty humble foods. I’ve been to fancy restaurants and those are great, but one of my favorite things was a simple banh mi, a roast pork banh mi at this place on Irving and 23rd. It’s just this hole in the wall place, it’s not really a restaurant but more of a take-out place. I found that to be my favorite banh mi in the city, and I like banh mi.

DA: At the question and answer session in the beginning of the year, you described the experience of [Jorge Luis Borges] coming to Exeter. What was it like to switch roles and become the visiting author?

CRL: It’s been great. Again, I’ve been visiting a lot of classes and a lot of students, and reading some work. And it’s been wonderful to make some connections and also to get to know and be able to get some feedback to students and their creative work. I guess you’d have to ask the students, you know, what they thought. But I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I’ve also enjoyed getting to know the faculty, especially in the English department, and making some friendships. So that’s wonderful.

DA: Your work has served has an inspiration for a lot of other authors. Who inspires you and your work?

CRL: There are a lot of different writers. I’ve always said that in high school, I loved reading Walt Whitman, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway, Dostoyevsky. All sorts of different kinds of writers. So I’d say those were some influences when I was starting out in my writing.

DA: What was it like before there were so many different Asian American authors, to sort of be one of the first Asian American authors to give voice in the mainstream to the Asian American experience? To forge your own path, I would imagine.

CRL: Not totally on my own. There were a good number of Asian American writers that were published before me. I certainly didn’t have the same kind of community that I think a lot of Asian American writers enjoy now. I went to a conference in Seattle a few years ago and it struck me how many Asian American writers there were and how much fun we had hanging out and talking about our experiences. 25 years ago that was definitely not the case. But that’s okay! You know, writers ultimately have to write in solitude even if they have community. They have to find inspiration in solitude and separateness. I think that was okay for me. And it was maybe a little lonely, but I don’t think it was detrimental to my work.

DA: Where do you think Asian American literature is going? Where do you think the future of that community is?

CRL: I just think it’s going to deepen and widen and become quite large. You know, every year there are more and more really impressive writers coming from all over Asian America. What I’m excited about is the real variety and diversity of their voices. They don’t write about all the same thing. They don’t all have the same kinds of interests. There’s not really a way, almost, to describe Asian American literature anymore, which I think is fantastic. If it were all just one thing it would be boring and limited, and I don’t think that’s the case at all these days. I think the future will be even more exciting.

DA: What would you say to an aspiring young writer, who’s maybe just starting out?

CRL: I’d say they should work on their writing as much as possible. Be close to that, in terms of their effort and time. I think they should read as much as possible. Read widely and passionately, because that’s really the only way a writer can fill up his or her toolkit. And I really think that that’s just as important as practicing writing, is really getting into the practice of reading.

DA: What sort of impression to you hope to have made at UHS?

CRL: I guess I don’t come in with any hopes like that. I suppose that if someone could take away that there is this writer and he was, you know, above everything else, just a regular person. Who had ordinary interests but obviously had his own focus and passion for his work. I think that would be a good thing. Like everyone else, we’re not special people. And I think that’s something that I think people should realize. And if a student could realize that maybe, “I could be a writer as well.”

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