“I’m certainly not known as a humorist,” Korean American author Chang-rae Lee says of the origins of his multilayered, wildly comic coming-of-age novel, My Year Abroad. “But my wife thinks I’m quite funny, even if I haven’t been in my books. Every book of mine is a response to the last one. I just get so dead and bored and want to break out. This time I wanted to laugh, and I wanted Tiller to show his personality, so I thought, OK, I’ll just go with it.”
Tiller is the novel’s one-of-a-kind narrator, a 20-something college student who’s more unformed than his years. His mother left the family when he was little, and he has, as Lee says, “mommy issues.” And though Tiller’s father is “a good guy,” Tiller thinks of himself as an orphan.
Lonely and disaffected, Tiller plans to spend a year studying abroad in Italy, but the summer before his trip, while working as a fill-in golf caddy in a New Jersey suburb near his home, he meets Pong Lou, an entrepreneurial Chinese immigrant, an energetic deal-maker and a force of nature. Pong takes Tiller not to Europe but to Asia on the trip of his life.
Pong, Lee says, was the original protagonist of the story. His character is based on an acquaintance Lee made during his years spent living and teaching at Princeton University. “This guy embodied a certain energy we older immigrants have lost,” Lee says. “I was fascinated by him. I was so taken with his courage for doing deals and his curiosity about everything high, low and in between. He had this hunger for life. I was really into a character who is in command of such things.”
“I wanted to throw everything at him . . . to make the book less realistic and more wild.”
But while Lee was in the early stages of writing the novel, he debated how to tell the tale, and he eventually realized that another, younger perspective was needed. My Year Abroad interweaves Tiller’s crazy adventures in Asia with his life a year later, as he struggles to take responsibility for both himself and the lives of his troubled partner, Val, and her 8-year-old son, whom Tiller has come to love.
Lee says this novel, his sixth, took longer to write than his previous books, partly because in 2016 he left Princeton to take a position in Stanford University’s writing program. Lee now lives in San Francisco with his wife, a retired architect and talented ceramicist. During this COVID-19 moment, Lee’s daughters are also at home, one studying in her second year of college and the other working remotely for her job in Austin, Texas. “I feel there’s more balance in my life here,” he says. “I grew up in an Asian American family on the East Coast. I have a whole network of friends there. But the West Coast is definitely more Asian American-inflected. Personally, culturally, artistically, there’s a draw here that’s different than on the East Coast. There’s a whole new added layer here that I enjoy.”
The move to America’s left coast does seem to have had a liberating effect. Part of Tiller’s worldly education involves over-the-top, taboo-bursting sex. The sex is more implied than graphic, but it’s enough of a departure from earlier novels that Lee’s wife, his first reader, said to him, “ ‘Um, is this what you’re into?’ She thought maybe I had a secret life,” Lee says, laughing. “Tiller is a person who doesn’t know what he likes and dislikes. I wanted to throw everything at him and of course, for comic effect, to make the book less realistic and more wild and surreal. The whole thing is about extremes. Extremity in service of trying to figure out how you are alive.”
Lee says his daughters have not yet read the book, but he credits them and his young writing students with helping him figure out Tiller’s thoughtful, comic, youthful voice. “The slang, the tonality—I hear that all the time. I’ve traveled extensively through Asia. I’ve been to Shenzhen, Macao, Hong Kong, Hawaii, the places [I write about]. Either through nature or practice or both, I’ve always been a good observer and listener.”
Observation and learning form the beating heart of the novel, which is dedicated to the author’s own teachers. “So much of the book, the relationship between Tiller and Pong, is about mentorship,” Lee says. “I think back to particular librarians when I was in elementary and middle school. My parents were immigrants, and my mother didn’t really speak English. Basically, I was raised in the library. Those librarians and a few teachers in high school and college and even graduate school gave me not just knowledge but also encouragement and, sometimes, a reality check.”
Author photo by Michelle Branca Lee