Why Korean American Writers Love Alexander Chee
Four writers discuss growing up with few Asian American author role models, and how Chee’s work helps change the landscape
Like many writers, I grew up not just loving books, but also living in books, through books. This meant that, for years, I never encountered people on the page who looked anything like me. It wasn’t until right after college that I started coming across Korean American writers, and Alexander Chee was one of the very first I read. At the time, there weren’t many who’d published books, especially novels, but I chased down what I could find: Chee’s extraordinary Edinburgh, as well as fiction by Susan Choi and Chang-rae Lee. The experience was nothing short of a revelation. People like me could be found in anglophone books; therefore, I might be found not just in life — which often paled in comparison to the more satisfying realm of words — but also in the books I loved.
In the years since college, as increasing numbers of Korean American writers have published their words, I’ve read a lot more of us. In no particular order, except one of hallelujah, here’s a necessarily partial list of some other living Korean American writers whose work or person, or both, I’ve had the great good luck of encountering:
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Tracy O’Neill, Min Jin Lee, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, Catherine Chung, Krys Lee, Crystal Hana Kim, Nami Mun, Patty Park, Paul Yoon, Jenny Han, Katherine Min, Erinrose Mager, Don Lee, Gene Kwak, Victoria Namkung, Alex Sujong Laughlin, Mary-Kim Arnold, Steph Cha, Jimin Han, Sonya Chung, Patty Yumi Cottrell, Alex Jung, Janice Lee, Mike Croley, Suki Kim, Darley Stewart, Jane Yong Kim, Jay Caspian Kang, Janice Y.K. Lee, Jung Yun, Christine No, Timothy Moore, Robert Yune, Emily Jungmin Yoon, Victoria Cho, Lee Herrick, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Wancy Young Cho, Cerrissa Kim, Chiwan Choi, Don Mee Choi, Suji Kwock Kim, Che Yeun, Wesley Yang, Franny Choi, Nancy Jooyoun Kim, Young Jean Lee, Sung J. Woo, Ed Bok Lee, Jennifer Hope Choi, Minsoo Kang, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Su Hwang, Hairee Lee, Joseph Han, Cathy Park Hong, Leonard Chang, Alison Roh Park, Mark L. Keats, Mary H.K. Choi, Eugenia Kim, Yuliana Kim-Grant, E.J. Koh, Julayne Lee, Leah Silvieus, Michelle Lee, Margaret Rhee, Paula Young Lee, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, James Han Mattson, Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut, Grace Sobrenome, Angie Kim, Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Monica Youn, Sun Yung Shin, and…!
But back to Chee, whose new essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, is unique and powerful, insistently itself. I think back to that girl who, because I had no idea how to wish upon what I’d never experienced, didn’t even know to miss the lack of Korean American writing. I wish I could tell her what riches were coming her way.
I convened a few Korean American writers I admire — Nicole Chung, Alice Sola Kim, and Matthew Salesses — to talk about How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and what he and his writing have meant to us.
R. O. Kwon: I think we’ve all known Alex awhile, and I wonder how you first came across his work.
Nicole Chung: I believe I read Edinburgh and found Alex’s essays close to the same time. When I read Edinburgh, I was really struck by the uniqueness of that novel and the fact that he was a Korean American writer, and that was when I started looking for every essay of his I could find. I had the chance to interview Alex for The Toast not long after he wrote a “Future Queer” cover story and hosted a related conversation for The New Republic, and we talked about how he writes and the balance of fiction to nonfiction.
He said something I won’t forget — that while some publishers thought he should publish The Queen of the Night before Edinburgh, he felt he had to publish Edinburgh first. Later, in another conversation, he would tell me, “I felt I had to publish Edinburgh in order to prove I could exist — that I could make a space for myself in this life.” Obviously, the character isn’t him, but it’s still one of the only novelistic treatments of the life of a Korean American gay man. Alex said he “wanted to plant that flag in the culture,” and until he said that I don’t know if I’d thought about it as a reason to write. The need to exist in the canon, in the literary world. I found that very powerful, and very brave.
Alice Sola Kim: For a long time he was only someone I knew of, as a literary personage and New York man-about-town. I remember really liking his blog, and of course being intrigued by his being a Korean American writer, because I was so thirsty for more of those. At some point I read Edinburgh — and if you’re reading this roundtable I probably don’t need to go on about what a beautiful book it is but, it is! — and then I moved to New York and finally met him. I really appreciated how authoritative yet not at all complacent he was. It felt like he was open and glad to meet new people (chuckleheads like me, in this instance), and to give them a chance, to lift them up. I admired how he was (and is) so open to the new, ideas and books and people, while also being hella opinionated and firm in his convictions.
Matthew Salesses: I can barely remember! I think I must have found him through his blog, Koreanish. It was the first time I’d seen a blog that came even close to my life. It’s possible I found the blog through my friend Laura van den Berg, indirectly, because of her husband, Paul Yoon, whose work Alex recommended. (Alex was how I came to Nami Mun’s writing and Catherine Chung’s writing, too, and many others.) I read Edinburgh either before or after that, and I wanted to interview him. Edinburgh was the first book I’d read like that and maybe the only one still. We met when I interviewed Alex for Redivider in 2009. He was working on The Queen of the Night.
Kwon: Did you grow up reading many Asian people? I mean, I seek out Asian writers’ work, and even so, while reading Alex’s book, it occurred to me that I don’t know the last time I’ve seen a jesa ceremony depicted in English words, on a page. It’s possible I haven’t encountered a jesa ceremony outside of my parents’ house. There was so much I found powerful in Alex’s collection, but that was an utterly unexpected moment for me.
Chung: As a kid, I didn’t really. I remember reading Amy Tan, but in terms of, say, children’s books, I didn’t grow up reading a lot of Asian American writers. I remember very clearly the first YA novel I read by an Asian American author about an Asian American family — they lived in Seattle, and the title was April and the Dragon Lady. That was one of the very few. I didn’t read a lot of Asian American writers until, as an adult, I actively sought them out.
Kim: Yeah, I also read Amy Tan! I was probably way too young for The Joy Luck Club. But my mom brought home this paperback copy, and I remember flipping through it and being like, Oh my god, there’s all this sex in it! So of course I had to read the whole thing. I’m sure I was hugely impressed that it was written by an Asian American author, and that it seemed for real popular — it didn’t have that “eat your vegetables” vibe that I was already sensitive about, surrounding so much literature by POC (whether it warranted that or not). When I was older, I really liked Marie Myung-Ok Lee, who was writing contemporary YA about Korean Americans. Such a special, rare find. Otherwise, I didn’t read many Asian American authors growing up.
Salesses: I read Amy Tan in high school and some other immigrant narratives. There were a lot of boats. None of them really connected with me. They seemed just like everything else I read in high school, like they had nothing to do with my life in its immediate surroundings.
Kwon: To dig into Alex’s book a little: are there parts of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel that particularly resonated with you? Last night, I was up late because I couldn’t stop reading it. This part toward the end of “The Guardians,” for one, had me in tears: “You imagine that the worst thing is that someone would know. The attention you need to heal you have been taught will end you. And it will — it will end the pain you have mistaken for yourself. The worst thing is not that someone would know. The worst thing is that you might lay waste to your whole life by hiding.”
Chung: I don’t know how I’d pick a favorite essay, or even one that resonates the most. What I love about Alex’s writing is the craft — every piece is so beautifully written and structured. I’ve taught his essays because they’re stunning examples of the form. One of my favorite pieces of his is “Girl,” kind of a master class in description and scene-building. He makes it seem effortless, but it’s very difficult to construct scenes from years ago. To make yourself vulnerable, to serve your memory, and to still get across what you want to get across. He builds gorgeous scenes and gives you these moments when things change, or go in a different direction, or surprise you.
I feel like a lot of his essays are honest, true impressions of who he was and who he is: compassionate, and generous to the people he writes about, and so sharp when necessary. I think, too, that Alexander is a very generous writer — that comes through when you talk to him, or meet with him. He really cares about writers, and about building community among writers. He’s been honest and open with me, and, I assume, with you and all the other writers he interacts with. He takes the time to answer writers’ questions and offer his advice, and not every writer is that open or generous. It means so much to me, and I’m sure it means a lot to other writers.
Kim: I loved the way he writes of his younger self, things his past selves did — even when they were dumb things, or mistakes, or just things he’d do differently now — without malice. I don’t quite know how to describe it. It felt like you could trust what he was saying about his younger self. You could see into his past selves and experiences in a much more fascinating and illuminating way because there wasn’t all this regret or condescension fogging everything up.
Salesses: I like “Girl” too. “The Writing Life” meant a lot to me at one point in my life. Same with “The Querent.” Alex’s essays have been there for us at many different stages of our lives.
Kwon: Both with his writing and with the way he is in the world, there’s incredible generosity, but he’s also often been, for me, an inspiring example of someone who takes no shit.
Chung: Yes, and he really uses his social media platform for good. I’ve told him this before — it’s not like you want to give up, ever, but fatigue is a very real thing since the election, and more than once Alex has posted something that pulled me back into the fight, shown me something I needed to do. I’ve really appreciated that.
Kim: I’ve also appreciated his saying one-on-one and online, “Writers, get that money.” When you’re starting out, early on, you don’t know what you’re worth or deserve, especially as a writer of color. I’m grateful that he’s kept telling writers something they really do need to hear over and over again — that we deserve to get paid for our writing and our precious time unless there’s something we really want to for love, but don’t do it too often for love, but also don’t forget to do it for love. Once in a while.
Salesses: He’s a moral compass for writers who understand that people live in the real world with real world problems.
Chung: He’s very honest about what a hard process it can be, how long a writing project can take. And also the fact that just because you’re an artist, working on something that matters deeply to you, that doesn’t mean you’re not a human being with real material needs. You need health insurance and you need dental coverage and you need people to support and see you as human. It helps to hear great, successful writers talk so frankly about the struggle.
Kwon: You’re also all magnificently generous writers, and humans, and I wonder how you think about this question of what and how we give back. Alex is truly one of my models for the kind of writer-human I want to be, and I’m curious how you approach the idea of literary responsibility outside of the day-to-day writing of sentences.
Chung: I’ve been on the receiving end of so much generosity as a writer and as an editor. It means a lot to me that writers trust me with their stories. It’s a great privilege. There are people — and though Alex is one of them, he’s not the only one, obviously — who have been extremely generous and open; who cared. They’ve given me advice when I didn’t know what to do.
I think there’s no way to pay back that generosity. The only thing you can do is pay it forward. In that sense, Alexander has been one of my role models, but there have been so many others, too. I’ve felt really lucky in that sense. So it’s my responsibility to be open and helpful, too. Sometimes it’s easier than at other times — you need to take care of yourself, too — but yeah, I am glad when people reach out for advice, or for help. As much as I can, I try to keep an open door for writers, whether they want to write for me or whether they just want to ask questions.
Kim: Alex did not pull up the ladder after himself, it’s so true! I don’t have any editorial responsibilities, so I find it very easy to imagine that no one is looking up to me or needs anything from me. But actually that’s a lie — as writers, or, I guess, just people, we often forget our own accomplishments, we downgrade ourselves mentally and forget that we’ve written stuff that people like, and that we possess power and connections and things that lots of other people don’t. It’s extremely possible to inadvertently be a dick to people just because you’re too busy hating yourself! So I’m working on that — recognizing my own power, and with even a low-medium level of power comes some amount of responsibility, and thinking about what those responsibilities are to myself and others. And same as Nicole, I’ve received so much generosity over the years that I want to pay it forward as well.
Also, it’s not a cute look to act like you’re the only writer who exists in the whole world. It makes me think of that amazing quote from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, where Garth Marenghi says, “I’m one of the few people who’s written more books than they’ve read.” Presumably we’re writers because we love writing by other people too. So for me it’s important to read a shit-ton, to support and lift up the writers we love. To keep being a fan.
Kwon: Alice, oh, I know so many people who love your writing, who greatly admire it and look up to you and your work.
Salesses: I think one thing is just trying to recalibrate who I’m writing for and trying to find a space to make something happen. Okay, maybe two things. One of the things I love about Alex is that he doesn’t separate the writing from the life.
Kwon: I find the way Alex writes about his ambition, too, to be wonderful. I know more than a few Asian American writers, including me, who have a B.A. in economics for no good reason, but also for the very good reason that we wanted stability, health insurance, little things like that. When I was in college, it was harder for me to let myself reach for that dream of being a writer — it was less present, I think, less visible, than other life options. In How To Write an Autobiographical Novel, there’s a certainty in Alex’s voice, and in the way he saw himself, that I loved.
Kim: When you read someone’s work over the years, and you speak to them at parties and events, and you read their interviews — even all that, you get a haphazard, cobbled-together picture of them. Reading How To Write an Autobiographical Novel gave me such a fuller impression of Alex’s life and background, and I was like, Damn, you do a lot of cool stuff. Good girls go to heaven and Alex goes everywhere. It was so wonderful to read, not just for the breadth of experience and perspective, but also to show the lie of the dictum that you can’t live while being committed to art.
Kwon: Is there anything else you want to say about this book and Alex’s writing?
Chung: I appreciate how fiercely protective he is of artists. He wants more people to have access to an artistic life. I feel like that comes through, how honest he is — how he writes frankly about money, or about diversity in publishing. I think it comes from this well of good intentions, because there’s a lot that still needs to get better for artists and for writers, and for writers of color in particular. I believe when you look at Alexander’s career, you see someone who wants others to also have access to a fulfilling artistic life.
Kim: I love the ways in which he’s a nerd, like a science fiction and fantasy nerd, on top of everything else. In these essays he is so wonderfully unbothered about his passions and obsessions, about whether they match or not, about whether they’re “acceptable” or not.
Salesses: I just want to join the conversation Alex has made and is making. We have to remember what conversations we’re already in.