Close-up

Her de­but novel earned Hong Kong-born Jan­ice YK Lee in­ter­na­tional ac­claim. Her sec­ond, out this year, is a siz­zlingly good re­turn to the world of ex­pa­tri­ates. Chloe Street talks to the au­thor about writ­ing, rein­ven­tion and be­long­ing

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

Jan­ice YK Lee, whose sec­ond novel is a siz­zlingly good re­turn to the ex­pat world, talks writ­ing, rein­ven­tion and be­long­ing

"At some point i re­alised I had to stop com­plain­ing and just write it, just do the work. And I knew that even if I did the work it would prob­a­bly, sta­tis­ti­cally, not sell. But at least then I might be able to com­plain,” laughs Jan­ice YK Lee, re­mem­ber­ing the ul­ti­mate mo­ti­va­tion to write her first novel, The Pi­ano Teacher, which was pub­lished in 2009. Lit­tle did she know then that the book, set in 1940s and ’50s Hong Kong and de­tail­ing the trou­bled af­fairs of English­man Will Trues­dale, would be wildly suc­cess­ful. It spent 19 weeks on the New York Times best­seller list, was se­lected as a sum­mer read by Bri­tain’s Richard and Judy Book Club, was glow­ingly re­viewed by Oprah mag­a­zine and has been trans­lated into 26 lan­guages.

It’s no sur­prise, then, that Lee’s sec­ond book, re­leased ear­lier this year, has been warmly re­ceived. The Ex­pa­tri­ates takes a con­tem­po­rary look at the same rar­efied world of up­rooted lives and how they in­ter­sect in Hong Kong, this time through the prism of three very dif­fer­ent Amer­i­can women. With poignancy and au­then­tic­ity, Lee ex­plores the se­cret sor­rows and demons they face nav­i­gat­ing the cock­tail par­ties, char­ity lunches and pres­sures of com­pet­i­tive child rear­ing— the in­nate claus­tro­pho­bia of ex­pat life.

De­scribed re­cently in a New York Times re­view as a “fe­male, funny Henry James in Asia,” Lee was born to Korean par­ents in colonial-era Hong Kong and at­tended Hong Kong In­ter­na­tional School be­fore mov­ing to the US at the age of 15 to fin­ish her school­ing and gain a de­gree from Har­vard. She worked at Elle mag­a­zine in New York for six years be­fore fi­nally de­cid­ing on a full-time writ­ing ca­reer.

One can­not help but won­der whether Lee, who moved back to Hong Kong as a mar­ried woman with two chil­dren—and twins soon to be born—in 2005, might have based The Ex­pa­tri­ates on the next 10 years she spent liv­ing back in the city. She is adamant, how­ever, that she has never writ­ten any friend or ac­quain­tance into a story and that au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal writ­ing doesn’t in­ter­est her. Even when writ­ing her first, his­tor­i­cal, novel she avoided in­ter­view­ing any­one—“be­cause when peo­ple tell you their per­sonal sto­ries, they feel own­er­ship over them”—choos­ing in­stead to read mem­oirs, gov­ern­ment records and fic­tion from and about the pe­riod to un­der­stand it.

Lee is, how­ever, a keen ob­server of peo­ple and makes reg­u­lar notes on her smart­phone that serve as prompts for plots and char­ac­ters. “Whether a nice turn of phrase, a per­son­al­ity trait or a con­cept, these things will even­tu­ally be­come a thought or com­ment from a char­ac­ter,” she says, show­ing me some of the in­sight­ful, hu­man and some­times hi­lar­i­ous snap­shots and snip­pets she has jot­ted down on her phone. “They’re lit­tle clues that lead me to the story.”

Her method in de­vel­op­ing a story is fas­ci­nat­ing, a kind of back-seat ap­proach. Rather than set out to write a par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tive, the story comes to her—and she doesn’t have as much con­trol over the process as one might imag­ine, she says. The Ex­pa­tri­ates, for ex­am­ple, started life as an im­age in her head of a woman ly­ing in bed and dread­ing the din­ner party she is due to host that night. “I didn’t know who she was, what eth­nic­ity she was, where she lived—i didn’t know any­thing.”

With this process, Lee feels like she is “un­cov­er­ing the story, and when it goes wrong I have to work back and find where to

“BE­ING AN OUT­SIDER IS THE BEST WAY FOR A WRITER TO BE; I AL­WAYS FELT A LIT­TLE BIT RE­MOVED”

fix it.” She spent a year try­ing to set

The Ex­pa­tri­ates in New York be­fore re­al­is­ing the story needed to take place in Hong Kong. “I had to go back and re­write the whole thing.”

On her re­turn to Hong Kong in 2005, Lee found a city enor­mously changed from the days of her idyl­lic child­hood in Pok Fu Lam, where her fam­ily’s pool backed onto a farm that backed onto a beach. “We would go to the farmer and buy eggs, then play games on the beach. We had no adult su­per­vi­sion. Ev­ery­thing has changed for chil­dren in Hong Kong now. I don’t think that Hong Kong ex­ists any more.”

The lives of ex­pats, how­ever, she found to be con­stant. “You come back and ev­ery­one is still hav­ing the same con­ver­sa­tions on the boat: Who’s your travel agent? Where’s your pae­di­a­tri­cian? Where do you get your hair cut?”— con­ver­sa­tions Lee had to en­gage in be­cause of her lack of cur­rent lo­cal knowl­edge. “Ev­ery­one thought I was an ex­pat, but I had grown up here and my par­ents still lived here, but I didn’t feel like a lo­cal be­cause I was not Chi­nese.” It is this unique po­si­tion as Hong Kong lo­cal, ex­pat and at times will­ing out­sider— “be­ing an out­sider is the best way for a writer to be; I al­ways felt a lit­tle bit re­moved”—that en­ables Lee to write such nu­anced and thought­ful ac­counts of the life of for­eign­ers in Hong Kong.

Now liv­ing back in New York, a city she refers to as her “spir­i­tual home” and which she loves for its size and the anonymity it af­fords, Lee is pon­der­ing her next novel— which she is de­ter­mined will not be set in Hong Kong—and con­sid­er­ing tele­vi­sion and film drama­ti­sa­tion op­tions for her first two.

The Pi­ano Teacher she en­vis­ages as a movie, The Ex­pa­tri­ates as a tele­vi­sion show. Per­haps she will fo­cus on the lives of Amer­i­cans back home, or the lives of ex­pa­tri­ates in New York—a so­ci­ety she notes is much harder to pen­e­trate than Hong Kong (“peo­ple are so friendly here, you can plug in im­me­di­ately; it’s much harder in New York.”). What­ever the story, the themes of wom­an­hood and iden­tity are likely to resur­face.

So what does Lee make of the op­por­tu­ni­ties for rein­ven­tion that an ex­pa­tri­ate ex­is­tence en­ables? “Some peo­ple thrive and be­come bet­ter ver­sions of them­selves, some peo­ple be­come dif­fer­ent ver­sions of them­selves and some peo­ple just im­plode,” she smiles, with more than a hint of a warn­ing in her tone.

crossed paths Lee has a unique take on the com­plex in­ter­re­la­tion­ships of ex­pats

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