Changrae Lee on The Surrendered

The inspiration for The Surrendered has its roots in a project I worked on more than twenty years ago, while I was still in college. I was taking a seminar on modern Korean history, and I decided that I would conduct an interview with my father to fulfil the writing assignment, conceiving a reporter-at-large-type piece that would offer personal testimony and narrative set against a historical backdrop. I wasn’t sure if he would agree. My father was twelve years old on the eve of the Korean War, and although over the years I had asked him a number of times about his experiences, his responses were typically vague and hurried; he never seemed to want to talk about that time, only briefly mentioning that his sister had died during the war from an untreated bout of pneumonia. But since I was taking a course with a special focus on Korea, he agreed to speak in more detail about that period.

My father’s family was originally from Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, and they had joined the throngs of refugees who were heading south in an attempt to get behind the line of American forces. He first recounted a story about his favourite older cousin, who was pregnant and just about to give birth as the rest of the extended family was frantically packing up and leaving. My father was dispatched to tell his cousin that everyone was departing–explosions could be heard in the distance–yet even though she and her husband desperately wanted to go, she had already started her labours. She couldn’t be moved. Everybody soon left, and that was last time the cousin and her husband were seen alive; to this day no one knows what happened to them, whether they perished or survived the war and ended up living in North Korea.

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Telling that story of his cousin seemed to break the grip of something on my father. He recounted again that his sister had died of pneumonia during the refugee march, then added, casually, that in fact his younger brother had died during their travels, too. This disclosure surprised me. I knew that he had lost a brother, this from asking him, as children often will, about how many siblings he had, matching the number against my uncles and aunts, but I remembered his saying that his brother had died in a “subway accident.” I didn’t think there was a subway in either Pyongyang or Seoul during his childhood, so I asked him when his brother had died, and how.

My father told me that in fact his brother had been killed not by a subway car but by a boxcar of a train full of refugees. They were among the hundreds who filled the cars. The car holding the rest of their family was packed tight, so he and his brother had to sleep on top of the boxcar. In the middle of the night the train halted violently, and his brother, who was eight years old, fell off, the train then lurching forward for a short distance. My father jumped down and went back and found his brother, whose leg had been amputated by the wheels of the train. My father carried him back to the car, to the rest of their family, as the blood–and his life–ran out of him.

I’ve been haunted by that story since I heard it, not only by the horror of the accident but also by the picture of my father as a boy, a boy who had to experience his brother’s death so directly and egregiously. I was struck, too, by how unperturbed my father had always seemed to me, this cheerful, optimistic man who certainly didn’t appear to be haunted by anything. But of course this was not quite true. The events of the war had stayed with him, and always would.

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In recent years I began to consider writing a novel about that time, and what happened to my father and his brother kept coming back to me. I finally decided to try to write that scene, wondering whether a larger story might be instituted. Naturally the details changed quite drastically as I began to write, the story expanding in every direction, developing its own world and aims, and soon enough it was not my father’s story at all. But the kernel of what had happened grew to become the first chapter of The Surrendered, which for me is not so much a war novel as it is a story concerned with the effects of mass conflict on the human psyche and spirit, the private odysseys that those who have experienced conflict must endure.

(Photo of Chang-Rae Lee © David Burnett)

Review

** ‘Masterful … THE SURRENDERED bursts with drama and human anguish … Powerful, deeply felt, compulsively readable and imbued with moral gravity, the novel does not peter out into easy redemption. It’s a harrowing tale: bleak, haunting and often heart-breaking – and not to be missed’ PUBLISHERS WEEKLY ** ‘Chang-rae Lee has created such a tour de force that its images and narrative linger for a long time after reading’ BOOKSELLER’S CHOICE ** ‘A major achievement, and likely to be remembered as one of this year’s best books’ KIRKUS STARRED REVIEW ** ‘Tthe most ambitious and compelling novel of Chang -rae Lee’s already impressive career. Readers will be swept up in the power of The Surrendered and its characters’ aching and indelible stories’ Michiko Kakutani, NEW YORK TIMES

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