Complex Reading

Junot Díaz and Chang-rae Lee

Junot Díaz describes the collaborative reading he'll be giving with the novelist Chang-rae Leeas: "My God, you couldn't think of two people writing in a more different tradition." Díaz grew up in the Dominican Republic; Lee emigrated from North Korea when he was three. The former writes the edgy, energetic short stories found in Drown, the latter the slower, more internal narratives of a novel like Native Speaker.

"I think probably [Díaz's] work is on the surface much more brash, but I think a lot of the same things are going on underneath. There's lots of feelings of desolation and alienation," says Lee. "What I love about his work is that there's always this under-riding deep emotional life underneath all the things that are being said."

Díaz shares a similar admiration for his co-reader. "I fucking adore Chang-rae Lee. I think Chang-rae is doing something extremely interesting and courageous," he says, referring to the risk Lee took by telling his latest book, A Gesture Life, from the point of view of someone responsible for maintaining the sex slaves, or comfort women, during the war. "I think the best characters are really complicated."

As different as their styles are, the two writers share that love of complexity. Lee finds it in the multiple layers of grief. For this reason Lee abandoned the viewpoint of the comfort women in the first version of A Gesture Life for that of one of the perpetrators, who attempts to redeem himself through a virtuous life. "He allowed choices to be made for him, and a victim doesn't have a choice," Lee says. "I hate to say a victim's story can't be interesting. I just couldn't find the necessary complication in that story but his story was endlessly complicated."

Díaz echoes this aesthetic. As a Dominican writer, "you've got to come to terms with living in the country that invaded your country," he says. "You have to have a complex vision. The same people who invaded the Dominican Republic are not still in power and were not sitting in the offices of Naturalization and Immigration. It's not like this crazy, monolithic system."

This is exactly the kind of comparison and contrast Inprint Inc. director and series organizer Richard Leavy wants the unusual pairing to facilitate. Rather than the typical four-day residency in which a poet and prose writer give a reading, visit some local high schools and meet with University of Houston creative writing students, two fiction writers offer a unique kind of synergy. And Leavy can't resist sharing his own comparison between these two immigrant voices. "They're both writing about being different in America, and coming to terms with that."

Lovers of verse, don't fret. The poets Anne Carson and Frank Bidart are slotted for March.

 
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