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A Gesture Life (Chang-rae Lee)

Introductory Comments on A Gesture Life

(A reading and commentary by Chang-rae Lee on March 20, 2001 at NYU School of Medicine)


"Thank you for coming today. I'm very pleased to have been invited. I wish my father could have been here. He's a physician, a psychiatrist, and for the longest time as I was growing up, he wanted me to be a doctor. He'd be very pleased to see that I was speaking at NYU School of Medicine. Of course, I'd be pointing out all the ironies to him."

"For those of you who aren't familiar with the book, the main character is named Franklin Hata. He's had a lot of lives, one of which is as a medic during World War II where he administered and "took care" of Korean comfort women. For those of you who don't know who the comfort women were, they were Asian women from Korea, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and all around the Pacific Rim who were used by the Japanese military during World War II as sex slaves for their soldiers in all the areas around the Pacific."

"These women were often abducted or tricked into service; once they landed in the far-flung reaches of the Pacific they were housed in pretty slovenly accommodations and forced to receive as many as fifty men a day. Obviously, they faced a lot of hazards; most of them health hazards. They always had some kind of helper, not necessarily a medic, but some kind of helper to administer drugs to them and to give them some kind of 'relief.'"

"He [Hata] has that in his past. I'm going to read from a very late section in the book. I'm sorry to those of you who have not reached this point of reading in the book. I know this is a cardinal sin of reading. But I thought that I'd pick a little section that has to do with his present life as a retiree, as a former medic, as a former proprietor of a medical supply store. He's thinking about his daughter Sunny here. He's just had a slight event in his life: his friend has almost drowned and had a heart attack and he's finally, at this point in the book, having some kind of reconciliation with his daughter, Sunny, who has been estranged from him since her teen years."


Audio and text of commentary reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.

Text excerpts from chapter 16 of A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee (New York: Riverhead Books) Copyright 1999 by Chang-rae Lee.

Audio 1:

Why must all my paths lead to the forlorn, unpolished wards of some hospital? Sitting here in Renny's cramped but tidy office, I fear I am afflicted. Or even worse. For how can one slight, shrinking-in-the bones fellow be such a lingering pall of sickness and mortality, casting darkly upon his associates and friends and recently discovered loved ones, who (almost) to the last profess their happiness for having known him, and for knowing him still? They phone him and say grace for him and invite him to their rooms, and then they even send flowers to his house when he should be bearing flowers tenfold back to them, a veritable nursery of grateful tidings.

Renny, thank goodness, will survive. Indeed, as I suspected, it was a first heart attack, and had not the paramedic unit arrived so quickly (having stopped for lunch, by chance, a few streets away at the time of the call), the damage to his heart muscle would have been dangerously severe, perhaps forever debilitating. He was napping this morning when I visited him, still propped up in the tilted bed, the lines to the various monitors and saline drip and his oxygen crisscrossing his wide, bared chest. The fluorescent light fixture above his bed had been left on, and beneath its cool, icy cast, he appeared as if he were alive but being preserved in a kind of science-fictional stasis, his hair unevenly matted from sleep, his skin dull off sheen, the beeps and hums of the machines standing in for the sounds of his living.

Thomas, whom I brought along with me, was initially frightened by the congealed, webbish sight of him, as was I. The boy wouldn't step immediately into the room; he needed a moment or two to gather his courage. When I finally led him in he wouldn't go past the foot of the bed, standing there as quiet and unmoving as a stone, as quiet as I have ever seen him until last week, when he was curled up in his own hospital bed after the jarring, frightening events at the pool, His mother, to my surprise, had been the picture of calm when she arrived in the ward. Thomas was by all accounts fine, solely in for a night's observation and monitoring, and she had listened studiously to young Dr. Weil, nodding and even taking notes in a black leather organizer. She asked him questions about what to expect, what signs of complication might appear, infections and fevers and whatnot. She inquired earnestly after Renny, whom she didn't know. I stood by and listened, not saying a word, though not avoiding her eyes, either, which weren't accusatory or angry but rather relieved and a little frazzled, with the depth of that life worth knowing, that hushing stare of all loving mothers and fathers. I would have gladly endured a fit of rage, or a frosty harangue of disappointment, and yet it seemed she was making efforts to assure the clearness of my conscience, despite the unavoidable fact of my momentary carelessness and lack of vigilance, which I didn't attempt to diminish when I first phoned with the news. Why she should be so gentle with me I couldn't figure, except for my obvious tender feeling for the boy, which I suppose anyone would see. But I heard something else, too, or so I wished I'd heard it, the willing sufferance of me in her tone, the first hint of a generous, filial allowing that I probably ought never to deserve.

Audio 2:

In Renny's case, I have deep regrets. He believes I saved his life, when in fact I likely endangered it by not going to him right away. But nothing I say will convince him; I'm his hero, his savior, his lifelong guardian angel. He sleeps much now so I can't educate him with what really happened. And then Liv, too, must be misremembering the scene, for she's been equally grateful and then nervous, no doubt abraded by this rough brush with mortality.

"I still feel jittery, Doc," she said to me this afternoon, in the corridor outside his room. I had taken Thomas back to Sunny and had returned to resume my vigil. Liv had arrived from her office in the interval and she was not looking like herself; she was disheveled and not wearing makeup and drinking a non-diet Coke.

"I'm weak, " she moaned. "Terribly weak. I can hardly drive. God, I can hardly dial a number on my car phone. It's all hitting me. Tell me it'll soon go away."

"I can't truly say, Liv. But I wish I could."

"Well, please just say something helpful."

I asked what that might be.

"Something reassuring and wise."

I didn't know what else to say, so I told her, "Then I am certain your strength will return. So will Renny's. Completely for you both. And you will live together in contentment and happiness. You will grow very old together."

"Please don't say that, Doc!"

"Your strength is increasing already."

"Ha!" she cried, squeezing my hand. "You're a good doctor, Franklin Hata."

"You know as well as anyone, Liv, that I'm not."

"I know, I know," she said, brushing lint from my shoulder. She sounded a bit arch again, though still tensed up, wound tightly with everything. "But you are, aren't you? I mean inside, you are a doctor, whatever you actually know. I can tell. It doesn't matter if you have a degree or not. You have the spirit of one in you. The essence."

"I don't know, Liv. I don't know what that is."

"Well, I do," she said firmly. "And you have it. It's not empathy, exactly. It's just that you know what people are feeling, and what they want. You sense their pulses, I guess."

"Perhaps," I said.

"You bet, Doc." She hugged me and, to my surprise, kissed me on the cheek. I told her I would stay at the hospital and keep Renny company, so that she might go home and shower and change her clothes. She hugged me again, and on leaving she cried out, as if for the whole ward to hear, "I know the truth, Doc, and so does everybody else."

Audio 3:

But the truth, I am beginning to think, is not something that can be so clear. Not in even the best circumstances. My friend, Mrs. Anne Hickey, wherever her good spirit may be, would have been among the first in line to testify to the "truth" about me. And yet what have I ever done for her, then or now? For another passing hour her boy, Patrick, lies in his solitary ship of a bed with the clear vinyl curtains drawn down around him, unvisited by me since that first night I stole into his room. It's not the chance of seeing his father I dread, but the hard posture of Patrick's stillness, the limpid quality of his skin, the clocklike winding?down. His is an old man's demise, a chilly lessening, which is not right for a child (if any end is), who in the terrible waiting matures with a bittersweet swiftness, a quickened growing up in order to die.

And how further depleted might he appear with his mother now gone? I wonder if he even knows. If I were Mr. Hickey, I wouldn't tell him, I couldn't tell him, I'd say his mother had to take a trip, that her old friend across the ocean had died. I'd keep up a lie for as long as he could bear. I'd tell him whatever story he would hope for and believe. I would pool about him a whole history of her absence, too wide to cross and too deep to plumb: a dusky, flooding water in which he might forever gently tread.

I watched yesterday, as she was interred in one of the two small cemeteries in town. I waited outside the chapel in my car and then followed the procession along Church Street and then up past Boling Street and McKinley, to the large memorial grounds where many years ago I purchased my own plot, and one for Sunny as well. It was a day when one suddenly thinks one should prepare for such a thing, automatically and immediately. And it was an unusual decision as well, I realize, to buy one for such a little girl, but I wasn't married or expecting to be--the other plot one buys being normally for a spouse--and I thought that it would be something like insurance, that we would always have a place for ourselves in the end, which no one could encroach or buy back or take away. But I never told her about it, feeling it was morbid; and then later, when we were having so many difficulties in our relationship, it seemed inappropriate to mention, too easy for her to misinterpret or misunderstand.

Audio 4:

There's a knock at the door and to my great surprise it's Sunny, holding a white paper bag of deli sandwiches and a cardboard tray with two cups of tea. It's a little lunch for us, she says, stepping inside the cramped space. There's only one other chair for her to sit in, and she sits in it, across Renny's desk from me. She's neatly dressed again, in business clothes, though I know she's already stopped going to work at the mall.

"The nurse said I could find you here. I kept calling the house but no one ever picked up. I was starting to get worried. You ought to get an answering machine, you know."

"I often mean to, but I never do," I say. "I like to answer the phone in person, as I always did at the shop. Where is Thomas?"

"I left him with the neighbor."

"He didn't want to come along?"

"Of course he did," she says. "But I think he's a little frightened of hospitals. Like his mother, I guess."

"You?" I say, accepting one of the turkey sandwiches from the deli I used to frequent. "You never told me this. All the times I brought us here when you were younger, while I was doing business, and you never let on."

"That's why I didn't like being around the store, either," she answers, almost smiling. "All those depressing devices. Before I came to you they had me in a place like this, but much worse, of course. I know they told you I was at a Christian orphanage, but really it was like a halfway house, I guess. I wasn't put up for adoption. I was abandoned. I can't believe you're surprised. Did you really believe they would give you a wanted child?"

I answer, "They said I would be an ideal candidate, if it weren't for the fact I wasn't married. But they were convinced of my intentions, and so sent you to me anyway."

But I feel myself addressing her in the lawyerly and justifying way I always employed when she was growing up and I am quite sure I should stop speaking now, or at least speaking like this, and I suddenly say, "You probably wish you had never had to come live with me."

Sunny looks down, slowly unwrapping the white butcher paper from her sandwich. Her short dark hair is combed back neatly away from her temples and eyes, the soft, maturing shape of her ever-beautiful face.

She says, I don't wish that anymore. I used to. And I used to wish I had never been born. But all that's natural, isn't it?"


"Right. But with you, I just didn't understand. I thought this even when I was very young, why you would ever want a child, me or anyone else. You seemed to prefer being alone, in the house you so carefully set up, your yard and your pool. You could have married someone nice, like Mary Burns. You could have had an instant, solid family, in your fine neighborhood, in your fine town. But you didn't. You just had me. And I always wondered why. I always thought it was YOU who wished I had never come, that you had never chosen to send for me."

"I never once thought that," I tell her, "not for one moment."

"It doesn't matter if you did," she says, with a gentle equanimity. "We're here, aren't we? Whatever has happened."

I let the notion suspend, and even happily, for I've long wished to taste the plain and decent flavor of being with someone who is likewise content to be with me. It's a feeling not necessarily happy or thrilling or joyful but roundly pleasing, one that I am sure most people in the world know well, and others, like Sunny and me both orphans of a sort, must slowly discover, come to learn for ourselves.

Audio 5:

"How is Renny, by the way? Was he awake?"

"He was," Sunny replies. "We talked for a little while. He was very tired, and I wanted to leave him alone, but he kept asking me questions."

"About what?"


"Oh. Well, I suppose Renny was curious about you being my daughter."

She carefully peels the tops from the cups of tea. She hands me one. "I think he knows you adopted me. But he wasn't so interested in that. He wanted to know what it was like, having you as a father. Growing up together in the house."

I tell her, "You don't have to tell me what you said to him. I don't mind."

"How are you so sure you don't want to hear it?" she answers. "You think I would say something bad?"

"No, I don't," I say, trying not to sound pleading. "It's just that I see no reason to put you in a funny position now, when it was probably awkward enough with Renny. I know this will sound terrible, given what's happened in the last few days, but I'm almost grateful for the way things have gone of late, by which I mean between you and Thomas and me. It's certainly strange and unexplainable, but I can't think of another time in my life that I have been as hopeful as I am now, and I am sure it is because you have come back here with your son. I will take that over everything else. So you see how you could have told Renny whatever you wished or felt compelled to, and it would be all right with me. With the misery that has come, there is some fortune. Perhaps even for me."

Sunny says, "You're not someone I ever think has had too little fortune in his life."

I don't answer, though I glance at her somberly, to try to tell her somehow that she's both absolutely wrong, and right.

I think that's why Renny likes you so much," she speaks u

"You're a charm to him. He looks up to you. He's obviously a nice man, too, and I could never tell him anything bad about you."

"But you very well could."

"I could," she tells me straight, but without any malice in her eyes. "I could. I guess I could have told him a thousand things about you and about me, none of them alone so terrible and damning but taken altogether."

"But there is that one thing. . . ."

She lowers her eyes.

"I've been wishing it never happened."

"Yes," she very firmly and quietly says. "But we've talked about that already, haven't we? I don't want to bring it up again. Please."

"Okay," I say to her, though somehow I feel an impulse to lead us to some brink. So I say, "But in fact everything with Dr. Anastasia was all my fault. It was."

Audio 6:

Sunny doesn't answer. There's a cross wrinkle in her brow, but she somehow sloughs off my likely ruinous charge and asks instead if the turkey sandwich is all right for me. I can only answer that it is. Before I know it we're on to something else entirely, namely, her round of interviews in Connecticut, and while she's telling me how it doesn't look promising that she'll get the job or really want it if she does (the store being somewhere in northern Arizona), I see how far past those events and times my daughter is, how (whether psychologically healthful or not) she's for the present moment put it well away, just a box in a trunk in an upstairs garret closet, this for her sake and Thomas's and maybe even for mine.

We finish up with lunch and drink our tepid tea. We don't say much of anything more, except to laugh about Thomas a little bit, as she tells me of his renewed love for all things on dry land. When she leaves I decide to go out of the hospital with her and escort her to her car, which she lets me do without a word. And I think a simple thought, that we can walk like this across wide parking lots, we can have a lunch together in a tiny basement room, and leave off mostly decent and all right.

I'm heartened on my own drive home, and yet I can't seem to shake what I thought I had put well past me. For it was not in the hospital but in an affiliated clinic that I had arranged for Sunny to take care of her difficulty. She had returned once more to the house, after having been away for nearly a year. She was barely eighteen years old. She had been living with her friend Lincoln in a tenement apartment somewhere in Upper Manhattan. One, evening as I was reading in bed the telephone rang and it was Sunny on the line. Her voice was very quiet and shallow, and for a few seconds I thought it was someone else, a prank caller of some kind. But then it was unmistakably Sunny, the reserve of her coming through even the anxiousness in her voice. Of course she would not say a word of how scared she was. But I listened and did not try to interrupt, and by the end of the conversation I told her I was glad that she decided not to go to one of the crowded, dirty clinics where she was living, and that she had nothing to be concerned with anymore. When I awoke I made several discreet contacts and by the afternoon the procedure was arranged and scheduled for the following Monday. Sunny would take the train up to Bedley Run on Sunday and I would meet her at the station and take us to the private clinic for an examination, which the doctor insisted upon before any procedure the next morning.

When I saw her step out onto the platform I was taken aback by the broad, curving shape of her. Her face was full. She hadn't said how far the pregnancy had gone, and I had assumed it was but a few weeks past her date, perhaps a month or two, no more. Anyone else would have thought that she was too long with the child, that it was much too late, that there was nothing left to do. She was indeed quite near full-term. But when she came out of the train the first thought that came to me was that it was a Sunday and quiet, when there was hardly anyone about, and that I ought to spirit her to the private clinic and to Dr. Anastasia as quickly as possible.

Audio 7:

In the car I didn't speak. What was there to say? If anything, I had only criticisms, and though I chose not to air them I was feeling edgy all the same, driving brusquely, speeding and changing lanes without signaling. Sunny didn't seem to notice, swaying on each turn, unseatbelted as always, and suddenly I was furious with her. How could she get herself into such a predicament? How long did she believe she could delay? Where now was her "lover," whom she always talked of being so genuine and serious and gentle? Perhaps he had made a few recordings some time ago, but did he even own his trumpet anymore, or was it pawned for a few weeks' phantom pleasure and delirium? And glancing over at her I felt my fury redouble, seeing that she had little need to apologize or excuse or otherwise explain, and I thought--darkly, for a bare millisecond-that I could unbuckle myself now, too, and let the car's momentum carry us straight through the approaching sharp turn, into the stone farmer's wall that bounded the old suburban roadway. I wanted an end to us, inglorious and swift, just another unfortunate accident on Route 9, to leave a few lines hardly noticed in the local paper concerning a longtime Bedley Run resident and his daughter, with no survivors.

And yet what did I do but nothing unusual, save elicit a sighing murmur from the tires as I wheeled us wickedly around that bend, the same one that I would grimly consider on countless future occasions, and that one rainy night years later my friend Anne Hickey would not survive. If only once I could cease imagining the various motions, and instead of conjurings and dummy musings that leave one subtly affected, take hold of some moment and fully acquit myself to it, whether decently or ignobly. This is not to say I wish I had smashed us into the wall, but that I might have at least stopped the car along the road and turned squarely and given her every last angry bit and piece of my mind. But what happened of course was that I drove home and let her inside the house where we separated until the appointed exam, Sunny upstairs in her old room stripped of everything but the bed, and I down in the family room, listening to the records of Chopin and Mozart I had bought for her to use as models and inspiration. And while I listened to those stirring, ambling notes I might have realized how frightening all this was to her, how overwhelming and awful, but I sensed instead only the imminent disgrace and embarrassment that would hang about the house like banners of our mutual failure.

Audio 8:

At six 0 clock I went up and had to rouse her. Her eyes were puffed and red; perhaps she had fallen asleep crying. I told her to come down to the car, and she said weakly she didn't want to go to the doctor that night, asking if I could take her the next day. I reminded her that it was the waiting that had placed her in such trouble, that it was only an examination and she could talk to Dr. Anastasia about whatever she wished. Then she said she wasn't sure anymore about going ahead. I didn't protest; I only repeated that it was an examination and that nothing was yet determined. She finally nodded, still groggy, and excused herself to go to the bathroom. I fully noticed then the change in her as she walked down the upstairs hall, the outwardness of her feet, the slightest waddle to her gait. To remember that now makes me feel the way I should have felt to brim at such a sight with sober pride and happiness, a grandparental glow, though then it was, I must recall, a most sickening vision to me, being the clearest picture of my defeats, familial and otherwise.

We arrived at the clinic well after dark a few minutes before Dr. Anastasia. We waited in silence. When he drove up he got out of his car quickly and went straight to the doors, his keys out. He nodded at us and let us in and locked the doors behind us. I'd known him only casually; he was one of many obstetricians with privileges at the county hospital, but the only one I knew of who also worked at such a clinic. He was older than I, and not originally from this country, and he always seemed utterly purposeful and competent if not always warm, the sort of professional one could admire for his straightforward nature and his efficiency. I believe he sensed my appreciation and so obliged my request for an afterhours appointment. But when we were gathered in the brightly lighted waiting room, he looked somewhat put out, disturbed. I didn't offer anything and then he asked Sunny if she was ready to be examined. They went into the next room. After a mere five minutes Sunny came out, and Dr. Anastasia called me in. Sunny walked past me and sat on the waiting room sofa.

When he closed the door the doctor said, "What are we doing here, Mr. Hata?"

"Excuse me, Doctor?"

"You told me she was around twenty-eight weeks. Are you mad?

"But then you, especially, should know better, being in your profession."

"She was unsure of her dates."

"Notwithstanding," he said, thoroughly annoyed. "It's not possible now. She's no doubt past an acceptable point."

"But you hardly examined her."

"I didn't have to," he said. "Anyone with eyes can tell what's the case. She has no option left but to carry to term."

"I tell you she does not want it."

"It doesn't matter, Mr. Hata. . . ."

"Let me speak, please, Doctor. I tell you she cannot have it. There are many unhappy reasons. She barely finished high school last spring and doesn't have a job. The father is somewhere in Washington Heights, and he has practically abandoned her. He is a longtime drug addict besides. I'm afraid she has also begun taking the drugs with him. You well know there's a chance the fetus may have grave injuries as a result, if not certain mental deficiencies. I'm here now to help her but I've run out of patience and willingness. I am sorry and ashamed to say that this is the last effort I have for her. But I will do this. So I'm asking you to help because of who you are and your experience and skills, so that she won't go to someone else, which she will, and no doubt suffer terrible injuries. You will be preventing further trauma. I apologize for not being more forthright on the telephone, but you see I had to speak to you in person. I feel I must convince you."

Audio 9:

"I do not involve myself in the lives of my patients, Mr. Hata. I attend to them after they have made decisions. But this decision comes far too late."

"It's not too late," I told him. "There can be medical necessities, as I have mentioned. I understand these operations can be very complicated, particularly at this stage, and much more costly than usual. I am willing to do everything I can to have you help my daughter. This is not to insult your professionalism but only to make clear how resolved I am. And I am resolved. We are desperate, sir, and I will do all I can to get her out of this trouble."

He was quiet for a moment, and then said, "I have done them this late but not in this country. There are different standards."


"She appears unsure as well."

"Perhaps she is," I answered. "She's naturally fearful, as I am. But she has confided in me, and I tell you she is ready. We are ready even tonight, if it's possible."

"My nurse won't come here now," Anastasia said. I can anesthetize her, but I need my nurse to attend me. I believe, however, that she would likely not agree to assist such a procedure."

I told him, "I'll stand in for her."


"I was trained, once, in surgical methods and nursing. A long time ago, during the world war. I'm sure all you in fact need is another set of hands, to give you instruments and such."

"This is mostly true. . . ."

"I can do that for you. I'm willing to do that."

"Yes but Mr. Hata ," he said considering me grimly. He spoke slowly and resonantly. "You understand what you will have to look at. This will be an indelicate action, which I would not wish upon anyone."

"I understand Doctor," I said. "I've witnessed such things. Similar things."

"Perhaps you have. But she is your daughter, Mr. Hata. It will be different."

I said to him, "I understand."

"Do you really?"

"Yes, I do," I said to him, as unwaveringly as I could utter the words, enough so that I was quite convinced myself. He took me at my word, and within an hour she was in her gown and he had given something to relax her. All I had asked of him was that she be heavily sedated, even before being administered the numbing spinal, so that she wouldn't realize I was there, or much remember anything of what was done, which he did for me, and with success.

Audio 10:

The following evening, in fact, when she was recuperating in her bedroom, she would ask if I had come into the operating room, and I told her that I had done so only briefly at the end, as she had called for me. This was true, for she did say, "Poppa," out of the blue, and I had held her hand for some moments, patting her fingers gently to try to comfort her. It was the first time since she was quite young that I had caressed her so, and the final time, too-still right up to now -- for she would leave again just as quickly as she arrived, having a taxi come to the house and take her to the train station for the first express of the morning. She didn't know that I had been awake all night, or that I'd heard her walk down the hall and slip a note under my door, which read, "Sorry for all my trouble to you. Goodbye." I almost went to her then, to plead that she remain, but I saw a beam of headlights sweeping up the drive, and before I could even pull slippers on my feet she was quickly down the stairs and outside, closing the cab door behind her.

If Sunny were to ask me now, I would not tell her I was in the operating room throughout the procedure. I would have to lie. For it was much more difficult than even Dr. Anastasia expected, and owing to his skill and great care he didn't injure her at all, Thomas being proof enough of that. And so I remain grateful to the doctor, for the force of his patience and focus, as it was obvious how much heed he gave to each operation and step. I watched his face and the movements of his hands, his concentration and purpose astounding to me. Once he began he never showed even a shade of consternation, comporting himself with utter professionalism, as though it no longer mattered how much I would pay him (which I did, over generously), nor that she was much too far into her term. Sunny was eerily quiet while he worked, her eyes glassy and unfixed, though every so often she would gaze up at me almost searchingly, as though I were some faraway figure in her dreaming, this dimmed man in the distance, made of twilight and fog.

The doctor was right about my presence and participation. For what I saw that evening at the clinic endures, remaining unaltered, preserved. And if in my life I've witnessed the most terrible of things, if I've seen what no decent being should ever look upon and have to hold in close remembrance, perhaps it means I should be left to the cold device of history, my likeness festooning the ramparts of every house and town and district of man.

But it is not. And I do not live in broad infamy, nor hide from righteous pursuers or seekers of the truth. I do not mask my face or screen my doings of each day. I have not yet been banished from this earth. And though nearly every soul I've closely known has come to some dread or grave misfortune, I instead persist, with warmth and privilege accruing to me unabated, ever securing my good station here, the last place I will belong.


Text from A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee. Copyright 1999 by Chang-rae Lee. Audio and text used with the permission of the author.

Questions and Answers


Q: "When the comfort woman is killed, you refer to a tiny, perfect form. It was not clear whether that meant that she was pregnant. Was she, in fact, pregnant?"

A: "In my mind he did find the perfect form--that she was pregnant, that she had hid it, and that from all indications maybe herself didn't believe she had had it. But I did intend for him to at least think that he had found something perfect. I don't know if I want to come down and say that there was actually something there. I think in his mind there was something there, that he had found something that would obviously haunt him always and, from the scene I just read, would affect him as well. In some ways it's more important what the character believes he sees. I know that you could say, "it's either there or not." For me, it is more interesting if he believes he's seeing something--that, in fact, it is there for him."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee


Q: "Comment on the nature of Hata's love of the comfort woman."

A: "His romantic love for her is very unequal, not only because she doesn't really reciprocate but also because she can't possibly reciprocate given their positions. So it's partly about his naiveté, his illusion , and just his absolute youth--that he couldn't see the picture at the time, that love was not possible. Real love was not possible."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "How do you see Doc Hata traveling from the war in the Pacific (World War II) to a Westchester suburb?"

A: "I always saw him, wherever he was, making great efforts to try [to belong]. In every sentence of the book there is a great yearning to belong: in the military; in Japan as a child; or, particularly in this golden period of his life-- or what should be the golden period --in this little town in Westchester County where no one knows anything about him, no one will ever know anything about him, he's safe. He doesn't need to be unmasked. So that was a location that was quite perfect for unmasking him, when no one wanted to unmask him, when everyone had finally accepted him, in his view."

"You know, he's always called the "number one citizen" in the town or the "unofficial mayor." He's very suited to going someplace and fitting in. Although of course, there's this scene and very strong undercurrents of feeling that everything is off. Not just because of the past but also because of how he feels every step of the way. He is very conscious of who he is, even patently, on the face of things."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "Why is there no discussion in the book of Hata's move from Japan to the U.S.?"

A: "I've been asked about this. I actually started writing a whole section that was about him making this transition and making this voyage. But in some ways it was just another place where he could do the same things so it was repetitive. We weren't learning anything more about him. When you have a character, in a novel particularly, it's not that you're trying to show his whole life. You can't, first of all. What you try to show are those particular moments and details that elucidate what that life consists of, its glories and its pitfalls. He's always fleeing and my hope was that you could see that he was trying to go into his perfect little hole of a house wherever he was, but particularly in Bedley Run."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "Medical crises are recurrent in A Gesture Life. What is their significance and why did you choose to incorporate them into this book?"

A: "Clearly, the character came out of my imagining him as this medic during the war. Everything that he wanted up to that point was to become a doctor, a surgeon, an honorable member of the profession and of the military. Part of my feeling throughout was that he should come against this idea of himself as a doctor. Of course, he wasn't one in the end. But he was someone that had the mien and the sensibility of one, especially in the chapter I read. People say that to him and he's begun to believe it so much that it's become part of the very fabric of his life."

"I thought that because he's not such an emotive person, that he had to come up against these great jarring events and that the only way I could do that was through these medical life and death issues. But also, life and death issues that force him to either be a doctor or not be a doctor. Obviously, in this last scene that I read, he is a doctor although one that is clearly working towards his own ends rather than his daughter's."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "Would you say that his relationship with the "comfort woman" is the defining event of his life?"

A: "It's one of the events. I'm always a little uncomfortable saying that there's one event in someone's life that reaches across. It's part of a dark education and a response to that education--that everyone he touches comes to some grave misfortune. Love for him is mixed up with disaster, with death and with suffering."

Audio: "He's a very passive person but passive in the way that he's hoping that everything will gel around him and that all things will end up well. Of course they can't, not in novels."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "Will you write a sequel to this book?"

A: "Well, he's a little old at the end of this book. I think he's about 75. One of the characters that I'm interested in is Sunny. I was thinking that maybe I would write Sunny's novel, later in her life. She's the sort of character that keeps on popping up in everything that I write: a Korean orphan, someone who's taken in by a family or an adult who is not really thinking of her as a person, but as someone to fill out the house."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "Is there some significance to the daughter being named "Sunny"?"

A: "I don't know about that, but in Korean, Sun is a popular prefix for names, particularly girls' names".

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "It is striking that the abortion is referred to repeatedly in medical terms as "the procedure" when in fact it was an event highly charged with emotion."

A: "I remember that my mother was very ill and actually succumbed to cancer about 10 years ago. Even though her physicians were so wonderful, they did talk about 'the procedure' a lot and I think that it was a way for everyone to be able to sit there and intellectually engage without completely falling apart. But also it's a way, of course, for Hata to distance himself and protect himself. Curiously, I found that as a writer it was a very difficult scene to imagine."

"You imagine these things and they affect you very deeply, but I thought, I need to do two things here. I need to a)show what is happening but, b)most importantly, show what is happening in his mind and in his heart. If there was ever a point where he might emote, it would be here, where his language would change. I thought, Absolutely, I can't. He would have to do the same exact thing even in this most horrific of situations in terms of his psyche and sensibility. I thought that would be most right to him and probably most tragic to the story."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "At the end of the book, it is ambiguous whether he leaves the town permanently."

A: "In my thinking, he's realized that he can never possibly really belong in the ways that we imagine that we can--that it's always mitigated not just by one's past but by who we are, that belonging really is a fiction that makes our lives happy and glorious. His situation is obviously a little more clear, in the dissonance between his life and the life around him. At the end, his last words are 'come almost home' and I felt that was right, that this is as home and homey as he could ever find."

"If that's the case then he's got to go. He's got to leave this place and probably do the same thing again. He's probably going to have continue his search for a place where he can find a kind of citizenship.--citizenship of the psyche where he absolutely considers himself to be among his kind. I don't think that kind exists, and he's just getting into that idea."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "Can you tell us something about the research you did for this book?"

A: "I went to Korea and interviewed some surviving comfort women and sat with them for an afternoon as they told me about their experiences. Obviously I did a lot of secondary research like reading in archives but that was pretty much it. Originally, I wanted to write a book that was focused on them and written from their point of view but this character of Hata, this medic who just appeared in a room somewhere in a scene, presented himself."

"I thought, Well, that's actually, in terms of moral quandary, much more complex. Being a victim is not that morally complex, it's just horrible and it's just a terror. But I was intrigued by someone who had been part of this experience, but then went on a)to survive, and b)to construct a life of prosperity and happiness. Thinking about that, that's where he came about."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "Where did the title of the book come from?"

A: "One of the characters, I believe it's Sunny, says, 'You lead a life of gestures.' What she means by that is that he's always there for protocol and decorum rather than saying the thing that needs to be said or doing the thing that needs to be done: to say no in a certain instance, and not to be involved in something horrible, not to implicate himself, and not to always try to assimilate and compromise. That's one of the things that he's figuring out about the way in which he's run his life, which has been a complete mode of gestures and politeness--but politeness to an extreme."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "How common is it, or was it, for a Japanese family to adopt a Korean child?"

A: "It's very unusual. It's probably happened as many times as the number of fingers on my hand. But I felt I wanted to have him right from the start be part of a family that he could never belong to and be a part of."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "How did you come to write about the "comfort women"?"

A: "I was immediately drawn to the comfort women by a couple of newspaper articles I saw. I didn't really know about them at all, which kind of shocked me. Knowing something about recent Korean history--annexation and colonization by the Japanese--I thought that this would be something that I would've heard and read about. Yet I hadn't heard about it and this was the late 80's or early 90's."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "Do you know whether the Japanese conducted experimental procedures on these women?"

A: "There were some, but they all seemed so arbitrary. It just happened that some particular doctor would have some cockamamie idea about something and just sort of try it because he had human subjects. Of course, we all know that the Japanese did a lot of experiments in Manchuria. I didn't hear directly from any of the women that I spoke to about that. They did have a lot of field methods of disinfection or abortion but it wasn't part of any larger program. It was more individual cases and application."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "What motivates you to write?"

A: "I have two young girls now! Everyone tells me how much college is going to cost. Besides the world, the awful world, the craving world that we have to deal with. I think in some ways it's a way for me to hook into all the things that I don't really express and don't feel comfortable enacting in my regular life. I live a very normal, dull life. I live in suburban New Jersey. I teach and everything is sort of normal. It's always been that way for me. I've been very lucky. I've just had this kind of suburban existence."

"Yet all throughout I've felt that there was this great sadness or mourning, I don't know what it is, but I've always felt that. When I was in high school, I wrote poetry and it always made me feel-- I don't want to talk about writing as a form of therapy--but it was a way for me to feel worse. It was a way for me to feel vulnerable, and to feel pain, and to feel all the things that I probably hadn't felt. It was a way for me to connect with that world pain. That's something that's always attractive to me. I don't know if that's because of my upbringing or because we were always raised to have such a calm and orderly life. This is a way for me to go a little crazy and do it on the page and to explore things that aren't appropriate."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "On the one hand, Frank Hata seems incapable of feeling, but on the other hand he is heartbreaking."

A: "One of the things that was very difficult as I wrote this book is that I didn't connect with him either. He's a very difficult sort of person and he's very frustrating. By the end, my wife and editor will tell you, I hated him because you have to sit with him all day and the ways in which he constructs friendships, and his memory--it's maddening. Yes, he has likable aspects and it's clear that people see him and like him. That was one of the most difficult things about writing this book. It's not just the sort of character he is, but he's the only one telling you the story, in first person. I had to find a way to get around him a lot of the time."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "Was the reason that Hata adopted a daughter based on his wartime experience?"

A: "Yes, I think it was connected to his wartime experience but also what was driving him more than whether he cared or not about having a daughter was that he wanted to have a family and to be a part of this town. He talks about how it's part of the role that he should play. He needs a daughter if he can't have a wife. His relationship with his neighbor, Mary Burns, is another relationship in which he's failed. He's failed all these women in his life, some more tragically than others. It's not something that he would do [except for] his drive to have a perfect family in this perfect house in this perfect town."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "What's the meaning of the fire?"

A: "It is a means to jar his world more than anything else. He rhapsodizes a little bit about it throughout the book but it's more just to get him going."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.


Q: "Your book seems so beautifully to present affliction and a healing process, as if you were a physician."

A: "Thank you. With characters often--I am a novelist, not a medical person--in some ways I'm trying to do the same thing. Not to heal people, but to try to find a way in which someone can see the light of life. Often that means going over a kind of history of illness--not physical illness but a spiritual illness."

 Audio and text of answer reproduced with the permission of Chang-rae Lee.

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