Sunday, September 15, 2019

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 bill berry, jr.

Publisher and CEO, aaduna &
Member, Rockford Kingsley's Advisory Board
 
 
 
 
 
 
Thomas Lee
 

 

"Education was always the focus of my upbringing....   It was always grades, tests, and report cards. That’s pretty normal for an Asian kid who grew up in my generation. Most Asian parents are from countries where getting into a top university is the only realistic road to success, and they bring that attitude here."
 
 

    

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Interview With Thomas Lee 
 
bill berry, jr.
 
 
Thomas Lee is married and resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. A lawyer, he is a weaver of stories. His fiction enables us to break through barriers, and prompts us to better understand and accept a culture that may be different from our own. Tom’s writing creates pathways where we are able to embrace similarities with others who are different from us, and then makes us realize that as part of a universal family…we are each other.     
 
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bill berry, jr.:
First of all, thank you for taking the time to chat and share. 
 
You were born in South Korea; how long did you live there and what were those experiences like? How old were you when you came to America; where did you initially settle, and what were the why’s and how’s of leaving your homeland?       
 
Tom: 
Tom: I was three years old when I came to the United States with my family. My father was transferred by the Korean corporation he worked for at the time to their office in New York City in 1978. I have no recollection of Korea before I came here. We lived in Queens for a short while (I barely remember our tiny apartment), then moved to Palisades Park, New Jersey when I was four. Both areas have a large Korean immigrant population now, but at the time, there weren’t many Koreans living there. I spoke Korean at home to my parents, and had a lot of exposure to Korean culture through my family and church, but I otherwise grew up in predominantly white suburbs. 
 
Over the years, my parents chose to stay here instead of going back to Korea for the sake of my (and my older brother’s) education and future, but they still tried to instill in me the sense that Korea is my homeland. I’ve been to Korea several times, but I’ve been in the United States for almost my whole life, so which nation is my “homeland” is something I’ve struggled with.
 
bill: 
I think there is always a struggle for folks who have had a very personal experience with more than one country. And there is that perennial difficulty when one has to decide what country is more important when that should not be part of a personal equation. Nevertheless, the reality is that you came of age in America and made your way to an Ivy League university. How did you achieve that? What were your high school experiences like, and did you find acceptance from folks who were, at a surface level, different from you? What were your experiences like being at Columbia? I suspect you lived on campus and found the upper Westside of New York City not to be a bastion of Korean culture. How did you handle that?       
 
Tom: 
Education was always the focus of my upbringing.   Not sports, not activities, not being popular, definitely not girls. It was always grades, tests, and report cards. That’s pretty normal for an Asian kid who grew up in my generation. Most Asian parents are from countries where getting into a top university is the only realistic road to success, and they bring that attitude here.
 
We were not a well-off family, but we weren’t poor either. We always got by. However, I was always supposed to strive for more than that, and good grades (I was raised to believe) was how one did that.
 
As a result, I did well in school academically. So did my older brother. He went to Harvard. I was expected to follow in his footsteps, so Columbia was regarded as a bit of a disappointment by my parents.
 
I actually consider it a blessing that I went to school in New York at a time (the early nineties), when New York was not as expensive as it is now. Also, like I said before, I grew up in a white suburb, so being in New York, and encountering all different colors and backgrounds was quite a revelation. 
 
As an immigrant, I always thought I’d have to assimilate to “mainstream” culture, but my thinking changed in New York.   In New York, I saw that wasn’t true. I had choices.
 
In terms of Korean culture, Columbia actually has some foreign students from Korea, and a fairly substantial Asian American student population. That was much more than I’d encountered in my high school, which only had a handful of people of color. I learned about Korean pop culture, and Korean peer relationships from these kids. I also met girls who actually like Asian guys, which was new to me as well.
 
It’s true that the Upper West Side has few Koreans, but I made my way down to West 32nd street often, and discovered a lot about Korea culture there. I learned it involved a lot of alcohol! 
 
I also learned about race issues. At the time, a lot of the African American and Latino students protested Columbia’s “core curriculum” which required us to learn about Western European literature and philosophy. I had never thought of America as anything other than a white country, so I was intrigued, and read a lot of authors like Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Franz Fanon, in addition to what I was required to read.
 
Also, I dabbled in what all college kids do, alcohol, dating, etc. All in all it was quite an interesting college experience. 
 
bill: 
So, is it safe to say that your college experience provided substantial ideas for your short stories? Did many of your personal situations get transferred to your fictional characters and themes? Did you start writing creatively while in college or did that come later?   
 
Tom: 
I started writing creatively in high school with the help of a few writing classes. I wrote a few short stories in college, some of which were published in undergraduate journals. I got many ideas for writing in college and New York City, but at that point I lacked the focus and life experience to really craft stories of much value. 
 
For my stories, I draw mostly on personal experiences from my past, probably every writer does that to some extent. A lot of the people I’ve met in New York have found their way into my stories. However, I almost never completely base a character on a person I know. There are aspects or mannerisms that I’ll “take” from someone I know, even myself quite often, but I find it a little too much like non-fiction to base a character entirely on a person in real life.
 
Thematically, what interested me most about New York was how people carve out their own niches in an environment that is so full of people and influences. Being Korean plays into that quite a bit. A lot of Koreans in New York attempt to create entirely Korean societies because they find the rest of New York to not be for them. A lot of this is self-conscious segregation against other cultures, particularly the white mainstream.
 
Of course, in turn, many Koreans (usually the rebellious teens or twenty-somethings) rebel against that Korean society. That kind of cultural struggle, and the effects that it has on families, I find quite interesting.
 
I also explore young people that many Koreans refer to as “Twinkies.” Yellow outside, white inside, who have decided that they do not want to be a part of Korean society for a variety of reasons. I think many Koreans are dismissive of such people as “sell-outs”, but I think that’s too easy. There’s a variety of reasons many (I have no statistics on this, but it is a very substantial percentage) Korean American young people decide they prefer not to be in majority-Korean environments. To me, exploring characters like this yields some very interesting stories. What is it about Korean society are they running from? What is that they hope to find elsewhere?
 
bill: 
I’ll return to the genesis of your writing career in a few but I want to further pursue what you have shared. It appears there are complexities and subtleties that make the Korean assimilation experience somewhat akin to other immigrant cultures who settled in America. With that said, do you routinely incorporate non-Korean characters in your stories who are not Caucasian and is there a reason for that? Do you see yourself as a Korean writer with a particular Korean aesthetic that you try to imbue in your writing? Are you considered a “Twinkie” and are you influenced by that thinking that seeks to re-define the essence of Korean community and belonging?     
 
Tom: 
Generally, the main characters in my stories are always Korean or Korean American. I often include other characters who are of other races, but generally, I stick to what I know, and what I know best are my own cultural experiences. Every writer, I feel, utilizes his or her own culture experiences, and mine happens to be Korean.
 
Whether or not I’m a “Twinkie” depends on one’s perspective. To a Korean born in Korea and raised in Korea his/her whole life, I probably do seem like one. In fact, the only country where I truly feel like an American is Korea, because I’m always reminded of how my upbringing has made me different from those who were raised in Korea. For example, I don’t despise the Japanese, and I crave a good Italian sub more often than I crave kimchi.
 
To many of my peers in America, I seem very Korean.  Not to sound immodest, but I am better at Korean language and I know more about Korean history and culture than most other Korean Americans of my generation who were raised here. Because of my family, I at least know what Korean customs and expectations are, even if I don’t always follow them.
 
In my writing, I’m not really seeking to redefine or reform Korean American society, but I am seeking to give it a voice that doesn’t really get heard in literature these days. Often times, Asian and Korean American characters tend to be treated either like they are part of the mainstream, or they are part of a disenfranchised people of color, as if there are no real differences with other people of color. 
 
What’s missing to me are the stories of people who don’t fit into either paradigm, which is the unique situation of Korean Americans, and other Asian Americans as well. We are not part of the white mainstream, for the very obvious reason that we are not white. On the other hand, attempts to draw parallels between Korean Americans and other people of color like African Americans and Latinos are difficult, if not forced, because our political and historical backgrounds are so different.
 
Often, the Asian American characters I read about or see on the screen seem to fit into three categories: the assimilated, beautiful Asian woman, the unattractive Asian guy who harmlessly amuses people, or sad oppressed minorities. What I don’t see are the Korean Americans who seem unique and hard to place in post-racial America. I never see the rich Korean boys throwing up on the corners of West 32nd Street out of their BMWs. I never see the crowds of conservative evangelical Christian students singing praise songs on their campuses. I never see the thousands of Korean Americans in finance and law who are now, for better or for worse, an integral part of Wall Street. I never see half-naked Korean teens doing cocaine and ecstasy in exclusively Korean underground clubs.   I also never see some of the worst aspects of Korean culture, which seemed to be conveniently glossed over whenever anyone writes about Koreans: the overt racism against other minorities, sexual degradation of women, and blatant materialism. Why don’t these Korean American realities exist in literature? 
 
bill: 
Tom, tell me “how you really feel”…only kidding. 
 
It takes a certain courage and clarity of conviction and willingness to speak to the truth when expressing the ills of one’s culture, as well as the strengths. We now know you are willing to shift the Korean/American literature landscape so there is a wholeness to character development and not the one-dimensional scope that too often permeates how Asians in general and probably Koreans in particular are represented.
 
With that said, I want to return to your development and growth as a writer. When do you feel you became a serious writer and not just a recreational or hobbyist putting words or unstructured stories on paper? And what prompts you to write?
 
Tom: 
I write because I get an idea in my head that needs to get fleshed out. It starts with a character or a line or a concept, which I desire to turn into something more concrete. It’s almost like a faucet in my head, which is sometimes on and sometimes off. I don’t really know what prompts my creativity, other than when it is “on” I feel like I have to get words down on paper.
 
I didn’t really take writing seriously as a craft until after I got out of school and the real world hit me pretty hard. My profession can be quite draining, and I needed an outlet. I wanted to write, and was no longer satisfied with just being a hobbyist. I wanted to be the best I could be at it.
 
I came to realize that like any other craft, writing is hard work. If I expect people to take time out of their lives to read something that I have written, I have to take the time to make it worthwhile to them. That meant I had to better myself with workshops, brutal criticism from people I respected, and revising, revising and more revising.
 
bill: 
Let’s get back to your writer’s “head”. There is ample evidence that great fiction writers have been lawyers or have trained to be lawyers. During the 19th century we had Dickens, Balsac, Eca de Queiroz, Charles Waddell Chesnutt and others. More contemporary lawyers/writers include John Grisham, Scott Turow, Stephen L. Carter [Yale Law Professor], Petina Gappah, Helen W. Gunnarsson, Alexander McCall Smith, Mary Martin, Stuart Goldberg and the list goes on and on….  
           
What is the reason for this creative expression (and success) by lawyers? How do you see yourself fitting in this lexicon of lawyers/writers and are there many Korean American lawyers who write fiction? And I should add that you graduated from Yale Law School. What was that like? 
 
Tom: 
There are some Korean American lawyers who became writers. Off the top of my head there’s Min Jin Lee (author of Free Food for Millionaires), Charles Yu (author of Third Class Superheroes), and my brother (he writes for television/movies). 
 
There are a LOT of lawyer/writers because many lawyers had some artistic ambitions before they went to law school. A lot of smart English/literature majors go to law school because they don’t know what to do with their lives after college. They wanted to be writers, but they also wanted the security of a dependable profession. I was like that, too.
 
As for Yale Law, I met some of my best friends there, and I will always have fond memories of the place, but I also had my share of problems there. I was, for the most part, a terrible student. I drank a lot, experimented with drugs, spent a lot of time in New York City, and had little interest in my classes. For a variety of reasons, for the first time in my life, I was never doing what I was supposed to be doing, and to my amazement, it didn’t really matter in the long run because of how people viewed me because of my degree. I got really cynical about how elites are created in America. I had a Yale Law degree, so therefore I was “in” when it came to corporate America or academia. To be frank, all an elite law degree really means is that one got better grades in college than most of one’s peers. I believe getting good grades in college can say as many negative things about a person as positive. For example, high GPA can mean someone is socially inept, or sycophantic, or it could mean one is smart. But, for some reason, elite law firms open their doors to Yale Law grads pretty readily. I don’t get it. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.   
 
bill: 
I appreciate and applaud your frankness. I think the overall society particularly in these precarious economic times is rightfully questioning the benefit(s) of a college education, elite or not, and the basic inequity associated with “privilege” as noted by the various “Wall Street” protests that are started to permeate the country. Tuition costs continue to rise and college graduates can not find jobs. That is a fundamental truth. But, that may be another issue for another conversation, at another time. I’ll move to a major personal highlight for you.
 
Ploughshares initiated it first-time award for fiction this year. You won that prestigious national prize. Share the background on that major achievement; how does this award make you feel, and has your writing career started to change because you are now no longer “emerging” so to speak.  
 
Tom: 
I wrote the short story that won the Ploughshares award over two years ago. It was actually rejected by several journals before I entered it into the Ploughshares contest. In fact, all my published stories were rejected several times first before being accepted, so this gives me hope for some of my older stories. Persistence does pay.
 
I generally enter writing contests expecting to lose, and I expected to lose that one as well. When the editor-in-chief of Ploughshares called me to let me know I won, I was stunned. Honestly, I still don’t know what to make of it. I’m honored to be recognized by a nationally recognized journal. I’m thrilled that a writer/editor as distinguished as DeWitt Henry thought my story was worthy of the highest prize this year.
 
Will it mean I’m taken more seriously by publishers now? I hope so, but the award was just announced in August, so it’s too early to know. I have several stories that I am passing around right now, and I hope my publication success will continue, but there are no guarantees. All I can do is keep writing, and hope there’s more recognition to come in the future.
 
bill: 
I am particularly pleased that aaduna was on the cusp of what will be a distinguished writing career for you. And the Ploughshares story is testament to perseverance and not giving up regardless of past circumstances.
 
I am savoring this conversation; however, I know there is a closure point and before I let you go, I have two quick questions. What type of law are you currently practicing and do you have any words of advice to pass on to Rockford Kingsley’s readership?
 
Tom: 
I am an in-house counsel at a technology company in Silicon Valley. I do mostly corporate law. I used to work for law firms in New York, and somehow, through a series of jumps, I’ve managed to find my way here. I was absolutely miserable at some points in my career, and I had a few twists, setbacks, and turns along the way as a result. In my current position, I have time to pursue interests outside of my job, like writing, which I couldn’t do much of in the past. 
 
As for words of advice, I’m in a profession known for being filled with miserable and unhappy people. And the richest and most successful ones seem to be the MOST miserable. All I have to say is, we all have a lot of options in life, and we always have the option to stay positive. It doesn’t do any good to blame the government, society, etc, or whine about your life results. You can only look forward, and build towards something positive rather than bemoaning what makes you unhappy. 
 
 
 
N.B.
Ploughshares founding editor, DeWitt Henry judged that publication’s first-ever fiction prize and the honor went to Thomas Lee. His award winning story titled, ‘The Gospel of Blackbird” will be published in the winter 2011-2012 issue of Ploughshares. Please read two of Tom’s short stories in aaduna.    
 
  

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