In Janice Y.K. Lee’s new novel, The Expatriates, modern-day Hong Kong is brought to life through the eyes of several women who in some way or another don't fit in. Lee’s first book, The Piano Teacher, was also set in Hong Kong, but
“I didn't actually want to write another novel set in Hong Kong; I wanted to write it set in New York City, but it just didn't take,” Lee says. “I don’t think that any of my books — any of my writing — is really a conscious choice for me; they usually lead me where they want to go very, very slowly.”
For The Expatriates, Hong Kong is a city that is both magical and cruel, easy to get lost in (literally and figuratively) — a place where characters either hit their stride or crash and burn. Within all of her meticulously construed characters lies the common thread of not belonging, of which the author is acutely aware. “I’ve always been an observer, an outsider in some way,” the Korean-American explains.
“I was born in Honk Kong, but I’m not Chinese, and people always asked me what I was doing there. Then, when I moved to New York, people were more accepting but still didn't get how I was from Hong Kong since I was Korean.”
Lee spent many years in New York but moved back to Hong Kong as an adult with her husband and children. Now, after ten years of living her own expatriate life, she’s made her way back west once again.
“I feel like New York is my spiritual home, but I miss Hong Kong all the time — my friends and family are there, the food is amazing — but it’s good to be back.”
As much as she loves Hong Kong, after immersing herself in the country both in real life and in her books, Lee is ready to move on and try something new. “I’ve already done Hong Kong with my first two books, and I don't want to pigeonhole myself.
“Right now, I’m working on a short story about three couples at a dinner party, and I’m not sure if it will turn into a novel or not. I wrote a lot of short stories in my 20s, so I feel like I’m exercising different muscles, but I also really enjoy the long process of a novel.”
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This Thursday, Lee comes full circle when she reads at Books & Books, where she also read from her first novel. When it comes to audiences, she doesn't require much to feel like it’s a success. “I like it when people laugh at my jokes," she says with a chuckle, adding, "I like it when the audience is responsive and engaged.”
Janice Y.K. Lee
8 p.m. Thursday, January 28, at Books & Books (265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables). For more information, visit booksandbooks.com
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