Thursday, March 20, 2014
Literary Novelist LEONARD CHANG: The CROSSINGS of Characters.
Christal Cooper 1,779 Words
*This article first appeared in the Asian American Times on December 10, 2009. It has been updated for this blog feature.
The Crossings of Characters
“I hesitate to give all the details of the characters
in Crossings; only because the more I think about
it the more I’ll want to write about it, and,
right now, I want them all to rest.”
One morning, ten years ago, writer Leonard Chang had his usual cup of coffee in one hand and the San Francisco Chronicle in the other.
“On this particular morning, I think I may have been working on some final edits of Fade to Clear, and had various projects on the backburner, so felt like I could skim the paper before going to work. Then I read about the FBI bust of the massage parlors. Over one hundred Korean women immigrants were forced into prostitution. I remember immediately going online to see what other information I could find. There wasn't much. I do remember drinking a lot more coffee than I usually do, my mind spinning with this news. It hit all the things I'm interested in as a writer -- Koreans, crime, the intersection of races/ethnicities, the American dream, AND it happened in my city... So I took a few notes, and resolved to do more research...”
Chang did not think of the San Francisco Chronicle article as a story idea until he was once again shocked to learn how organized the sex trade business was.
“There were standardized layouts and methods used by the parlors—almost like a franchise. This made me think about how systematic it must have been to traffic the women from Korea into San Francisco, and I just had to know more.”
Thus Chang became the investigator, talking with investigators in the case. He later learned how global the sex trade was not only in San Francisco but also around the world. He then became friends with one of the directors of a non-profit organization that fights to stop human trafficking as well as help its victims, mostly women immigrants.
“That I already had five novels published, novels that are often used in literature and sociology courses, gave me some credibility and authority.”
Through his research Chang discovered that there existed evil people who, for every immigrant woman exploited, made tens of thousands of dollars. The perpetrators who got rich off of these women were aware of their crimes, but managed to talk themselves into believing they were providing a service to the public. Whenever the thought of the victimized woman entered the mind of the trafficker, the trafficker would choose not to think about it, enabling him to commit more crimes and make more money.
“I was amazed at the self-rationalization and self-justification that some of the traffickers had.”
Chang met with some victims, learning their individual selves, identity, their own personal experiences of being forced into prostitution. Once Chang gathered all of the women’s stories he knew this was a novel he was fated to write. Before Chang wrote the first word on the first page he determined that he would not discuss Crossings with anyone until its completion.
“I didn’t want to talk about it because it would dissipate the energy of the writing.”
He also decided that the characters would be neither good or evil, but a combination of the two.
“It would be too easy to make the bad guys all bad and the good guys all good – that, to me, is less interesting fiction. The key to good fiction, for me, is to try to be as honest in the portrayals of those gradations. It often makes readers uncomfortable – heck, it makes this writer uncomfortable at times – but complicated characters fascinate me.”
Many of the characters in Crossings faced bleak futures and deaths; and even through Chang did not want his characters to end up the way they did – as a fiction writer, he realized character is stronger than writer, and let the character live, regardless of his or her demise.
“I often liken it to being an actor fully inhabiting a role – you become the character and write.”
During the writing of Crossings, Chang would get up everyday, ride his bike with his laptop to the neighborhood café, write in the morning while he drank cups of coffee; write in the afternoon while he drank cups of green tea; then ride back home; and the next morning, start the process again.
“That’s a tough thing to do, to wake up every morning and go into a world that’s harsh and bleak and scary, and to feel wrung out after every writing session and to do this for four years.”
The intensity of the writing was the strongest Chang ever experienced. He’d written so many drafts of Crossings that he cut out enough material that could be made into another novel.
“It’s not a matter of what I wanted or didn’t want to cut, it was what needed to be cut or changed for the novel to be true, authentic and real to the characters and the story.”
“It’s very important to emphasize that all the characters in the novel are fiction. I don’t think I ever based a fictional character on a real one – that would shackle and limit my abilities as a writer. They are a mix of characters and stories, born not from a particular source but from many, many places – even from secondary sources and casual discussions with people familiar with the human trafficking problem. Bits and pieces of information and backstory may have leaked in from dozens of sources, and the fact that this novel took me four years, with different incarnations and versions, makes the forensic analysis of the characters almost impossible. To me, these characters became real and I can’t honestly remember how precisely they came to life. When I’m writing about a particular character, I become so immersed that I feel like this character is the most important.”
“Unha riding a bicycle was the first image that came to me before I started the novel. I feel like Unha drove the novel forward for me; that when I was writing the early drafts I was very, very invested in her story and her plight.
Unha has perhaps a handful of stories intertwined and woven in. There’s even a little bit of my mother in Unha, because a story my mother once told me, about a broken engagement, stuck with me.
Unha’s personality, mannerisms and character were formed fully from my imagination. Unha is a fighter. She has an inner strength and ferocity that sometimes gave me chills when I wrote about her. She survived in part because of this, in part because of Sam’s help, and in part from sheer luck. I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen to her until that bus arrived.
I know she’s happy and doing well – remember that she’s a fighter and will get what she wants. It took a while for her to recover from all this, but she did, and she’s thriving. Maybe there’s a piece of this that’s Unha’s story, in a way, of her reinventing herself in L.A. and finding a new life. You asked earlier where Unha is. I know exactly where she is. She’s here, in Santa Monica. She’s my neighbor. I pass her on my bicycle every morning as she tends her vegetable garden. I wave to her. She waves back. She’s happy, and so am I.”
“In one draft I had David narrate the entire story in his voice – he would imagine events he hadn’t seen. I ended up discarding that draft, but when I was writing it I felt like David was the most important character. That epilogue came from the draft that was David’s story, and in a way he helped save the novel for me. He offset a lot of the sadness.
David imagined many scenes, and tried to fill in the gaps of what he didn’t know. He really doesn’t know what happened to his father, and for him so much of this story is incomplete; he needed to fill it in with what he could imagine. And the fact that Sam’s body was never found does lend a little credibility to David’s fantasy.
Also, the scene where David is in the sauna and sees his dead mother was one that took me by surprise, and which I liked.
There’s a lot of David that I took out of the final version of the novel, because it wasn’t quite organic to the story, and although it was important for me to write, readers don’t need to read it.”
“I didn’t want Minji to die. That was traumatic. I didn’t see that coming. I remember when I wrote that scene with Minji, and it was so difficult that I had to stop writing for the day. I went out rock climbing and tried not to think about the novel at all. There was a part of me that wanted to go back and rewrite it in a less distressing way, but that felt manipulative and contrived. The plight of characters like her, of the harshness of their lives, made this novel so hard for me to work on. Yet I couldn’t sugarcoat it. I felt I would be dishonoring the characters and the reality of the stories.”
“Sam is extremely complicated – he’s a widower, a terrible husband, a mediocre father, a man in pain, a man who loves Unha, a conflicted brother... He is, in other words, human. I did not know where Sam was going to end up until I wrote it, and yes, I was surprised and saddened.
However, I want to point out that there are plenty of cases of someone being stabbed in the chest and surviving. The second stab wound wasn’t necessarily in the chest. So, it’s definitely possible that Sam is alive.“
“One of the most heartbreaking moments is in Chapter 45 when Jake realizes the fate of his brother. He goes into his sauna naked, crying, and reciting a psalm.
It was from Psalms 139: 23-24. My mother used to be a Bible teacher and I was one of her students for a while, so I vaguely remembered a Psalm that dealt with David being introspective. Yes, Jake and Sam’s relationship was complicated and Jake’s inner turmoil was sad. I probably could’ve written a whole separate novel about them.”
“You’ll also notice that there’s no mention of Im. Where did he go? What exactly happened after he stabbed Sam? Hmmm.”
“Some of the scenes of David and Yunjin wandering around Oakland and Berkeley were nice to write because they gave me a little breathing room.”
Photo Description and Copyright Information.
Jacket cover of Crossings by Black Heron Press
Photo 2, 9, 10, 11, and 16
Leonard Chang. Copyright by Leonard Chang.
Jacket cover of Fade To Clear by St. Martin’s Press.
San Francisco from Marine Headlands. Public Domain.
A world map showing the legislative situation in different countries to prevent female trafficking as of 2009 according to WomanStats Project. Gray - No data;
Green - Trafficking is illegal and rare;
Yellow - Trafficking is illegal but problems still exist;
Purple - Trafficking is illegal but still practiced;
Blue - Trafficking is limitedly illegal and is practiced;
Red - Trafficking is not illegal and is commonly practiced.
GNU Free Documentation License
CCASA 3.0 License
Jacket cover of Dispatches From the Cold by Black Heron Press
Photo 7 b
Jacket cover of The Fruit ‘N Food by Black Heron Press
Jacket cover of Over The Shoulder by HarperCollins
Jacket cover of Underkill by Minotaur Books
Suitcase full of cash. Copyright by Leonard Chang.
A United States Forces Korea poster, warning soldiers not to engage in prostitution or purchase a "bar fine", here referred to as a "night off".
Bottle of wine next to jacket cover of Crossings. Copyright by Leaonrd Chang.
Summery from inside jacket cover of Crossings.
Photo from jacket cover of Crossings
Leonard Chang rock climbing. Copyright by Leonard Chang.
Leonard Chang giving a reading. Copyright by Leonard Chang.
Image of Psalm 139: 23-24 by www.VersifyLife.com
Asian Women’s Shelter 26th Anniversary Gala poster.
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