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The Pen is the Sword for Leonard Chang


Honest and unflinching, often darkly themed, deceptively simple yet with patient progression to startling plot twists and harrowing conclusions:  such is the writing of Leonard Chang.  With six published novels plus numerous short stories and essays under his belt, Chang has firmly established himself as a successful writer who uncompromisingly portrays Asian American characters in a realistic and unvarnished light.  To do so in a U.S. fiction market largely devoid of such portrayals, Chang has had to endure numerous rejections and suggestions from publishers to make his characters “more ethnic” or exotic.  A few have even pushed, unsuccessfully, for cover designs with traditional Asian artwork, despite the fact that some of Chang’s novels purposely feature race only as an ancillary theme.  He has stated that his aim in these books was to show that people of color have multifaceted lives, where race is but one of many facets -- and often a minor one.

In fact, Chang is probably best known among the general public for his crime noir trilogy featuring private investigator Allen Choice, a second-generation Korean American who feels little connection to his cultural roots.  What makes Choice such a relatable and endearing character is the fact that he displays many human frailties, such as anxiety, self-doubt and isolation, yet when it comes down to the wire, he acts bravely and ethically to quietly triumph over adversity.  Perhaps most important to media-emasculated Asian American males, Choice is fully capable of forceful physical intimidation when necessary, as well as maintaining meaningful romantic relationships with women.  Entertaining as gripping mysteries in their own right with plenty of action and danger, the Allen Choice novels reach a deeper and more substantive level than is typical in crime fiction, intertwining elements of philosophical introspection with issues of sociocultural and familial alienation.  This intriguing mix elegantly satisfies readers’ desire for entertainment without insulting their intelligence.

Although crime novels are only one part of Chang’s repertoire, his approach to writing in general seems to have much in common with the work of a detective.  He does thorough background research, sometimes including interviews, to lend authenticity to his scenes or characters; sifts through the criticisms of editors and friends who read his work to tease out clues for improvement; and especially earlier in his career, dissects the works of authors he admires to study their modus operandi for crafting great literature.  Chang is also adamant on his  website that aspiring writers not be afraid of methodical and painstaking rewriting, sometimes even entirely throwing out a manuscript, in addition to the more typically envisioned creative writing process.  He also frequently encourages writers to do what he did and write what they themselves would like to read.  In his essay Why I Love Crime Fiction, Chang writes:

“You remember more of your childhood reading, connect them to your interest in philosophy, and conclude that both are premised on the impulse to figure out the world, to analyze in a methodical way the elements that have created chaos and disorder.  The analyst, whether a private investigator or a rationalist philosopher, seeks within his or her own moral and personal code to discover and articulate what has gone wrong, to right these perceived wrongs, to find a view of the world that is worth living in, to reorder and contain the chaos. What is a private detective but a philosopher in a trench coat?”

Aside from the Allen Choice trilogy (Over the Shoulder, Underkill, and Fade to Clear), Leonard Chang has written three very different novels, although themes of isolation, race, and family dynamics permeate all of them to varying degrees.  The Fruit ‘n Food is the story of a young Korean American man who goes to work in an urban New York City grocery store owned by a Korean immigrant family, only to become entangled in a mess of racial tensions and family problems that threaten to destroy everyone involved.  Dispatches from the Cold is written from the point of view of a new apartment tenant who begins reading mail intended for its previous occupant.  The letter reader becomes vicariously consumed with, and eventually tries to intervene in, the life of a Caucasian sporting goods salesman working for a Korean American boss whom he detests and begins plotting to destroy, in part by having an affair with the Korean man’s wife.  In Crossings, Chang writes about human trafficking and forced labor as seen through the eyes of Korean immigrants caught up in the organized crime underworld of the San Francisco Bay area.  These novels share a kind of gritty plot development that gradually takes on a dreadfully inexorable momentum, along with meticulously realistic and fearless character development -- all of which have become Chang’s trademarks. 

Growing up as one of the few Asians in the racially homogenous community of 1980s Merrick on Long Island, New York undoubtedly informed some of Leonard Chang’s writing later in life.  The alienation he felt, combined with a tumultuous home life due to an alcoholic father, often drove him to seek solace in reading and developed his love of the written word early on.  He even co-wrote chapters of a novel with a friend in high school.  But it wasn’t until a Peace Corps stint in Jamaica that Chang firmly committed to becoming a professional writer.  He was there during a break from college, working in a library, when he wrote a particularly powerful short story that made up his mind as to his life’s purpose.  He later graduated from Harvard University where he studied philosophy, and then went on to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts degree from the creative writing program at the University of California at Irvine.  Chang has also taught graduate writing students at both Mills College and Antioch University.  His books have received much critical and academic acclaim along with numerous commendations, such as the Black Heron Press Award for Social Fiction for The Fruit ‘n Food, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian Goldie Award for Literature for Dispatches from the Cold.  Just this past September, KoreAm journal named Crossings as one of the twenty books that every Korean American library should have.

After twenty years of primarily novel writing, Leonard Chang recently decided to move from his longtime home in the San Francisco Bay area to Santa Monica, California, where he can be better positioned to pursue his next venture:  screen writing.  Both Over the Shoulder and Dispatches from the Cold have been optioned for film rights, with the former being produced by actor Daniel Dae Kim.  In addition, Chang is a staff writer for the upcoming television series Awake, scheduled to premier in January 2012.  According to NBC’s website, this is “a drama about the power of the mind, where the inception of life is a mystery and reality might just be overrated”

In this show, a detective survives a serious car crash and subsequently experiences alternate lives in two potential realities:  one in which his wife survived and one where his son did.  He can’t tell which, if either, is real and which is a dream, and can’t bear to give up either one.  Through his dreams, he also develops hunches and clues about his detective work, which is carried on in both parallel lives. 

While screenwriting, Chang also plans to continue writing novels, though perhaps at a slower pace.  His seventh novel Triplines is due out in 2013.  If it bears any similarity to his past creations, it will be a multi-textured work that is entertaining, literarily robust, and socially relevant.  One hopes that whichever medium he chooses, Leonard Chang will continue using his pen as a sword long into the future, cutting through racial stereotypes and slicing away excess verbiage to reveal clean and powerful stories, which are sorely needed in today's increasingly shallow and distracted world. 


Crossings –  2009, Black Heron Press

Fade to Clear – 2004, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press

Underkill – 2003, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press

Over the Shoulder – 2001, Ecco Press/Harper Collins 

Dispatches from the Cold – 1998, Black Heron Press

The Fruit ‘n Food – 1996, Black Heron Press

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