Why do characters in novels we read become part of us?
I’ve recently finished reading Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest, and mathematics professor Lee, the main character, continues to live on in my imagination. It’s as if he actually inhabits the external world and was intimately interacting with me during the time I read the book. Lee is Asian American, though his origins aren’t a main focus in the narrative, and it’s never made clear just where he was born. Still, though he ends up being an outsider at the university where he teaches and in his wider community, that stance seems more to do with his irascible personality and natural aloofness than with him being racially distinct.
Of course, you could argue that these qualities may be the result of Lee never quite fitting in because of his Asian origins. And to some extent, you could support this view. However, more interesting to me is how Choi makes Lee a person of interest not just to the FBI but also to her readers, someone who takes on breadth and depth over the novel’s course.
While there’s a bombing that takes the life of one of Lee’s colleague, the mathematician who occupies the office next to him, even that isn’t the narrative’s major focus. Instead, Professor Lee becomes a person of interest not because the FBI finds him so, but because of the life he’s led and his relationship difficulties. It’s Lee’s quirks and the way Choi explores them that, for me, make him memorable and, eventually, sympathetic, making it difficult for me to disentangle myself from him.
There’s Lear-like quality to Lee. He, of course, isn’t a king. Nor does he have vast wealth and estates. But he’s an old man who is floundering in his declining years, and the story Choi has constructed forces him into some self-examination and new awareness of ways he’s not only misunderstood others but also himself. And while Choi isn’t focusing on Lee’s outsider status, the novel does show the ways in which those who choose to become American rather than being born here often are more appreciative of what it means to be part of this country. They tend to be the most grateful for America and what it offers its citizens as well as the world (or used to!).
Given our current political climate, and this administrations’ treatment of immigrants (or anyone outside of a narrow mainstream), this work offers a perspective that we all can benefit from. It certainly has given me a new lens through which to view myself and others.
Lily Iona MacKenzie
A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in my early years, I supported myself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long-distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored me into the States). I also was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (I was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got my legs broken), founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, co-created The Story Shoppe, a weekly radio program for children that aired on KTIM in Marin County, CA, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in creative writing and one in the humanities). I have published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 165 American and Canadian venues. My novel Fling! was published in 2015. Curva Peligrosa, another novel, was published in September 2017. Freefall: A Divine Comedy was released in 2019. My poetry collection All This was published in 2011, and Prolific Press published my poetry chapbook No More Kings in March 2020. I blog at http://lilyionamackenzie.com.
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