by Terry Hong
When Don Lee’s first book debuted in April 2001, he probably didn’t know that he was the forerunner of a colorful trend – literally. His collection, Yellow, had the shortest of subtitles, simply Stories. Three months later, in July, another yellow-tinted cover appeared: Yell-Oh Girls!: Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American edited by Vickie Nam, in which young Asian American girls from all over the country shared poems, essays, and stories that spoke of their bicultural roots. And then 9/11 hit … moment of silence … and the end of that fateful year seemed to be just the right time for the publication of law professor Frank H. Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.
Among those various shades of yellow, Don Lee’s is my personal favorite. The quirky collection of short stories is populated by the inhabitants of a fictional California seaside town, not unlike the real-life Half Moon Bay along Northern California’s coastal Highway 1. Lee’s memorable characters are convincing; as a onetime Golden State resident, I swear I’ve run into some of them!
“Late … according to whom?” indeed! Lee was 41 when his Yellow hit the shelves. After almost two decades of encouraging, editing, publishing other people’s writing for Ploughshares, at 38, hoping to avoid middle-age ‘coulda-woulda-shoulda’-reget, Lee decided to produce a book of his own by the time he hit 40. His timing was a bit optimistic, so he revised the plan to sell that first book by the big 4-0; remarkably, his birth week arrived complete with a book contract. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one playing colorful favorites: that 40th birthday sale won Lee the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the Members Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
As the son of a second-generation Korean American and his Korean-born wife, Lee is technically classified as a third-generation Korean American, although he was born in Tokyo where his career diplomat father was working at the U.S. State Department. From Japan, the family moved to Korea when Lee was four, where he had his first identity crisis: “Japanese was my first language,” he said to me in a 2004 interview for AsianWeek. “But here I was in Korea, speaking only Japanese. I was a little confused to say the least. I thought I was a Japanese kid, but now I was a Korean kid?” To add to his bewilderment, the Lee family lived on a U.S. Army base in Seoul. “Now I was an American, Korean, and Japanese,” he says. “And that’s all you need to know why I’m so hung up on identity,” he laughs.
Identity is at the crux of Lee’s first novel, Country of Origin, which came out in 2004. Not one of his characters is who he or she appears to be … not Tom Hurley, the half-Korean foreign service officer stationed in Japan, nor his photographer lover, nor her CIA husband. And then there’s Kenzo Ota, the Japanese policeman assigned to investigate the aptly named Lisa Countryman, an African-American hapa whose disappearance brings all the characters together. Country of Origin earned Lee an American Book Award and a Mixed Media Watch Image Award for Outstanding Fiction. He also won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel – the Edgar being the top literary prize for mysteries – although he’ll be the first to tell you that he never intended to write that sort of mystery: “I intended to write a sort of Graham Greene political novel, but it strongly appealed to mystery readers, for which I was extremely grateful. Mystery readers buy a lot of books. It also ended up to be my most translated book, and for unknown reasons especially struck a chord with German readers.”
Short stories. Check. Mystery. Check. How about a comedy of family errors next? A finalist for the Thurber Prize, Lee’s 2008 Wrack and Ruin sent readers back to Rosarita Bay to meet two mismatched brothers – an artist-turned-brussels-sprouts farmer and his estranged money-and-image-obsessed-now-movie-producer brother – in the midst of an unintended reunion of sorts. Note to literary trivia hunters: Ruin quite possibly contains the only pages on which you’ll ever find a windsurfing chase scene.
Yes, Lee himself is an avid windsurfer. But that’s about the only personal detail you’ll get in his fiction … that is, until his latest, The Collective, which was published last summer. Let it be known that in spite of Lee’s self-admitted “doom and gloom” about this novel – “with the way the book business is going, the chances of things going well are slim,” Lee opined in an interview with me for Bookslut.com just before the July 2012 pub date – the novel won the 2013 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature from the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association.
Although Lee insists that The Collective – his only novel written in first-person – is not autobiographical, he will admit to “quite a few autobiographical elements in the book.” The title refers to the 3AC, the Asian American Artists Collective, founded by three friends who meet at Macalaster College and reunite after graduation in Boston. Eric Cho, who narrates the novel, is a Korean American from southern California with hopes of becoming a published writer someday. Jessica Tsai is an independent, feisty artist, the child of Taiwanese immigrant parents from upstate New York. Joshua Yoon is a brilliant, angry Korean adoptee, raised as the privileged only child of two liberal Harvard professors. Joshua’s violent, shocking suicide – which happens in the second paragraph, so no spoilers here – opens The Collective.
Autobiographical overlaps are significant enough that Lee offers a page of “Tidbits” on his personal website revealing what’s real and what’s not. What he doesn’t mention there is that he and Eric Cho share a southern California history – Cho grows up there, Lee went to undergrad at UCLA when he finally moved Stateside after his parents’ Asian adventures. They also overlap at Macalaster College where Lee was an associate professor of creative writing. While Cho gets his East Coast MFA at the fictional Walden College, where he reluctantly teaches freshman comp, Lee was thus degreed and also taught at real-life Emerson College in Boston. Like his protagonist, Lee spent years working at a prestigious literary journal – he was the principle editor of Ploughshares for 19 years: “[T]he old Ploughshares office in Watertown … was the shithole I describe for Palaver,” Lee confesses. He insists that “DeWitt Henry, the founding editor of Ploughshares, was nothing like Palaver’s Evan Paviromo,” but admits that he (Lee) “did everything that Eric does in the book.” If pushed, Lee also admits that “a few of my romantic disasters” can be found between the pages, although he’s not offering any more details than that.
While Lee has been experimenting with various genres – short stories, mystery, comedy, his latest bildungsroman – his work has consistently examined issues of race and identity, so that younger writers can, ironically, move beyond labels, he says. He recalled one of his “favorite experiences” from his debut book tour when a young Korean American with authorly aspirations asked him “[D]o I have to write about being Korean American?” Lee’s answer: “’No, because I’m doing that for you. My generation has to deal with those kinds of questions so the next generations won’t have to, and you can just tell pure stories.’”
Here’s a story you won’t find in Lee’s latest: Joshua Yoon, The Collective’s suicidal, most outspoken character, gains fictional fame and fortune for a first book called Upon the Shore, which is set on Korea’s Cheju Island. I immediately thought of Once the Shore, the much-lauded debut title from Paul Yoon – one of the “5 Under 35” writers recognized by the National Book Foundation in 2010 – which is set on an imaginary Korean island not unlike Cheju. [Let me mention that Paul Yoon’s debut novel coming this August, Snow Hunters, is perfection.]
“I’m good friends with Paul Yoon,” Lee admits, “and it was all an inside joke, but now you’ve outed us, dammit!” The real-life Yoon’s then-girlfriend, now wife, writer Laura van den Berg, was a former student of Lee’s at Emerson College; the three lived within blocks of each other, and today Yoon and van den Berg are two of Lee’s “dearest friends.” Last April, Lee got himself a one-day JP (Justice of the Peace) license – also known as a “one-day solemnization certificate” – in order to officiate the Yoon/van den Berg wedding. Lee insists, Yoon “is not at all like Joshua … I’m much more like Joshua than [Paul] is – morose and prone to depression and pessimistic by nature.”
Thanks goodness for Lee that windsurfing cures all. He’s not planning anymore chase scenes, but he’s taking a chunk of time to catch some Caribbean waves – his reward for surviving the latest book tour onslaught, and another year (his fourth) professor-ing at Temple University’s MFA program: “I can’t begin to describe how much publication fucks with my head. It’s months of anticipation, and dread, and hope, and disappointment, and momentary pipe dreams, and despair, and last chances to be saved, and humiliation.” For now, he’s riding out the limbo of looking forward to and dreading, planning, confronting, and eventually writing that next new novel.