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Don Lee: The Ethnic Literature Box

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June 25, 2012

Don Lee talks with Christine Lee Zilka about cover-art Orientalism, whether character heritage matters, and the improbability of becoming a writer.


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Image from Flickr via fracking

When Don Lee’s first book, a story collection called Yellow, came out in 2001, it heralded discussion and oftentimes controversy: He dared to step out of the box of the then-prevalent themes of immigration and identity. The new ways in which Lee represented Asian Americans was curious and inspiring to me as a writer. His characters were Asian American, and not necessarily heroes. This, I thought, is a brave writer.

Don Lee’s growing body of work continues to edge into new worlds for Asian American literature, just as he has; a third-generation Korean American, his work at Ploughshares from 1988-2007 gave confidence to so many rejoicing APIA writers who had yet to see Asian Americans in mainstream lit mag editorial roles. He’s a writer who refuses to fit into a mold. Since Yellow, Lee has continued to push boundaries in his work with great audacity. And his work has been awarded the American Book Award, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and the members choice award from the Asian American Writers Workshop, among many others.

Don Lee and I exchanged questions and answers via email on the eve of the release of his latest novel, The Collective. During the course of our interview, it became clear that he is conscious of his pioneering role and consequently, the responsibility of mentoring a generation of new writers.

—Christine Lee Zilka for Guernica

Guernica: You once said in an interview with Kartika Review that regarding Chang-rae Lee’s Aloft, “having that novel narrated by a sixty-year-old white guy was brave, brave, brave and [you] credit Chang-rae Lee with starting a mini-revolution,” allowing “all of us to feel freer to slip away from writing about identity and ethnicity moving to whatever captures our fancy.” What do you hope you’ll do for other writers with your work? i.e., What is the legacy you hope to leave? What do you hope the next generation of writers will inherit from your peers?

Don Lee: I remember distinctly after a reading I gave years ago, a young fellow approached me, and he said, “Look, I’m Korean American and I want to be a writer, too. My question to you is, do I have to write about being Korean American?” And I told him, “No, because I’m doing that for you.” What I meant was that for writers of my generation, no matter what we actually wrote, our books would always be discussed in the context of race, but hopefully future generations would be less burdened by such expectations.

That Kartika interview was back in 2008, and it seems we’re still waiting for the revolution to happen. There are a few Asian American writers who have pulled away from focusing on identity in their books—Charles Yu, Ed Park, and Susan Choi come to mind—but it hasn’t become a trend, not one that I’ve been able to discern. Could it be that a younger generation of writers are doing just that but haven’t been able to publish their books? That publishers, if they can’t put authors into an ethnic literature box, aren’t interested? Christ, I hope not.

I feel queasy about the idea of having non-Asians taking center stage in one of my books. I would feel guilty about it, as if I were trying to deny my ethnic heritage, even though this is precisely what I am suggesting we should be free to do.

G: The body of your work covers a lot of ground—I admire the fact that I can’t anticipate your next book based on your previous books and that there is no “typical Don Lee” novel. And I am so glad you keep writing books that in and of themselves resist fans or bowls of rice or yards of silk or rice paddies or (you get the picture) as cover art. That said, do you experience pressure to write about a certain thing or place or person? How do you cope with that pressure to represent?

DL: You never saw all the cover art I ended up rejecting. All those kinds of Orientalisms were on proposed covers early on (curiously by designers who were Asian American themselves), and I finally put the kibosh on them, especially after having two books in a row (Yellow and Country of Origin) with a half-blurry Asiatic face on the covers.

But neither my editor at Norton, Alane Salierno Mason, nor my agent, Maria Massie, nor anyone else has ever pressured me to write a certain kind of book (although in grad school, I got suggestions that I should address the “Asian American experience” more, which I resisted for a long time, but that’s a whole nother story). Mostly I have felt an internal pressure to make each book better than the last, and to do something different, something that will challenge and make me grow as a writer.

Regardless of what kind of book I produce, however, it does seem that the dialogue tends to revolve around representing some sort of Asian American zeitgeist, and, to be honest, I hate it, because our experiences are so individual, and it feels hypocritical and inane to try to speak for all Asian Americans.

G: In what direction would you like to see Asian American literature aim? And from where do you think this pressure to write a certain way, stems?

DL: I’d like to see us get to the point where Asian American authors can have Asian American characters and a big deal isn’t made about it, or at least so it’s not the first thing mentioned. When I think of, say, Gary Shteyngart, Nicole Krauss, Michael Chabon, and Aimee Bender, I don’t think of them as Jewish writers who write about the Jewish experience. I think of them as good writers who write interesting books, period.

But I have sometimes wondered how much of the ghettoization of Asian American writers has been self-inflicted. Maybe the onus is on us to branch out more from writing about race and identity, immigration and assimilation, or setting our stories in the ancient hinterlands of China or Japan or Korea. I think Kazuo Ishiguro, one of my heroes, is a good model. His best work has nothing to do with Japan or being a 1.5 Japanese Englishman.

I was bored silly in my engineering classes, and my freshman comp teacher suggested to me that I might give creative writing a whirl as an elective, I might enjoy it. That little offhand suggestion changed my life.

Still, as much as I admire Ishiguro, and as much as I laud Chang-rae Lee for what he did with Aloft, I feel queasy about the idea of having non-Asians taking center stage in one of my books. I would feel guilty about it, as if I were trying to deny my ethnic heritage, even though this is precisely what I am suggesting we should be free to do.

G: The characters (Joshua Yoon, Eric Cho, and Jessica Tsai) in The Collective stick to their guns and strive to become artists. It’s amazing and delightful that three Asian American college students in the late 1980s don’t become doctors or lawyers; I feel like we’ve lost so many potentially amazing creative writers to medicine or law. In what way does this bildungsroman challenge the status quo of art evading priority? Or challenge history? Are you investigating a “what if” scenario?

DL: I’m exploring more of a personal journey in the book, rather than trying to make a broad statement. It was completely improbable of me to become a writer. I mean, I started out as an engineering major at UCLA. Going in, I had no idea what to study. I was good in math, and I liked making things, and I was a bit of a dreamer. I had a vague plan of eventually getting a Ph.D. in physical oceanography and building and designing underwater submersibles. I was bored silly in my engineering classes, though, and the guy who was my freshman comp teacher, a TA whose name I unfortunately can’t remember—Tom something—suggested to me that I might give creative writing a whirl as an elective, I might enjoy it. That little offhand suggestion changed my life. It wasn’t that I loved writing so much; I loved the other students in the class. I felt I had finally found a group in which I could belong—people with similar sensibilities, politics, ways of looking at the world. That carried through with my next group of friends in grad school (I think that’s the true value of MFA programs, making friends who will sustain you through a lot of tough years after you graduate) and then with other writers and artists I knew in Cambridge. The Collective is a love letter to that period of my life, when I kept doubting my commitment to writing, when I nearly gave up, when my friends were the only reason I didn’t. At the same time, I wanted to explore in The Collective all the issues implied in your questions: Where are we now as Asian American artists? What are our responsibilities and obligations in regard to race?

However, I wonder about your supposition about the status quo. In the last ten years or so, whenever visiting MFA programs to give readings, I have seen a substantial percentage of creative writing students who are Asian American. I don’t perceive any wishful thinking about Asians going into the arts. They’re doing it. Could the opposite be true? Could we be losing generations of potentially amazing doctors and lawyers to the arts?

G: How did you begin working on The Collective? At AWP, you said you take two years to write a novel, six months of which you take to just sketch the ideas. What was the initial cluster of ideas that brought about The Collective?

DL: I was working on another novel, which I eventually abandoned. The first flickers for The Collective in my Moleskine notebook are these lines: “They were all part of an Asian American artists collective. Or they were college friends. What happened to those dreams of youth?” Later on in the notebook, I have: “Don’t be afraid, Don. Just write. Don’t worry. Be bold.” Immediately below that, I have: “I cannot believe how stupid some of these scenarios are. What the hell am I thinking?”

G: I love my Moleskine too, and I’m so inspired by the encouraging notes you send yourself–and also strangely reassured by your doubts, because in the end you had a novel to be proud of. At what point in writing The Collective did you find your doubts subsiding?

DL: My deadline for the final manuscript was September 1 of last year, and it wasn’t until around mid-August that I finally felt I was starting to put it all together. A writer friend of mine read the manuscript and was very encouraging, and she gave me a couple of vital suggestions. However, she’d read the novel on her iPad while on vacation, and when she emailed me the notes she’d made on the iPad, we discovered they weren’t accompanied with the passages she’d highlighted. So I had to guess which paragraphs or sections she was referring to, based on floating comments like “Well said!” and “Great desc” and “Lovely.” But there were about four times when she wanted to know what the narrator Eric was thinking and feeling in the moment, and I knew which scenes she was alluding to, and she was exactly right. It was absolutely crucial to go into his head during those moments. Once I did, the novel felt fleshed out to near-completion.

G: After you’ve spent two years writing a novel, do you take time off?

DL: What happens after two years is usually six more months of revisions: first working through my editor’s notes, then the copyeditors’, then going through three passes of proofs, in which I continue to want to make little revisions (to the frustration of the assistant editor, the saintly Denise Scarfi). Then there are months of production and marketing issues, like finalizing catalog copy and flap copy and cover design and press releases and arranging readings and promotion and interviews. I am constantly amazed how hard the people at Norton (and in publishing in general) work, even for someone like me, someone who’s not a lead author. But this stuff consumes me to the extent that I can’t begin another book right away. I would dearly love it if I could, if only to distract me from all the months of waiting for the book to come out and worrying about how it will be received.

G: What do you do when you can’t make something work?

DL: I panic. I agonize that maybe I’ve shot my wad and I’ll never write or finish another book. That’s what happened after I abandoned that other novel. It really felt to me like my career was over. But then it was a matter of trusting the generative process, letting the ideas come, even if they didn’t seem related or to make much sense. That’s the challenge and satisfaction of writing novels, taking these disparate elements and trying to make them cohere.

G: Who was the first writer who really bowled you over?

DL: There have been quite a few, mainly novelists I read in college, but I think the writer who made the biggest impression on me came later, in my twenties, and it was Richard Yates. Just before going to grad school in Boston, I was browsing in a used bookstore and picked up Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, never having heard of Yates before. After that, I read pretty much everything he’d ever written. I knew Yates lived in Boston, and it became a fantasy of mine to meet him someday. On my second night in the city, I happened to see him in a bar and introduced myself. I saw and talked to him on at least a monthly basis for the next few years, and what I learned dispelled any romantic notions I had of what constituted a writer’s life. Yet what stuck with me was that, despite his alcoholism and psychotic breaks and tragic, myriad insecurities, he wrote. That’s what he did: he wrote.

G: How does your past work as an editor and your current work as a teacher inform your work as a writer?

DL: On a technical level, my line-editing skills have been helpful in (and honed by) all of those functions. In a way, I think editing is very similar to teaching. You have the same objectives: to find new writers, get their stories to be the best they can be, try to present them well and further their careers. It used to be that when conferring with students, I never talked about my personal experiences as a writer, never referred to any of my own work, thinking it would be narcissistic to do so, but I’ve discovered that little anecdotes about process or publishing are exactly what students hunger for, so I share more of that now.

 

Guernica and the Asian American Writers Workshop will co-host a reading with Don Lee and Aimee Phan on July 26.

Christine Lee Zilka is the editor-at-large at Kartika Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as ZYZZYVA, Verbsap, Yomimono, and Men Undressed: Women Authors Write About Male Sexual Experience. She was awarded a residency at Hedgebrook, placed as a finalist in Poets and Writers Magazine’s Writers Exchange Contest in 2007, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open in 2009. She earned her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley and MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. In addition to writing short stories, she has a novel in progress.

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One comment for Don Lee: The Ethnic Literature Box

  1. Comment by GiantPill on July 3, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Great interview. I’m looking forward to reading the Collective.

    Out of curiosity, why do people always name-drop Moleskine notebooks? Are they so great that it is essential to specify that it is a Moleskine opposed to a Rhodia or a yellow legal pad?

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