Award-Winning Novel On Asian American Artists

Jul 25, 2013
Originally published on July 25, 2013 2:55 pm

In “The Collective,” writer Don Lee tells the story of three Asian Americans who meet at college and eventually form an artists’ collective in Cambridge, Mass.

The novel is a meditation on friendship and what it means to be Asian and an artist in the United States.

The book won the 2013 Asian/Pacific American Award for literature. It came out in paperback this month and we revisit our July 2012 conversation with Don Lee.


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And one of our favorite recent reads is out in paperback. Don Lee's novel "The Collective" looks at the assumptions faced by Asian-Americans at the workplace and in their daily lives. In "The Collective," three Asian-Americans - Eric, Joshua and Jessica - all meet at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota in 1988 - Eric an aspiring author, Jessica an artist, Joshua a writer, challenging others to see the racism around them. They meet up years later in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they formed a large support group, the Asian-American Artists Collective.

DON LEE: I felt a remarkable accord with this group, indeed as if we were brethren and sistren, a family. No one questioned my origins. No one needed lessons on how to use chopsticks. There was something to be said, I had to concede, for sticking to your own kind.

YOUNG: Don Lee reading from "The Collective," which won the 2013 Asian Pacific American Award for Literature. We spoke with Don when the book first came out.

Start with this idea that, you know, all three of your characters are considered Asian-American by others looking at them, but in fact they are very different.

LEE: Yeah. It's a strange and really broad rubric, especially these days when you include South Asians, Indians and Pakistanis as well. It's an odd category, and I think that it's one that's probably too broad.

YOUNG: Well, stay with the East Asians. Eric is third generation Korean-American. He grew up in Mission Viejo, California. Asian is commonplace. He thinks of himself as American as anyone else. Joshua was abandoned at a Korean orphanage. He is adopted by well-to-do, bright Cambridge, Massachusetts intellectuals, and we can see immediately he feels sort of a disconnect from them.

Jessica is second-generation Taiwanese raised in upstate New York. Her parents want her to be a doctor. She wants to be an artist. So each of them have some similarities in the way the world sees them but many differences in who they are.

LEE: I think that it's probably something that most people who aren't Asian-American don't really recognize in terms of generational differences. I'm third-generation Korean-American and mostly from California, although my father was in the State Department so I bounced around a lot oversees as a kid. But really, I didn't think about my ethnicity until I moved to Boston back in 1984 to attend graduate school at Emerson College.

And it was only here that my questions about identity really arose, because here it seemed that there was that kind of segregation in terms of race. People actually did say things to me. I had these encounters that were shocking to me.

YOUNG: Like what? Like what?

LEE: Just walking through a crowd of people, there was a bunch of guys there and one of them said to me - directly to my face, he said did you know it's National Hate Chinese Week?

YOUNG: Oh, geez.

LEE: You know, things like that happened. And coming from California, where you have so many Asian-Americans, you know, I never expected that.

YOUNG: Well, but so - so that goes to some of the racism that the characters see and feel. But what about who gets to write about race? Early on, when they're in this school in Minnesota, Joshua, in a writing class, excoriates a young white woman because she wrote a story based in China. He says, it's a maudlin, lugubrious, exploitative piece of tripe.

But Eric, who's, you know, more like you, third-generation, is actually saying, wow, it's really well-written. Why can't she write that? And Joshua says, you can't write about the Asian experience unless you are Asian. In fact, he calls Hemingway and O'Connor racist.

LEE: You know, I think that issue of cultural appropriation in terms of writing is very interesting. It's one that's heatedly debated. Here I'm really more interested in what's happening within Asian-American writers and artists. And I think that, you know, we're going through this transitional period, and we're all asking ourselves several questions. You know, if you're an Asian-American writer, do you always have to have race as your subject? Do you have to have all of your...

YOUNG: Well, that's the flip - Yeah.

LEE: Right, right. Right, right.

YOUNG: That's the flipside of, you know, should anyone else write about it? And should Asians only write about?

LEE: Right, exactly. You know, do you have to have all your characters Asian-American? If you don't, is that race betrayal? I mean, if you keep on doing that, are you limiting yourself? Are you ghettoizing yourself and your audience or even perpetuating stereotypes? And so these are, you know, the arguments that they have within "The Collective" here.

YOUNG: Well - and as you said, authors are having - and you, you're right in the middle of it because you're writing a book that's filled with Asian-American characters. So are you choosing that? Is that your answer, that you think that that is what you should do?

LEE: From a personal point of view, I think that we should be able to do anything that we want to. And actually, I think that that carries through as well to white writers. If they want to write from a different race's point of view, that's fine with me too. I've written stories about a chair-maker, a sculptor. I am not a chair-maker or a sculptor. But I believe that if I do enough research and I'm true to those characters, and then I have a right to do that. And so why can't that extend across other boundaries as well? But, you know, I think that there are many people who would adamantly disagree with that.

YOUNG: So you take us into this mindset, and yet what are you saying in the end? Now, we have to be careful here. We don't want to give anything away, but this sort of force that this group becomes - let's just say it dissipates.

LEE: Mm-hmm.

YOUNG: So what are you saying in the end about the attempts of these young Asian-Americans to sort of - to raise awareness about the racism that they feel, to make some sort of a change? What are you saying?

LEE: First, I'm exploring the whole issue of friendships, and that's primarily how I went into this book. I was just thinking about how friendships, they form and they wane. Then when you think back on your life and you think there was a particular group that you were very close to, and you really believed at the time, we are going to be friends forever, you couldn't imagine that it'd ever break apart, but inevitably these groups do. And then you go on to another group, and it makes you feel - when you think back on them, you're sort of inspired and alivened by the camaraderie that you have. But you also are sad that they faded away. And so that's the first thing.

But then eventually what I'm looking at here is I'm leaving the reader, hopefully, with some questions, which is, is this a good thing to do, that if you're basing these relationships on race, or should you be trying to transcend that?

YOUNG: There are so many different avenues you go down. I just want to touch on one last one that will affect a lot of people, I'm imagining. Joshua, you'd have to say the most troubled character, is adopted.

LEE: Mm-hmm.

YOUNG: What are you saying about parents who are white adopting Asian children?

LEE: Yeah. I know several people who were adopted by white parents. And I am not going to say that it's a good thing or a bad thing, but I will say that they have real problems in trying to secure some sort of identity for themselves.

YOUNG: Well - and by the way, you add another wrinkle, which is that Joshua goes back. Joshua, this fierce defender of his Asian background, goes back to Korea...

LEE: Mm-hmm.

YOUNG: ...where he doesn't fit in. And people tell him, you know, people disdain him, tell him he doesn't speak Korean well enough. He gets sort of the reverse racism that he feels in the U.S. So in both countries he's feeling it.

LEE: Yeah. He's - he goes back and he's not Korean enough. And, you know, I've - also my friends have had that experience as well.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, that's Don Lee. He takes us fully into the Asian-American experience, those of us not already living it, in his book "The Collective." Don, thanks so much.

LEE: Thank you.


And from NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.