Ghettoization of Asian American writers

Someone posted this interview with Don Lee today on FB. In the article, he is interviewed by Christine Lee Zilka, who is an editor at Kartika.

I probably disagree with a lot of what he says in the interview concerning the role of literature in Asian America (I just don’t think we’re there yet nor will we be for a while, but to be fair, most Asian Americans probably disagree with me and agree with Don Lee), but it’s a great interview. As far as his new book the Collective, it’s probably the title that I’m most anticipating in Asian American lit this year. I’ve got just one book ahead of it on my list–and yes, I anticipate a review/discussion. See here for a short synopsis of The Collective:

Joshua Yoon seems larger than life to his classmates at Macalester College, especially to those who will become his closest friends, narrator Eric Cho and the gorgeous Jessica Tsai. Bawdy, brainy, generous, and manipulative, he rallies them to stand up for themselves as Asian Americans, as nonconformists, as artists meant to break all the rules in the pursuit of truth and perfection. Little do they know the effect he will have on the rest of their lives.

Years later, the three friends reunite in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Joshua once again binds them together by forming a group called the 3AC, the Asian American Artists Collective. As the collective grows, work and love affairs war with ambition, yet the core members of the 3AC manage to sustain their idealism. That is, until Joshua—ever the provocateur—cannot resist manipulating a series of events that will blow their friendships apart, and ultimately devastate even the lives of strangers.

24 thoughts on “Ghettoization of Asian American writers

  1. a mutual friend pointed me to your site just now. Thank you for the shout out! Can’t wait until The Collective is out (I hear it’s out in various stores already). 🙂

  2. Hey Christine,

    Thanks for your comment, and thanks for your interview! I’m definitely checking out The Collective soon. Would love to hear your thoughts when it’s done. I think we’ll both be very pleasantly surprised by it.

  3. This sounds pretty good, I’ll definite check it out. As for the interview, I don’t really agree with the moving away from AA characters part. If you think that you can only be recognised as a good writer when you’re disconnected with character with the same ethnicity as yours, then you’ll playing right in the hands of the critics that are doubting you because of your ethnicity.

  4. N,

    Yeah, that part of the interview got me–it was like, “props if you migrate away from your own, but we’ll consider you pigeon-holed if you don’t.”

    I think my main issue though was the idea that we’ve been there, done that. I don’t think we’ve been there…or done that. I actually think Asian Americans ought to be focusing on Asian American characters–and not just because we lack numbers of Asian American characters. We should focus on Asian American characters because very, very, very few have been portrayed with adequate depth. There’s not enough conversation about Asian American issues, and part of this is rooted in the fact that there aren’t many Asian American characters portrayed with depth. An Asian American author, for himself, ought to make an attempt to understand that part of himself/herself.

    The comments Lee makes about Ishiguro, in my opinion, are also misplaced. Sure, I’d agree that Ishiguro’s best work doesn’t involve Asian characters. But that’s because Ishiguro improved as a writer over time, and after his first two novels, he moved away from Asian characters. I don’t believe that Ishiguro should have to shoulder the responsibility of representing Asian characters, but at the same time, I don’t necessarily think that that moving away from Asian characters in and of itself is a sign of progress. I do think it would be harder for Ishiguro to continue the success he had if he had stuck with Japanese characters, but that’s a problem with our modern society, not necessarily with the author.

  5. Check out this interview where Kazuo Ishiguro describes this problem of societal focus/prejudice in his own words. See the last question:

    “American writers now are in a not dissimilar situation to English writers of the last several hundred years. You can write the most inward-looking provincial kind of American novel, because American culture is so dominant around the world. They’re writing stuff of world importance. It’s easier to write things that everybody should be interested in just by describing your own knee if you’re American, you can write something that’s very important. The rest of us can’t do that.”

    Replace “American” with “White,” and you can see the problems with Lee’s praise. I don’t know if Ishiguro himself would agree with it.

  6. 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.”

    I haven’t read the book but I find it disappointing and lame that Chang-rae Lee’s first attempt at something outside of Asian-American navel-gazing is to channel a 60-year-old white guy. I also think Don Lee’s calling this as “brave” and a “mini-revolution” a bit nauseating and worthy of an eye-roll.

  7. I apologize for the brief interruption, but I’m on page 40, and this book so far is fucking AWESOME. Any literary fiction writer who uses the term “rice chaser” in the correct context ought to be applauded with a thousand clapping hands!

  8. There’s going to be a review either later this week or next week. Read it so you can comment. Even if we all wind up not liking it, I think there’s a lot to discuss with respect to culture and portrayals.

  9. Pingback: The Collective by Don Lee (Review) | bigWOWO

  10. Good interview, Christine. I’ll admit that I found it a bit frustrating and saddening to read what Bill Cheng was saying, but it’s great that he’s being honest and open. It’s also probably more or less what I would have expected him to say.

    My Bill Cheng posts are here:

    I don’t know what Kazuo Ishiguro writes mainly white characters these days, BUT in addition to what I wrote above, I remember reading something really interesting from him. He said something like, “Stereotypes always play a factor when we write minority characters because it’s what people already know. Your job is to work within that but to then step out of it.” I really wish I could find that passage. I think both his white character and his Asian characters are really solid.

  11. I’m thinking we can short circuit/cut the hoity toity hand wringing about writing Asian male HEROES by encouraging more pulp fiction, comics, and the use of “new” media (like MTVs vapid failures).

    How do we get these products to a market? It will be important to get these artistes an initial fan base, a fan base that also nurtures other artists and storytellers willing to tell the stories we want.

    Will some of them sell out and start hoity toity hand wringing when they’ve made it big? Sure, some, maybe even many of them will, but just having a framework will give us more influence than we have at the moment which may not be very big.

    A related thought about Amy Tan also. If so many writers view her as some kind of pioneer, then it is no longer tenable to criticize her. That can be left to the fringe, and should the fringe choose to evolve their methods they can be very convincing and appealing. Times may have changed. During Frank Chin’s time, did her work serve the purpose of wider propaganda and social engineering objectives, not all of which were good for Asians? (putting it very mildly). I personally think so. But we are rapidly approaching a very short window when we can give Asian men the space and the recognition to express themselves. We should nurture the talent first, settle the other matters later. And, as I have said, perhaps we could move towards the pulp fiction in line with contemporary tastes and psychology.

  12. After a certain level, it is time to just admit how pathetic it is. Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston make it a point to tell Asian female stories. Lol even David Henry Hwang tells stories about “the feminine”. But Asian American men by and large cant muster the need to do the same for themselves?

    Even when they do, how much of it is woe is me tales meant to generate mostly sympathy empathy instead of inspire or awe readers? Maybe the writers who deserve our recognition do not have it yet. Maybe they exist, can be nurtured, can have their confidence built, but we havent found them yet. More work needs to be put into it.

    We can do more to promote the ability to tell our stories and not all of it needs to be in novel format. Short tales, allegory, social satire and sarcasm, history and its retelling all serve to build a literate body and precursor.

  13. “The narrow eyes are shifty”

    Pure DUMB.

    I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to live under this constant stereotype threat that few have the will to break or defy. I can’t imagine what it means to be so mentally whipped you will acknowledge it, talk about it, but just won’t do anything to defy or even break it.

    He may as well have mentioned “small penis” and “rotund Buddha” and “moon face” while he was at it. Thank Confucius for his great restraint.

  14. if there was an marketing distribution infrastructure Id more than be willing to share tales but someone wants hero as a white guy, who is a hero, then add the hand-wringing later. Take out the hand-wringing and may as well make it about a white guy hero story who screws all kinds of women, is invulnerable and has all the personality of a 2 dimensional blog avatar

    Or go watch ip man 2 online for free to satisfy the asian hero desires, and announce you are supporting Asians.

    A good western born Asian male story will actually embrace the hand-wringing/cultural conflict and rise above it, not ignore it, because that is the unique aspect of our identity, which differs us from FOB asians or whites blacks and browns. And not have any IR solution happy endings either like Shanghai Kiss etc.

    The main issue, apart from getting seen and a fanbase, is getting something professional done by Asians, due to the lack of us in the industry, unless you hire some white guys to film and write it. Or you can just pay wongfu to do it.

    If you are serious, and not the internet troll you advertise yourself as, put out an email address here to show you arent just yakking otherwise you are commenting BS the other side of the coin like the same people you call hand-wringers

  15. This is not a dig, but I have severe problems understanding your use of the language.

    When writing, could you follow more conventional syntax? It helps so that nothing is lost or confused in the transmission of your message.

  16. Okay, try this comment on for size:

    post your email address on here, so we ( you and I) can communicate about ideas, that’s if you are serious, about supporting Asian image.

    Otherwise you are no worse than the hand-wringing people you are denigrating.

  17. “Ideas” cannot be copyrighted. Trade marks, brand names, and named characters can be copyrighted.

    If you want to send me a script, then thank you, but I must politely decline.

  18. Sengge

    I saw After Earth, and although I did not think it was terrible, I was disappointed that as a sci-fi flick, all it could muster for most of the movie was wild earth animals and poisonous plants. They should have been more creative with the creatures that had supposedly evolved to “kill humans”. It was just a lost in the jungle movie with advanced technology.

  19. Creativity is subjective anyhow. I think that’s the problem with Asian representation, no-one knows how to tackle it, and everyone has their own opinion on good and bad. At the end of the day it’s only money that counts, not cultural taste.

    ‘If you want to send me a script, then thank you, but I must politely decline. ‘

    Actually, that wasn’t the reason, but If you are more content to lambast people on blogs as ‘handwringers’ and decline offers to correspond over ideas, that’s your prerogative, enjoy your ivory tower.

  20. “I saw After Earth, and although I did not think it was terrible, I was disappointed that as a sci-fi flick, all it could muster for most of the movie was wild earth animals and poisonous plants. They should have been more creative with the creatures that had supposedly evolved to “kill humans”. It was just a lost in the jungle movie with advanced technology. – See more at:

    I LOVE After Earth, and that must have been because I saw a slew of SHITTY generic hollywood movies that came right after it, all of which got excellent reviews from these same pundits.

    While I don’t think After Earth is as enjoyable a movie as the other heavy hitter family fare like, I don’t know, how to tame a dragon and other animated movies, I thought it was a decent watch and certainly worth the fare.

    I can smell a PR hit job when I see one and I think there may have been a coordinated attack against Will Smith.

    The thing is this: any Asian star, producer or director who doesn’t do what the gatekeepers and decision makers in the industry wants will become the target of a similar hit job. This is almost a certainty, seeing how they can even hit a film BEFORE it even previews in any cinema.

    The media industry globally, and in America, is a giant machine of many inter-connected parts. The more that Asians can build for themselves any niche that is not part of this machine and can exist independent of it, will be an advantage to us.

    We may even already have an ally, based on what they’ve tried with Will Smith.

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