The Collective by Don Lee (Review)

bigWOWO rating: Literary/Popular Fiction Gold

The Collective by former Ploughshares editor Don Lee, as I’ve mentioned before, was my most anticipated book of 2012. It’s a story about three Asian American students who form an friendship at Macalester College and who form an arts alliance once they enter the “real” world in Boston.  Eric Cho and Joshua Yoon are two Korean American writers, while Jessica Tsai is a Taiwanese America painter. Joshua is a brash, outspoken, talented writer and critic who creates an impression wherever he goes. The story is told from 38-year-old Eric’s perspective in the wake of Joshua’s suicide.

(I don’t think there are any big spoilers in this review.)

I thought this novel was really good. It was probably the most thought-provoking novel that I’ve read in a while. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it managed to affect/impress me in other ways that I hadn’t foreseen.

I don’t see the world the way Don Lee does, as I mentioned here, especially when it comes to race and the world outside of academia. It’s not the Asian culture that I know to exist. Other KA works such as Tae Kim’s War With Pigeons, Nami Mun’s Miles From Nowhere, Nancy Kim’s Chinhominey’s Secret, or even Min Jin Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires ALL seemed (to me) to more accurately portray Korean American culture in particular and Asian American culture in general. The interplay between cultures in the aforementioned novels is more real. I know lots of people liked Lee’s short story collection Yellow, but as with The Collective, I felt that Yellow‘s  portrayal of Asian American culture was way off. As my fellow blogging colleague the Alpha-Asian (come back, man!) says of Yellow:

And yet most of these overachieving characters don’t have any issues related to their Asian identity. Sure, they have issues. But for the most part, there is no issue regarding their racial identities. The stories revolve around some basic human motivations: jealousy, insecurity, loneliness, sex. The fact that these characters are Asian is incidental.

And that’s the problem with The Collective sometimes–the book loses a bit of real-ness when race is just incidental to so many people. In The Collective, it’s not incidental, but Don Lee’s characters’ Asian American identity is divorced from historical reality, which at times, affects the believability of parts of the story. While it’s interesting to read Asian Americans just being Asian and having no strong affiliations with their heritages and fewer deeper thoughts about the meaning of race, I don’t think we’ve moved beyond race, nor should we.

That said, the longer form of the novel allowed the characters in The Collective to often rise above history or culture, and this, which I didn’t expect, turned out to help the novel truly fly. Don Lee writes what he knows–the lives of writers trying to work on their craft and make a name for themselves–and it was absolutely fascinating to me, a person who has never dealt with applying for fellowships, dealing with editors, or being part of a “collective.” I appreciated the existential questions that come into the minds of the artists, as they ponder their place in the arts world and question their talent and meaning. The Collective isn’t a novel that will educate a reader on what has been, but can perhaps educate a reader on what if. For me, I enjoyed reading a different perspective from Asian Americans in artistic career paths.

With the focus on the career path in the arts, Lee manages to pull the dialogue away from the traditional parent-child storyline that often overwhelms the themes of many Asian stories. It was very interesting to read. If life imitates art, then perhaps this novel could serve as a different life beyond the normal art we see. Lee ought to be commended for pushing the envelope.

Check out a great interview with Don Lee here to read about his writing process and goals. According to the interview, much was based on real life events that he experienced or witness, but he changed the characters to Asian American as Lee was usually the sole Asian American in his circle. (I believe he was the first Asian American to head a literary magazine of Ploughshare’s size, so I have no doubt that that was the case!)

I recommend this book. It made me think about the possibilities of worlds that could exist in this world and for us as Asian Americans. We all should read and support literature that helps us to think differently and which pushes the envelope on questions of identity.

8 thoughts on “The Collective by Don Lee (Review)

  1. I understand your complaint about Don Lee. His stories don’t realistically portray Asian American culture or Asian Americans with much of an AA sensibility. You could turn the Asian characters in some of his stories into Caucasians and it would have no effect on the stories. I read halfway through his novel Wrack and Ruin, and there really isn’t much Asianness to his Asian characters. Ended up returning the book to the library unfinished.

    But your review’s convinced me to check out The Collective.

  2. Hey Alpha,

    Yes, it’s definitely worth checking out! I think it’s a thought-provoking book. Especially re: some of our conversations, Alpha, about finding one’s place.

    I had the exact same thought and Don Lee and race last night–which shows that great minds think alike. :) Don Lee doesn’t really write Asian characters. They’re basically default characters on which he slaps on a coat of yellow paint. It helps to create different possibilities as the characters aren’t “weighed down” by race, but they’re also not realistic because they aren’t “weighed down” by race.

  3. I started this yesterday. I read Yellow so long ago – I forget if I liked it or not. But so far, I like this. I just finished Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It was really good b/c it was twisted and funny, and maybe quite possible? It has nothing to do w/ Asian-Americans, however there is 1 minor AF character in it. lol… who was described as “cubicle cute.” What does that mean?!!

  4. And yet most of these overachieving characters don’t have any issues related to their Asian identity. Sure, they have issues. But for the most part, there is no issue regarding their racial identities. The stories revolve around some basic human motivations: jealousy, insecurity, loneliness, sex. The fact that these characters are Asian is incidental.

    And that’s the problem with The Collective sometimes–the book loses a bit of real-ness when race is just incidental to so many people. In The Collective, it’s not incidental, but Don Lee’s characters’ Asian American identity is divorced from historical reality, which at times, affects the believability of parts of the story. While it’s interesting to read Asian Americans just being Asian and having no strong affiliations with their heritages and fewer deeper thoughts about the meaning of race, I don’t think we’ve moved beyond race, nor should we.

    Here lies a true dilemma.

    The writers want to avoid ghettoization. So the characters are just regular humans who just happen to be Asian. Usually that means these characters are indistinguishable from white people, as many Asian-Americans are in real life. But then why call it “Asian-American Lit”? Stories of a people who are largely incapable of creating their own identity and culture and are imitators of white people, often to the point of it becoming an unintentional parody, contribute very little that is new, compelling, original or interesting to the marketplace of ideas.

    The flip side of the argument has problems too. Most Asian-Americans know next to nothing about Asian history or their heritage. Most of them cannot speak their mother tongue. Many would flip out if asked the simple question “where are you REALLY from?” In a world that is globalized and Americanized and there’s a Starbucks and McDonalds in every corner, how really deep and substantial is racial identity as a factor of artistic expression?

  5. Let’s try this again….

    And yet most of these overachieving characters don’t have any issues related to their Asian identity. Sure, they have issues. But for the most part, there is no issue regarding their racial identities. The stories revolve around some basic human motivations: jealousy, insecurity, loneliness, sex. The fact that these characters are Asian is incidental.

    And that’s the problem with The Collective sometimes–the book loses a bit of real-ness when race is just incidental to so many people. In The Collective, it’s not incidental, but Don Lee’s characters’ Asian American identity is divorced from historical reality, which at times, affects the believability of parts of the story. While it’s interesting to read Asian Americans just being Asian and having no strong affiliations with their heritages and fewer deeper thoughts about the meaning of race, I don’t think we’ve moved beyond race, nor should we.

    Here lies a true dilemma.

    The writers want to avoid ghettoization. So the characters are just regular humans who just happen to be Asian. Usually that means these characters are indistinguishable from white people, as many Asian-Americans are in real life. But then why call it “Asian-American Lit”? Stories of a people who are largely incapable of creating their own identity and culture and are imitators of white people, often to the point of it becoming an unintentional parody, contribute very little that is new, compelling, original or interesting to the marketplace of ideas.

    The flip side of the argument has problems too. Most Asian-Americans know next to nothing about Asian history or their heritage. Most of them cannot speak their mother tongue. Many would flip out if asked the simple question “where are you REALLY from?” In a world that is globalized and Americanized and there’s a Starbucks and McDonalds in every corner, how really deep and substantial is racial identity as a factor of artistic expression?

  6. Kobu,

    You wrote: “Usually that means these characters are indistinguishable from white people, as many Asian-Americans are in real life.”

    What is that called…the Turing test? Where you ask a question of a machine, and you try to guess whether it’s a person?

    My guess is that if you blindfolded yourself and posed questions to an Asian American–hard questions that probed deeply into race, sexuality, and identity–you could tell. David Carradine would fail the test miserably. On the surface they may be indistinguishable, but I think any long work–a novel, for example–should show cultural differences emerging. Even for a person with no book knowledge, there still exist vast cultural differences.

  7. Pingback: Excess Baggage by Karen Ma (Review) | bigWOWO

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