Don Lee’s novel The Collective, won the 2013 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. He is also the author of the novels Wrack and Ruin, Country of Origin,and the story collection Yellow. He has received an American Book Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Fred R. Brown Literary Award. His stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, GQ, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. For many years, he was the editor of Ploughshares. He teaches in the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. Photo: Melissa Frost
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Rosie Huf. Of the process, she said, “I love that Don is not afraid to confront his inner turmoil, or that of the surrounding world, and then transpose it into an accessible story. His responses were candid, uninhibited, much like his writing, which I found refreshing. It was a great opportunity to interview and thus learn from him.” In this interview, Don discusses his process, as well as reflects on his inspiration for Yellow, as well as The Collective.
Superstition Review: Yellow, your debut collection, was heralded as a witty, introspective work. The characters are well constructed and their lives are a sharp reflection of those living in real, modern communities of diverse Asian Americans. Could you speak to the source of inspiration for writing this book?
Don Lee: The stories in that collection were written over the course of ten years—perhaps longer. Some of them, I wrote the initial drafts in graduate school. After I got my degree, I taught eight classes a year as an adjunct and was also working part-time at Ploughshares. I wasn’t getting much writing done. Then I began working full-time for Ploughshares and devoted my life to the job. Basically I wrote a story every year or so, just to keep my hand in. I talked a good game about being a writer, but I wasn’t really writing. I was, in essence, a dilettante.
I think there were three key moments in how the book finally came together. First, I wrote the title novella “Yellow” after years of not wanting to write stories related to the “Asian American experience.” Second, I wrote the opening story in the collection, “The Price of Eggs in China,” on my couch while watching sports on TV. Before then, I’d always been so serious (precious) about my writing habits, needing a long block of time, the right pen, the right pad of paper, the right mood. I decided to take myself away from all of that, to take myself less seriously. I wanted to loosen all those old strictures. Consequently, it was the first story where I allowed myself to exhibit a sense of humor. Third, when I was around thirty-eight, after pretty much having relegated writing to a sideline or hobby, I decided I wanted to publish a book. I resolved to lay it all out on the line and go for it or shut up about it, and I spent the next two years working hard, revising the old stories, writing new ones, shaping the collection, finding an agent. I sold the book the week of my fortieth birthday, which had been my goal.
SR: When originally published, several stories from Yellow were cast with non–Asian American leads. What informed your decision to switch ethnicities for this compilation?
DL: A lot of this had to do with resenting the suggestion when I was starting out as a writer that I should write about the Asian American experience and have Asian American characters. I thought the suggestion was, in and of itself, racist, that I was being told I shouldn’t step out of the ethnic literature box, that I should know my place. But I didn’t want to be labeled as an ethnic writer, and I wasn’t interested in writing about being an immigrant or setting stories in Old Asia. I had no connections to those stories. They weren’t my stories. So essentially my reaction to those suggestions was, Fuck you. I thought I should be able to write whatever I wanted, and the ethnicity of my characters was immaterial. Thus, my characters were either unspecified in terms of race or even white.
But eventually I had to acknowledge that race did matter to me, that I had faced racism, especially in Boston, and that tapping into my anger and confusion and discomfort with the issue of race could be powerful and generative. The process began with the novella “Yellow,” and as I was revising the stories for the collection, I thought thematically it’d be tighter to have all Asian American characters, but with a caveat. I didn’t want to make a big deal about their being Asian American. The characters are Asian American, but they’re regular people, and, with two exceptions, they populate regular stories—not polemics about race. Weirdly, this was considered somewhat revolutionary, which shows you how endemic that ethnic literature box was back then. I’m still very ambivalent about all of this, which is why I tend to alternate: one book will touch on elements about race, then the next will not (or at least not much very much).
SR: Out of the myriad of stories shared in Yellow, which resonated with you most? If you were going to revisit one of the characters from the collection, who would you pick and why?
DL: Probably those two stories I already mentioned, the ones that bookend the collection, resonated the most for me: “The Price of Eggs in China” and “Yellow.” I revisited the first story when I was asked to contribute to the anthology Boston Noir, edited by Dennis Lehane, from Akashic Books. I wrote a prequel called “The Oriental Hair Poets” as a lark. And I had in mind a companion to “Yellow,” except from a female point of view, with a story called “UFOs” that appeared in The Kenyon Review. I liked the idea of having an unsympathetic protagonist in both “Yellow” and “UFOs.” I’ve thought often of a little book called The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor’s study of the short story (which has been reprinted by Melville Books). In it, O’Connor posits that while novels must have at least one relatable character, short stories are freer to explore a “submerged population group,” characters on the fringes of society who might not be very likable.