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  1. Book ImageYellow: Stories

    Don Lee

    "Elegant and engrossing...[an] unusually complete portrait of contemporary Asian America."—Los Angeles Times..."A gem....Lee has captured this truth beautifully, wisely, and with winning economy."—Cleveland Plain Dealer

A Conversation with Don Lee

You’ve mentioned that the town of Rosarita Bay, where these stories take place, is loosely based on a real town on the central coast of California. What did you find compelling about this setting? Are some of your characters based on real people?

The town is Half Moon Bay. I lived in Southern California for six years, but I went up to San Francisco a number of times and often passed through Half Moon Bay. I was intrigued by the area—such a quiet, rural, undeveloped community just over the hill from a major city. One time, I noticed a rusting seaplane moored on a backwater canal behind a house, and I wondered who lived there, and what they were doing with a seaplane so far inland. It obviously couldn’t fly. That started the story “Casual Water.”

I named the town Rosarita Bay rather than Half Moon Bay, because I didn’t know the latter at all, and I didn’t want to be hampered by facts. After I sold the book, my editor, Alane Mason, suggested that I make the town more prominent in my final revisions. I then did some research on Half Moon Bay, and ironically—maybe mystically—I learned that much of what I’d made up in the stories was true: the zoning laws, the environmental problems with the breakwater, the big-wave surfing spot. Yet none of the stories are strictly autobiographical or biographical, although my feeling is that all works of fiction are emotionally autobiographical.

How much research do you do, or do you rely more on your imagination?

I do an extravagant amount of research for my fiction, perhaps as a method of procrastination but also as a means of getting to know my characters. For instance, I looked up appellate decisions and read dozens of articles about public defenders and even combed through an entire casebook on criminal law for “Voir Dire.” I usually begin with too much expository information, and in my revisions, I end up weeding out many of the details to tighten the narrative. I know it’d be good for me to work with less research, but for now, it helps as a foundation, a springboard. Once I figure out what the character does for work, what his or her passion is, then I start to understand what the story is about.

Many of your characters are Asian, but often their stories seem to revolve around dilemmas that are not simply due to race but universal human problems. What did you intend to say about Asian Americans?

Well, I had no intentions of producing a polemic. My main objective was to write decent stories, not sociological treatises, so when asked—and I’m asked a lot—I feel funny making generalizations about Asian Americans. But it’s true that I did have a hidden agenda while writing the stories.

Most of the Asian-American literature I’d seen dealt with FOBs—immigrants fresh off the boat. I wanted to write about people like me, third- and fourth-generation post-immigrant Asian Americans who are very much assimilated into the overall culture, but who have residual ethnic loyalties (that make them ambivalent), and who also face subtle acts of discrimination or stereotypes (that make them feel powerless or angry).

How do you think your stories challenge Asian stereotypes?

The first thing to recognize is that minorities do not automatically or predominantly define themselves by their ethnicity. I don’t go around every minute of the day thinking I am Asian, and neither do the characters in the book. I wanted to show that Asian Americans can be just as individual and diverse, as sexy, artsy, feisty, athletic, articulate, neurotic, and screwed up as anyone else in America. So I’ve got Asians who are artists, big-wave surfers, venture capitalists, poets, public defenders, fishermen, and management consultants, and I also have Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans.

But at the same time I also wanted to educate people about the kinds of prejudice Asian Americans face every day. With literary fiction—an admittedly small audience—I always believed I was preaching to the converted. But I found out I was wrong one day in talking to a very well-educated, liberal academic, who told me he had never really thought Asians experienced discrimination. One could say that most of the discrimination comes in the form of benevolent stereotypes—the whole model minority thing: All Asians are smart and hard-working. All Asian men are geeky engineers with high-flood-water pants and calculators on their belts. All Asian women are either passive, submissive chrysanthemums or seductive, manipulative hotties. These aren’t hugely destructive stereotypes, but they are stereotypes nonetheless, and they do have hurtful consequences.

Do any of the stories here draw from your own experience with discrimination?

Actually, all of the incidents with racial slurs that happen to Danny Kim in “Yellow” happened to me, except for the one in the boxing ring. Whenever I say that, people are surprised to hear that sort of virulence exists.

Do you feel that categorizing Yellow as Asian-American literature limits the book’s market and readership?

I’d like to think that the book would appeal to all literary fiction readers, but the media has almost universally pegged it as an Asian-American book. The truth is, we knew that however we marketed the book, regardless of how it was titled or designed, the collection would be received as an Asian-American work. Journalists need some sort of an angle with which to approach books, and the Asian aspect is the most convenient. And the title story does address racism very directly, so maybe it’s my own fault.

However, it does bother me that the ethnic-lit label might be turning off general readers. I think Asian-American writers have a ways to go, similar to the sixties, when Malamud and Bellow and Roth were primarily perceived as Jewish writers—they’ve gotten beyond that now, and I’d like to see that happen for Asian Americans.

You are a third-generation Korean American, but your stories feature Japanese and Chinese and Filipino characters, along with Koreans. Do you think it’s fair that these varied groups are often consolidated into a single cultural category and are all identified as “Asians”?

I think the experience of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Americans is somewhat similar, although the groups can be very different and at times resentful of one another. I wanted to point out some of those divergences in the stories, since they’re not really acknowledged or known by most whites. I certainly disagree with the lumping together of South Asians—Indians, Pakistanis—with Far East and Southeast Asians. Asia is a huge continent. It’s too broad of an umbrella to be useful.

Did your occupation as the editor of the literary journal Ploughshares help or hinder the process of writing your own stories?

It definitely helped with getting an agent and selling the collection—I had connections up the wazoo—but not with the writing itself. Working all day at literary endeavors doesn’t inspire one to go home and keep working at night. Indeed I never identified myself as a writer; most of the authors I dealt with as an editor had no idea I wrote at all. I considered myself a hobbyist: I wrote a story every year or two and got them published in small journals like Ploughshares, and I was satisfied doing that until I started nearing forty. I began thinking, You know, I’d really like to have a book, I’d like to have something tangible to account for myself after all these years. I didn’t want to be one of those woulda-coulda-shouldas. So I took all those old stories and revised them and wrote a couple of new ones. I guess you could say the real impetus for getting the book together was a midlife crisis.

As the son of a State Department officer, you spent much of your childhood abroad. Has your writing been influenced by your time in Tokyo and Seoul?

Other than a few tangential references, I haven’t written about my youth overseas except in the story “Domo Arigato.” However, it’s a time and place rich with potential, and I’ll be using it as the setting for the novel that I’m working on.

Are you finding that there is a different technique to writing a novel?

This is my first attempt at a novel, and it’s a daunting, humbling, absolutely terrifying taks. I have an overwhelming fear that I will fail, that I’ll have writer’s block, that I’m a no-talent imposter. Rationally I know I’ll be able to do this, and in many ways I feel that my style is suited to the novel, but that won’t stop me from quaking with doubt every step of the way. Without a contract, I don’t think I would have gotten around to a novel so soon. I wonder about the wisdom of signing short-story writers to two-book deals for a collection and an unwritten novel. What evidence is there that someone who can write short stories can write a novel? Of course there’s a prevailing attitude that short stories are a warm-up to novels and that story collections aren’t real books, anyway. But it’s a bit like asking a hundred-meter sprinter to switch to the marathon. The sensibilities are completely opposite: in stories, you’re trying to compress and excise as much as possible; in a novel, you need to expand and draw things out. My biggest challenge is getting myself to simply forge ahead with rough drafts, to allow myself to write badly so I can figure out what the novel’s really about, whereas in stories I would eke out each line and not continue until I felt I had it right.

Do you read works similar to what you write? What writers do you admire most?

I read the standard contemporary literary establishment, I suppose. No one that surprising. In college I was a fan of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence—the standard canon of the literary establishment—as well as Richard Yates, Andre Dubus, John Cheever. I don’t think there’s a conflict between what you read and what you write. After all, all writers begin writing because they love to read.

Discussion Questions

  1. In “The Price of Eggs in China,” what qualities distinguish and link Marcella Ahn, Caroline Yip, and Dean Kaneshiro? How do they differ in their opinions about the function of art and the role of artists? Why is Caroline so angry when she discovers the extent of Dean’s artistic success?
  2. In many of the stories, author Don Lee describes a character’s profession or special talent. How does learning about this aspect of the character’s life shape our perception? Discuss other characters in this collection who are defined by their jobs and avocations.
  3. In your judgment, who was Caroline’s mysterious prank caller: Marcella, as Dean chooses to believe, or Caroline herself, as Marcella claims? How does this mystery affect the outcome of the story?
  4. Much of the story “Voir Dire” covers the trial of drug addict Chee Seng Lam, who is accused of murdering the child of his girlfriend, Ruby Liu. How does their situation compare to Hank Low Kwon and Molly Beddle’s? What questions of moral accountability are raised?
  5. How is the symbol or motif of water used in this and other stories in the book?
  6. Alan Fujitani, the main character of “Widowers,” is captivated by the young widow Emily Vieira, but he holds on to his dead wife’s memory with great respect and devotion-perhaps too much. What is it about Emily that he finds admirable and attractive? Does meeting Emily change Alan?
  7. Annie Yung becomes a regular at the Lone Night Cantina, “where she thought she belonged, in the cheatin’ heart world of Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline songs.” Why does Korean-American Annie seem to find solace in dressing the part of a blond cowgirl with a Southern twang? How does Don Lee play with symbols of American culture in the story?
  8. This story closes with Annie not riding into the sunset but driving in the rain. The choice between pragmatism and romantic escape or even delusion appears to echo throughout the collection. Discuss how this choice relates to the questions of ethnicity, relationships, and personal identity.
  9. In “Casual Water,” Patrick Fenny asks himself: “What was it that made people so weak?” What are the individual characters’ weaknesses? All the stories in the collection seem to hinge on characters’ fears, particularly of being alone, isolated, or abandoned. How is this theme developed?
  10. Miss Yung, Brian’s teacher, also appears in “The Lone Night Cantina” as Annie Yung’s sister. What other characters and places recur in the book? What impression do you get of the town of Rosarita Bay, and how does it fit in with the themes of the collection? Why do the characters feel drawn or trapped by the town?
  11. In “The Possible Husband,” Duncan Roh seems to flit from one pastime to another, much as he does with women. What is he ultimately seeking? Escapism or transcendence?
  12. In “Domo Arigato,” Eugene Kim is not only an outsider in Japanese society but also in the close circle of his American girlfriend’s white family. As a Korean American, how does Eugene perceive himself in relation to the native Japanese? What does his story tell us about the differences among Asian cultures themselves?
  13. Eugene eventually marries Janet, whom we learn is half-black, half-Korean. How does Eugene’s ultimate choice in his spouse reflect his experience with race, intimate relationships, and family? Does his choice signify a rejection of white American culture, or a reinforcement of ethnic identity? Is his conclusion about racial equality a form of resignation or acquired wisdom?
  14. In the title story, “Yellow,” When Danny Kim says to his wife, Rachel, “No stereotype is innocent,” she replies, “Racism’s not the problem. It’s you.” Do you agree with Danny or Rachel? Or both? Why does he perceive others as the problem, not himself?
  15. How does Danny attempt to overcome his feelings of insecurity? Does his response change as he grows older and more successful? How does his paranoia about race influence his desire to achieve?
  16. Each story in this collection includes details about the characters’ race and background, but the plots and people themselves are often defined not by their color but by their personal passions and by human dilemmas that are universally shared. How do these stories deal with racial stereotypes? What do they communicate about the diversity of Asian backgrounds and relationships with non-Asians? Explore how your perception of the stories might have changed if the characters’ race had not been described.
  17. While race does not seem to be the central focus of each story, the collection’s title is, nonetheless, Yellow. What is the impact of this provocative title? What about the titles of other stories? What messages or dual meanings do they carry?

About Don Lee

Don Lee is the author of the novels The Collective, Wrack and Ruin, and Country of Origin, and the story collection Yellow. He has received an American Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, an O. Henry Award, and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Temple University and splits his time between Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Books by Don Lee

  1. Book CoverCountry of Origin: A Novel

    A dazzling debut novel by the prize-winning author of Yellow, set in the unique and exotic nightworld of Tokyo.More

  2. Book CoverLonesome Lies Before Us: A Novel

    A contemporary ballad of heartbreak, failure, and unquenchable longing, this novel presents Don Lee at his best.More

  3. Book CoverWrack and Ruin: A Novel

    “Lee has outdone himself here. His prose moves and sparkles.” —Washington PostMore