Don Lee Overview
Don Lee, a third-generation Korean American, began his education at the University of California Los Angeles as an engineering major during which time, he told Jessica Brilliant Keener of Poets & Writers he was ‘‘bored to tears.’’ After encouragement from an English composition instructor to take some creative-writing courses, he was ‘‘hooked.’’ Thus began his career in the writing field. His book of short stories, Yellow, won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and individual stories in the book won an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize.
Yellow is a collection of six interwoven stories and a novella all with Asian-American protagonists and all set in a fictional coastal town in California. Janice Bees wrote in Kliatt that the stories are ‘‘compact, complicated, energetic, and sharply written.’’ Reviewing the book for the Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten commented: ‘‘Lee is unafraid of flirting with the perils of melodrama and even sentimentality—if it is the service of narrative. His prose is spare and free of literary allusions, and he is unafraid to take narrative chances, including what some might consider Hollywood action set pieces.’’ Rutten called Yellow a ‘‘triumph of the artful over the didactic,’’ and stated that the characters filling its pages ‘‘constitute a rich and unusually complete portrait of contemporary Asian America.’’
Lee’s book was a long time in the making, with some stories dating back thirteen years before their publication. The author told Keener that, due to the long process, people might assume he was having difficulty selling the manuscript. Not so, he contended: ‘‘I just wasn’t writing. I wrote one story every year or two and published in literary journals. I was a hobbyist.’’ He noted that his job as editor of Ploughshares is demanding and his days are filled with programming computers, writing grant applications, organizing information for tax returns, and a myriad of other responsibilities. ‘‘The editing part is the easiest and most enjoyable part, but it’s also the smallest percentage of an editor’s time,’’ he commented.
In order to write his novel Country of Origin, Lee declared to Keener, he first had to believe he could; this was his greatest challenge. He then negotiated with Emerson College, his employer, to take Fridays off from his editorial job at Ploughshares and he worked on his book Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, spending four months in research, one year on his draft, and six months in revision. The schedule he set himself was two chapters per month, with each chapter approximately twelve to fifteen pages long. ‘‘I followed through, and it was pretty miraculous,’’ he told Keener.
The basis of Country of Origin is identity. Based in Tokyo in 1980, the story centers around a half-Korean, half-white foreign-service officer and a Japanese police officer who unite to search for a missing black American woman who may be half Japanese. Through the characters’ interlocking stories, Lee explores issues of race, identity, social conventions, the Japanese sex trade, and the law.
In an interview with Terry Hong for AsianWeek, Lee explained why he is ‘‘so hung up on identity.’’ The son of a U.S. state department officer, Lee was born in Tokyo and moved with his family to a U.S. Army base in Seoul, South Korea, when he was four years old. Japanese was the only language he knew; he had always thought of himself as a Japanese kid. Now, was he a Korean kid? And on an American army base? Then it was back to Tokyo where he spent his adolescence. ‘‘Given my background, I was fascinated by the milieu of foreign service officers and ex-patriots,’’ Lee told Hong, and the breakthrough in finding a theme for his book came when a young English woman—a hostess in Tokyo—went missing. ‘‘So now I had my story,’’ he said.
Lee wrote on his Web site that all the themes in Country...
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