The Korean-American novelist Don Lee's latest book "The Collective" uses Macalester College in St. Paul as a launching point for a tale about the Asian-American experience. Lee said of his four books so far, "The Collective" is his most personal.
"The Collective" begins with the suicide of Joshua Yoon, a young writer on the verge of making it big. The news leaves his once-close group of college friends reeling.
"We had loved Joshua," Lee writes. "But we'd gradually grown tired of him, and of one another. The fact is if pressed we would each have to confess that we all saw it coming, and we did nothing to prevent it."
The passage was written from the point of view of the members of the 3AC, the Asian-American Artists Collective, as a group of friends who meet at Macalester in the 1980s came to call themselves. It's a volatile group: Joshua, the unofficial leader, delights in criticizing everything and anyone. Lee said he has met leaders of Joshua's type all too often in real life, their dynamism based more on insecurity than confidence.
"And they are often a little bit delusional," Lee said, "and sometimes congenital liars, all of which makes them kind fascinating characters for a book. And so that'd certainly what Joshua ended up to be."
Other 3AC members include Jessica Tsai, a talented painter resisting her parents' desire that she become a doctor; and Eric Cho, the narrator. He also dreams of being a writer but struggles and doubts his own talent, particularly as he watches Joshua produce story after story apparently without breaking a sweat.
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Lee, the director of the MFA program at Temple University in Philadelphia, said that as with his other books, "The Collective" began with an underlying area he wanted to explore: "The idea of friendships and the way they form and wane."
He described the novel as a love letter to friendships. It's also a love letter to the school where he taught writing from 2007 to 2008.
"Macalester is just a fantastic school," Lee said. "And I always felt, even thought I left, that it was a class organization, and I really enjoyed my students there. And so, yes, that is part of the love letter."
But there is much more to "The Collective."
Like any group of young people thrown together in the college pressure cooker, the members of the 3AC share life-changing experiences, laugh, cry, fall in and out of love, and most of all, they argue.
Lee said "The Collective" allowed him to explore difficult issues facing Asian-Americans, and artists in particular.
"If you are an Asian-American writer," he said, "do you always have to write about race? Do you always have to make your characters Asian-American? If you don't, is it a form of race betrayal? If you do, are you ghettoizing yourself or perpetuating stereotypes?"
Lee had his characters wrestle with the issues, first in the classroom, as they argue with other students dealing with similar questions about their own identities. Then a racial slur scrawled on a chalkboard ignites a campus-wide debate and results in some real-world consequences.
After graduation the friends end up in Boston, where they expand the collective and begin developing their art. But they also get embroiled in larger controversies and keep fighting among themselves about what it all means.
Lee said that the story in "The Collective" was not autobiographical, but he experienced the realities of being an Asian-American artist when he lived in Boston after he graduated from college.
"A lot of times I would go to literary events and receptions and readings," he said, "and I would find that I was the only non-white person in the room."
Many of the situations described in the novel were based on real things that happened to people Lee knows. He did a lot of research in Boston and Minnesota.
Reviewers have praised "The Collective" for its insight and pathos, and for being genuinely funny. A great deal of the humor arises from Lee's descriptions of intimate details of student life in St. Paul, such as when a certain bell rings, it means a student has lost his or her campus virginity.
"These are things that you don't really know about as a teacher," he said, laughing. "You know only as a student. There were things I found out during my research that really surprised me."
Lee said he was particularly pleased when he received an e-mail from a Mac student who said he had nailed it.
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