As soon as an idea shows up as a bumper sticker, you know it's dying. Certainly "diversity" has become a tired buzz word. Yet, sometimes the old slogans (like "freedom" and "peace") retain a trace of significance.
Flooded with cliché-mongers, the world of literary fiction still occasionally allows a new writer to tackle these big, momentous concepts in a fresh way. Don Lee's collection of interlinked stories, Yellow, is about true diversity. Asians and Whites, working class and yuppies, business drones and surf-bums, skilled craftsmen and barflies populate Lee's intriguing portrait of a small California town.
Yellow is the story of a young West Coast Korean who finds himself drawn deeply into the world of boxing. It's about race and oppression. It addresses broad questions surrounding the Asian diaspora. But thankfully, it also focuses just as much on raw physical pain and the stink of fear. Beauty and discipline, rage and masculine grace, churn in the life of Danny Kim.
Writers have been often drawn to the realm of testosterone-drenched sports. Cynics might say this is because writers sit safely at home, wondering what this other, cruder world is like. "Sports lends itself to writing, to metaphor," Don Lee says. Working on the stories, he found himself drawn again and again to the drama and passion implicit in competition.
But for Lee, who will be reading from his works and answering questions as part of SUNY Brockport's Writer's Forum program on Wednesday, October 23, boxing was no mere writer's affectation. Lee himself boxed for a while, and though he never competed, he still has a great deal of respect for the ring. He talks about "the purity of the sport. It really is raw. You're exposed there. It really is a scary thing to do. Just sparring is scary."
It's not only physical damage that the story's main character must face. He is called "Yellow" as a double insult: a coward and an Asian. Even his mentor in the ring, a Hispanic man of impeccable precision and style, sees him in purely racial terms. He assumes that Danny is Korean, saying that they have "the killer instinct." Yet Danny is a failure in the ring and spends the rest of his life dodging the ill-defined hostility that still plagues many Asian Americans.
Though Lee's first book of short fiction, Yellow, is populated by various Korean, Japanese, and Hawaiian Americans, he has some discomfort talking too long about race and Asian identity. "I wanted to avoid the issue of racism, but the title story, 'Yellow,' is a statement. I told myself 'I'm going to make a statement.' I did, and then I moved on."
Lee's work never slips into that most dreary of literary genres: the politically correct victim tale. Yes, his Asian characters face prejudice and insults, but there is a delightful absence of whining.
Many of Lee's stories, and his life too, fly straight in the face of standard assumptions about Asian Americans.
"We aren't all the stereotypical wimpy geeks," Lee says. He began his college career in high tech. "What do all good Asian kids do? I started out as an engineering major. But it ticked me off to see people's assumptions about Asians in that field." Instead of following the road most taken, Lee veered off in a different direction. "I made an impulsive decision in reaction to people's expectations about me. I jumped from engineering to English and committed myself to a life of poverty."
Not even this self-mocking prediction has come to pass. For the last 14 years, Lee has been editor of Ploughshares, one of America's most prestigious literary magazines.
It was independent when he first joined the staff, as an unpaid slush-pile reader. "In those days there was no hot water. It was a shoe-string, Mom and Pop operation," Lee says. "We worked under true sweat-shop conditions."
But in 1991, the magazine affiliated with Emerson College and received grants and other funding from major contributors, such as the Lila Wallace Foundation. Circulation has tripled under Lee's editorship, from 2,000 readers to 6,000. And while this might seem a minuscule number, for a magazine devoted entirely to creative writing, no scholarship and no issues-oriented journalism, it is quite impressive.
Ploughshares, like most literary magazines, receives far more submissions than it can hope to publish. The slush-pile is bombarded by 1,000 submissions per month. Readership is largely made up of writers. "Seventy-five percent of the people who subscribe to Ploughshares have submitted creative writing to magazines."
Located in Boston, Ploughshares continues a long tradition of the New England literary establishment. "You can throw a stick in the Boston Cambridge area and hit six poets," Lee says. But he brings a different flavor to this world. "I'm a West Coast guy and that comes through in the stories."
The world of Yellow is populated by surfers, golfers, swimmers, and other sun-tan addicts. Lee is convinced that the weather on the West Coast truly does shape the personality of those who live there. His best example is walking on Laguna Beach and seeing a circle of 30 people talking. All around was the stereotypical California beach culture. He came closer, intrigued by the group. "It was a perfect California moment," he says. The circle turned out to be an A.A. meeting.
Lee's fiction links this hyper-mellow California with the grittier world of racial politics, competition, and aggressive sex. Though his fiction has mainstream, academic roots, it ranges farther afield than the bland self-absorption of much literary writing these days. Funny, sexy, clever, and heartfelt, Lee's stories breathe a little new life into the moribund idea of diversity.
Don Lee reads from his work on Wednesday, October 23, in the New York Room, Cooper Hall, SUNY Brockport, at 8 p.m. 395-5713. Free.