Author Profile: Don Lee [in Bloom]
When Don Lee’s first book debuted in April 2001, he probably didn’t know that he was the forerunner of a colorful trend – literally. His collection, Yellow, had the shortest of subtitles, simply Stories. Three months later, in July, another yellow-tinted cover appeared: Yell-Oh Girls!: Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American edited by Vickie Nam, in which young Asian American girls from all over the country shared poems, essays, and stories that spoke of their bicultural roots. And then 9/11 hit … moment of silence … and the end of that fateful year seemed to be just the right time for the publication of law professor Frank H. Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.
Among those various shades of yellow, Don Lee’s is my personal favorite. The quirky collection of short stories is populated by the inhabitants of a fictional California seaside town, not unlike the real-life Half Moon Bay along Northern California’s coastal Highway 1. Lee’s memorable characters are convincing; as a onetime Golden State resident, I swear I’ve run into some of them!
“Late … according to whom?” indeed! Lee was 41 when his Yellow hit the shelves. After almost two decades of encouraging, editing, publishing other people’s writing for Ploughshares, at 38, hoping to avoid middle-age ‘coulda-woulda-shoulda’-reget, Lee decided to produce a book of his own by the time he hit 40. His timing was a bit optimistic, so he revised the plan to sell that first book by the big 4-0; remarkably, his birth week arrived complete with a book contract. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one playing colorful favorites: that 40th birthday sale won Lee the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the Members Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
As the son of a second-generation Korean American and his Korean-born wife, Lee is technically classified as a third-generation Korean American, although he was born in Tokyo where his career diplomat father was working at the U.S. State Department. From Japan, the family moved to Korea when Lee was four, where he had his first identity crisis: “Japanese was my first language,” he said to me in a 2004 interview for AsianWeek. “But here I was in Korea, speaking only Japanese. I was a little confused to say the least. I thought I was a Japanese kid, but now I was a Korean kid?” To add to his bewilderment, the Lee family lived on a U.S. Army base in Seoul. “Now I was an American, Korean, and Japanese,” he says. “And that’s all you need to know why I’m so hung up on identity,” he laughs.
Identity is at the crux of Lee’s first novel, Country of Origin, which came out in 2004. Not one of his characters is who he or she appears to be … not Tom Hurley, the half-Korean foreign service officer stationed in Japan, nor his photographer lover, nor her CIA husband. And then there’s Kenzo Ota, the Japanese policeman assigned to investigate the aptly named Lisa Countryman, an African-American hapa whose disappearance brings all the characters together. Country of Origin earned Lee an American Book Award and a Mixed Media Watch Image Award for Outstanding Fiction. He also won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel – the Edgar being the top literary prize for mysteries – although he’ll be the first to tell you that he never intended to write that sort of mystery: “I intended to write a sort of Graham Greene political novel, but it strongly appealed to mystery readers, for which I was extremely grateful. Mystery readers buy a lot of books. It also ended up to be my most translated book, and for unknown reasons especially struck a chord with German readers.” [… click here for more]
Author profile: “Don Lee’s Pure Stories,” Bloom, May 27, 2013