A Yellow ‘Country of Origin’
Technically, writer Don Lee is a third-generation Korean American. But he was born in Tokyo where his father was working for the U.S. State Department. Then after moving to South Korea at age 4, he had his first identity crisis: “Japanese was my first language,” he says. “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, his follow-up to the award-winning short story collection, Yellow: Stories. 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 Julia Tinsley, his photographer lover. Nor Vincent Kitamura, her CIA husband. And then there’s the noise-challenged Kenzo Ota, the Japanese policeman assigned to investigate the aptly named Lisa Countryman, an African American hapa whose disappearance brings all the characters together.
AsianWeek: So the obvious question: how did Country of Origin come about?
Don Lee: Given my background [of international moves], I was fascinated by the milieu of foreign service officers and ex-patriots. Originally, I was going to write a story only about Tom. But while I had a situation, I didn’t have a plot to drive the story forward. The breakthrough came when I heard about a young English woman who went missing, who had been a hostess in Tokyo. And I knew from my past that one of the duties of a vice consul in consular services is to take care of the welfare and whereabouts of their citizens. So now I had my story.
AW: As you’re heading out for your Country book tour, do you have any good road stories to share from the Yellow tour?
DL: One of my favorite experiences was at the Harvard bookstore. This young man came up to me and said, “I’m Korean American and I want to be a writer, too, but the question is do I have to write about being Korean American?” My answer was: “No, because I’m doing that for you. My generation has to deal with those kinds of questions so the next generations won’t have to, and you can just tell pure stories.”
AW: The current marketing of books often seems to have an ‘Oriental’ bent to it … from chopstick-y fonts on covers to the exotic woman in exotic dress in soft focus, etc. There’s that whole sense of ‘other’ presented as a selling point … have you noticed that?
DL: I had this sweet, well-meaning college student tell me she initially didn’t want to read my book because it was about another culture. Her way of complimenting me was to say she went ahead and read it anyway and enjoyed it despite her reservations. If a book smacks of the ‘other’ or exoticism, people are often repelled by the work; they’re not interested because it’s about a different culture – like this college student. There’s a certain fatigue about multiculturalism right now. What it really comes down to in that sort of marketing is the message that you’re a racist and you need to learn outside your comfort zone – that gets tiring for the reader after awhile. …[click here for more]