A Collective Experience: Don Lee’s Novel explores the world of Asian American art

By Kaitlin Wright

Don Lee’s The Collective is a fictitious story grounded in factual experience. The story follows three liberal arts students from their initial exposure to adulthood through to their post-graduate aspirations and pitfalls. These students, Eric Cho, Jessica Tsai and Joshua Yoon, are, like most college students, trying to find themselves and understand their place in the world. Their Asian American identity adds another layer to this self-discovery expedition. A reviewer from NPR writes, this novel grapples with “the allure of the cultural bond [and] the bristle of the stereotype.” 

We follow the character Eric through the novel. We hear his thoughts and are made to sympathize and connect with his experience. Eric is time and again criticized by his roommate, Joshua for not embracing his Asian heritage. Eric, a third-generation Korean raised in Southern California has never felt his Asian heritage to be a hinderance, but he has also never felt a sense of pride because of it. Eric says, “The problem was, I didn’t feel Korean. I didn’t what it meant to be Korean, or Asian, or Asian American. I only felt American” (84). Eric’s struggle with his American identity brings up a lot questions regarding interracial relationships and showing Asian themes in one’s art. 

What is Asian American Art? Is it art created by an Asian Americans, or is it art about the Asian American experience? One event in Lee’s book describes an Asian American art exhibit that was virtually disconnected in terms of theme or subject across the individual pieces. The only connecting factor was the fact that the artists were all Asian American. The problem presented in this example is that these artists, talented in their various mediums are not selected to be in art shows based on the achievement of their craft, but rather, they are selected because of their identity. This act of segregation is sometimes posited by curators as a way of “honoring” the artists’ heritage, but what it really says is that these artists are not welcome with the other artists. 

This brings us to another topic of Lee’s book. The character of Joshua asserts that Asian Americans need to make their art about what it is like to be Asian American. When Eric writes a story that has white characters, Joshua says, “its tantamount to race betrayal.” There are two sides to this argument. One, as mentioned by Lee in The Collective an artist’s work is often more powerful when an author draws inspiration from their personal experience. No one else has the same authority on the things you have felt and the emotions you have experienced, so these are the things that you have to give to the world. If Asian Americans do not discuss their plight in their art, then who will? If a person of any other race tried to capture such a theme, it would come off as contrived and unauthentic. The other side though, is should Asian Americans be restricted to this on vein of sociopolitical statement art? Perhaps, it cages their creative license to be “forced” into one idea. 

The issues that Lee raises in this novel are very real, and very present. There is no easy, or “right” answer to the questions of race and identity especially in how it manifests in one’s art. This novel, while it can’t possible answer the questions, makes a person think. More thoughtful appreciation of artists and people in general will hopefully begin to dissipate racialized, genderized and sexualized stereotypes. 

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