A Review of Identity in Don Lee’s The Collective

Alyse Blachly

The Collective by Don Lee is a thought provoking work that delves into themes that are often considered taboo. For example, issues like suicide, sexuality, and racial and personal identity are both questioned, but also given a voice. I found this book very relatable because it follows the lives of three students who are trying to find themselves as they go through their college years and beyond. All three are Asian American, providing both a common bond, but also contrasting how each experiences this identity in very different ways. I was very interested in how the character development (or lack thereof) related to issues of identity as related to Asian Americans.

            Joshua is a trans-racially adopted Korean American, who very much embraces his Korean heritage. His philosophy is that Asian Americans must always portray issues and culture in their art and writing that relates and betters other Asians. At the same time, because of his adoption, he feels that he does not have a family history, and therefore he is very insecure about his identity. He hides this by being a jerk most of the time and acting as if he is superior in every aspect. While Eric is Korean as well, he does not feel particularly different, but rather he just feels like he is American. He writes about white characters in his writing, likes to date white girls, and doesn’t feel any ties or desire to relate to his Korean heritage. I think Don Lee is trying to explore different types of identity that Asians have. This can be more complicated than it might seem. On the one hand, why is there a problem with Eric just wanting to be classified as an American? America is made up of so many different ethnicities, and you don’t see every white person learning the language of their own ethnicities. If someone is insulted for not being interested in their own culture, I would wonder if it mattered what they looked like. An Asian must be interested in their heritage, no matter what generation, while it is fine for Caucasians to be American. I think, in this sense, it enforces the view of Asians as the “perpetual foreigner” that we learned about in the beginning of class. On the other hand, Asians are already marginalized and stereotyped, not fairly represented in the media and other arts, and are still othered. So, for Eric to only date white girls and write about white characters, this could be an indication of the American culture that preferences whites, rubbing off on Eric’s own way of thinking about himself and others. If he rejects his heritage and his families’ enactment of it, it could be a little deeper than just seeing himself as an American. So it is clear that there is a fine line, and Lee depicts the two sides in Eric and Joshua’s early characters.

            As the book continues, Eric begins to stop relying on Joshua’s insistence and finally comes into his own character. I think the character that Eric becomes is in the middle of the two extremes of looking at identity. For example, in the beginning Joshua’s thoughts rubbed off on Eric. He began to be skeptical about the white girls he was dating and began to believe that there is a very specific type of art Asians can focus on. While elements of this can be true, the problem was that Eric was being spoon-fed the ideas because he was Asian, rather than experiencing them himself. As he matured, he started developing his own ideas about these issues. He was okay falling in love and staying with a white girl because he could connect with her better than anyone else. He did not feel like he had to date an Asian girl, but also didn’t feel like he was with his girlfriend because she was white. At that point, he was able to transcend certain stereotypes and rules based on race identity. But he also recognized that there are issues that affect Asian Americans that don’t affect other Americans. By speaking out against these things, he finally understood what Joshua was talking about. The key thing to note here though is that he was not ordered by Joshua or by a teacher to care about these issues. Rather, he experienced racism, stereotyping, and oppression for himself. By forming a real connection with the issues, he could then be an advocate for other Asian Americans.

            Joshua’s character, while passionate and talented, is very dark, puts others down, and does not grow. In my opinion, he becomes obsessed with other Asians and bases his identity solely on them. He idolizes certain Asian artists, he critiques Asians who do not do what he believes they should, and goes to Korea to try to find his birthparents and his cultural heritage. In themselves, all of these are not bad. However, Joshua does not seem to be growing as an individual himself. He feels the need to overcompensate for his stolen heritage by dominating in all fields rather than by bettering himself in fields that he needs to grow in. This becomes clear as Jessica becomes more and more annoyed with him, and Eric finally begins to grow apart from him, once his own identity has been formed. Jessica seems to be content with her own identity. Her art portrays Asian/Asian American issues, but she is not possessive or defined by this identity. She defends Kathryn and Esther when they are critiqued for writing about characters that were not of their own ethnicity. She recognizes Joshua’s faults when Eric does not. I think Jessica contrasts well to Joshua.

            Joshua’s suicide is another perplexing issue. I remember a scene when Joshua talks about suicide when he is living with Jessica and Eric. He says that suicide is something one does when they’ve done everything they needed to do in life. It is not cowardly, but represents a man of action. I’m sure there are a lot more issues that went into Joshua’s decision to commit suicide. The amount of drugs he took, his lack of companionship, and his lack of birthparents (and death of his adopted parents) I’m sure they all took a toll on his mental health. But going along with my reading of The Collective, Joshua’s character development was very stagnant, and so it makes sense that he would feel the need to end his life. To be defined by a certain identity and base your happiness and success of it, it becomes difficult to live up to. If he had writer’s block or needed to contrive a story rather than base it off experience, if his books were not successful, if they didn’t make a difference, if his life had become a monotony of the same thing—all of these trapped him into an identify he felt compelled to adhere to. Overall, Joshua’s suicide comments on issues of racial identity, cultural appropriation, and individual identity versus a collective identity.  

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