The Collective by Don Lee
W.W. Norton & Company
Paperback edition 2013
The Collective explores the complexity of friendship and trust, but the novel also focuses on what it means to be an Asian artist in North America, which artistic traditions should be influences, what artistic themes should be pursued. I would recommend this novel to any young aspiring artist of Asian descent who might be struggling with the same questions, or who has yet to consider them. Does focusing on identity and race limit you as an artist? Or does the freedom to explore themes outside of Asian culture imply a sort of self-hatred or betrayal of your ethnic heritage?
The novel explores all of these questions and many more, and it never really gives you complete answers, which is part of its brilliance. Regardless of some (very few) awkwardly written scenes, I am grateful for The Collective‘s existence since it’s one of the few novels that deals with the concerns of American-bred Asian characters who are generations removed from the narrative of the immigrant struggle.
Don Lee presents some of the most relevant characters and issues concerning American artists of Asian descent in this novel with a depth and insight that I have yet to encounter in contemporary (English-language) fiction, including a rarely seen passage in which an Asian American appreciates the work of Haruki Murakami. I cannot recall, at all, the last time an Asian writer recognized and praise the work of another contemporary Asian author in fiction.
The Collective is narrated by Eric Cho as he reflects back on his friendship with Joshua Meer (birth name Yoon) and Jessica Tsai, going back 20 years before Joshua commits suicide. The three friends meet at Macalester College in 1988 as freshmen. Since they are all Asian and artistically inclined, Eric and Joshua are Korean American and aspiring creative writers while Jessica is Taiwanese American and an aspiring painter/sculpturer, they eventually call themselves the “3AC” for The 3 Asian American Artists Collective (75). As the three friends go through the usual tribulations of college – dating, heartbreak, classes, slightly pretentious philosophizing – one event in particular unites them.
After an upsetting class discussion about the cultural appropriation of Asian culture by white writers, Eric, Joshua, and Jessica find racial slurs written on the doors of their college dorms. Though they decide to avoid publicizing the event at the time, Eric, reflecting back on his time with Joshua, begins to question whether or not Joshua, a Korean orphan who was adopted by white American parents, had exacerbated the event in an effort to unite the group: “Of course, then, after a while, I began to speculate that Joshua had fabricated them[…]I always thought, and still do, that it would have been very much like him, doing something like that, in order to bind us together” (102-103). Gradually, over the course of the novel, it becomes clear how little Eric knew Joshua, as a person or an artist.
The novel ends, fittingly, on a dubious note. It never really answers, diegetically, whether the artistic pursuit is worthwhile or not. In addition to the obvious economic troubles (the novel ends in the year 2008, so you can imagine what that landscape was like for any aspiring artist), the characters also have to deal with the confusion over the “right” artistic influences and dodge parental disapproval, all while trying to pursue their respective passions amidst a dominant culture that constantly dismisses them as foreigners and outsiders. Of course, that is also often where the greatest art tends to come from. If The Collective provides any answer to the question of art as a viable pursuit, it seems to be that it’s only up to you to find out.