Asian American Literature and the Price of Failure

Don Lee’s The Collective explores the politics of Asian American culture through the story of three characters: Joshua Yoon, Jessica Tsai, and Eric Cho. A Korean American from Mission Viejo ...

Don Lee’s The Collective explores the politics of Asian American culture through the story of three characters: Joshua Yoon, Jessica Tsai, and Eric Cho. A Korean American from Mission Viejo, California, Eric serves as the narrator, but the book revolves around Joshua, a Korean orphan adopted by two liberal Jewish professors at Harvard. An egotistical provocateur, albeit one with real talent, Joshua draws Eric and Jessica, a Taiwanese American from upstate New York, into his orbit, and together they found the Asian American Artists Collective (3AC). The novel opens with Joshua’s suicide, but then quickly flashes back to the origins of Eric’s relationship with Joshua and Jessica as undergraduates at Macalester College in Minnesota.

The novel’s initial story of students engaged in racial self-discovery and politicization will be familiar to many readers, but when the three college friends find themselves reunited a few years later in Boston, the book begins to delve more substantively into questions of identity politics, symbolic capital, and the literary field. As the membership of the 3AC expands, group discussions begin almost inevitably to address questions of racial authenticity and aesthetic universality, the ghettoization of minority artists, the vicissitudes of literary journals that operate on shoestring budgets, and the politics of publishing—all intertwined, of course, with various personal and sexual relationships. The adventures of the 3AC eventually reach a crisis point when Jessica produces an artwork deemed obscene by a local Boston councilman—a nod to some of the key moments in the 1980s culture wars. This precipitates a sequence of events that lead to the near-death of a young woman, an undocumented immigrant who is also living in Joshua’s house.

Lee mostly succeeds in avoiding parody or preciousness, as exemplified in one of the novel’s most amusing scenes in which the group squabbles over minute terminological differences as they attempt to draft a manifesto. The problem, though, is that the novel reads more like a series of set pieces than a coherent narrative, and the attempt to construct a plot around Joshua’s suicide never quite gels because the book is unable to decide what the larger significance of his death might be. In this way, the novel echoes the preoccupation of Asian American studies, since the 1990s, with a “crisis of representation”1—the fear that the academic field had become disconnected from the community, and that “Asian Americans” had become too heterogeneous to generate a coherent field of study or political movement. Further evidence of this continuing uncertainty over the direction of the field is evident in the title of one recent Modern Language Association panel: “Has Asian American Literary Studies Failed?”

The whole motif of artistic failure finally seems inadequate to grasp the cultural politics at stake in the book.

Contemporary Asian American fiction, in contrast to its academic study, registers less a sense of failure than the definitive passing of the historical period that witnessed the social movements of the 1960s. Books by writers such as Chang-rae Lee, Shawn Wong, and Karen Tei Yamashita are animated by the dramatic transformations in the Asian American population and the American cultural landscape over the last several decades. Lee’s first novel, Native Speaker, draws a great deal of energy from the thorny questions it poses about contemporary Asian American culture and politics, while Wong’s American Knees could be called the first Asian American studies novel because its protagonist, Raymond Ding, works in a Minority Affairs Office and his relationships with women of varying Asian ethnicities point to the diversity of Asian American experiences. And finally, Yamashita’s monumental tome, I Hotel, strives to be the Ulysses of Asian American history, but ends up feeling a bit like a political hagiography.

A pervasive sense of aspirations gone awry or lost to history haunts The Collective, as in the final chapter’s opening lines:

At what point is it acceptable to give up? The years go by, and there might be some validations, a few encouraging signs, a small triumph here and there, but more often than not, failure follows upon failure. You get into your thirties, and every day you wonder if it’s worth it to keep going. How long can you continue to be a starving artist?

Lee’s first collection of stories, Yellow, begins with a witty piece entitled “The Price of Eggs in China.” This story revolves around the intense but disguised competition between two women writers dubbed the “Oriental Hair Poets,” thereby exposing the interests and forces that define the artistic field. In reducing Joshua’s suicide to simply another tale of thwarted literary ambitions, The Collective ultimately fails to engage with the larger social and historical contexts of the Asian American literary project. Indeed, the whole motif of artistic failure finally seems inadequate to grasp the cultural politics at stake in the book, and it may well be that the trickier and more difficult story to tell is not one of the failure of Asian American literature, but rather of its very success. Joshua’s suicide can be read as signaling the distance that intervenes between Asian American literature and its erstwhile social and political ideals, but it would be much more interesting to show how that distance can also result from the very achievements of writers such as Lee, who have carved out a space for Asian American authors in the literary marketplace. The odd dissonance, then, of reading a book by a celebrated writer about two failed ones might be taken as allegorizing a different kind of failure: that of the fragmentation of Asian American politics by the various fields in which it has become ensconcedicon

  1. One of the signal moments of this “crisis” was the uproar that arose over Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s novel Blu’s Hanging, which encapsulated many of the key issues at stake. For different perspectives on this event and its significance for Asian American studies, see Candace Fujikane, “Sweeping Racism under the Rug of ‘Censorship’: The Controversy over Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging,” Amerasia Journal, vol. 26, no. 2 (2000), pp. 159–94; Viet Thanh Nguyen, Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford University Press, 2002); and Kandice Chuh, Imagine Otherwise: On Asian Americanist Critique (Duke University Press, 2003).