Whenever I read a good review of a book I’m attracted to, I’ll add the title to my reading list for future reference. Don Lee’s The Collective had been on this list for a couple of years, and I couldn’t remember why I’d wanted to read it. The title makes it seem like a spy novel. The Collective is far from that.
Don Lee’s book is about three Asian-Americans who meet while attending college in Minnesota, become friends, and remain friends until one of them, Joshua, commits suicide. (This is not a spoiler. The suicide occurs in the first few pages.) The story is narrated by Eric, who is a third-generation Korean-American. Eric does not identify much with his Korean roots, is attracted to blond women, and tells Joshua he has never experienced racism. Joshua, adopted by a Jewish couple, is proudly Korean-American and tells his friend that racism is rampant in American society: “You’ve never had someone ask, ‘What are you?’ or ‘Where you from?’ or ‘What’s your nationality?’ because there’s no fucking way you can be a real American? You’ve never had a kid pull his eyes slanty at you or some asshole tell you it’s National Hate Chinese Week? You’ve never had anyone tell you your English is pretty good or ask you to ‘chop chop,’ hurry it up?” Eric disagrees with Joshua until he and his friends become victims of a racial incident on campus. Joshua awakens Eric’s sense of pride in his heritage, yet Eric feels that Joshua is too sensitive about racial issues and is divisive.
Years after they’ve graduated from college, the three friends (less emphasis is placed on the third friend, Jessica) form The Collective, a group of Asian-American artists. But even within this group, Joshua is divisive. He is idealistic, yearning for a society that no longer denigrates his culture, that recognizes his novels as mainstream works rather than as ethnic literature. He offends a fellow writer in the group who always writes about white characters. He tells her that an Asian-American novelist should only write about Asian-Americans.
I very much identify with the characters in this novel and how they struggle with the issue of racial identity. I fall somewhere between Joshua and Eric in terms of how I view my own ethnicity. I know that I have been a victim of racism, yet I don’t view everything through a racial lens as Joshua does.
This novel touched me in a unique way. I have never read a book that discusses racial identity in such bold terms from an Asian-American viewpoint. I find the book particularly interesting because I am currently writing a novel that deals with racial identity from a Mexican-American perspective. I wish there were more novels like The Collective. I can relate to the characters in this novel because of our shared experiences as ethnic minorities, however different our cultures might be. It’s a unique experience to see someone like myself in the literature I read, but there is not enough ethnic diversity among fictional characters, unfortunately. As an indie author, I am doing my part to change that.