by Don Lee
Few fiction writers have worked as tirelessly to subvert stereotypes about “Orientals” as Korean American Don Lee. The protagonists of his debut, the 2001 short story collection “Yellow,” vary in ethnicity (from Korean to Japanese to Chinese) and occupation (from professional elites to mad poets), suggesting the heterogeneity of contemporary Asian-American life. . Whether about Asian spies in 1980s Japan (“Home Country”) or bohemian Asian artists in Cambridge, Massachusetts (“The Collective”), Lee’s novels also span a wide spectrum. But the organizing concept of all of his fiction has remained constant: Asian Americans are not monoliths.
“The Partition,” Lee’s first collection of stories since “Yellow,” represents a return to form, reproducing many of the same thematic and stylistic concerns of his debut. The opening story, “Late in the Day,” follows the failed career of a once-promising independent filmmaker who is now making vanity projects for wealthy Asian Californians. “Confidants” dwells on the everyday romantic exploits of two Asian-Americans: one a high school dropout who is quick to tell us he’s “not a model minority,” and the other a handsome English professor at Johns Hopkins. In “UFOs” (a portmanteau of “Ugly Orientals,” with an unprintable adjective in the middle), a Korean-American news reporter who undergoes plastic surgery and anglicizes her name to Victoria Crawford dates two men simultaneously: a white man with an Asian fetish named Richard, and an Asian doctor and alleged UFO named Yung-duk Moon. The story ends with a twist, perhaps a predictable one in Lee’s hands; Victoria leaves Yung-duk in a moment of sudden cruelty, only to realize later that the real UFO could be herself.
Here we find the same figures and tropes of “Yellow”: hard-working artists who sell themselves; loafers; lovers with internalized self-loathing that makes them violently bitter and paranoid. Many different faces fall under the loose and muddy “yellow” category, although “The Partition” is largely populated by those of East Asian descent (ie, those who have historically been included in this category); South and Southeast Asians rarely appear in his books. Still, Lee narrates from a collective perspective, his stories offering a kaleidoscopic view of all the ways it feels for him to be yellow.
Most of the stories in “The Partition” feature aging characters nostalgically reminiscing about an earlier period in their lives. “Years Later”, the shortest story in the collection, describes the erotic encounter of a young woman, culminating in a proleptic vision of her hitherto unknown future: “She wanted it to last forever, this feeling: the youth, the time, the glory, everything that lay ahead. her, expecting, the extraordinary life of her, but she felt that it overwhelmed her and she gave up”. Sentences like these, meant to move the reader, often turn into overwritten melodrama. Lee’s stories are often about disappointment, but her prose can also disappoint in moments of discouragement like these.
The book concludes with an ambitious three-story cycle titled “Les Hôtels d’Alain,” which traces the itinerant construction of one Alain Kweon from his youth as an aspiring actor to his lonely middle-aged years as a failed actor, which he now directs. a successful chain of artisan boba shops. “I had this amorphous idea that my boba tea business would be a way to affirm and celebrate my racial heritage and that of other Asian Americans,” Alain reflects at the end of the final story. “However, the boba tea was not Korean or Okinawan or any other ethnic thing of mine. It had simply been another appropriation, another commodification disguised as cultural identity. What was it equivalent to? … Had it all been a lie?”
These questions echo fearfully throughout “The Partition.” In a way, Alain is a kind of Everyman: the alienated, aimless American male who overpopulates the classic tales of John Cheever, JD Salinger, and Richard Yates. However, when viewed through the lens of Lee’s significant career and contributions, it’s hard not to read Alain also as a metaphor for the collective struggles of contemporary Asian-American self-representation. And how much remains to be done.