If University of Houston-Victoria senior Christopher Rivas were an author, he would not want the cover of his book to have images of a mariachi band or low-rider cars and other icons associated with Hispanic culture.
“What stood out to me was how race can play into it ... He figured out a way to make it his own,” said Rivas, 22, about author Don Lee. “I really loved the reading and his history on how he started as a writer and struggled with the publication of his books.”
Lee, who is the director of the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia, spoke Thursday as part of UHV’s American Book Review Reading Series.
During the presentation, Lee read from his novel, “Lonesome Lies Before Us” and explained his experience as an Asian-American author.
As a Master of Fine Arts student, Lee, who is a third-generation Korean-American, was told more than once to write about his experiences and use predominantly Asian-American characters, he said.
“I thought the suggestion was in and of itself racist. I was told I shouldn’t step out of my literature box and I should know my place,” Lee said. “I wasn’t interested in writing about being an immigrant or setting stories in olden Asia; I had no connection to those stories. They weren’t my stories.”
He said he acknowledged race does matter and he tapped into his emotions with the issue. Questions about where he was from and his ethnicity made him feel like he did not belong, he said.
The book covers of Asian-American writers reflect tropes, including origami, cherry blossoms, dragons, the color red, fans and the partial Asian face that is blurred and features almond-shaped eyes, Lee said.
The cover for his first book, “Yellow” features a partial, blurred Asian face. His next book, “Country of Origin,” had another Asian face.
His fourth book, called the “The Collective” had chopsticks and a calligraphy brush predominately in the photo, which Lee had changed, he said.
“As writer of color, what are our responsibilities?” he said. “I think most Asian-American authors are tired of the standard stories about discrimination and assimilation ... stories that evoke fans and cherry blossoms and dragons.”
“I think we will get to a point where we as writers of color will be able to slip away from writing about identity and move to whatever captures our fancy.”
His book, “Lonesome Lies Before Us,” explores class more than race, Lee said.
“I write about the fears common to us all,” he said. “I write about loneliness, love, loss – all of us at some point in our lives, for some reason or another, whether we’re Asian or black or Latino or white, poor, ugly, or rich or blessed feel alienated or outside some time or another.”