Don Lee on Stepping out of the Race Box

By Taylor-Jo Russo, Contributing Writer

Don Lee, Asian-American author and a Professor of Creative Writing at Temple University, gave a lecture on Monday, Oct. 15, discussing his path of becoming a writer that believes in writing what you truly care about rather than what others expect of you.

Lee, in front of professors and students, explained his late start to authoring. Entering college as a prospective Engineering major, he did not find himself writing as much as he wanted to. Every year, he had some work of literature published in a magazine, however he still “did not consider (himself) a writer.”

As he progressed in the writing field, eventually declaring an English major, he was warned to “not step out of the race box.” Lee, having moved a lot as a child, never felt particularly connected anywhere, he did not feel a connection or passion towards committing himself to a particular “race box.”

After showing a humorous Buzzfeed video of stereotypes in reverse, he reflected on his unwillingness to emphasize the race of characters in his novels. Lee explained as he was getting closer to his first set publication goal for his first novel, he dealt with the annoyances of marketing in relation to stereotypes and race.

Flipping through many typical covers for Asian-American authors, Lee explained his dissatisfaction for the motifs typically used: cherry blossoms, dragons, fans, and the infamous partial blurred Asian face. His first novel, Yellow, also featured a partial blurred Asian face.

Overtime, Lee stepped away from the stereotypical covers and made sure to not explicitly reference race, instead focusing on the class of the character. He believes the responsibility of writers of color is to not feel obliged to write about race, unless it calls them. Lee discussed the writing of his novel, Lonesome Lies Before Us, in which his lack of musical expertise did not cause him to shy away as he crafted a story about the difficult journey of a musician named Yadin.

Lee stresses focusing on what one is passionate in rather than what the stereotypes or implications would suggest. His advice to young writers is to avoid modifiers in the first paragraph: “try not to be too literary, don’t use too many adjectives, be natural.” He also believes that “inspiration is for amateurs,” while real writers get down to business and force themselves to write.

While he continuously pursues his passion for writing and editing, he will also continue to inspire and aid students at Temple University. His strong devotion to overcoming stereotypes and pursuing one’s truth was expressed beautifully. Lee believes his work helps guide the way for future writers, and hopes to free them from the “race box” that he unfortunately had to overcome.

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Author: Taylor Jo Russo

Taylor (Taylor-Jo) Russo '22 is a staff writer for The Gettysburgian who writes primarily for the features section where she covers current events, discussions, and more. She is from Princeton, New Jersey and loves going on adventures and trying new things. She is majoring in Psychology and Philosophy and minoring in Economics. Follow her on Instagram @taylorjorusso.

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