Reader's Guide

  1. In Country of Origin there are three protagonists—Tom Hurley, Kenzo Ota, and Lisa Countryman—each with his and her own story line. The story of Lisa Countryman is heartbreaking and tragic. Kenzo Ota is predominantly a comic character; he winds up happily married and reasonably successful, a traditional conclusion of a comic tale. Tom Hurley’s story is one of maturation, a lightweight who gains solidity, a hero typical of a coming-of-age novel. Whose story resonates most? With whom do you most identify? Is the novel disturbing to you, and do you think that is the book’s intent?

  2. The novel is set in 1980—the year of the Iran hostage crisis and the political ascension of Reagan over Carter. Are there themes in the novel and the lives of the main characters mirrored by events in U.S. and global history? At the end, Tom muses that “after 1980, everything had changed,” the world had become “a much meaner place.” Do you agree? If so, how have Kenzo and Tom been affected by this general corruption and deterioration? Is the novel’s viewpoint cynical or subversive?

  3. Kenzo is a police detective, and many of his scenes track his investigation of Lisa’s disappearance. Tom, within a diplomatic setting, is also assigned to Lisa’s “case” and asked to play detective. But the reader is shown at the end of Chapter 1 what has happened to Lisa. How does this early disclosure and resolution open up other levels of Lisa’s story? What other conventions of the mystery genre, including Japanese crime stories, are played with or inverted? Are these elements meant to be serious or farcical?

  4. Consider the personalities and histories of Lisa, Tom, and Kenzo. What traits and life events do Tom and Kenzo share with her? Why do they become so involved in her case? They survive, and she doesn’t. Is this just luck, or is she more flawed than they are?

  5. At the end of Country of Origin, in Lisa’s “dream, but not a dream,” she and her birth parents pass under the Golden Gate Bridge to “a land where all was possible.” Do the immigrants coming from Asia today have different expectations than those who came from Europe in the past? How does the concept of the America Dream resonate throughout this work?

  6. Lisa Countryman, as an orphan uncertain about her roots, describes herself as “a blank page.” Discuss how her behavior through the novel might be affected by her “blankness” and the anxiety that accompanies being undefined in a world compelled to identify and stratify.

  7. Pete Congrieves, with his “thick blond hair” and “skin . . . ruddy with vigorous health” speaks of “the inherent need of one people to assert their superiority over another.” In this novel, are Pete Congrieves and his ilk triumphant? In the last chapter, Kenzo questions the wisdom of Japan’s “imperatives of racial purity and homogeneity.” Discuss the pluses and minuses of cultures primarily homogenous and those (such as the United States) more open to immigration, integration, and assimilation.

  8. Both Tom and Lisa are of mixed blood. What advantages and disadvantages has this caused them? Are they more open-minded and compassionate because of it?

  9. In many works of literature, Americans in Europe have been depicted as “innocents abroad.” Do you consider Tom and Lisa more innocent than the characters they interact with, especially the native Japanese and those, such as Julia Tinsley and Vincent Kitamura, who have resided in Japan for a longer time? Are Tom and Lisa less innocent by their stories’ end? What has each learned about the ways of the world? With what consequences?

  10. Kenzo is living in his country of origin, and has been for years. Yet he, too, like Tom and Lisa, is described by the author, and perceives himself, as an “outsider.” Discuss the journeys of the novel’s characters from outside society to inside. What qualities do they discard, and which do they retain? Can you picture Lisa ever accepting a place within the status quo?

  11. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald describes Tom and Daisy Buchanan as “careless people” who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their . . . vast carelessness, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Both Tom and Lisa suffer because of their attraction to Julia Tinsley and Vincent Kitamura. Do you consider Julia and Vincent, like the Buchanans, to be morally “careless”? Are Tom and Lisa culpable for what happens to them?

  12. One aspect of perversity is an attraction to artifice and that which cannot reciprocate affection. Do you believe the behavior depicted in the Japanese sex clubs is perverse? Is it fair for us to judge the Japanese culture and their attitudes? What about the strong undercurrent of humiliation in the novel, and the assertion that Japan is a shame culture and not a guilt culture?

  13. Both Julia (at the end of chapter 5) and Lisa (at the end of chapter 10) deliver karaoke performances. What do these two performances say about the characters? Do we witness in these scenes any keys to Julia as an amoral survivor and Lisa as a tragic victim? In the world of this novel, do those who fake depth and feeling have an advantage over those who can only express themselves by exposing their vulnerability?

  14. The characters in Country of Origin and its readers encounter an obstacle course of illusion and delusion. There’s a scam travel agency, an indoor surfing beach, a faux harem and chalet love hotel. Discuss other examples of deception in the novel. What sorts of erroneous assumptions do people make? How is this motif of artifice related to the question of identity? Is “identity” a quantifiable truth?

  15. During the course of Country of Origin, Don Lee defines dozens of Japanese words. Many of them are labels for those outside or at the bottom of Japanese society, most prominently gaijin for foreigner. What are other examples? Discuss the use of language in this novel to impose an identity on others, to make others. How prevalent has this type of labeling been in your own experience?

  16. How are all of the novel’s characters, in their own way, “orphans”? Discuss the different ways that each character expresses in their personality and behavior a need for connection. How does this drive the plot? How does it play into other themes in the novel? To what extent do you identify with these feelings? Are we all orphans?

  17. Consider the unique historical role of the United States as an attraction to “orphans” and outsiders of all types. How does this novel, and the aspirations of its characters, exemplify basic tenets of the American Dream? Is it likely that it could have been written by a writer from any other country?

  18. Discuss the concept of origin—identity, roots, and native culture—as it applies to the characters. Compare that to the “country of residence” they either create or fail to establish. Which is ultimately more essential to survival and happiness? Which do we tend to prioritize, and why?