You might’ve heard the name Min Jin Lee most recently from the enthusiasm surrounding her novel Pachinko, finalist for the National Book Award. Yet the title “writer” doesn’t quite capture the extent of her talent. Her hour-long Seattle Arts and Lectures talk on June 15, demonstrated that she is also an eloquent speaker, a vocal activist, a loving teacher, a passionate feminist, a proud Korean-American, and the brilliant author of Free Food For Millionaires, various short stories, and essays. Lee says that what interests her more than being a writer is having something meaningful to say, which explains the many roles that she takes on.
At the start of the virtual event, Seattle Youth Poet Laureate Bitanya Giday read her poem “Hyphenated Identity Crisis”. The poem echoes the intersectional identity struggles dealt with in Lee’s writing and in her own life. Lee spent the first half of her talk acknowledging the current civil unrest and pandemic in America. She also recounted her journey, as a Korean-American woman from working-class roots, that led her to the success she has today. In the second half of the talk, Lee entered a Q&A session with E.J. Koh, a fellow Korean-American writer and author of The Magical Language of Others and poetry collection A Lesser Love.
A prominent theme throughout Lee’s talk was how the past shapes the present. When she talked about national issues such as systemic racism and childcare support in America, she drew upon historical research, enabling her to speak with unwavering wisdom about our current reality. On a personal level, she connected her literary success to her upbringing, which was full of challenges. She made her way to Yale University as a low-income minority. She faced people who didn’t believe that she belonged at an Ivy League school, which contributed to her determination to foster greater diversity in education and literature. She battled a sickness which inspired her to quit her job as a lawyer and write books because it was her passion. She faced rejection after rejection until in 2007, her novel Free Food For Millionaires landed on the List of Top 10 Books of the Year for The Times of London, NPR’s Fresh Air, and USA Today. Lee emphasized that the past is inseparable from the present, and hence it is imperative we spend the time to understand history to create real change. After all, the Black Lives Matter Movement has made crystal clear that peace and equality can only be achieved by demanding justice for the centuries of oppression that have been swept under the rug.
Pachinko was founded upon the idea that many ordinary people’s stories don’t get remembered in history. For centuries, only rich and powerful men wrote and starred in our history books. So Lee turned to fiction to tell a narrative that marginalized people could connect with. By centering Pachinko around a fictional poor Korean family, Lee could “write about the people who fascinated [her].”
Fiction is often mistaken as a medium for telling a story that is not real. Lee explained how this is simply a myth. Because the struggles, cultures, and lifestyles of everyday Korean-Japanese people were not written in history, fiction was the only medium through which Lee could bring justice to their stories. By conducting extensive primary and secondary research, Lee made Pachinko a genuine narrative that allowed us to expand our moral imagination and see the hidden realities beyond the pages of our history textbooks.
As an Asian-American female, I found Lee’s words on the importance of representation within literature to be particularly memorable. We often hear about the lack of Asian-Americans in the media, but rarely does this racial disparity in literature receive the attention that it needs. When Koh asked Lee if she foresees greater equality for Koreans in Japan, Lee said that tokenism, housing discrimination, anti-Korean sentiments haven’t improved in years. In this discussion of racism in Japan, I’m reminded of how easily a race can be simplified into a monolith if its stories are not shared enough. Books, however, have the power to fix this by giving marginalized voices a platform. By sharing her own journey towards becoming a Korean-American author, Min Jin Lee is empowering young writers and readers to have the courage to speak up and listen to a diversity of voices.
Min Jin Lee exhibited wisdom, perseverance, eloquence, and poise throughout her event. She showed how her road to success was full of doubts and struggles, how fiction can foster empathy, and how our world has a long way to go before achieving fairness and equality. In the midst of a pandemic and civil unrest, Min Jin Lee beautifully delivered a pertinent and stimulating talk that encouraged each of us to listen to our past and make ourselves the heroes of our own stories, no matter how ordinary our stories may seem.
Min Jin Lee spoke at a virtual event hosted by Seattle Arts and Lectures on June 15, 2020. For more event information see here.