An Exciting Chapter for Min Jin Lee

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
The Boston Globe
October 26, 2018
By Lauren Daley

One day at lunchtime, just after she moved to Boston, Min Jin Lee was rooting around her new kitchen trying to find plates and a knife.

“I’m trying get myself oriented here,” the acclaimed novelist said with a laugh during a phone interview from her new digs. “How do I cut a cucumber without a knife?”

The National Book Award finalist and New York Times best-selling author of “Pachinko” (2017) moved from New York to Boston this fall to start a yearlong fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard.

“I am thrilled to be a Radcliffe fellow,” she said. “My colleagues are so smart and fascinating.”

After her fellowship, Lee will become writer-in-residence at Amherst College for three years.

Also a recipient of the 2018 Fellowship in Fiction from the Guggenheim Foundation, Lee is currently at work on “American Hagwon,” the final installment of her Korean diaspora trilogy, which began with “Free Food for Millionaires” (2007) and continued with “Pachinko.”

Both were critically acclaimed. “Pachinko,” a No. 1 Boston Globe Bestseller, landed on some 75 best books lists around the world. The Globe called the book — a sweeping saga of generations of a Korean family living in Japan — “a future classroom standby for all the right reasons.”

“American Hagwon” will explore the role of education for Koreans around the world. Hagwon is the Korean word for a for-profit private institute, academy, or tutoring center.

Lee said she’d planned for Boston to be a setting in her new book even before she moved here.

“Boston is an epicenter of education,” she said. “People around the world want to come here to this city to be educated. You can’t not include Boston in this book.”

Lee received her first honor as a Boston resident recently, when “Pachinko” was named runner-up for fiction in the 2018 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She’ll accept the award Sunday, Oct. 28.

The international literary peace prize celebrates the power of literature to promote peace, social justice, and global understanding. “Salt Houses,” Hala Alyan’s debut novel about a displaced Palestinian family, took the top honor.

After the awards, her busy fall schedule includes three upcoming area talks: At MIT on Oct. 30, Northeastern University on Nov. 7, and An Unlikely Story Bookstore in Plainville on Nov. 9.

“As a novelist, she brings curiosity, incisiveness, and a deep human empathy to our community – all of which are also reflected in her work,” Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, wrote in an e-mail.

The program, she continued, allows scholars an opportunity to work alongside other big thinkers. “Min has been a wonderful addition.”

Born in Seoul, Lee grew up in Queens, New York. Her family came to the U.S. in 1976 when Lee was 7 years old.

“I think of my childhood as being in Korea. I know that sounds silly, but when you immigrate, you become an adult — we had to navigate and become independent,” she said.

“I was a very dreamy, very silent child for a very long time. I didn’t talk for many years — it’s not that I couldn’t, I just didn’t,” she said. “I didn’t know how to enter a conversation.”

To overcome her shyness, Lee signed up for debate team at the elite Bronx High School of Science in New York.

“Now, I can talk in front of 1,500 people — I don’t like it, but I can do it. Before [a talk], I have to go to a bathroom and stand in a public stall and go ‘Oh God oh God oh God.’ And hope nobody sees me,” she said, with a laugh.

After majoring in history at Yale, Lee received her law degree from Georgetown University. She worked for a stint as a lawyer, then quit for health reasons.

“So I saved money and quit and thought I’d [try to] publish” a novel, she said.

“But I gotta tell you: I never expected to be successful . . . I had so many decades of doubt. I retreated into my little hovel of failure — a room I know well,” she added.

Aside from writing, Lee has been reading as a judge for this year’s National Book Award for Fiction, which will be announced Nov. 14. It’s a tough job: “There are so many good books out there,” she said.

Lee approaches her novels like an academic and a journalist, she said. Her characters are built from composites from interviews; her stories are built on years of research.

For each novel, she interviews “100 people, easily. Some are half-hour interviews, some are days long, where I follow people around,” she said. “So let’s say I’m writing a lawyer character — I’d take 10 people who do what she does, and cobble someone together.”

Lee lived in Japan for four years, conducting interviews and research for what became “Pachinko.”

“My husband got a job there, and I thought: ‘The novel you’re working on is set in Japan; there must be a reason why you’re here,” she said. “So I worked on ‘Motherland’ which became ‘Pachinko.’ ”

As for making the area her home for the foreseeable future, she says, “Boston is amazing. That said, I’m trying to find alternate routes in town to avoid JP Licks because I’m probably lactose intolerant but I really, really love ice cream.”

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2018