Writer Min Jin Lee On Life As An Immigrant At Elite Colleges—And In America

Photo by Ella RinaldoPhoto by Ella Rinaldo
WBUR
June 10, 2019
By Meghna Chakrabarti

Korean American writer Min Jin Lee is thinking about her immigrant experience. She joins us.

Guest

Min Jin Lee, writer. Author of "Pachinko" and "Free Food for Millionaires." Incoming writer-in-residence at Amherst College. (@minjinlee11)

From the Reading lIst 

New Yorker: "Stonehenge" — "Once, a fellow-student wrote a long piece about evangelical Christians at a church in New Haven, who shouted 'Hallelujah!' and 'Praise the Lord!' during services. Her tone was snide.

"At Yale, I went to Battell Chapel every Sunday morning. The pews were mostly empty, but I liked to go by myself, listen to the sermon and the hymns, then leave. No one ever felt moved to praise Jesus loudly at Battell.

"I tried to make sense of what my classmate wanted to say about evangelical Christians. Back home, church was many things for the people I knew—a place to meet friends or show off a new dress or preen like a big shot if you were a deacon or an elder, as well as a sanctuary in which to worship God. The talented writers in the class admired the piece, so I said nothing.

"In the next class, one of the students compared something to Stonehenge. I raised my hand. 'Maybe the writer should define "Stonehenge"?' I said. 'I don’t know what it is.'

"It can’t be true that the whole class had light-colored eyes, but, as I remember it, a dozen pairs of lovely blue, green, and hazel eyes looked at me with surprise and pity because I hadn’t heard of the prehistoric stone configuration. They didn’t mean to be unkind. I’m sure of that. But, in their attractive, polished faces, I saw that Stonehenge was as familiar to them as having a gun held to my face was to me."

New York Times: "Opinion: Breaking My Own Silence" — "It makes sense that I’m a writer, which allows me to draft, hesitate, then rewrite many times before I say anything that I can live with for good.

"In 1976, my mother, father and two sisters and I immigrated to the United States. I was 7. We moved from Seoul to New York, and Dad enrolled my sisters and me at P.S. 102 in Elmhurst, Queens. None of us girls knew how to speak English.

"Even back in Seoul, I was a quiet child who fidgeted and had attention issues. I found school and friendships difficult, and it got worse when I moved to a new country.

"The first few weeks in America were tough. There was one other Korean girl in the class. Like me, she had small eyes. Unlike me, she knew English and had friends. She wanted me to stay away.

"One day in class, I needed to go to the bathroom, and I didn’t know what to do. The Korean girl grimaced when I approached her, but mercifully, she told me to raise my hand and say, 'Bassroom.'

"I said this foreign word, and the kids laughed. The teacher handed me a well-worn, wooden block, which served as a hall pass. I rarely spoke in school again except for when I needed permission to go to the bathroom."

The Guardian: "Min Jin Lee: 'History has failed almost everybody who is ordinary'" — "Min Jin Lee is a National Book Award finalist, whose writings wrestle with the themes of race, class, diaspora, religion and love. The New York Times Book Review called her most recent novel, Pachinko, one of the 10 Best Books of 2017. Lee is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.

"Christopher Petrella: Pachinko is a novel about Koreans in Japan. You note that, in general, Koreans in Japan fall into three categories: North Koreans living in Japan, South Koreans living in Japan and ethnic Koreans with Japanese citizenship. What can this type of arrangement teach us about identity, migration and movement in the US context?

"Min Jin Lee: I’m going to sound like an optimist here. We are having a dark moment in the American political climate regarding undocumented migrants and asylum seekers but, then again, the history of immigration in America has always been checkered.

"In the United States we have two competing mythologies about immigration. On the one hand, we believe that different kinds of races make up an American person. On the other, a deep nativist strain keeps resurfacing. Nevertheless, there has also been strong resistance to nativism. Frederick Douglass, for instance, called the United States a 'composite nation' when he argued against the Chinese Exclusion Act [of 1882].

"CP: In your view, what is the role of the social novel in political resistance? What is the role of art in political movements and political movement making?

"MJL: All art is political because it is created by people. I explicitly intended to write political novels. My first book [Free Food for Millionaires] is a critique of class and immigration in America. My second novel is about Koreans in Japan in relation to colonialism and xenophobia. Both novels deal with themes of immigration, race and homeland. Primarily, they speak to what the diaspora does and means for people who are scattered throughout the world. My third novel, American Hagwon, will complete my triology; the novels are unrelated in characters, but related by the theme of diaspora.

"Political novels can be boring to read unless written effectively with the powerful tools of fiction; I was trying to do this. I want my books to be pleasurable and edifying. Though Frederick Douglass didn’t write fiction, his speeches have great narrative power because he integrates storytelling tools elegantly with his political analysis."

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