Introduction to Min Jin Lee

The following is my introduction to Min Jin Lee for her virtual talk at Boston College, as part of its Lowell Humanities Series.

Today is my 51st birthday. This has offered me an occasion to reflect on the life I’ve already led, and what might remain for me in the years ahead.

Like Min Jin Lee, who also goes by “Min,” I was born in Seoul and immigrated to the US when I was a toddler. Growing up in Detroit and its suburbs in the 70s and 80s, I was always aware of my racial difference—and the fact that I was a minority in a country that knew almost nothing about where I was born, although the US has played an outsized role in its recent history.

Most everyone around me was white or black, and there was no widely accepted language for talking about people who did not fit into this framework—except for the language of foreignness. Being Asian meant, first and foremost, being from elsewhere.

There were also almost no actors who looked like me on TV or in the movies. And I never read any books by other Asian Americans until I went to college, when the discovery of a whole body of literature written by and about people of Asian ancestry in the US felt to me like someone had opened a window and let in a little fresh air into a very stuffy room.

In the decades since I took my first Asian American literature course, the window has opened a little more. The situation is far from equal, however, with recent research showing that in 2018, non-Hispanic whites wrote 88% of all the books published in their expansive sample. This was an improvement, as the historic norm for the postwar era is 95%.  

We can also see how race shapes the reception of Asian American films. The brilliant new movie Minari, set in Arkansas and based on the director’s life, was classified as a “foreign film” by the Golden Globe Awards.

And more sobering still: in the past year, anti-Asian violence has surged.

In these dismal times, when racism remains as virulent as ever and gets in the way of collective responses to urgent shared challenges (like addressing the worsening effects of climate change), I cannot stress enough how important the work of authors like Min Jin Lee is.

Lee, in particular, has been bold in her debut novel Free Food for Millionaires and her most recent novel Pachinko. She not only focuses on Korean American and Korean Japanese characters, but what matters is how she does this. Her novels are long, contain a lot of characters, and the narrator is not shy about being omniscient. As a result, the reader is allowed to swoop in and out of the minds of many characters, to experience how they make sense of their encounters with others, and how they together persevere in making a community.

Her novels thus take up big issues in a way that invites readers into their discussion.

  • What does it mean to lead a meaningful life when constraint is everywhere and compromise a constant demand?
  • How do you, in the midst of such constraint and compromise, think not only of yourself but of others?
  • How do you show up, day after day, to be there for those who depend on you?
  • And how do you forgive those who, for whatever reason, fail to show up?

No wonder her fiction is celebrated. Not only have her novels been reviewed in many prominent venues and nominated for many major prizes, they are also consistently the ones that friends recommend to each other and that strangers claim as personal favorites.

There’s something about Pachinko in particular that grabs hold of you when you read it, so that it’s hard to put down, and that makes you want to say to others, you have to read this!

One reason we might feel this way is because it inspires us with its vision of community and persistence. It acknowledges human faults and heartaches, but also calls on us to keep going. It grants us a vision of what we might eventually become, and even if we never get there the struggles Lee depicts seem all on their own worth the effort. What matters is the effort.

Her novels are thus about specific groups of people, who are often overlooked and shamed for being marginal, and also welcoming to all readers, to find in their stories something that is widely shared. Lee invites us to take our differences seriously, to recognize the unequal burdens that racism in particular is responsible for, but not to let these differences get in the way of discovering what we have in common.