Min Jin Lee is the author of two novels exploring the impacts of Korean diaspora.
Her first novel, Free Food For Millionaires, was an international bestseller, and her second novel, Pachinko, was a finalist for the National Book Award. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to Queens, NY, with her family when she was seven years old. She worked as a lawyer for two years before leaving the profession to focus on her health and start writing full-time.
Over the course of the eleven years between when she began writing full-time and when she published her first book, Lee took community classes and attended artist lectures on writing to develop her skills.
In a recent interview with Writers Digest, she shared that this path allowed her to learn how to write omniscient narratives like the ones in Pachinko.
“I could not have learned it at a PhD program or an MFA program, because I’ve talked to all these people who teach and have taken those things,” she said. “There’s only really one way to do it, just by doing it.”
Lee’s first novel, Free Food For Millionaires, was published in 2007. It was her fourth attempt at writing a novel.
“I threw out several books, but really I don’t think there’s any other way,” she told Writers Digest.
Lee’s second novel, Pachinko, tells the story of a Korean family that eventually migrates to war-torn Japan. Spanning nearly four generations, the book examines the experiences of immigrant families and the generations that follow, from the first-generation women who made extraordinary sacrifices to keep the family afloat to the “Wall Street guy” members of the fourth generation.
One of the hallmarks of Pachinko is that it deals with what Lee calls “ordinary people” who are often overlooked by history.
“[The idea that the ordinary have persisted anyway] gives me an enormous amount of strength and hope as a writer, because I am an ordinary person,” she said in an interview with the Guardian. “Those of us who may be women of color, immigrants, or working class aren’t often meant to be people who write novels about ideas, but no matter.”
It took Lee more than 25 years to write Pachinko.
In writing it, she undertook countless hours of research and conducted hundreds of interviews with Korean-Japanese immigrants. This process grew out of her interest in ethnographies and journalism as well as a drive to get the narrative right.
When asked in an interview with Sampsonia Way why she chose to tell the stories she encountered in her research through fiction, Lee said:
“What makes me stick with it is that I want to recreate something that’s different than what I see. […] There are so many things that I don’t understand, and I get to work through in fiction. I couldn’t do that with nonfiction.”
Lee is currently working on a third novel about Korean diaspora. While Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko focus on Korean immigrants in the United States and Japan, Lee has already hinted that American Hagwan will focus on the importance of wisdom and education in Korean culture.
Hear more about Pachinko and what Lee has to say about having faith in yourself, your project, and your vision next Thursday, May 2, 2019, for the Word Works: Writers on Writing series. Tickets on sale now.