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17 November 2022

Pachinko author Min Jin Lee: “I don’t want approval”

The Korean-American novelist on hate speech, cancel culture and exposing society’s unwritten codes.

By Emily Tamkin

Min Jin Lee picked up the phone on the first ring. I thought she might do that, I told her. I had read another interview of hers in which she answered the phone right away. She always does, Lee told me. Why pretend? Why observe this silly code that says we have to wait?

Lee, 54, thinks a lot about codes. Her first book, Free Food for Millionaires, published in 2007, is a novel about a Korean-American woman trying to make her way in the world after graduation with no money or connections. The novel sends up capitalism’s excesses, including the unspoken codes of behaviour that govern so much of society – rules that some are seemingly born knowing, and that many immigrants, such as herself, had to learn.

Fifteen years later, after the 2008 economic crisis and as the world stands on the brink of another financial collapse, the book has found new resonance, and new readers. Some younger readers, Lee said, have thanked her for her close observation of the unwritten rules of how to act in the workplace, telling her, for example, that the novel taught them how to handle an interview. “I think: ‘Oh, I’m so glad that you didn’t suffer the way I did,’ ” she said. “I was embarrassed about some of my background. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know who to ask.”

Lee was born in South Korea in 1968 and moved to Queens in New York City with her family when she was seven. She explained in an essay for the New York Times last year how, in her first year in the United States, her uncle John took her and her sister to the library and told them they could take out as many books as they liked – which encouraged her to “read promiscuously across genres, fields and media”. She went to Yale University, and then to law school, but left her job as a lawyer shortly after to write fiction. “I was writing but no one wanted any of it,” she wrote in that essay. “It took me more than ten years to publish my first novel.”

Lee’s second novel, Pachinko, an epic that follows characters from Korea to Japan, launched her into literary stardom. It was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2017, was praised by Barack Obama and has been made into a trilingual eight-part series by Apple TV. (Lee is not involved with the show, which her publicist made clear she would not discuss prior to our interview.) A Korean translation was published in July, and Lee has found renown in the country of her birth: she was the recipient of South Korea’s Manhae Grand Prize for Literature this year.

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She is now working on a nonfiction book, Name Recognition, and on her third novel, American Hagwon. The latter has proven an enormous undertaking. A “hagwon” is a private academy or enrichment school, found in South Korea and in Korean in other countries; the book is about “diaspora”, the “people are changed [by] and changing” the places they’re in, she said. “I’m trying to understand ‘diaspora’ in a true sense,” she said, which has involved extensive research. “I’m endlessly apologising for my limitations, and endlessly trying to tell the truth.”

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Lee has spoken out against hate crimes and racism against Asian Americans, which, according to the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism, increased 339 percent last year. “Stop Asian Hate” became a rallying cry in response to an increase in violence against Asians and Asian Americans during the pandemic. Hate crimes must be stopped. But if conversation is limited to Asian Americans’ experiences of racist violence, are we really speaking about Asian Americans at all, or just those people who perpetuating harm against them?

“When you have a math problem, 2 + 2 = 4 – that’s final. If you have the hater and the hated – unfortunately, there’s an endlessly changing dynamic,” Lee said. “We walk around feeling like: ‘Why am I hated? What will I do with the fact that I have this experience?’ ” What would she tell her child, or her students, about the experience? “What are they supposed to do with this information?”

I asked her about the potential role of the novel in all of this. “A part of me thinks, maybe nobody cares [about fiction],” she said. “And in a way, that’s very helpful for me. Very, very helpful.” On the other hand, she does know that that’s not true. She has tens of thousands of readers, some of whom have spoken to her about the direct impact her work has had on their lives. “Whether I like it or not, I know that it has an effect.”

“Little by little, the empathy machine that writing can be is worth investing in,” she said. “It’s all I really want to do. I don’t walk around feeling like: ‘Oh, I’m an idiot, because I have invested my life to pursue fiction and the way I want to write it.’ You are exposed when you write, when you speak, but that exposure is what also makes us alive. I want to be alive.”

Being exposed attracts criticism. Lee knows that. But she doesn’t think we should be afraid of it. She hopes, she said, for people, especially those in positions of power and authority, “to have greater tolerance for the criticism that’s coming from social media”. It seems to her that people – moderate, liberal people – are terrified of “cancel culture”. It has indeed been the subject of countless articles, essays, and op-eds.

“I understand the anxiety,” she said, but she adds that “a lot of people feel very powerless, and they don’t know how else to be heard”. She does not defend abusive behaviour on social media but maybe, she said, there could be greater tolerance for people’s anger.

What about those who criticise her? What does Lee say, for example, to those who assert that her critiques of capitalism are left-wing preaching? She is happy to “spar” with anyone, she said – but “they’re not going to silence me on this issue of health insurance, or education, or student loans. Whatever it is that I get with their approval, I don’t want it.”

“This is what writers have always done,” Min Jin Lee said. “We’re supposed to tell the truth.” No kind of silly code could convince her otherwise.

[See also: John Irving Q&A: “Kurt Vonnegut told me: ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind’”]

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