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“Because I Love My People”:
Author Meets Readers with Min Jin Lee

 by Audrey Bauman


Aubrey Bauman and Min Jin Lee

Trish Griffee
Photo of Audrey Bauman and Min Jin Lee 

If you were me in March 2020, you were looking for the biggest book left on your shelves to help you cope with the news and the newness of online teaching and the dishes and the too-small square footage of your apartment, every day silent, every day filled with noise. And if you were me in March 2020, the biggest book on your shelves, the one miraculously (and shamefully) still unread, was “Pachinko.” That was when and where I first encountered Min Jin Lee’s acclaimed second novel:as an ordinary person in the midst of a historic event. I opened to the first page, read the first sentence: “History has forgotten us, but no matter.” It took me no more than two days to finish Lee’s book. 

If you’re like me, when you read a book that becomes one of the top twenty books you’ve ever read, at the exact moment the book ends you feel a mixture of things: anger and awe, that someone created something this good. Even greater, you feel the urge to make something. Outstanding literature moves you—literally, moves you out of the chair and into action. Min Jin Lee is an author of outstanding literature. And four years after I finished “Pachinko,” almost to the day, Lee came to visit the University of Utah.

On March 19, as part of the Tanner Humanities Center’s Author Meets Reader series, Min Jin Lee stepped into the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’s Dumke Auditorium for a conversation with Professor David S. Roh. The night’s conversation followed the chronology of her oeuvre: starting broad with Lee’s perspective on Hallyu (or the “Korean wave” of popular culture that’s gained an international following), then diving deep on her two published books, “Free Food for Millionaires”and “Pachinko,” and finishing with a discussion of “American Hagwon,”her work-in-progress.Here is what you should know about Min Jin Lee: she looked amazing. There was a blazer and vest, a pleated maxi skirt, some chunky boots. One day, it’s possible I’ll look that cool. And, let’s be clear: Min Jin Lee is so cool. Her first words to the packed-to-capacity auditorium were a cheery, “Hello, Utah!” She had only been in town for “three-point-five hours.” But, she confessed, she already knew she really liked it here. It was her first time ever visiting the Beehive State. 

The magic of an author event is watching both the art and the person behind the art come alive. For example, when Lee pulled out her tortoiseshell reading glasses and read a passage from a provided copy of “Free Food for Millionaires,on the spot, with utter poise and control.Or when—as Lee and Roh were discussing status, hierarchy and a certain reflexive, Calvinistic response toward luxury items—Lee said about $20 butter, “I’d like to try that butter. F— it!” (How long had it taken her to swear, she asked? The answer: twenty minutes.) Lee is a National Book Award finalist and the recipient of the 2022 Manhae Grand Prize for Literature. She’s also a person like you and me. And she’s profoundly interested in people like us. Something that came up over and over again—during the talk, the Q&A, the informal student lunch—was research, fidelity, responsibility, the social realist novel, and how all of these things came down to Lee’s love for ordinary people. “Ordinary people [living through history]—that’s where it really is,” she told the room at the student lunch. Or, put more beautifully, when asked at the talk why she paid such attention to detail during her research process, Lee simply said: “Because I love my people.”

"... getting that work right, doing justice to your people’s stories, is one of the most important tasks there is." - Min Jin Lee

Nothing could be more evident. I heard it in Lee’s reading from “Pachinko,”where she grew emotional as she read the dialogue Noa says to his mother after learning that his father is a member of the yakuza (although I should also say Lee smiled it away after she finished, telling the room, “Yeah, I think it’s menopause” and “It’s not just my han, okay!”). It was in the way Lee approached her audiences during the time for Q&As—asking for names, taking every question seriously. I heard it in Lee’s endless fascination with history and anthropology, in understanding what it’s like to be human in another culture, and in her interest in writing toward character through sympathy rather than through judgment. 

Most of all, though, I recognized it in Lee’s desire to do justice to the Korean diaspora. As she discussed “American Hagwon,” one insight Lee offered was how the things you spend your money on will tell you what you care about. One might also extend that to time—the time Lee has spent, and is spending, researching and writing her books reveals her immense care for her characters, her subject matter, her readers. This care doesn’t mean that Lee mostly emphasizes the goodness of her characters or her worlds—far from it. For Lee, doing justice to the characters, the worlds, and the reader means adding complexity, populating her stories with examples and counterexamples, showing the length and meanderings of her characters’ journeys, the transnational nature of immigration and of the diaspora writ large. As she elaborated in one response to an audience question, she worried about Sunja becoming a model or exemplar because she’s so virtuous—women’s lives, she argued, deserve exploration in all of their moral complexity, mess included. Lee is a social realist novelist; she has to tell the truth. Telling the truth for Lee requires this level of research, this much attention to detail. And telling the truth, as bell hooks reminds us, is a requirement of love. 

Near the end of the audience Q&A, an audience member asked Lee about any advice she had for young writers of color who were worried about getting their work published even as the major publishing houses continue to mostly publish books by white authors. Here, too, Lee took the question seriously by telling the truth, and the truth she had to tell was: “Don’t worry about it.” Don’t worry about the book deal, the gatekeepers, the industry. Focus on the work. Figure out what it is you want to say, and refine how you say it. It reminds me of something Lee said at her 2023 AWP keynote in Seattle, which was to focus, in one’s work, on the important over the urgent. And it reminds me of the essay tucked in the back of my copy of “Pachinko,which I read straight through after finishing the novel way back in March 2020, where Lee outlined her inspiration for the story and her long journey toward publication, how she threw herself into the work and studied and studied until she was the writer capable of crafting her complex and researched novels. And it reminds me of Lee’s dislike of signifiers of (economic or cultural) status, which are in large part dependent on someone else telling both you and also themselves how you ought to feel about something. What I’m saying is that there seems to be a throughline between publication, cultural status, and the urgent but that none of these things are necessary for seeking and then telling the truth and they often, in fact, become barriers. What I’m saying, and what Lee has been saying, is that ordinary people, people of color, the ones whom “history has forgotten,” are deserving of all the love and all the true stories we can tell about us, no matter how long it takes to tell those stories right. If I was to pin down the one big thing I’ll carry with me from Lee’s talk, it would be this.

And also this: getting that work right, doing justice to your people’s stories, is one of the most important tasks there is.



Missy Weeks, Tanner Humanities Center |801-581-8879

Published April 17, 2024

Last Updated: 5/1/24