Min Jin Lee is weaving the narrative fabric of the Korean diaspora. On a weekday night in April, I spoke on the phone with the novelist, who was calling from her home office in Harlem, about her books. The Korean-American author of the bestselling novels Free Food for Millionaires (2007) and Pachinko (2017), Lee has made it her mission to write fiction exploring diasporic Korean identities. “I was trying so hard to understand what it means to be a person of the diaspora when you come from a place, but then you and your people are scattered throughout the world,” Lee told me. “What does that mean? And is it a punishment? Is it an exile? Or is it a homecoming of another place where you’re meant to be?”
A writer-in-residence at Amherst College, Lee is currently working on the third novel in her “Koreans trilogy,” titled American Hagwon. While the three novels in the trilogy—the first two being Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko—aren’t related by their characters, time periods, or locations, they are all connected by the same thematic thread: each novel explores what it means to be a Korean individual outside of Korea. In Free Food for Millionaires, Lee tells the story of a daughter of Korean immigrants, raised in New York, who has recently graduated from Princeton. Lee mentioned, “I really wanted to understand class, race, money, power, and immigration for Koreans who come to America, but specifically in the Northeast, and specifically in New York. And specifically, people who are working class and then who have a kind of transition to a ruling class environment … to a place like Princeton. And also what it means to leave Princeton afterwards.”
Taking place in a world that couldn’t be farther away, Pachinko crafts a stunning narrative of a Korean family displaced in Japan. Lee commented, “I wanted to address colonialism, because I don’t think you can understand Koreans in the 21st century without understanding the twentieth-century colonial experience. And if I wanted to address colonialism, I had to go to Japan, and I had to think about Koreans in Japan.”
One of the characteristics of both of her novels thus far is that Lee doesn’t just craft a story. She produces a whole world, steeped in meticulous research. Her characters come to life, seemingly out of thin air, portrayed with dazzling clarity. “I do a great deal of research,” Lee said, “and I do a lot of fieldwork and interviews. So that’s been one of the hallmarks of all of my work. And that’s why they’re so populated by different kinds of people and different kinds of professions.” In writing Free Food for Millionaires, Lee interviewed dozens of Princeton undergraduates and recent graduates. She visited the Princeton eating clubs, attended the P-rade twice—which she jokingly commented she should get a medal for—and interviewed students who had gone through the bickering process. To research Pachinko, Lee lived in Japan between the years of 2007 and 2011. She conducted hundreds of interviews, visiting markets in Korea and Japan and interviewing countless women who made a living selling their wares there. “I think there’s a lot of feeling in my books,” Lee said on the topic of her research. “People are always talking about that. And it’s because I tried to put myself in certain positions where I was really uncomfortable. Because my characters were under that kind of duress… And when I talk to my college students at Amherst, very often, I’ll say, ‘Please leave your room. Please go talk to somebody, please go listen to somebody, please go smell something, and look at something without your phone. Because whatever resource that you think Google is doing well, I’m going to tell you that it is probably a D-minus compared to spending half an hour somewhere really looking at things with your eyes and listening with your ears. And you’re going to be so much of a better writer if you actually try that.’”
In her forthcoming novel, American Hagwon, Lee concludes her Koreans trilogy. In approaching the novel, she asked herself the following question: “What is the most important value for Koreans? Not just in Japan, or Korea, or America, but for Koreans around the world.” Her answer to this question is ultimately education. So she chose to write a book about hagwons. A hagwon is a Korean for-profit tutoring center, and American Hagwon approaches the hagwon as “an idea of transition and a mobility device in order for Koreans to educate themselves out of their current situations,” Lee told me. From AP and SAT tutoring to K-pop star training, there’s a hagwon for everything, and once again, Lee has grounded her novel in research, conducting dozens of interviews with Korean parents and students.
Right now, Lee is juggling multiple projects with an impressive level of skill. While working on American Hagwon, she’s also been writing her first memoir, Name Recognition: A Map of Voice and Disability. In addition, she tried her hand at writing for TV for the first time recently when Netflix purchased the pilot episode of her TV adaptation of Free Food for Millionaires. Her variety of talents and endeavors has expanded its reach, but at the heart of her work, Lee remains dedicated to writing books that help young people make sense of the world around them. “There are moments in my life when I’ve had so many difficult questions that only books could answer,” she said. “My job is to take chaos and put it into a cosmos. That is my mandate. And I feel that way very strongly as a writer. Every writer has a different sense of mandate. But for me, that is my job.”