Min Jin Lee, renowned author of novels like Pachinko and Free Food For Millionaires, and finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, received an enthusiastic standing ovation after speaking at All School Meeting last Friday. Lee talked about her childhood experiences as a Korean American, her journey to becoming a writer, her fieldwork in Tokyo, Japan, and the power of individuals to have love for one another.
“Even though I chose a college based on how much I love the fiction of a writer, it never ever occurred to me that I could be a writer. I thought that I would major in economics, because this seems like a very sound thing to do when your parents work six days a week in a tiny little store, with enormous rats in the basement. And [later] I worked in a beautiful office where everything was clean all the time, including the bathrooms, which had well-stocked paper towels. And you may think that’s a stupid thing to focus on. But when your parents don’t have those things, it actually becomes something you notice,” said Lee.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, and later immigrating to Queens, New York, Lee became fascinated with the lives of ordinary people and the different effects of things like class and wealth for people typically perceived as unimportant.
“I still wanted to write something that’s beautiful even if no one cared, even if I wasn’t talented enough. It was within my power to write about the people that I cared about, the people who fascinated me, and I wanted to write about the ordinary neighborhood. First, Queens, filled with bus drivers, plumbers, house cleaners: people who work for other people. So I wrote Free Food For Millionaires because I wanted to write about money and class and ambition and how conventional ideas of such things may not hold up for those who are unimportant,” said Lee.
Jane Park ’22 expressed admiration for Lee’s approach and ability to shine light on the experiences of ordinary people. Growing up reading Lee’s novels, Park believes that Lee’s writing has helped her learn to accept herself and her own experiences as a child of immigrants.
“Usually, when we think about being characters and novels, we think about people who faced extraordinary circumstances. And the fact that she gave light, she gave voice to ordinary people who were fighting for ordinary lives and experiences was really radical. Free Food for Millionaires hits so deeply to me because it helps me understand how we accept ourselves in a world of elitism for children of immigrants, a world that just doesn’t exist for our parents. And how do we grapple with the doors that open with elitism while struggling under that weight inverted,” said Park.
Midori Ishizuka, Teaching Fellow in History and Social Science, was amazed by Lee’s kindness and energy. She highlighted Lee’s ability to connect with and listen to everyone in the room.
“When I had spent time with her that morning and the night before at dinner, it was so clear that she’s so amazing with people. She’s amazing with the students; she’s amazing with the adults in the room, making people feel seen, to really listening to the people in the room. I realized, wow, this is probably why she was so successful as well in the thousands of interviews that she did in researching for her books. Every single person that she spent the time to talk to, not only collectively but every individual student and adult felt that she gave them a real slice of her time and energy. And I thought that was just so special because we rarely find that nowadays. And that’s why she’s able to write such amazing stories,” said Ishizuka.
By the end of the ASM, Lee left many students weeping with her powerful speech and message about the power of individuals to love, struggle, and struggle for love. Her story has enlivened the community with hope, love, and a renewed sense of purpose.
“We keep struggling for what we love, because we have the power to love. And we’re not just struggling. We are struggling for something, we are struggling for someone, we are struggling for our ability to keep loving. We’re struggling for our purpose. And this purpose gives us great great unfathomable power. And we are powerful when we remember that the parts of our lives that we love the most can be almost impossible to bear every day. I want you to know that right now, you have this power right now. And you have had it ever since you learned how to love. This power only grows as you continue to love and to struggle,” said Lee.
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