Arts & ASM: A Conversation with Author and Journalist Min Jin Lee on Literature and Identity

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How have you been able to explore your own Asian American heritage through your novels?

I think that the idea of being Asian American is something that is so unique to being American, because a Pan-Asian identity is something that’s not common outside of this country. I think that my identity became much more pronounced in a political sense when I was in college. Before then, I felt like I was Korean, I was an immigrant, and I grew up in New York. In New York, everybody has an ethnicity. When I was growing up, I didn’t think of someone as white, but as Polish or Irish or German. Then, when I went to college, I was like, ‘Oh no, there’s white people, and black people, and Asian people,’ so it became a much more racialized identity rather than ethnic identity. I think becoming an Asian American person is a political identity but also a political choice. It’s a very empowering choice, and it is something I have worked and struggled with for all of my life, and it’s something that I continue to work for.


What inspired you to write the Koreans Trilogy?

I didn’t know it was a trilogy until I finished the first book, Free Food for Millionaires, which published in 2007. When I returned to work on Pachinko, which was then called ‘Motherland,’ I realized I had been working towards a much bigger thing. Upon completion of Pachinko, I realized, ‘I want to write one more book,’ in particular to give my conception of Koreans in the work in terms of a diasporic experience. So then I decided to write American Hagwon, and I think that will be my complete statement. Nobody has asked me to write The Koreans, but it is something that I want to do, and I hope it does justice to a people that I have so much love for. 


What questions of identity and culture do you hope to inspire with your books, and what do you hope people will take away from your stories?

I think that self-acceptance can be a very important thing…In the wish for assimilation and acceptance, there is a very powerful thing that happens where you start stripping away at who you are. When you strip those things away in the hopes of being accepted, sometimes you leave at the door the most important things. What I want to encourage through my work is to see that decision of assimilation, acceptance, rejection, and reclamation. In that reclamation, I want you to get back all your powers. 


How have you grown as a writer and researcher throughout your career?

I think I didn’t know what a writer was until I became one….Very often we have this idea that a writer is someone that has many books or publications, but a person who does not have any books but is writing is a writer. Writing is just directing your thinking. So you take all these amorphous, shapeless ideas in your head that are swimming around, and then once you start putting them on paper, you’re forced to make decisions. When you make those decisions, and when you make shape out of them, that’s when you direct your thinking. Even the ability to articulate right now took a lifetime to figure that out. In terms of being a better writer, it came from writing terrible things. You have to write a lot of terrible things in order to get better. I’ve never seen anyone write beautifully from the beginning, and I think that acceptance is part of becoming an apprentice. Even now, I don’t think my apprenticeship is done in the same way, because there are new writing skills that I want to attain. I feel a greater sense of authority as I get older, and the better I get as I write, but I still feel a sense of curiosity and wonder about the beauty of writing. I love reading. I think that if you don’t love reading, you’re never going to be a writer. 


Why does Asian representation in literature/popular media matter?

Until we have accurate representation, we will feel invisible and erased. Asians and Asian Americans have been in this country for several hundred years, and yet the level of representation and accuracy in the way we’ve been represented is sorely lacking in media and popular culture: in our books, in our curriculum, and in the way we understand politics. Therefore, people of Asian and Asian American descent, and those who are walking around embodied in our racialized selves, feel like they don’t matter. It is extraordinarily important to see yourself represented, your stories, your ideas, your political passions, your humanity being represented in a full way. I can’t stress that enough. It’s not just representation, and it’s not just optics. It’s not just consumer appeal. Putting an Asian American person in front of a car, and wanting a person to buy the car, I think that’s what you call…commercial appeal. That’s not what’s going to fill your soul.


Your books take an extensive amount of time to research, like American Hagwon, your future novel, and Pachinko. Could you speak about what this process of crafting a story looks like? What has this taught you about writing and the research process?

I start out with all these questions and ideas, and I do all this research. Then, I start my writing. And then I realized that in my writing, I didn’t really understand my questions. The process is so humbling, all the time, because I think, ‘Oh wow, that is such a great question!’ And then I start writing and I realize, ‘No, you asked the wrong question.’ And then I have to start again. For me, a lot of it’s trying to stay humble and open to new ideas. What I really care about is the truth of how people are. Whenever I learn something new about who we are, that’s really exciting for me. And then I think, ‘How do I represent that in a story in which I can get this kind of 360 of emotion of truth, of history, of accuracy? And then how do I make you feel something?’ Because it’s not just enough for me to feel something. I want you to feel something. So I don’t really care if you think I’m clever, or that I write well. If you think I’m clever or that I write well, that’s fine, but that can’t be my goal. My goal is to make you feel something, and that requires that I have to go through the experience of feeling something myself. That’s beyond the research. It’s that I really have to care, and part of that is in my research: when I interview, when I research, when I go around and visit people, I feel myself changing. And the more I’ve studied hagwons, the more I’ve changed my point of view about them, because I didn’t grow up going to hagwons.


What do you hope Phillips Academy takes away from your presentation? What advice do you have for our community and students?  

I think it’ll be great if the person who hears my presentation considers that who you are in high school, and what happens to you, can affect the rest of your life. It can be a wonderful thing, even though it’s a difficult thing. [In the ASM, I talked] about what happened to me in high school, and how it’s affected me today. As for any advice for the community, I want to encourage you guys to listen to each other, and to be tender and gentle with one another.