Author Min Jin Lee on anti-Asian violence, visiting South Korea & more
Earlier this month, the 53-year-old Korean American author was in Seoul, where she was awarded the 2022 Manhae Grand Prize for literature.
She was also there for events commemorating the completely new Korean translation of her best-selling 2017 novel, “Pachinko.” The translation was released this month, sparking rumors about a record publishing deal. (Lee declined to comment on the monetary figure but said the new edition is more accurate.)
“Pachinko” — an epic tracking four generations of a Korean family — was also recently adapted into a critically acclaimed TV show for Apple TV Plus. The first season of the show, which Lee has said she has “no comment” on, was released in March.
These days, Lee is working on her third novel, “American Hagwon,” about Korean after-school academies or “cram schools,” and “Name Recognition,” a nonfiction book. She is also the writer in residence at Amherst College.
Between official events in South Korea, she was able to reconnect with far-flung family. Lee said it was a “really lovely homecoming” to be able to spend time in the country, where she was born, especially because her parents were able to make the trip.
She also spoke with The Washington Post about her writing, her activism — particularly in the face of increased anti-Asian violence — and the arms race of impossible beauty standards.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Your work has obviously been recognized before, but this trip seems to mark a certain kind of validation, if that’s the right word?
A: The Manhae Prize — it was really important for me to show up to accept it. Obviously it’s such an honor to get it, but also as an American writer of Korean descent, I’m the first one.
Recognition of a person like you and me, diasporic Koreans, by an establishment organization, is personally very, very meaningful, because I’ve studied so much about diasporic Koreans and our experience of not being accepted. I’ve also interviewed enough people in Korea who feel rejected and left behind. So there’s an interesting dynamic, and I would love to see a kind of bridge being built by our work and our recognition of what it is to be Korean around the world.
Q: In the last few years particularly, you’ve been an active voice in speaking up about anti-Asian rhetoric and violence. One of the things I grapple with when I report on it is, like with mass shootings, how much reporting makes it worse and inspires new violence? Do you have thoughts about that?
A: I think that the assertion that the reporting of these events will incite more violence and copycat behavior is an assertion. Unless I see credible evidence, showing that causation — and also, if I can have the counter evidence that if we don’t report on it, that it goes away — I will remain unconvinced. I think it’s just another way to make us put ugly news underneath the carpet, just to brush it aside. And I find that really problematic.
I have a very limited, very niche platform. If I can use it to draw attention and to make people realize that it’s not okay to punch out our elders, and that people like our parents and you and I should not be afraid to take the train or go to work, or go to our home, or stay out late at night, I try.
Q: I was just in Korea and I went along with a friend to get the latest cosmetic procedure, and I’ve got to say, even though you brace for it, the pressure to get stuff done really can get to you.
A: I think the beauty standards everywhere are just unreasonable. In the U.S., in Korea and Europe, Africa, in South Asia.
… I would say with conviction that beauty standards are just unreasonable everywhere for all people. And now it’s not just for women, for men as well, and I see a lot of people suffering as a result of it.
Beauty is a form of power. If a woman says I want to be more powerful through this way, then I understand. I’m not saying that it’s going to necessarily get you power, or the kind of power that you want. But it is a form of power. … It’s a very important feminist issue, and I think that there should be more study on it.
Q: People are always interested in a writer’s process. Can you tell us about yours?
A: I read that Willa Cather read a chapter of the Bible every day. So I thought, I’m going to try that. So now I read a chapter of the Bible, every day, before I start writing fiction. I’ve done it since 1995. I must have read it, literally from page to page, about seven times. It has been so helpful to understand how things are written, with a long scope.
If you want to understand literature, especially Western literature, it’s almost impossible to do so without a very deep understanding of the Bible, as well as mythology — I mean, Shakespeare knew it cold. So, I’m such a huge fan of doing this, you couldn’t really get me to stop now.
Q: You are by faith a Christian, right?
A: I am. I do go to church every Sunday.
Q: I’m watching the K-drama “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” and just saw the episode on hagwons, which is the topic of your next book. What interested you about them and what angle are you developing?
A: It’s the last novel of a trilogy of a diaspora called the Koreans. My first book is about Koreans in America but particularly New York [“Free Food for Millionaires”]. It’s also from a certain period — 20th-century based, especially the latter part. And “Pachinko” is obviously Korean Japanese.
So then I thought, how do I understand what unites all of us around the world? I’ve had the great privilege of having interviewed thousands of Koreans now in every corner of the globe that I’ve been allowed to travel. And the one thing that struck me is that I’ve never met a Korean who doesn’t have a strong opinion about education — this very strong emotional aspect about the idea of education, and how you should educate yourself and your family.
The more I researched, I thought, what’s my central metaphor? I realized, it’s hagwon — not that everybody goes to hagwon. But it’s a metaphor for me in the same way “Pachinko” works as a metaphor, or what I think is a philosophy of life, for so many who have been oppressed, in an unfair society.
… I’m working on it now trying to explore what education means to Korea, to Koreans and diasporic Koreans. So what I’m really writing about is wisdom.