Starr Forum: Pachinko

Starr Forum: Pachinko


RICHARD SAMUELS: Good
afternoon, everyone. Hello, hello, hello. I’m Dick Samuels. And I’m a professor
of political science here at MIT and
direct the Center for International Studies. And for my sins, I also
direct the MIT Japan program. And it is a great pleasure
to welcome everyone here this evening. And it’s a special pleasure to
introduce Min Jin Lee and Amy Carleton to you. I’ll do that in order. Min Jin was born in Seoul. She immigrated to Queens
when she was seven years old. And it’s likely, I think,
of special interests to those of us at MIT that she’s
a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science
and that she was inducted into the Bronx High
School of Science Hall of Fame. Sadly though, she didn’t
tread the well-worn path from the Bronx to
Cambridge at MIT. She made the mistake– she went to Yale. [LAUGHTER] And at Yale, she
majored in history and won prizes for both fiction
and non-fiction writing. No surprise there for those
of you who know her work. After law school at Georgetown
and then practicing law for several years, she
decided to write full-time. And she did a great job. [LAUGHTER] Her 2007 debut novel, Free
Food for Millionaires, was an enormous success,
critically acclaimed, quite brilliant, and
I commend it to you. But as the size of this
audience indicates very clearly, many of you are well aware
of her superb latest novel, Pachinko, which was written
while she lived in Japan and published last year. It was a finalist for
the National Book Award. It was on the top 10
best books of 2017 lists, well, for everyone. New York Times had it on a list. BBC, New York Public Library,
70 additional lists all included Min Jin’s Pachinko. She’s been awarded the
Guggenheim fellowship. She’s now at Radcliffe
with a scholarship there. And I feel very, very
grateful that she accepted the invitation to come here. We’ve been conspiring to make
this happen for more than a year, since really almost the
moment I picked up the book and then couldn’t put it down. And I’m delighted that it’s
finally going to happen. I’m also very pleased
to be able to introduce Amy Carleton to you all. Amy is a lecturer in Comparative
Media studies here at MIT and contributes to
Cognoscenti at WBUR. At MIT she teaches
writing and communication. And she focuses on helping
science and engineering undergraduates communicate more
effectively with the public. Her research focuses
on collaboration and digital communication. And her articles and
essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the
New York Times, and New York Magazine and elsewhere as well. Now I’m going to get out of
their way in just a second. But I have to do a
couple of things first. And I promise you, you won’t
have me taking the oxygen out of this room. First, a word about how
we’re going to proceed. Min Jin will come up here to the
podium for about 20, 25 minutes and speak with you. Then she’ll join Amy, or Amy
will join her at the stage– imagine a stage–
so there’s a stage– for a conversation
about the book. Amy will be her interlocutor
for about additional 20 to 25 minutes. Then we’ll broaden
the conversation to take questions from you to
get you into the conversation. So I want to remind
everyone one other thing, which is that Min Jin
will sign books here. The books are available
outside the lecture room. But she’ll be happy
to sign books. And I want to thank you all
for coming one more time. And thanks also to the
co-sponsors of the event. In addition to the Center
for International Studies and the MIT Japan
program, we have support from [INAUDIBLE] Korea, the MIT
global studies and languages unit, and the MIT program on
women’s and gender studies. So let me now finally invite Min
Jin Lee to come to the podium and begin the conversation. [APPLAUSE] Thank you. MIN JIN LEE: Thank
you, [INAUDIBLE].. Thank you. My goodness. My goodness. Do you guys know
that it’s Tuesday? [LAUGHTER] And apparently there’s midterms. I’ll give you five
seconds to make a getaway. OK, I was trying to
give it to myself. So it’s true, I went
to Bronx Science. And I was thinking,
I am qualified to speak at MIT, because
I went to Bronx Science. And I wanted to ask anybody
here who took BC calculus? Anybody here take BC calculus? OK, see, I took BC calculus. [LAUGHTER] And on my AP exam, I got a two. That’s what you get
for signing your name. So that’s why I
didn’t go to MIT. I was the humanities
token at Bronx Science. I was there mostly to
make people feel better about their own grades. [LAUGHTER] I was going to talk about
a couple of things today. But then I decided
to shift gears, because I was so disturbed by
President Trump’s recent call to consider removing
birthright citizenship. And I thought that perhaps
we should talk about peace and literature instead. In the March of 1976, my
parents, two sisters, and I immigrated to America. I was seven years old. And I recall that long
flight from Seoul to JFK. And in that flight, it was
really so exciting for me. And at one point, I
got really thirsty. And I asked my father,
I’m really thirsty. What do I do? And of course I
asked him in Korean, because I didn’t speak English. And my father said
to me, juice please. Juice please. And that is the first
phrase I learned in English. Juice please. So I walked over to
the flight attendant, a very kind and lovely
flight attendant. She was the first white
woman I had ever spoken to. And I said, juice please. And she handed me a
can of orange juice. I thought this was amazing. So I drank my juice. I went back to her. And I said, juice please. And this lovely woman gave
me another can of juice. And I got a can of
juice for everybody in my family and my aisle. And we landed in JFK. My Uncle John, who is my
mother’s older brother, picked us up from the airport. And he took us back
to his modest rental where we slept in
the living room floor for a couple
of weeks, because we had no place to live. And the first thing
that he did is he bought us bunches
and bunches of bananas. And he placed them in this
really large metal basin. And in the large basin, it
was like this humongous pile of bananas. And the reason why he did
this, for those of you who may not know, in 1976 bananas
were incredibly expensive in Korea. So I had never had one. And I just thought, wow. And Uncle John said, you
girls eat as many bananas as you like. And when you finish,
I will buy you more. Unlimited orange juice and
an infinite number of bananas and America to me was generous,
abundant, and delicious. Now back in Seoul,
my father worked as a white collar marketing
executive for cosmetics. And my mother was
a piano teacher. And when they first came here,
they didn’t have much money. So for the first year, my father
operated a newspaper stand. So he sold lottery tickets
and candy and the daily news. He did that for a year. And then later on, he opened
a small wholesale jewelry business in which he sold
costume jewelry, like $2 earrings, to street peddlers. And it was a really
tiny little store. And it was kind of disgusting. But he worked there and
he put us through school. Now, if he was a solid
middle class person in Seoul, South Korea and
so was my mother, why would he come
to the United States to sell scratch-off
lottery tickets and to serve people who
are former prisoners who worked as street
peddlers in the subway? Why would he do that? Why did we come to America? And to answer that
question, I need to tell you a little bit about my family. So my father, when the
Korean War began in 1950, was 16 years old. And in December of 1950,
when the communist army was conscripting boys,
my grandmother panicked. And what she did was she
used all of her sharp elbows and she secured passage for my
father and his older brother on an American refugee
ship, a warship that would take refugees from Wonsan,
which is now in North Korea, down to Busan, which
is now in South Korea. And she thought that
she would see her boys in maybe a week, a few days. And as you know, she
never saw her boys again. My mother is a native
of Busan, which is the southernmost
tip of South Korea now. And her father was a
Presbyterian minister. And as a Presbyterian minister,
he also served as a headmaster for an orphanage school. And who were these orphans? These were Korean children
who had lost their parents in the bombings of
Nagasaki and Hiroshima and who were repatriated
back to Korea. As you know, the Korean
Armistice Agreement signed in July of 1953
ceased the hostilities between the two nations. But to this day,
to this day, there is no peace between
these two nations. So why did my parents
immigrate to America? Why did they? Immigrating was not
my mother’s idea. She had a nice job. Her family was intact. But she had asked her older
brother, Uncle John, my Uncle John, if he would
sponsor our immigration with the Immigration Act of
1965, because for my father, war was not an abstraction. War was something
that had made him lose his mother, his sisters,
and his home permanently. War was something that could
take a 5,000-year-old civilized nation and slice it into two. War was something that could
separate families forever. It could make
children into orphans in a flash of light and smoke. My father would not risk
another war if he could help it. And the immigration laws
allowed me to be here today. Peace is the very
opposite of war. And in the history
of the world, we could point to random periods
of history, such as the Pax Romana, the Han dynasty, the
Edo period, and the [INAUDIBLE] period. And whether it is for several
hundred years or a dozen, when men do not fight, men and
women can build paved roads. They can invent
printing presses. They can cure the
suffering of people. They could perfect the
art of paper making. They could design beautiful
buildings which exist today. And they can gaze at
the beauty of flowers. When there is no
war, we fall in love. We bear children. We dance at weddings. We can hold onto our loved
ones without fear of loss. We can turn our swords
into plowshares. Today, according to the United
Nations Human Commissioner of Refugees, there are 68.5
million displaced people roaming the globe,
searching for peace. 68.5 million people. And you and I know that
every advanced economy is terrified of homeless people. We fear that they will bring
strife and pestilence and crime into our borders. And at the very
least, they will bring their troubles and their sadness
and their very long lists of needs. How will we meet these needs? And why– why should we
care about them at all? And who are they to us? Perhaps the job of the writer
is to ask, could they be us? Could they be us? We have to ask these questions. How could we not? Refugees are not an abstraction. I am the daughter of a refugee. And I am here at MIT right
now because America graciously allowed me to have sufficient
peace so I could read and write books. As a fiction writer, I
want to tell you something. I have an agenda. I’m trying to make you Korean. [LAUGHTER] Through characters and plot
and point of view and tone and setting, through recognition
and reversal and catharsis, I am hoping that you will
become Korean, because you see, I know that this is
what literature can do. Through literature,
I have become Russian and French and Muslim
and Israeli and Palestinian, French and Jamaican and
Haitian, British and Japanese and Turkish and Jewish and
Catholic and Muslim and African-American and
above all indigenous. And through
literature, I have been male and gay and transgender. I have been differently
abled and ruling class. I have been dispossessed
and disenfranchised. And I have been imprisoned. And I have been orphaned. Through literature,
we cross borders. And we become united with
the selves we did not know that we could be. And we become reunited with
the selves that we have lost. And I believe that this is
how we should approach peace, with our arms held wide open,
our hands bearing orange juice and bananas, to welcome
children, children into our lives. And tonight I want to thank
you for this fellowship. And I wish you peace for you and
your families, enduring peace. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] I’m going to read a very, very
short section of the book. It’s about 6 and 1/2 minutes. It’s about the length
of a YouTube video. [LAUGHTER] And I’m going to read
toward the end of the book. It’s 1976. And in this section,
you really need to note there are
three characters. You have Moses, who is
a pachinko parlor owner. And he’s a very wealthy man. And he’s ethnically Korean. And we have his son, Solomon,
who is a teenage boy. And he’s also ethnically Korean. And we also have Moses’s
girlfriend, who is Japanese. And it is Moses, pachinko
parlor owner; Solomon, his son; and we have Etsuko. And we are in Yokohama
at a ward office. And it’s 1976. So here we are, not in
MIT, not in building 10. We are at a ward
office in Yokohama. “The Yokohama ward office
was a giant gray box with an obscure sign. And the first
clerk that they saw was a very tall man
with a narrow face and a shock of black hair
buzzed off at the sides. And he stared at
Etsuko shamelessly, his eyes darting across
her breasts, her hips, and her jeweled fingers. And she was overdressed compared
to Moses and Solomon, who wore white dress shirts, dark
slacks, and black dress shoes. And they looked like
the Mormon missionaries who used to glide through
her village on their bicycles when she was a girl. ‘Your name.’ The clerk squinted
at the form that Solomon was filling out. ‘Solomon. What kind of name is that?’ ‘It’s from the Bible. He was a king and the son of
David, a man of great wisdom. My great uncle named me.’ And the boy smiled at the clerk
as if he were sharing a secret. He was a very polite boy. But because he had gone
to school with Americans and other kinds of foreigners
at his international schools, he sometimes said things that
a Japanese person would never have said. ‘Solomon, king, a
man of great wisdom. Koreans don’t have
kings anymore.’ ‘What did you say?’ Etsuko asked. And quickly Moses
pulled her back. And she glanced at Moses. His temper was far
worse than hers. And once, at a restaurant,
when a guest tried to make her sit
with him, Moses, who happened to be
there at the night, walked over, picked
him up bodily, and threw him outside
the restaurant, breaking the man’s ribs. And she was expecting no
less of a reaction now. But Moses averted his
eyes from the clerk. And he stared at
Solomon’s right hand. And Moses smiled. ‘Excuse me, sir. We’re in a hurry to
return home, because it’s the boy’s birthday. Is there anything
else that we could do? Thank you very much
for understanding.’ And confused, Solomon
turned to Etsuko. And she flashed
him a warning look. And the clerk pointed
to the back of the room and told Moses and
Etsuko to sit down. And Solomon remained
standing opposite the clerk. And in the long, rectangular
room shaped like a train car with the bank teller
windows running parallel along opposite
sides of the wall, half a dozen people
sat on benches reading their newspapers or manga. And Etsuko wondered if
they were all Korean. And Moses sat down. And then he got up again. And he asked if she
wanted a can of tea from the vending machine. And she nodded yes. Etsuko felt like slapping
the clerk’s face. And in middle school she had
once slapped a gossipy girl. And it had been very satisfying. And when Moses returned with
her tea, she thanked him. ‘You must have known. You must have warned him. I mean, you told him that today
would not be so easy, neh?’ And after the words came out of
her mouth, they sounded harsh. And she felt sorry. ‘No, I didn’t say
anything to him.’ And he opened and he closed
his fists rhythmically. ‘I came here with my
mother and brother Noah for my first
registration papers. And the clerk was normal. He was nice even. So I asked you to come, because
I thought that maybe having a woman, a Japanese
woman by him might help.’ And he exhaled
through his nostrils. ‘It was so stupid to
wish for kindness.’ ‘Oh no, no. You couldn’t have warned him. I shouldn’t have
said it like that.’ ‘It is hopeless. Cannot change his fate. He is Korean. And he has to get those papers. And he has to follow
all the rules perfectly. Once at a ward’s
office, a clerk told me that I was a guest
in his country. But you and Solomon
were born here. Yes, and my brother Noah, too.’ And Moses covered his
face with his hands. ‘Anyway, the clerk wasn’t wrong. And this is something that
Solomon must understand. We can be deported. We have no motherland. And life is full of things
that he cannot control. So he must adapt. My boy has to survive.’ And Solomon returned to them. And next he had his
photograph taken. And afterward he had
to go to another room to get it fingerprinted. And then they could go home. The last clerk was a very pretty
woman with a long ponytail. And she took Solomon’s
left index finger and gently dipped it into a pot
filled with thick, black ink. And Solomon depressed his
finger onto a white card as if he was a child painting. And Moses looked away. And he sighed audibly. The clerk told him to
pick up the registration card in the next room. ‘Let’s get your dog
tags,’ Moses said. And Solomon faced his father. ‘Hmm?’ ‘It’s what
we dogs must have.’ And the clerk looked
furious suddenly. ‘The fingerprints and
the registration card are vitally important
for government records. There’s no need to
feel insulted by this. It’s an immigration
regulation required for foreign–‘ and
Etsuko stepped forward. ‘But you don’t make your
children get fingerprinted on their birthday, do you?’ And the clerk’s neck turned red. ‘My son is dead.’ And Etsuko bit her lip. She didn’t want to feel
anything for this woman. But she knew what it was
like to lose your children. It was like you were cursed
and nothing would ever restore the desolation of your life. ‘Koreans do a lot of good for
this country,’ Etsuko said. ‘They do the difficult jobs
the Japanese don’t want to do. And they pay taxes. And they obey laws. And they create businesses. And they raise families.’ ‘You Koreans always
tell me this.’ And Solomon blurted
out, ‘She’s not Korean.’ And Etsuko touched his arm. And the three of them
walked out of the building. She wanted to crawl
out of the gray box and see the light
of outdoors again. She longed for the white
mountains of Hokkaido. And though she had never
done so in her childhood, she wanted to walk in
the cold, snowy forests beneath the flanks of
the dark, leafless trees. There was so much
insult and injury. And she had no choice but
to take what was hers. But now, she wished to
take Solomon’s shame and add it to her pile, though
she was already overwhelmed.” Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Oh, thank you. I did want to do one
quick thing before Amy asks me hard questions. I wanted to thank Dick
and Amy and Michelle– where are you, Michelle? I want to thank Laura Kerwin– where are you, Laura? And I want to thank MIT and all
the sponsors for this event. I feel really lucky to be here. I also want to thank
all of you for coming, because I was pretty sure
no one was going to come. And they would keep
emailing me saying, more people are going to come. And I’m like, they’re
not going to come. It’s 4 o’clock in an afternoon. But anyway, so thank you so much
for hanging out with me today, because it would’ve
been really embarrassing if no one had shown up, AMY CARLETON: OK, so we’re
going to get started. So first of all, I have
to– true confession time. This is probably
the biggest thrill of my life as a lifelong
reader and as someone who really was just thoroughly
enchanted by Pachinko. When I received the invite
to speak with Min Jin, I thought someone– I was being punked or
something, first of all. And then I was just
dancing in my living room. So this is– by
myself, of course. But anyway, I’m
delighted to be here. And my thought is, since many
of you have read the book– I know actually my
book club, many people from elementary school
friends are here that have all read
and loved the book. But many of you may
not have done so yet, but you put it on your list. So I’m going to go
sort of broad strokes and then hopefully we will get
down to some more specifics to entice everyone to pick
up a book on their way out. So first I want to begin
with just a little anecdote. Back in 2002 when I was
pregnant with my first child, my dear friend who
was the first person I saw when I walked in
here gave me this book, which is called Breeder. MIN JIN LEE: Oh my god. AMY CARLETON: It
is an anthology. Real-life stories from the
generation of new mothers. And in the inscription
to the book, Kate wrote, “This book looks
like just like the kind of thing we would like– urban stories about pregnancy
and motherhood from a hipster perspective, because
I know you’re going to be the coolest mom.” In in it was an essay
by the title of Will, which is the first piece of
writing I read from Min Jin. And after I read
Pachinko, I said that’s the author of
this wonderful essay. And I pulled it off my shelf. I want to read a
couple of passages that I actually
annotated back in 2002– MIN JIN LEE: You’re getting
extra credit for this. OK. AMY CARLETON: –and use
that as sort of a jumping off point to talk
about the novel. MIN JIN LEE: No, I thought
nobody read this essay. AMY CARLETON: OK. MIN JIN LEE: OK. AMY CARLETON: So, “In spite
of everyone else’s happiness, I grew more terrified. I feared becoming one
of those people who talk only about
their children, never see films, have a rotten social
life, never read history books, and live in a toy and
diaper-littered apartment. I had quit being a lawyer,
hoping to become a writer, not a mother. And how could I forget
that when I was little, my mother never had any time
for her piano, her books, or for laughter?” And one more. “If my mother wasn’t
happy, I wondered, then how could I be happy? Nothing I did or could do would
ever redeem her sacrifices. This much I was
beginning to understand. No lives were equal. She and dad were far happier
now in their retirement. But I still sensed her
unarticulated regrets.” And next to that, I have three
exclamation points and a star. So the end of the first
chapter of Pachinko ends with the birth
of Sunja, who’s the first child of her parents,
but yet the first to survive. And it’s her story
that really is the engine as the reader, my
perspective, that soldiers through the book. So I wonder if now– I don’t know when the last
time you read this was– if you see a through line of
that connection between not only motherhood,
but perhaps regret and there is a connection
between those two. MIN JIN LEE: Wow. First of all, that’s
incredible that you found that essay, because I’m
sure that book is out of print. [LAUGHTER] And I remember getting
that essay in there, thinking that it was
safe for me to write it, because no one would read it. It’s actually about
my miscarriage. I had a miscarriage
before my husband and I had our son Sam,
the apple of our eye, who’s taking his second
midterm right now. So can we think
positive thoughts? It’s for coding class. Anyway– it’s like, too
much information there. But to answer your question in
terms of motherhood and regret and how– when I met my husband,
it was really interesting, because– he’s here to confirm or deny. You can ask him later. I remember thinking, I
never wanted to get married. And I never wanted
to have children. And I did articulate
that in the essay. And it’s true, because
as a child I remember thinking that it
was so difficult. My parents were just
having such a hard time. And I don’t remember my
mother smiling at all. I mean, now she’s
like a big cut up. She’s funny. But when I was growing
up, it was just too hard, because they had to
deal with poverty and being mistreated and having
to deal with so many inequities and indignities of being
a person who’s outside. And she really sees herself
as a very intellectual, creative person. And when she came here,
she became working class and without a language. And for those of you here
who have parents like this, you know what it feels like to
watch your parents be insulted. It’s like a very
specific kind of wound. And I definitely had that. So I kind of
thought, oh you know, I’m going to become a lawyer. I’m going to have
really nice clothes. I’m going to work at
a really clean office. I’ll have bathrooms
that don’t have rats. I had all these
issues that I thought I’m going to just recover from. And I don’t know for
those students who are here what your goals are. But I was very informed by that. And in terms of
writing Pachinko, I wrote this as an adult.
But I started it as a child. So I got the idea for
the book when I was 19. I turn 50 next month. And I worked on it off
and on for 26 years. So I grew up with the book. And part of what I
also grew up with is I became somebody
who fell in love and got married and stayed married,
much to the credit of my better half, who is very tolerant
of my emotional swings. And I also have a
child who is almost 21. And then I think this
miscarriage, which is what this essay was
about, really asked me, is it really true what you say? Do you really think
that you could judge how historical events
could determine your future? And I think I had
to make another bet. I’d said, you know what? My childhood was
really complicated and in many ways dark. But in other ways, could I
envision a better childhood for my child? And in that process
of becoming a parent, I was also writing Pachinko. And this book was not intended
to be about parenting. But it has lots of
parenting strains in it, because I had
all these questions. And also, I think
parenting is really hard. It’s so hard and
so humbling even if you have an ideal
partner and an ideal kid. Even then it’s hard. And then you can have
so many other factors of being a parent. And also you don’t even have
to be a biological parent. You could be a teacher
and care about students. And that need to
parent is so important. So to answer your question, I
had to work it out in this book and I had to work
it out in fiction. And I felt very safe to
work it out in that way. And I work it out
through scenes. AMY CARLETON: In
terms of Sunja, who’s our second mother I
guess that we meet in the novel, her
mother being the first, she’s told early on that, quote,
“a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. For a woman, the man you marry
will determine the quality of your life completely.” And I’m wondering
how much you think that is true for Sunja
in the novel, also maybe for other women, and
if that changes, particularly once the women get
involved in the economy and they’re participating
not necessarily in the behind-the-scenes
economy, running a boarding
house for example, but in the restaurant making
the kimchi and sort of running their own business. MIN JIN LEE: Well, I was
told by so many great women that the man you marry will
determine your lot in life. And I think that for
the modern 21st century person in an advanced
economy like America, it’s more fair to say
who you love determines the fate of your life. I think to be hetero
sexist is not fair. Whoever your partner is, whoever
you decide to attach yourself to is going to determine
the quality of your life, because you’re no longer one. So as soon as you decide
I love this person and I’m committed to this
person, then all of a sudden her choices and his
choices and their choices become part of your dreams. So I think one of the
hardest things to do in life is to love, because– and this is interesting
as a parent. I remember– and my son’s
not here to talk about it. But I remember
when he was little and he wasn’t invited
to a birthday party. I’m still mad. [LAUGHTER] Like, I am fucking furious. [LAUGHTER] And that’s like a little petty
thing if you think about it. But when you love
someone, watching them get slighted in the most
tiny way can feel like rage. And I remember wanting
to breathe fire, like what can I do? Walk around like Godzilla. And I hold onto
this stupid grudge, because watching
his disappointment was so painful to me. And of course, if I could, I
would have reinvented the world so he could have a parade
to know that he was loved. And for all of you, I want you
to know that people who love you care about you that much. It’s not just your parents,
because if you really love somebody, their slights and
their wounds and their injuries become yours. But going back to this
question of suffering, that comes with the
territory of love. And the sacrifices come
with the territory of love. But also if you
don’t take those on, you also don’t get all
the beauty of love. I would take all that on for
the love that I have in my life. So that’s the decision, I guess. But it’s a tough decision. I think no one tells
you when you have sex and you have a
child, by the way, you’re going to be an
open wound forever. [LAUGHTER] AMY CARLETON: That’s very true. MIN JIN LEE: I know. People are like,
hmm, birth control. [LAUGHTER] AMY CARLETON: So you
touched on this a bit in your opening remarks. But in reading the novel and
then subsequently reading a review, a beautiful
review by Cassandra Farrin in
Ploughshares, she talks about the theme of outsiders
in the novel and everything from Sunja’s father having
a very visible cleft palate to Moses’s
gay best friend that he rescues from
bullying to Sunja’s other son Noah’s internal discomfort
with his Korean heritage. And I’m just
wondering if you could talk about that theme
of the outsider, if that was something that
you were deliberately wanting to explore and explicate
in the novel and certainly any outside connections
that you wish to make with what’s going on,
connecting back to your opening remarks. MIN JIN LEE: Yeah. I feel really comfortable
being a minor character. And I think all outsiders
are minor characters. So I like it. And I’m really happy to sit in
the back of the room right now. So if anybody wants to sit
here instead, it’s OK with me. And I’d be happy to
listen to you talk, truly, because most of my work is
done through interviews. And I love interviewing
people, especially people that most people don’t
think are important, because I find that in
those conversations, they become my teacher. And I really like that position
of being a student for life. I like that a lot. AMY CARLETON: Me, too. MIN JIN LEE: Yeah, right? That’s why we’re writers. AMY CARLETON: Exactly. MIN JIN LEE: But in
terms of the outsiders, it was a very
conscious decision, because I think my first
version of this book was much more of a polemic, a
really boring polemic about how the Koreans were
unjustly treated. And it’s true. The Koreans have been and
they are unjustly treated. This is true. However, a novel about that
is really boring to read. And then I had to
really rethink what it meant to be an outsider. And then I went to Japan and
I found all these outsiders. In Japan it’s difficult if
you’re a divorced person. Like you can be a Japanese
person and divorce and it’s difficult. You could be
a single mother in Japan and it’s a shitty life. Like, all these other
people pick on you. And then all of a sudden,
I start to think, you know, you need to open your landscape. To be gay in Japan
is so difficult. To be differently abled
in Japan, so difficult. So I was like, I
have to put this in, because it’s part of Japan. If I disagree with the
point of view of Japan, then I need to put it in
a really fair context. But the Japanese are suffering
under the monolith mythology. So I had to put that in. AMY CARLETON: So one
thing I was intrigued by and it sort of confirmed
I wasn’t wholly projecting on my reading of the novel– MIN JIN LEE: But
you are welcome to. AMY CARLETON: Yes, well– there was a piece
in The Atlantic from December of
last year where you talk about– it was a
series on what writers can glean from biblical literature. And as someone who
was raised Baptist and have sort of transitioned
over to congregationalism now, more sort of inclusive,
I was struck by that. I said, oh, I knew it. MIN JIN LEE: I like
the Baptists, though– AMY CARLETON: Well, yeah. MIN JIN LEE: –because they
actually have emotions. AMY CARLETON: They
don’t all dance. And I like to dance. MIN JIN LEE: No, right. Yeah, I mean, the Presbyterians
and the Episcopalians up here, very cold. So these are my people. That’s why I’m just saying. AMY CARLETON: Right, right. So I was struck by
a couple of things. First, how in your
early writing years, or early after you left
your legal career and said I’m going to write
and I’m going to model my practice after
Willa Cather and I’m going to read a chapter– was it a chapter a day? MIN JIN LEE: Mm-hmm,
a chapter a day. Today was Daniel 2. AMY CARLETON: I was actually on
quiz team, biblical quiz team. So you can quiz me. MIN JIN LEE: Seriously? AMY CARLETON: Yes. Well, yes. Anyway, moving on. MIN JIN LEE: You get
an extra gold star. AMY CARLETON: Yeah, no. So you talk about how
the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis
resonated with you. And that fascinated with me. And those of you who– I’m not assuming a
Judeo-Christian perspective at all. So for those of you who are
not familiar with the story of Joseph, this is
the story of a son who was a favorite of
his father and sort of reviled by his jealous
brothers, who shipped him off and sold him into
slavery in Egypt, where he landed on
his feet, even better than that sort of prospered. And later when his brothers
came back or came to Egypt, there was hard times
and so forth, Joseph forgave the brothers and more
than just forgiving them, helped them to, brought them up. And so this idea of
forgiveness and being able to bloom where
you’re planted– I’m wondering how much of that– were you thinking of that
in writing the novel or– MIN JIN LEE: Well,
by the way, that was a very good
telling of that story and my favorite verse
in the entire Bible. And I think the Bible
is such a cool book. I know that it has problems. I get it. But if you want to understand
Western literature, you have to know the Bible. AMY CARLETON: You have to. MIN JIN LEE: You just don’t
have a choice about it. Anything that’s a great piece
of literature from Shakespeare until now is influenced
by the Bible. You’re going to miss symbols. You’re going to miss
all these things unless you understand it. But this is my favorite line is
that after Joseph’s totally– his brother’s sell
him into slavery. A woman accuses him of rape,
which he has not committed. And he goes to jail. And then finally he rises up. And when his brothers come
back, he actually says, what you intended for evil,
God intended for good. So it’s like beyond
forgiving an individual. It’s this idea that something
shitty can happen in your life, but there’s a reason. And he was lucky enough
to see the reason, because he was able to save his
people from slavery and famine. So whatever your feelings
are about that story, you may be going through a
really shitty situation right now. People have maybe mistreated
you, treated you unfairly, accused you falsely. All these things can happen. And they do happen, like today. Could there be a
reason for that? And I think the fiction writer
imposes order all the time in the chaos of our
lives, because when you’re going through it, you’re like I
got fired or somebody dumped me or your child doesn’t get
invited to a birthday party. Could there be a reason in
that order of moral importance? Yeah. AMY CARLETON: OK, so
a couple of things. First of all, we
are, as you may know, in I think the largest
classroom on campus. But it also has the significance
of being a place where every fall semester on Monday,
Wednesday, and Thursday at 1 o’clock there is lecture
for the senior mechanical engineering capstone class
called Product Engineering Processes. I should know. I teach in the class. But we refer to everything
by number here at MIT, so it’s 2009. So anyway, in that class
with these engineers, emerging engineers, so
much of what they do is focused on making
their process transparent and being iterative
in their design. So I’m sure many people here are
interested in just your process for maybe writing Pachinko,
maybe your earlier novel, just your writing life, writ large. MIN JIN LEE: Well,
I interview people. I interview hundreds of people
all the time for my work. And that’s weird. Like, most of my
contemporaries don’t do that level of interviews. And I’d have little short
interviews, like 10, 15-minute interviews. I have days-long interviews
where I actually follow somebody in his or her job. I’ve taken classes. I’ve pretended to apply
to Harvard Business School for my first book. AMY CARLETON: Amazing. MIN JIN LEE: That was funny. [LAUGHTER] Like, I don’t know what
they’re drinking over there. But it’s really powerful
stuff, because– so I was interviewing
all these people who are very big deal people
who went to Harvard Business School, who are significantly
wealthier and more powerful than me. And they thought it was adorable
that I was writing a novel. And I said, well, I’m trying
to understand this character Ted in my book. And they said,
well, why don’t you pretend to apply to
Harvard Business School? And I said, what? Lie? And they’re like, yes. [LAUGHTER] And I was like, OK. I was like, maybe I’ll be
convinced and I will apply. So here I am in my mid 30s. I go to the website. And if you pretend to apply
or if you apply, because who knows, maybe I could have gone. I applied and they invite
you to come for a day. And you can go to class. So I sat in class. And I hung out
for an entire day. And they talked
about leadership. Leadership,
leadership, leadership. And after a couple hours, I
was like, I could be a leader. I don’t know who would follow
me, but I could be a leader. And afterwards I was
starting to deflate, because I was on the
train going back home. And I was like, oh,
I’m not a leader. And I’m not even a
novelist, because I don’t have anything published. I have an essay
about my miscarriage. Woo-hoo. AMY CARLETON: It’s
a beautiful essay. MIN JIN LEE: Thank you. AMY CARLETON: And
everyone should read it. MIN JIN LEE: I know, I
even failed that, too. So anyway, I get on the train. And it occurred to
me, well, where was the conversation about service? It wasn’t about leading
to serve or serving. It was really just
about leadership. And it was very
disturbing to me. And yet I felt so
intoxicated, being in this incredibly fancy
building with all these really attractive people. They’re so attractive. And I’m very
vulnerable to beauty. I was like, wow. They’re so good looking. Maybe that’s how you get
into Harvard Business School. I don’t know. Anyhow, I swear that
there’s a point to this. But to share the
transparency of my process is that I do goofy
things like that. I took a class at FIT
for an entire semester– AMY CARLETON: That’s amazing. MIN JIN LEE: –to
learn about millinery. And the epigraph of my first
novel is from James Baldwin. “Our crowns have been
bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear them.” “Our crowns have been
bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear them.” So the very idea that James
Baldwin, a gay black man who grew up in Harlem,
very poor family– he was arguing that all of
us have a sense of royalty. But we have somehow
forgotten our royalty. And I just thought
that was so cool. And I was like, oh,
my main character is going to become a milliner. I knew nothing about millinery. So I went to FIT. And I think it
was, like, $1,100. I took a class. It’s a lot of money, but still. Like, I took a class. And it was so funny,
because I was surrounded by all these really cool
young Asian-American women who knew how to sew. And I was 15 years
older than all of them, at least 15 years older. And they’re so cute. They’d be like, oh,
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] this, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] that. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]
means older sister. And they all thought, oh,
so you’re writing a novel, so you’re studying millinery
for your character. One day you might
publish this book. But somehow you
still haven’t managed to do this after all this time. But we’ll put up with you. And of course, I couldn’t
even thread the needle for the hat making
machine very well. And they would say to me,
so you went to Yale, right? [LAUGHTER] And I’d be like, shut up
and thread the needle. But yeah, so I do
stuff like that. AMY CARLETON: OK. That’s cool. [LAUGHTER] Did you actually make a hat? MIN JIN LEE: Oh, yeah. I have hats at home. Yeah. I mean, you know,
they’re not, like, even. AMY CARLETON: That’s excellent. MIN JIN LEE: But I
think I passed the– I passed the class. AMY CARLETON: Excellent. MIN JIN LEE: Yeah. AMY CARLETON: I love it. So the opening
epigraph from the book comes from Charles Dickens,
from The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit,
which Dickens was not a raging success in terms of– MIN JIN LEE: No, it was not. AMY CARLETON: –market. But it was– MIN JIN LEE: Total
failure of a book. AMY CARLETON: But
one which Dickens was most proud of his work. And– MIN JIN LEE: It’s a
book about America. AMY CARLETON: And it reads,
quote, “Home is a name, a word. It is a strong one, stronger
than magician ever spoke or spirit answered to in
strongest conjuration.” And that’s how the book opens. And then at the
end of Pachinko, we see Sunja at the grave
of her husband Isaac. And she’s speaking to
the groundskeeper there, who asks of her son, her
firstborn son, Noah, and says, I’ve read all of the books
that he recommended to me, including all of the
works of Charles Dickens. And in fact, my favorite
one was David Copperfield. And my question to you is– first of all, as an
aside, David Copperfield is my favorite Dickens novel. So I was projecting there,
identifying with Sunja. MIN JIN LEE: But readers
are supposed to do that. AMY CARLETON: Right? MIN JIN LEE: Yeah. AMY CARLETON: But why– MIN JIN LEE: Like, Jane
Eyre is actually Korean. I don’t know if you know that. AMY CARLETON: Well,
there is the Jane– the most recent novel. I can’t remember. The redo of Jane Eyre. MIN JIN LEE: Oh
yeah, Re Jane, yes. AMY CARLETON: Yeah, Re Jane. MIN JIN LEE: Yeah,
by Patricia Park. Yeah, she’s a friend of mine. Yes. AMY CARLETON: Excellent book. So why begin with Dickens
and end with Dickens? Was that an intentional– MIN JIN LEE: Oh, absolutely. So I read Dickens
in high school. So I went through
Dickens in high school. And actually he’s not
my favorite writer. He’s not. People often think,
is he your favorite? He’s not my favorite writer. However, I love Dickens. He’s a great writer. And also what I really like
about Dickens is his sense of– I guess his interest in society. He was really
interested in society. And he took all these risks. And he was interested
in ordinary people. And especially the
19th century novel is a focus on ordinary people. And I’m really interested
in ordinary people. So I wanted to tip my
hat to him and also his sense of social conscience,
his sense of class awareness, his interest in
writing about money. I was like, I think we have
to write about these things. It affects all of our lives. I’m not interested
in just writing a book about one person having
one emotion and one wish. Those are great books. But I wanted to write this
kind of big, panoramic thing for reasons I’m
not really clear. But Dickens was definitely
one of my teachers. AMY CARLETON: So I know many
people who have read this book. I have two more. Do I have time for my
two more questions? RICHARD SAMUELS: Please, yes. AMY CARLETON: OK. So I know many that
have read the book or maybe have come
across it have puzzled over the title, Pachinko, and
maybe have further puzzled over, OK, what is this– what is the significance of
this game, this game that is actually incidentally one of
my Midwestern book club friends who’s over there– Amy, I see you– said when we all read the
book in our book club, said, oh, lots of people
when I was growing up had pachinko games
at their house. And we thought this
was funny and talked about how this is a game
of both skill and chance. And then after I read about
you having a similar background in biblical literature
and learning about your Presbyterianism,
which its doctrine emphasizes both or accepts both the concept
of predestination and free will, so sort of the
skill and chance. I’m just interested
in if you really wanted those ideas, those
maybe competing ideas to be a large theme to the book. MIN JIN LEE: It was
so important to me. I think being a Presbyterian
is such a weird thing. First of all, most
fiction writers are not Presbyterian anymore. When I tell people
that I go to church, people really freak out. AMY CARLETON: Same. MIN JIN LEE: Right. They just think,
you can’t possibly. I’m like, I do. I know. But a couple of things just
in terms of Christianity is that Christianity
for Koreans– it’s a really different thing. It’s a very
political thing, too. It’s a long history of
civil rights movements that originated with the church
for Koreans And a lot of people don’t know that,
and in the same way in the black church
in America there’s a long history of
civil rights history. So the people who fought first
against the colonizers in Japan were Korean ministers. And they were persecuted
and martyred for that. And my grandfather was
a Presbyterian minister. But Presbyterianism, which
is a Scottish religion with a Swiss guy– right? Weird. And the two competing
ideas is you have this idea of fate, predestination. You also have free will. Fate and free will. How do those two
things work together? And the way I think
about it also, and I can say this
at MIT, is light is both a particle and a wave. [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE] Yes, just wanted to
share that with you. Let’s drop some knowledge. AMY CARLETON: OK, excellent. OK, I’m going to wrap
up my last question. So true confession again. I think I gave you
my true confession about this being a really
important essay when I was expecting my son. MIN JIN LEE: It
didn’t freak you out that there was a
miscarriage in there? AMY CARLETON: No, and I think
it affirmed my own ambivalence in becoming a
mother at that time, like OK, I’m not the only
one that feels like that. Another true
confession, just have to say I knew I would like you
after reading your New York Magazine’s The Strategist list– MIN JIN LEE: Oh, right. AMY CARLETON: –and learning
that we have similar taste in beauty products and such. So I was like, this
is going to be good. MIN JIN LEE: Beauty
matters, man. Skin care is important. Like, doesn’t Dick
have great skin? AMY CARLETON: He
has very good skin. [LAUGHTER] MIN JIN LEE: He’s 66. AMY CARLETON: So my final– RICHARD SAMUELS: I told
you that in confidence. MIN JIN LEE: Oh, sorry. [LAUGHTER] I think it’s recorded now. AMY CARLETON: So my
final true confession is that I went out
and bought Pachinko after I read this from Roxane
Gay, who I sort of am a fan girl, like aren’t we all, right? And she said, quote, “I cannot
say enough about Pachinko. This novel was
utterly absorbing. I knew nothing about
it when I picked it up. And I couldn’t put it down. I read it voraciously. I was so taken by the
writing, by the elegance of the prose, the sweeping
ambition and scope of the narrative, how much
I learned without feeling lectured, how much I wanted so
very much for the characters and was very invested
in their lives. I love this book.” And when I read that,
I thought, oh, OK, it hearkens back
to what I learned from reading Horace
many years ago about the role of
literature being both to delight and to
teach in the Ars Poetica. And so my final question
to piggyback off that point and to close out our
conversation here, I want to know what
do you want readers to learn from your
book, especially in our current moment? MIN JIN LEE: Wow. Well, first of all, thank
you for that generous praise, because for me the
delight in teaching, like the way I always talk
about is to edify and entertain. If you don’t find
pleasure in your reading, I think you should just close
the book and find another book, because there are
many books that can give pleasure and edification. And I think that
should be your test. I judge a lot of awards
now, because I have to and I can’t get out of them. And when I do, I
think about that. I think, well, is this
entertaining and edifying? But it can’t just
be one or the other. It’s got to be both. It has to have that
level of construction. And I think, because
what we’re doing is we’re asking you for your time. Like, $14.95 or whatever– 13– whatever it is. You guys pay that on coffee. If you get like a turmeric
shot and an oatmeal– like, oat latte,
14 bucks is done. But what I’m asking you is to
hang out with me for 16 hours. That’s a pretty big deal, right? So I think I should work
really hard for your time. Absolutely So I
think about that. But what do I want
people to think about at this current moment? I think that if we could
think that life is not just the Red Sox versus the
Dodgers, of two teams, and as a whole field in between. And there’s all this
complexity and nuance. And all of us are
actually in that field. So we can decide
that we’re going to have a binary existence
of 0’s and 1’s and yes’s and no’s, or we can
say that there’s so much more to this world. But above all, if
you could be Korean– [LAUGHTER] –if only for those
16 hours, just because then you’ll realize
that you have the capacity to cross that ocean
of unfamiliarity where the unfamiliar becomes
intimately your experience. And that is my goal, absolutely. Thank you. AMY CARLETON: Thank you. RICHARD SAMUELS: Thanks. [APPLAUSE] So there’s so much
more to this room, too. And we did promise
that we would make time for questions from the audience,
engage you in the conversation. We’d like to invite you
to come to the microphone. I’m going to take several
questions at once. Min Jin will have
the opportunity to ignore or engage at will. It’s an old trick. But we’d love to hear from you
and to engage the conversation more broadly. Yes, sir. And we’ll go back and forth. So the next question is going
to come from over there. Please identify yourself. AUDIENCE: I’m Albert. I actually go to Harvard, but
I’m a big fan of your work. I worked at WME
this past summer. And I worked with Theresa
Kang, who actually told me to read your book. And I got to see the process of
Pachinko turning from a novel into a TV show– well, it’s in the
process of it right now. And as a kid who was born in
’96, like Korean-American kid, I grew up on the TV. That was what kind of fed me. And seeing a story
that’s going to be told in Korean, Japanese,
and in English– that’s not something
that I grew up with. And I think to me,
it was the validation of my existence in the states. And I just wanted to ask you
for your personal opinion. I don’t know if the TV
show was a goal for you. But what does it mean to
you to have Pachinko turn into a massive budget
TV show on Apple? RICHARD SAMUELS:
Great, thank you. We’ll take a couple
and let you respond, or did you want to–
you want to go– MIN JIN LEE: Can we
just do one at a time, because I won’t remember. RICHARD SAMUELS: That’s
a lovely question. Why don’t you go ahead. MIN JIN LEE: So Albert,
thank you very much. And so you’re at Harvard. And you’re at MIT right now. OK. Do they let you out? [LAUGHTER] RICHARD SAMUELS:
Did we let him in? MIN JIN LEE: Yeah, did you– [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] All right, that’s hilarious. So you know, Albert,
I got to tell you something really funny,
which is that in 2007 when I published Free
Food for Millionaires, it did really well. And this really famous,
award-winning playwright said that he was going
to try to make it into a movie, my first book. And he went to Hollywood. And he knocked on
all these doors. And because he’s like a
major guy, we thought like, oh it’s going to get made. And they basically
said to him, Asians need not apply,
that no one wanted to see Asians on the screen. They told him to his face. And I remember thinking, oh
well, if that’s the case, then Pachinko will
never be made, because it’s not even
about Koreans in America. People don’t even speak English
until the very, very end. And it’s only really one
character who speaks English, well two characters. So I was very confused by it. And then recently, there was
a bidding war for this book. So I was incredibly surprised. But how I feel about it
mostly is a sense of like, I can’t believe it’s happening. And then I also think that
it’s important to recognize our power. And I think that I had– because I’m an old person– I’m going to be 50, so I’m
not like really, really old, but I’m not, you know– I’m no spring chicken. But part of what’s
happened to my generation is that we’ve become
a little cynical. So I think I became cynical. And what I really like
about your generation, because I’ve been speaking
to university students around the world– what I really like about
your generation is you guys are the least
racist, the least sexist, the least classist, the most
hopeful about what can be. And that’s amazing. Your attention
span sucks though. [LAUGHTER] I want you guys to all throw
your phones in the ocean. But to answer your question,
I’m mostly surprised, because I have the sense
of history and cynicism, that I didn’t think
it was possible. And my film and TV agent
is in her late 20s. So again, for her it was
kind of like, well of course. Why wouldn’t this happen? And I was like, oh. I realized that they have
something that I don’t. So I wanted to speak about that
beautiful sense of possibility that Asians could be
leading characters. I’ve always thought
it was important. But I thought it was
possible in print. But to be translated
into television, the very idea that you can
have a four-season show– that’s unbelievable. So thank you. AUDIENCE: Congratulations. RICHARD SAMUELS: Thank you. MIN JIN LEE: Thank you, Albert. [APPLAUSE] AUDIENCE: Hi. MIN JIN LEE: Hi. What’s your name? AUDIENCE: I’m Emily. MIN JIN LEE: Emily. AUDIENCE: Yeah, so I
came up here mainly– MIN JIN LEE: My
niece’s name is Emily. AUDIENCE: What? MIN JIN LEE: My
niece’s name is Emily. AUDIENCE: Oh, that’s awesome. I mainly came up here because
I really want to say hi. I also have questions. But I read your book
over the summer. A person I really admire
had recommended it to me. And it was really
amazing, because I think it’s really tough to find
books related to giving you an insight look into
Asian culture represented in literature, especially
widespread literature. And I wanted to ask
if looking back now, based on the responses
you’ve gotten about Pachinko and maybe having more time to
reflect on your novel, what is something you might have
changed, either in your process or what you’ve touched on? MIN JIN LEE: Oh,
great question, Emily. Emily’s question for
those who didn’t hear it is would I have
changed anything now, now that I’ve had
time to pull back. No. No, I wouldn’t change it. I mean, I only have two books
out of 24 years of work. [LAUGHTER] So I’ve already dealt with
all of my doubts, anxieties, and revisions. Having said that, one thing that
I would like to have done is I wish I had felt that my
story was more important. And I didn’t. And it took me a really,
really long time. Like, I didn’t
expect this room– even at the very,
very last minute, like Michelle’s
emailing me going, oh, people are going to come. Like, they’re not going
to come, because I think that it’s important to me. But the fact that it
matters to other people is really quite stunning to me. And I think this is going to
be about you and me, Emily. Emily, I don’t know
if people told you that your story matters. Asian-Americans in
this country are systematically and routinely
erased in the media. It’s intentional. It’s absolutely
fucking intentional. And I’m mad about it. That said, what happens
to people like you and me when we
get systematically and intentionally erased
as central characters is that we start to think
that they’re right, right? Like, this goes back
to Albert’s question. What does it mean? He said his existence
felt validated. What a thing. But Albert mattered from
the moment he was born. His life is as important. His story is as important. I mean, he goes to Harvard,
so it’s, you know– but except for that. Where are you Albert? I’m just teasing you. It comes out of a place of love. So it’s really exciting
for me to think that your story matters. And I wish my story– I wish I had thought
my story mattered. I wish I hadn’t taken so long. So that’s the only thing
that I would change. I would change my
attitude about me. And I hope that you can always
feel like you matter, Emily. AUDIENCE: Thanks. RICHARD SAMUELS: Thank you. [APPLAUSE] AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is [? Min-soo. ?] I
wonder if we share the same [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]
for our first name, first part of our first name. So I went to Brown. I’m also ’95. And like you, I immigrated
to America when I was 5. You were 7. Regardless, I immigrated
with a single mom. I was part of the last big
wave of Korean immigrants due to the IMF crisis, which
is the Asian financial crisis. My family basically lost all
of our belongings and home. And I felt similar
ways about my mother that you felt about
your mother, that it was very difficult
for me growing up seeing her always suffering. And so because of that, my life
goal from when I was very young was to become a very
successful American. And because of that, I had
to have perfect English. I could not have an accent. I had to go to the best schools. I had to get perfect grades,
whatever, the whole model minority myth. And so coming to college– I also grew up in Alabama,
which is a big qualifier. I grew up with a ton of people
who didn’t look like me. But basically when
I came to college, I took a class in contemporary
and modern history of Korea. As you are well
aware, it is very sad. And it’s a very traumatic
thing to take a history class on your own culture and heritage
and understand how part of it is tied up with
American imperialism. And so seeing the way that
you’re mining the history and integrating it with
real people or real lives, I guess, even as
a fiction writer, to me your pursuit of telling
the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary situations
was very touching for me. And I don’t like to tell
people, but I also– I went to art school. And I’m a painter. I’m also a writer. And at the end of
it all, I just want to be creating stories
that are sort of like yours that tell stories of
ordinary people trying to make the best of
being a community in extraordinary times,
which I think our present day administration can count
as an extraordinary time to be living in. I wanted to ask you
from I guess a writer’s point of perspective,
which could be similar to any creator’s
point of perspective, did you ever– and it was
partially answered before. But do you ever feel
selfish in telling stories that are extensions
of your life, of your point of view,
of your agenda for people if only they could see
it from your perspective, how the world could be a
more open and graceful place? Do you ever feel selfish for
feeling and wanting that? MIN JIN LEE: No, never. And I don’t want you
to feel that way, [? Min-soo. ?] I think that
selfishness, the whole idea, the concept is so
loaded with judgment. And I think one of the
most important things that the artist has to consider
is that self-consciousness is the enemy of art. So it’s very important
that I think that you not judge that you’re
right to tell a story, because if you think about it,
patriarchy and white supremacy have already made you
feel that what you want is something that’s bad. That’s ridiculous. I don’t think Picasso was
walking around thinking, I don’t have a right
to paint that painting. AUDIENCE: Yeah, because
he was a white bro. MIN JIN LEE: No, no, But
there’s nothing wrong with being white and male. As a matter of fact, most of
the people that I reference are white male, because I’m
writing the Western novel. Most Western novels were
written by white men. So when I reference them,
I’m fully aware that I’m using these tools of narrative. I mentioned the Bible,
a Western religion. So it’s not that I’m
against those things. But I just want you to be aware
that it’s really dangerous when you start feeling that
it’s selfish to tell your story visually or in a
print way or through letters. Two quick little things. One is you should read
the book Art and Fear. It’s really marvelous. It’s very, very important. It was important to me. It’s a book by two visual
artists about failure and art and the creation of art. It was very nourishing
to me when I was working. And the second thing
is a funny point about being a model minority. A brilliant professor at UPenn– his name is David Eng. He’s a friend of mine. And whenever people talk
about being a model minority, he just says, we’re
not model minorities. We’re just models. So you just go and Vogue. You just go. [LAUGHTER] AUDIENCE: Thank you. [APPLAUSE] RICHARD SAMUELS: We’re
almost at the witching hour. And I don’t want to
stop this conversation. So let’s take two more. And we’ll go back over here. And please identify yourself. AUDIENCE: Hi, my
name is [? Hagen. ?] And I went to Wellesley College. And I couldn’t see you
when you were there. MIN JIN LEE: I’m sorry. AUDIENCE: So I’m really glad
I got to see you here today. MIN JIN LEE: Thank you. AUDIENCE: And I’m really glad to
see such a diverse crowd, too. So my question is, I really
didn’t want this book to end. And so I was wondering
why you decided to make it into one instead
of multiple books or a series. MIN JIN LEE: Oh. [LAUGHTER] What’s your name, honey? AUDIENCE: [? Hagen. ?] MIN JIN LEE: [? Hagen? ?] AUDIENCE: Yeah. MIN JIN LEE: Oh, it’s beautiful. So [? Hagen, ?] I can’t
continue this book. This book just killed me. I mean, it was so– [LAUGHTER] Dude, it was so hard to write. It took most of my life. I wrote this before I wrote
Free Food for Millionaires. And I had to rewrite it again
because it was so difficult. Historical novels
are such a bitch. They’re so hard, because you
have to know all this stuff. And then you have to forget all
of it and make it into fiction. But at any point in this
book, I could verify it, because I knew people
like Dick Samuels might read it, thanks
to his wife Deb. And they might
catch my mistakes. So I was really afraid of that. So it took an insane
amount of work. I’m really glad I did it. But I would not continue it. However, I do think
you know what happens. I think those characters have
become part of your life. Like, when you read, let’s
say, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, we
know that Heathcliff is a person in our lives now. He has a name. He has a characterisation. And that’s very special to
think that these characters live with you, at least
that’s my hope. I mean, that’s kind of
a vain, grandiose hope. But I hope that these
characters mean something to you and that you see yourself
reflected in some of them. Thank you. AUDIENCE: Thank you. RICHARD SAMUELS: You
don’t get the final word, but you get the final question. AUDIENCE: OK, OK. So I’m Sandra. I’m from Harvard as well. I just wanted to say
that having grown up watching a lot of
Korean movies that had to do with Japanese
colonialism, when I first encountered this book, I was
very surprised that there was actually a piece of
writing pertaining to this era. And I was just
wondering what the sort of– how Koreans or Japanese
people reacted to your novel. Have you interviewed any
of the readers from there? MIN JIN LEE: What’s your name? AUDIENCE: Sandra. MIN JIN LEE: Sandra. Sandra from Harvard. So– [LAUGHTER] Harvard is represented here. And they just owned
this MIT auditorium. It’s interesting. No, I’m teasing you. So first of all,
you’re Korean-American? AUDIENCE: Yes. MIN JIN LEE: OK, so you
have a reaction, right? AUDIENCE: Yes, I was very
surprised by a lot of things you said today, because
I thought a lot of them I kind of felt the same way. And I also kind of had
the same experiences. So I think your speech
was very inspiring. MIN JIN LEE: Oh, thank you. I didn’t do it to get
praise, but I’ll take it. I’ll take it. This book has now
been translated– has been and will be
translated to 27 languages. So, again, when
I wrote the book, I really thought that
maybe, maybe a third tier academic press might
publish it for free. And I’m not being modest. Like, I had every
reason to believe that who cares about
600,000 people in the world. It’s like a micro,
micro community. And it’s a history
that the Koreans don’t want to talk about
and the Japanese don’t want to talk
about even today. I’ve met so many Koreans from
Japan as well as in Korea who do not know this history. They don’t know that there’s
three different kinds of Koreans in Japan today. Most people don’t know
about the North Korean Japanese, the South
Korean Japanese, as well as the naturalized
citizens today. They don’t know about it. They don’t want to know about
it, because it’s embarrassing. But then having said
that, after having read the book and the fact
that this book has gotten critical attention and
commercial attention, what’s weird is that people are
coming out in droves. And I wanted to sort of share
this weird fact with you, because I’ve been on
tour for over two years. My initial audiences
were entirely college-educated white
women, because they buy all the books in this country. [LAUGHTER] No. If college-educated white
women stop reading, we’re done. [LAUGHTER] So I just have to say thank
you to all white women who buy these books. Amazing. And I would go to these events. And you’re like, why
are there 75 white women reading this book? You guys are so cool. And then the praise
started to come. And the awards started to come. And then all the
Koreans showed up. No, I’m serious. And I say this slightly as a
little bit of an indictment. Like dude, where were you? And I’m so grateful too, because
it meant the world to me. It means the world to me when
I have Korean-Americans– who are the toughest
customers, holy shit– liking your stuff, because
they are tough to please. I mean, you guys
are really tough. So when they like the book,
I feel so deeply gratified, because I was afraid
of your opinion. And the Korean-Japanese
and the Koreans in Korea as well
as Korean-Americans have been so overwhelmingly
supportive of this book. So they buy 10 copies and they– it’s just crazy. And I’m always like, wow,
that’s just incredible. So thank you. Thank you very much. You don’t have to buy anything. That’s not what I
was pointing at. RICHARD SAMUELS:
Thanks very much. MIN JIN LEE: Thank you. [APPLAUSE] RICHARD SAMUELS: So I love
the term deep gratification, because that’s the way I think
we all feel to you for joining us this evening,
both Amy and Min Jin, for letting us eavesdrop
on the conversation, for letting us engage
in the conversation. It means a lot to us here, even
if Harvard sort of dominated the Q&A. A reminder that there
are books on sale outside and that Min Jin will be here
to sign and continue engaging with you while she’s here. And I want to also
echo her thanks to Laura and to Michelle
for their hard word in putting this together. [APPLAUSE]

Danny Hutson

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