International Women's Day Questionnaire: Min Jin Lee
How are you planning to celebrate international women’s day?
I’m doing a book event at the Institute Library in New Haven with a brilliant literary couple, Cyd and Mark Oppenheimer. We’ll be talking about my new book Pachinko, which is about a young Korean woman who migrates to Japan, so we will be celebrating the journey of an international woman character from a humble background.
Was there a woman who helped you get to where you are today?
There were so many, many women who have helped me, but above all, I honor my mother and sisters. I also honor women writers like Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, George Eliot, Kim Ronyoung, Toni Morrison, and Edith Wharton.
What are your thoughts on the role of the media in shaping young female minds? As a creator, how do you combat some of these reductive and negative stereotypes that can lead to low self-esteem?
I think the media can be a devastatingly harmful force in shaping young female minds. Most of all, I worry about the uncontrolled fire hose of artificially constructed images on the internet, which become so central to girls, boys, women and men. In my fiction and non-fiction, I write about real women of color with real problems and struggles, and my work is my fight against false narratives.
Tell us about your newest book?
Pachinko is the story of a young Korean woman from the early 20th century who falls in love with a married man and gets pregnant. A kind missionary offers to marry her, and they move to Japan. Later, as a single mother, she raises her sons who end up working in the pachinko (a vertical pinball gambling business) industry. It is the story of one immigrant family’s achievements and struggles in a foreign land. Pachinko is the story of parenting, faith, masculinity, refugees, wars, and lost love.
Do you share any traits with any of your characters? Are there any of your characters that you admire or deplore? (optional)
Like, my characters Casey (Free Food for Millionaires) and Sunja (Pachinko), I grew up in a lower middle-class neighborhood. Also, like Casey and Sunja, I believe that work is very important and that a woman should help her community. I don’t deplore any of my characters. In fact, I admire Hansu, an occasionally deplorable character, because he is so confident and certain in his beliefs, which I find unusual.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I think I would tell myself that time is my friend, rather than my foe. And, choose the important over the urgent.
What book do you go back to again and again for inspiration?
In 1995, when I started to write full time, I read somewhere that Willa Cather read the Bible each day before she started to write, and now, I do, too.
How do you define feminism? What do you say to people who claim they aren’t feminists?
A feminist believes in and fights for the full possibility of her life and her sisters. To women who claim that they are not feminists, I usually ask why and listen carefully to their explanations, which are based often on the fear of being called a lesbian, or a man-hater. After we strip away these hate-based or fear-based arguments, which also have their roots in another fear of being ejected from some notion of an ideal heterosexual community, I find that these women have strong beliefs in equality. I don’t usually tell people what to think; I do ask a lot of questions and hope that their thinking may be changed through their own reasoning.
What would you say to a young woman questioning her worth, value, or place in the world?
I would say that I, too, have spent so much of my life doing the same, and that I understand. I would tell her that I am here for her, and she is here for me, and that today, we must value ourselves even if we don’t feel like it.
In the spirit of the ever-popular Instagram hashtag #WCW (Woman Crush Wednesday) – who’s your #1 woman crush right now? Any why?
Min Jin Lee’s debut novel Free Food for Millionaires was a No. 1 Book Sense Pick, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, a Wall Street Journal Juggle Book Club selection, and a national bestseller; it was a Top 10 Novels of the Year for The Times of London, NPR’s Fresh Air and USA Today. Free Food for Millionaires was also published in the U.K., South Korea, and Italy. Her novel Pachinko is forthcoming in February 2017.
Min Jin went to Yale College where she was awarded both the Henry Wright Prize for Nonfiction and the James Ashmun Veech Prize for Fiction. She attended law school at Georgetown University and worked as a lawyer for several years in New York prior to writing full time. She has received the NYFA Fellowship for Fiction, the Peden Prize from The Missouri Review for Best Story, and the Narrative Prize for New and Emerging Writer. Her fiction has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts and has appeared most recently in One Story. Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works, One Big Happy Family, Sugar in My Bowl, and Global and the Intimate: Feminism in Our Time. She served three consecutive seasons as a Morning Forum columnist of the Chosun Ilbo of South Korea.