Min Jin Lee on ‘Loan Words’ and George Eliot’s Wisdom
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. Today, I want to introduce you to my friend, Min.
Min Jin Lee: Hi, my name is Min Jin Lee, and I’m from Queens, New York.
WS: Min Jin Lee is the author of Free Food for Millionaires and, most recently, the National Book Award finalist Pachinko. I’ve known Min for a long time — we met almost twenty years ago at the Asian American Writers Workshop. And since then, we haven’t been able to stop talking about books.
WS: Okay, alright.
MJL: But you know what, if you like War and Peace, I’m going to read it.
WS: It’s totally great, but I haven’t read Anna Karenina.
MJL: Oh, okay! Now, that’s really…
WS: And so when I asked her to choose just one book that was especially meaningful to her, I was curious how she’d be able to narrow it down. But Min’s answer came immediately. Middlemarch, by George Eliot.
MJL: I read Middlemarch in college, and I found it by accident.
WS: But to really understand just how significant that accident was, we had to go back. Like, way back. All the way back to 1976, when seven year old Min and her family moved to America from Seoul, South Korea.
MJL: Our first apartment was a one bedroom rental and my sisters — I have two sisters — we slept on this bunk bed in the living room, and it was furnished with like… really disgusting orange shag carpet, and the superintendent had to be bribed for us to have any kind of services at all, like heat. That’s what I really remember.
WS: Her early memories of life in America also include books — lots and lots of books.
WS: Were you a reader as a little kid?
MJL: As a little kid, that’s all I did because I didn’t talk. All I did was read. And I read everything. And even my mother will confirm to this day, she doesn’t know how I learned how to read. One day, my mother said that when I was really little in Korea, I was reading, and she couldn’t figure out how it happened. And then in America, the same thing, where I learned how to read in English, and I’m not really sure how I did it.
WS: Did you consider yourself a smart kid?
MJL: No. No. I was always slow for my family. So, in my family, when we came to America, my younger sister and my older sister were put into the accelerated public school classes immediately, and I wasn’t. I was in the slow class of P.S. 102 for three years. Because I couldn’t speak very well. And I think they kind of thought that I was really dumb. And I really thought that I was very dumb, and my parents were kind of worried about me, but they didn’t have the money to send me to specialists or learning people. So they just figured, well, one out of three is kind of slow, and the other two are very bright. And I had always believed that I was really dumb, and I was sort of slow, but I was very earnest.
WS: Was that your superpower?
MJL: I think so. To be earnest and also, I don’t mind taking longer than other people.
As a little kid, all I did was read because I didn’t talk. And I read everything.
WS: That patience would come in handy when Min started high school.
MJL: I went to the Bronx High School of Science, and I went there because I was lucky to get in, but it took two hours each way by subway. But I didn’t mind at all, because I really loved Bronx Science.
It was such a fun school, and everybody was weird like me. Like we were all so awkward. So now I realize that if I hadn’t gone to Bronx Science, I might have felt there was something wrong with me, whereas I went to Bronx Science and I was like, no, there’s something wrong with everybody else. We’re all weird, and we’re weird together. And that was great.
It’s a public school. And you have to get in just by taking this test. And I had friends — like I thought I was pretty well off when I went to Bronx Science. So I had friends who didn’t have food in their houses. And I remember going to visit a friend of mine, and he had a can of tuna. And he didn’t have enough for all of us. And I remember saying, oh, no, that’s okay, I’ve eaten — and I was kind of hungry, but it was like, I could tell this family had nothing — but it was a real shock to me because even though my family wasn’t wealthy in any stretch of the imagination, we always had plenty to eat. Maybe we had bologna at home, but we had two pounds of bologna at home. They had almost no tuna, so that was really a big surprise. And I think in a way, it gave me a lot of perspective about earning money.
I had always believed that I was really dumb, and I was sort of slow, but I was very earnest.
WS: It was also in high school that Min first encountered one of her most profound literary influences — the American novelist Sinclair Lewis.
MJL: So, when I was in high school, I had this wonderful English teacher, Mr. Green. And we were assigned to read an author that we liked, and we had to read every book by that author. And then I read Main Street by Sinclair Lewis and then I read everything by him. And then I learned that he had come from Ohio and he had gone to Yale. So I thought I would apply to Yale because of Sinclair Lewis.
WS: I love that you went to Yale because of Sinclair Lewis.
MJL: Only because of Sinclair Lewis. I’m not kidding you. I was recruited by other schools, but because Sinclair Lewis had gone there, I thought, if I could go to a school where a person that smart had gone, maybe I’ll learn something. And I was at that time probably 16, I had been in America for nine years.
WS: But the transition to Yale — and moving away from the melting pot of New York City — was not easy.
MJL: In New York, I felt really normal. And at Bronx Science, where I went to high school, I felt incredibly normal, and I felt like no different from most other people. But when I went to Yale, I learned that there was such a thing called — you’re going to laugh — as white people. Like, I didn’t know white people really existed. And this doesn’t mean that there are no white people in New York, but from the boroughs that I lived in, everybody was Jewish, Italian, Polish… German, Czech, Hungarian. So, they weren’t white, they always had an ethnicity or a recent culture attached to it.So… I didn’t understand it until several people at Yale… consistently made me feel as if I was think new, unwashed person. Whereas, in New York, I was…newly unwashed like everybody else. Which, I think, for me, I never saw it as a negative. So I became very political in college and very…um, angry about a lot of things, because I wasn’t ashamed of my family, and I wasn’t ashamed of the fact that I wasn’t a debutante. Now, I don’t feel angry about those things in the same way, because I understand that they’re just kids who are just repeating what their silly parents had said. They didn’t mean anything negative by it, and I bet you if I met them again now, they probably would never think that they intended any kind of harm. But at that moment in time, because I had this sort of magical um, idea of what Sinclair Lewis meant to me, literally… like I was so stupid that I thought that when I went to Yale, I would meet people like him.
WS: That you would meet Sinclair Lewis at Yale?
MJL: And his types. I thought I would meet the sort of evolved, fully created person who could write this sort of magnificent, thoughtful works about America. And of course, I was just meeting other 18, 19 year olds, who were forming themselves. But, um…I think I was really, um…almost like excessively idealistic. And consequently, I was disappointed.
WS: Disappointed in…college? In society? In your friends? In yourself?
MJL: I think I felt out of place, and I don’t think I felt out of place necessarily with my professors or with most of the kids at Yale, but there were certain people at Yale who…who made me feel as if, um…I was poor, and I didn’t have the right clothes. I had not been to the right places.
I took a very advanced writing class when I was a junior, and I was the only non-white person in the class. And I remember…we were workshopping stories. And one of the stories was talking about Stonehenge. And I, like an idiot, raised my hand and said, I don’t know what Stonehenge is. I don’t know what that is. So shouldn’t this be explained? And every person in this incredibly beautiful seminar room turned to me, and they were just in horror. They couldn’t believe that I didn’t know what it was. Because most of the people in that room had been there. And…it was very um…it was humiliating. It was humiliating because I had not had this kind of travel and exposure to things that I wish I had had.
I thought at Yale I would meet the sort of evolved, fully created person who could write this sort of magnificent, thoughtful work about America. And of course, I was just meeting other 18 year olds, who were forming themselves.
WS: When author Min Jin Lee moved from Elmhurst, Queens to New York City, she didn’t feel totally at home in her new environment.
MJL: I think at Yale, I felt a very chronic deprivation because I wanted to be a cosmopolitan, sophisticated, literate person. Not just from books but from having exposure. Because so much of my exposure had been secondhand through books.
I’m sure that’s probably the reason why I would take money that I didn’t have and buy books for classes I would not have time to take.
This is so weird, but at the beginning of the year, I would go to the Yale co-op, and you’d go downstairs, and you’d have this very nondescript basement. And you’d have these open shelves with…the course ID number with it. And you’d have these stacks of books that professors had recommended for you to buy. And instead of going to just get my books that I had to buy, I would go through all these other classes that I knew I would not take, which were listed in this thing called a blue book, and I would read through it almost like looking at a beautiful catalog of fancy things I couldn’t afford. I mean, I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.
And there were all these classes I wanted to take, and one of them was Victorian literature.
WS: What kind of classes were you taking instead?
MJL: I took a lot more serious classes. I took history. And I wanted to be an English major, but I didn’t really have the nerve to do it. So, I bought this copy of Middlemarch, this very big, impressive, scary looking book, and I wanted to read it. And I did read it. And I thought it was really fun to read.
WS: Published in installments between 1871 and 1872, George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a sprawling, epic novel set in a fictional village in England. The book examines the lives of not just its main characters but the larger community, with Eliot’s shrewd observations on class and social mobility punctuating the story.
MJL: I had never met in terms of pages somebody who was as smart as George Eliot. She had a kind of…plot…excellence. But there’s also…she deals with the themes that are so essential for living a wise life. And that’s one of my big obsessions. Even when I was a little kid.
It’s like a bizarre thing to confess to you, but when I was really little, I used to always pray for wisdom. And this could all come back to this whole idea of feeling like the dumb one in the family. I always like thought, if I could be a wise person — not necessarily clever or quick, but if I could be wise — that’s what I really wanted.
I think I consider myself a late bloomer in almost every aspect of my life, but especially fiction, especially fiction. Because I had all these beautiful ideas of what I wanted to do, but then I didn’t know how to do them.
George Eliot deals with the themes that are so essential for living a wise life.
WS: One of those early ideas Min had was for her latest book, Pachinko, a sweeping story about race, class, and feeling like you don’t belong. Published last year and a finalist for the National Book Award, the origin of the novel goes all the way back to her days as a student at Yale.
MJL: When I was at university, I was 19, I attended a lecture featuring an American missionary. And the American missionary talked about the history of Koreans in Japan, and that was a very interesting story, and then he mentioned, um, a 13 year old boy who was in his parish. And this 13 year old boy climbed up to an apartment building and he jumped to his death. And then his parents went through his things and in his middle school yearbook, they found that his Japanese classmates had told him to go back to where you belong. I hate you. You smell like kimchi, and they wrote the words die, die, die. And that story really stuck with me. And I’m not sure if it’s because at that moment in time, I had felt in some ways unwelcome by some of my peers in college. I think that…it really stuck with me.
WS: The story stuck with Min through her time in law school at Georgetown and an early career in corporate law. And when she quit her job and decided to write a book, Middlemarch wasn’t far from her mind.
MJL: I wrote an entire manuscript between 1996 to 2003. And in my vain attempt to try to write like George Eliot, I created a humongous community in this world. But it was a terrible book. It was incredibly boring. And I never showed it to anybody.
I had just had all these rejections from my first novel, and I was getting rejected by every great literary quarterly in America. So, I think I was…I think I didn’t have the words for it because I wasn’t seeing a therapist then, but I think I was really depressed. And I didn’t have any courage to send any stuff out, and it was really hard even to talk about the fact that I was writing a book, because it just seemed like, oh, another thing that you’re not doing well.
WS: Eventually, part of that initial attempt was published — the Missouri Review printed one chapter. And while the rest of that first try was scrapped, the Missouri Review chapter hung around from draft to draft until last year, when it founds its final home in Pachinko. And all these years later, Min says it’s not difficult to see the influence of George Eliot in the novel.
MJL: That chapter took me…14 attempts. I had to read three academic books to write that chapter. And you’ll, you won’t see it. You won’t see any trace of it. But until I knew the law perfectly, I couldn’t write that because I was so afraid of getting that wrong. But I never want to make anyone else feel less because they don’t know, because they don’t have the same neuroses that I do. Like I think my obsession to know these things is not always healthy. Because you can’t know everything. It’s grandiose to think that you can. As for George Eliot, George Eliot’s attitude is, if you don’t know, you have to look it up. And I think in a way, her audacity and her brazenness has given me kind of a courage to use Korean words in my work, which I think are worth becoming loan words in English.
WS: Loan words — words from other languages that we’ve adopted, like sushi, or cinema — have a big role in Min’s work, and there’s one Korean word in particular that’s her favorite.
MJL: There’s one word that can’t be translated, and it’s a word called noonchi, N-O-O-N-C-H-I, and noon is I, so noonchi is a kind of sense about…things. It’s not intelligence, but it’s almost like sensitivity that you can’t have in any other way. And people who have noonchi, really, really high levels of noonchi are usually people from minority groups, because you have to survive. So you’re always looking up and looking around to see like how will I survive? So it’s a kind of adaptive skill, and noonchi is something that I think everybody should have, and I think it’s better than social intelligence.
I think I’ve always had noonchi, just because…I didn’t talk for a really long time. I didn’t talk really until high school. So it took me such a long time to figure out how to speak and make eye contact and to…say what I believed. All of it took a really long time, but it was really great, because I was developing masterclass noonchi. So…there’s really an upside to being quiet, I think.
WS: Do you reread it, and if so…
MJL: I do.
WS: …do you read the same copy?
MJL: I can’t read the same copy anymore because of my cataracts. So yesterday night, I was Googling trying to figure out if I can buy a large print, and there is one available now, but it’s in four different volumes and I was like, oh my God. So, I can read the current one that I have, but it’s not as easy as it used to be.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Min Jin Lee. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on Lit Hub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.