The first time someone recommended that I read Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, I added it to my “Books to Read” list and promptly forgot about it. That was 2017, just a few months after the book was published. I was in my second year of graduate school, too busy to consider reading a hefty historical novel for fun. And then I graduated, I moved, and I didn’t think about it again until the pandemic hit and I slowly started working through my “Books to Read” backlog.
On May 12th, 2021, I texted my friend to tell her I had started Pachinko that morning. “I already know I’m going to be devastated,” I wrote. On May 16th, I texted her again. “Just sobbed through the ending,” I wrote. “I’ll recommend it to everyone.” I’m a fast reader, yes, but I abandon books frequently, intersperse slow books with fast ones, return to something I’ve abandoned only if it still lingers months later. Pachinko grabbed me with its first sentence and held me until the end, and I staggered back into the world four days later absolutely transformed.
Much has been written about Min Jin Lee’s capacity to write propulsive, immersive fiction that centers the minor characters history forgets. Her narrative voice is authoritative but generous, and teaches us—as writers, readers, and humans—how to pay attention. Years after their publication, her books, Pachinko and Free Food for Millionaires, remain timeless and infinitely re-readable. I still recommend them to everyone.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Min Jin Lee at this year’s AWP conference in Seattle, where she was the keynote guest. We met via Zoom a few days later to further explore her thoughts on teaching, trusting the process, the (sometimes uncomfortable) power of language, and her novel in progress, American Hagwon. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Julia Kovalenko: It delighted me to hear you say that “show, don’t tell” is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received. Why is that?
Min Jin Lee: [Laughs]. Well, I know what the giver of that wisdom is saying—you need to create a scene to draw your reader in. But the advice seems absurd without context or direction. You can create a scene with texture, feeling, and meaning—a kind of visual portal for the reader to enter—but it might miss the entire point of why you put pen to paper. Why you look at that blank screen and start to sweat blood.
You write and re-write because there’s something that you need to say. And just getting there is really hard to do. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen many talented writers showing but saying little. And I think, well, I would rather know why you came to me with this story.
JK: During the keynote, you said education should be transformational, not transactional. In my own experience, I’ve found that teaching can be transformational too. How has teaching changed you?
MJL: I didn’t think that I would love my students as much as I do. I feel very protective of my students. I fight for them. I fight for them even when they don’t fight for themselves. When I see somebody giving up on themselves, it makes me roll up my sleeves and pull them aside.
I mean, I will call you to my office hours and say, Hey, I want you to show up because you’re not showing up for yourself in this way. What’s going on? It’s not to reprimand them, but to be a kind of advocate. Your inner writer needs an advocate. And a teacher can be the advocate for that inner writer who is anxious, worried, or has doubts.
JK: Who was your advocate when you first started writing?
MJL: Well, gosh. My sisters have been my advocates, and my husband has been my advocate. Throughout my writing life, even before I published books, there were dear friends who advocated for me and encouraged me to stay on. I don’t think I could have, had they not, because there were almost two decades of having almost no—forget recognition—no publications.
So, I would hold onto these tiny signposts. Sometimes they felt bigger than other times. I remember when I got a NYFA—the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship—which is a state fellowship for writers and artists. You didn’t have to have a publication to get that. It was so meaningful because I remember despairing, Can I keep doing this? How will I pay for babysitting while I write? And that money allowed me to do that. I remain grateful for that NYFA, and I have given it forward. What is it, giving it forward or…?
JK: Paying it forward?
Among many other things, language is a form of power and dominance. Is that good, useful, or fair? Well, these are other questions which demand our attention.
MJL: Yes, thank you. It’s funny, these sayings have become so part of the culture, they don’t mean much. But I like that idea so much. I think it’s important to remember all the people who pulled you up from the ground or helped steady you as you stumbled toward your path.
And again, that acknowledgment of grace makes it transformational, not transactional. It’s not like you gave me a hundred dollars, and I gave you back a hundred plus interest. It’s more like you gave me a hundred dollars, and I say, Thank you, Julia. Period. It was a gift. And then the next person who needs a hundred dollars, I can give it to them, or I can give two hundred. We’re all connected—intricately woven together—and that makes me feel less lonely.
JK: You’ve been writing now for many years. How has your writing process changed over the decades?
MJL: I feel more certain that the way I work works for me. I do a lot of things that are odd for a fiction writer. The way I work may not work for somebody else—I respect that. But it really does work for me.
I have to go through all this fieldwork, interviewing, translation, research, and thinking about things academically as well as politically and personally to arrive at a realistic social critique. It takes me a long time. There are many smarter and faster writers. I spent so much time thinking that I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t know what I was doing, or that I must be stupid because everybody else was publishing at a faster rate. And that could still be true. But now I feel like, You know what? This is me and I accept that. This is the way I’m going to work. I won’t write that many books and that’s okay. All I have to do is write the books that only I can write.
I’m 54. I’ll be 55 this year. I’ve had people die on me who are younger than I am. You start to realize that we don’t get an infinite amount of time. So I am more thoughtful about time, and life, and what this moment means.
I think we lose so much by only knowing one language.
JK: That’s really powerful. Let’s come back to this at the end. I’m curious about the novel you’re working on right now. American Hagwon will explore the importance of education for Koreans around the world, and involves hagwons—private tutoring centers—some of which teach English to students. What are you currently exploring about the relationship between language and power?
MJL: The command of the English language is an extraordinary source of power in the world. We don’t want to talk about it because it makes us uncomfortable to think about the supremacy and privilege of the English language. But whether we like it or not, having an acceptable and admired way of commanding the English language is dollars-and-cents power in many parts of the world.
I’ll give you a strange example. It’s not always the case, but often there’s a hierarchy of English accents taught in Korea, and the highest paid ones are often from America. If you as a hagwon teacher speak a great Midwestern English, which is different than a Southern English or a Northeastern English, you might be able to command a better salary over, let’s say, an Irish person who speaks English with an Irish accent. Even within the Anglophone population, there is a socioeconomic hierarchy as a paid tutor. I’m giving that as an example of literally dollars-and-cents power.
And then, of course, if you think about the distribution of media and culture, when something like a book or a film is made in English, it gets distributed around the world and has a much greater likelihood of success because it is in English versus, let’s say, Ukrainian, right? That lingua franca status is something we often take for granted if we are native English speakers.
JK: I saw that firsthand when Russia invaded Ukraine. At the time, I was teaching English and creative writing at a university in Lviv. Hours after the invasion, the modern language department went into a flurry of activity, translating daily, hourly, communications from Ukrainian into English to send out into the world as quickly as possible. Documents got a first pass of translation by native Ukrainian speakers, and then a second pass by people like me who have some grasp of Ukrainian, but a better grasp of English. What went out in crisp, clear English got a lot of attention and public support. And I thought, This is what we mean when we say language is power.
MJL: That’s an excellent example. Even a quick study of American immigration history shows us that from the continent of Europe, there is a shifting social hierarchy of immigrants. In every decade, there’s a meaningful change in terms of who’s on top and who’s on the bottom.
When you think about the former Soviet republics, which have their own nationalities, languages, and cultures, we are witnessing the decline of the Russian language, the reinvigoration of national languages, and the rise of English study and use. In Europe, English is the de facto lingua franca. Among many other things, language is a form of power and dominance. Is that good, useful, or fair? Well, these are other questions which demand our attention.
The houses of our writing cannot exist without the basic unit—the brick, which is the word. And the quality of your bricks matters a great deal.
It ended up that Europe had to use English rather than French, German, or Russian, because it became the language, ironically, of peace and neutrality—even though England was not a nation of peace throughout its history.
JK: On a more personal level, how does being multilingual influence the way you use the English language when you write?
MJL: Well, if I could have a superpower, it would be to speak every language and read it as a native. Wouldn’t that be extraordinary?
JK: Yes! I want to know every language out there.
MJL: I speak, read, and write Korean poorly. I can get by in Korea and with other Korean speakers, but when I have a high-level conversation, or if I’m being interviewed, I always get a translator. But because I grew up in New York, I have ended up picking up a little bit of everything. Even Ukrainian. I had a teacher who taught me how to say, До побачення (do pobachenn’a)!
MJL: Thank you. That’s thanks to Mr. Tarasko, my algebra teacher from Junior High School 73. So you pick up a little bit of, let’s say Ukrainian, but then you also pick up—well, I took a semester of Japanese, I’ve taken a year of French, and I’ve taken four plus years of Spanish. And because so many people in New York know a little bit of Yiddish, every now and then I’ll say something in Yiddish, and my Jewish friends will laugh because they don’t expect the Korean to know a little appropriate Yiddish. And I’m happy that, in a way, I can join them on a little corner of the carpet in their really, really large language mansions.
It’s a gift to yourself and to the person who speaks that language, when you’re willing to cede power and accept the humility and vulnerability of being the weaker person in a language. At this point, people in Korea know that English is my primary language and thankfully don’t fault me for it. When I try to speak, or when I say I don’t know what that word means, they’re delighted to teach me.
One must consume a great deal of words in order to be able to use a few words with facility. And I say this as an immigrant because there are words that I didn’t understand or had never seen until I became much older.
Words which are idea-based are trickier but, when learned, quite beautiful. For example, adolescence in Korean is 사춘기 (sachungi). 사 (sa) means mind or consciousness, 춘 (chun) means spring, and 기 (gi) means period.
So adolescence can be thought of as the period of spring of one’s mind. If you think of adolescence as a period of the spring of one’s mind or consciousness, isn’t that lovely and capacious?
JK: I love that.
MJL: I think we lose so much by only knowing one language. I mean, adolescence—the word is great. I’m sure if we did the etymology of the word in English, we’d find other reasons to admire it.
I love thinking about us having a kind of polyphonic and polyglot existence. So even though English is the language in which I dream and speak and write, when I write, especially about Koreans, the dialogue may be coming through me in Korean or in another language somehow accented by the nation in which the Korean makes her residence.
JK: That’s so beautiful. Especially this act of resisting an easy one-to-one translation and doing what you just did—exploring a word’s meaning in its source language. I love it when writers give us that kind of access. Take До побачення. Goodbye, but more precisely, Until our next sighting. There’s so much you can learn from seeing the world the way that someone who uses another language sees the world.
MJL: You’re encapsulating what we as writers love. These are our tools. Words are the basic elements of what we make. The houses of our writing cannot exist without the basic unit—the brick, which is the word. And the quality of your bricks matters a great deal.
Sometimes I will read beginning writers and think, Oh, this student hasn’t read enough. I can always tell because I look at the quality of their diction, syntax, and style. It’s not just a matter of practice. One must consume a great deal of words in order to be able to use a few words with facility. And I say this as an immigrant because there are words that I didn’t understand or had never seen until I became much older.
I remember reading a wonderful essay by V. S. Naipaul about the word jasmine. He had grown up with jasmine, but didn’t know the word until he went to England. So here he is in Trinidad smelling jasmine as an Indian immigrant. And then when he goes to England, someone talks about jasmine, and he realizes, oh, that white flower is jasmine.
Imagine knowing the fragrance of jasmine, the sight of jasmine, but not having that word.
We’re all connected—intricately woven together—and that makes me feel less lonely.
JK: What an exhilarating feeling, to suddenly have those reference points come together. Well, let’s return to what you said earlier. You’re feeling—what you called at the conference—a very serious sense of mortality right now. How do you keep writing in the midst of so much suffering?
MJL: I feel a greater sense of urgency about what I do, because I’d like to make a tiny bit of difference. I think we all do. It’s just embarrassing to admit that because it sounds absurd and grandiose at my age to say I want to make a difference. I mean, it’s sweet when we hear kids say it. We’re like, Of course you do. But at age 54, one has seen that one doesn’t make much of a difference in the world. And somehow, I still believe I can with my work.
I used to be a lawyer, so I know what it’s like to go to the office and collect a paycheck and have steady health insurance. To feel like somebody who’s respectable in a city like New York. I lost that for two decades, and I made that decision because a part of me believes that somehow what I do, my little story, my little essay, my little book, could be my testament against the things that I think are unfair. That keeps me going.
I meet people all the time now who have read my first book just this year. We’re talking 16 years after the book’s publication. It makes you realize that you can’t expect your book to be published or your essay to come out and then to have the world change—that’s absurd. But you can expect someone to find your work sometime. And to me, that’s very hopeful.
Min Jin Lee is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko, a finalist for the National Book Award. She is a Writer-in-Residence at Amherst College and serves as a trustee of PEN America and a director of the Authors Guild. She is currently at work on her third novel, American Hagwon.