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.
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.
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 MIT 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.
MIN JIN LEE: Thank you, [INAUDIBLE]. Thank you. My goodness. My goodness. Do you guys know that it's Tuesday?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like, I am fucking furious.
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.
AMY CARLETON: That's very true.
MIN JIN LEE: I know. People are like, hmm, birth control.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
MIN JIN LEE: He's 66.
AMY CARLETON: So my final--
RICHARD SAMUELS: I told you that in confidence.
MIN JIN LEE: Oh, sorry.
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--
--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.
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?
RICHARD SAMUELS: Did we let him in?
MIN JIN LEE: Yeah, did you--
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.
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.
RICHARD SAMUELS: Thank you.
MIN JIN LEE: Thank you, Albert.
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.
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.
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.
RICHARD SAMUELS: Thank you.
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.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
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.
What's your name, honey?
AUDIENCE: [? Hagen. ?]
MIN JIN LEE: [? Hagen? ?]
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--
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?
MIN JIN LEE: Sandra. Sandra from Harvard. So--
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?
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.
No. If college-educated white women stop reading, we're done.
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.
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.