Min Jin Lee ‘90 discusses her book, immigration at College Tea

When Min Jin Lee ’90 was a student at Yale College, she attended a Trumbull College tea that changed her life. The invitee at the Trumbull tea, an American missionary who worked with Koreans in Japan, told the story of a 13-year-old Korean-Japanese boy in his parish who committed suicide after being bullied by his Japanese peers for his Korean ethnicity.

On Thursday afternoon, almost 30 years after that fateful event, Lee, author of the National Book Award finalist “Pachinko,” spoke at a packed Davenport College tea about the book that developed from that story.

“This was the story of why I am here today,” Lee said. “Because of that story, eventually, I started to work on a novel that [would later become] ‘Pachinko.’”

“Pachinko,” released in 2017, follows the story of a Korean family living in Japan over multiple generations. The book, a national bestseller, was also a New York Times Editors’ Choice and an American Booksellers Association’s Indie Next Great Reads. Lee spent nearly three decades researching and writing the book.

Lee discussed her childhood in New York City as an immigrant from South Korea and her thoughts on the United States’ immigration policies today. Her father, a refugee from the Korean War, urged her family to leave Korea, fearing the continuous state of war in the country. But her family’s experience was far from unique. Lee cited current statistics that there are 68.5 million global refugees seeking resettlement.

“Refugees are not an abstraction,” she said. “I am the daughter of a refugee. And I am here tonight because America graciously allowed me to have enough peace to read and write [my book].”

When asked about how the book had been received in Japan, Lee responded that “Pachinko” will soon be translated into Japanese and that it has already been translated into 27 languages.

Throughout her answers to questions asked by members of the audience, Lee emphasized the importance of “the combination of idea and heart,” vulnerability and risk-taking in writing.

Attendees interviewed by the News expressed enthusiasm about Lee’s remarks. Janis Jin ’20 noted that Lee’s remarks come just a year and a half after President Donald Trump threatened to attack the North Korean peninsula in July 2017.

“Min Jin Lee was talking about how war is not an abstraction for her parents, certainly not an abstraction for Koreans in the U.S. who still have family in the peninsula. I feel like I have been really intrigued by the stories Korean Americans are telling right now,” she said. “I was really excited because I feel like Min Jin Lee is among a lot of Korean-American creatives in recent years to have emerged to the forefront of American culture.”

Mark Torres ’20, who has a background in math and science, said that Lee’s talk made him want to start writing, even without any experience with English or writing.

Lee said her next book will tackle the global diaspora of Koreans.

Claire Lee | claire.s.lee@yale.edu

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