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Min Jin Lee: Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko

May 18, 2018 by Ryder Ziebarth
Min Jin Lee
Min Jin Lee

The morning of March 7th, Connecticut was hit with a huge snowstorm. More than two feet of snow fell in under 12 hours. I remember, because I was staying at my mother’s house celebrating my birthday with family the night before. There would be no going home to New Jersey that day, and no power or internet in Connecticut for two more days. Luckily, I had two good books with me, both by the same author. Min Jin Lee.

I plowed through the first book, Free Food for Millionaires, in a day and a half, all five hundred plus pages of it.  My mother asked me mid-storm, “ Are you going to change out of your pajamas or get out from under your duvet and join the rest of the family?”

The answer was…in a minute. Maybe. Do I have to?  The book I plunged into early that day was just too good to close.

Min Jin Lee’s debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires -- a Top 10 Book of the Year for the Times of London in 2007, NPR’s Fresh Air and USA Today, came to my attention by way of another beloved Nantucket Book Festival guest, author Will Schwalbe. Mr. Schwalbe debuted his new podcast, But That’s Another Story, this past February, and his very first guest was the highly acclaimed Korean American writer, Ms. Lee. He was interviewing her about her second novel, Pachinko, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2017. Any recommendation Mr. Schwalbe has for good reads results in my running right out to the nearest bookstore and buying them.  Having heard of Ms. Lee and having seen her two novels prominently displayed in the best spots in the best bookstores, as well as always trusting Mr. Schwalbe implicitly, I was more than happy to buy both as a present to myself the day before my birthday—the day before the big storm.

   Ms. Lee, a graduate of Yale University and Georgetown law school, was a successful lawyer for several years in the mid-90’s when a chronic illness led her to choose her passion above her career. After leaving her job in 1995, she taught herself to write fiction while living in New York.  

Her stunning debut novel is a complex story of a young and angry Korean American woman, Casey, raised by status-conscious immigrant parents in Queens, New York in the 1990’s. Casey falls out with her parents when she refuses to continue her education at Columbia Law school, and instead opts out to “find herself” after graduating from Princeton University. Her father, furious at the insolence of his arrogant daughter, beats her, then throws her out of his house.  Casey knows all good Korean girls must respect their father’s wishes or be banished, and she accepts her fate; with no money, place to live, or job prospects, she heads for a friend’s sofa bed. Her determination to survive, while suffering silently and accepting much of her fate, is a complicated and age-old story of family traditions and loyalty.

  Replete with multi-faceted characters you love to hate as much as you feel deeply sympathetic toward, Free Food for Millionaires’ underscoring narrative of race, class, family, feminism, and identity are universal and especially poignant in today’s fast-changing social and political climate. 

Still snowing as I closed the last page of that book, I simultaneously reached for Pachinko. The idea for this vast and epic story came to Ms. Lee years after she attended a college lecture in 1989 given by an American missionary who worked with Koreans in Japan. The lecture focused on the plight facing Koreans in the first half of the century during Japan’s colonization and the occupation of Korea. Although Ms. Lee thought she knew about the hardships Korean’s suffered, she left the lecture shocked by the levels of employment discrimination, constant bullying and harassment, lack of civil and political rights, and denial of basic human rights such as availability to water, food and shelter for the 600,000 Koreans living in Japan at the time. The missionary’s story stayed with her until finally she moved to Japan in 2007 and spent the next four years researching the country’s history, as well as the personal histories of many Korean-Japanese families willing to be interviewed about their past. The result is a sweeping saga of a family dynasty taking place through more than seven decades, through everyday home life—the loves and losses, the tragedies and suffering, births, deaths, illnesses, and even a child’s suicide.  The narrative is at once both ambitious in its scope and emotionally familiar.  Each character becomes close to the reader, so much so, that when they shed tears, so do we. 

As the snowstorm began to let up, I lamented the return of the internet, thinking I’d be distracted from reading Pachinko.  I can tell you that a few days later when the sun had fully returned, I sadly closed the last page.

Ms. Lee will be featured at the Opening Night Celebration on Friday, June 15 at 7:00pm, and speaking on her own on Saturday, June 16 at 3:00pm.  Both are free events.