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Author Min Jin Lee lives in a four-story townhouse in Harlem that she and her husband bought in 2012. A creaky wooden staircase climbs up her spine, leading to Lee’s research library, on the top floor. floor, where she works. It’s a compact, sunny room, with a sofa, a pair of desks, and a wall of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Prior to my visit on a recent Monday morning, she had made sure to tidy the room, but had forgotten a stack of books – research material for her third novel, “American Hagwon.” (The Korean word hagwon refers to a type of private enrichment school that is ubiquitous in Korean communities around the world.) These were primarily academic works on education and its centrality in Korean communities; some titles included”Koreatowns,” “education fever,” and “The paradox of Asian-American success.”

Lee is a prodigious and inveterate researcher, who takes a journalistic approach to writing her novels. She is halfway through a draft of “American Hagwon” and has so far interviewed over seventy-five Korean students. For his two previous novels,Free food for millionaires”, from 2007, and “Pachinko”, a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award for fiction, she has filled more than ten Bankers Boxes with interview notes and other reference material.

Yet Lee’s writing doesn’t seem overloaded with facts. A defining quality of his novels is their propulsiveness. When I revisited them recently, I found myself immediately drawn in, much like the first time I read them, drawn in by its intricately drawn characters and tightly crafted storylines. Lee’s gift is his ability to write masterful, far-reaching books that tackle heavy political themes – the experience of the Korean diaspora, the invisibility of marginalized groups in history, the limits of assimilation – and to making their calm, quiet plots read like thrillers.

Lee describes herself as a late bloomer. She immigrated to the United States from Seoul when she was seven years old. Her family settled in Elmhurst, Queens, and her parents ran a wholesale jewelry store in Manhattan’s Koreatown, where they worked six days a week until their retirement. She attended Bronx High School of Science, studied history at Yale, then went to Georgetown Law. After working for two years as a corporate lawyer, she quit her job in 1995 and decided to become a novelist.

In 2001, Lee began writing “Free Food for Millionaires,” about a brooding Korean immigrant girl struggling to navigate the sleazy world of high finance in Manhattan. When it was finally published, six years later, it became a national bestseller. Lee worked for two decades on “Pachinko,” an epic saga that follows four generations of a Korean family through poverty, humiliation and tragedy in Japan. In 2018, Apple announced that it would turn “Pachinko” into a TV drama and that Lee would serve as executive producer. The eight-episode series will premiere on March 25. But, for reasons Lee refused to reveal to me, she is no longer involved in the production of the show. Among Lee’s latest projects is an introduction to the new edition of “Gatsby the magnificent– a novel that, she writes, “called me, a girl who lived in the valley of ashes”.

Lee has a warm, motherly demeanor—she texted before my visit to warn me it was freezing outside—but also an unflinching candor. She has become increasingly vocal, during the pandemic and amid rising violence against people of Asian descent, as an advocate for Asian Americans. During our conversation, which lasted over two hours and continued via email, we talked about her experiences as an immigrant, her books, and her desire to be “extra Asian” these these days. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Your books deal with the experience of the Korean diaspora. What do you remember from your first arrival in the United States?

I think when I first came here, I was really disappointed, because I thought in my mind that America would be like “Cinderella.” I thought I would get off the plane and the airport would look like a 17th century fairy tale. I thought people would wear prom dresses. I thought there would be stagecoaches. That’s how stupid I was. And then I realized it looked like Seoul, except with non-Koreans. I remember thinking it was so ugly. I was living in such a nasty little dump. It’s funny not having money: people think if you don’t have money you’re okay with ugliness, but I remember how bad the apartment we lived in was ugly. There was an orange shag carpet, which was dirty. We came from a perfectly decent middle-class home in Korea. My mother was a piano teacher; my father was a white-collar executive in a cosmetics company. I remember thinking, Oh, we went down into the world. Even as a little girl, I knew there was something wrong.

I remember I had to share the bed with my younger sister. My older sister was on top [bunk]. And there were mice and cockroaches. It was so scary for me to see all this. I remember we were on a free lunch program, and I knew there was something different about you getting a free lunch compared to other people. Things got better for us gradually. I think my family is embarrassed when I talk about it, but I talk about it because people talk about it regularly, and I think if they know I’ve been there, then they’re like, Oh, that’s not it. isn’t the worst thing in the world.

How did it improve?

My father first ran a newsstand. As a child, I thought it was rather glamorous, because of all that candy. He did it for a year. He really embellished it. My mom had to spend fourteen bottles of Windex to clean it. And then, after getting rid of that, he owned a little wholesale jewelry store – again, not at all pretty, nice, or stylish. But they just saved and saved, and eventually they moved to New Jersey, in 1985. They bought a house and they moved to the promised land of Bergen County.

There’s a line in “Free Food for Millionaires” where you write that the protagonist, Casey Han, thinks that although she went to Princeton, she was “not of Princeton. Did you feel that about your college experience?

Yes. My peers were so much better trained for Yale than me. I went to Bronx Science, and I did very well for the Bronx Science rubric, which is exams, short answers. And then I went to college and there were these kids who went to private schools, who wrote such beautiful articles, and they were so elegant in the way they talked about things, and they went everywhere. I felt like a ruby. I wasn’t mad at them, because they’re perfectly nice kids. They just had more sophistication, balance and ease than me. I remember thinking, OK, well, I’m a tough kid from New York, and I’m fine. But I definitely felt outclassed.

You majored in history, but I read that you had a little trouble writing.

I didn’t do well in college. I took too many lessons. I didn’t approach it like, Oh, you’re supposed to have a good GPA to get into a good graduate school. I thought I was supposed to acquire as much knowledge as humanly possible. Anyway, I took a lot of classes that I shouldn’t have taken. But then – this is the weirdest part – the English department had these awards, and I ended up winning first prize for non-fiction and first prize for fiction in my junior and senior year , respectively. So even though my grades weren’t that good, I ended up getting those awards, which meant that whatever readers in the English department thought I had something, and I remember thinking, Oh, I’m not a writer, but maybe I know how to say something.

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson