The PEN Ten with Min Jin Lee
In this week’s PEN Ten, Lauren Cerand, co-founder of the PEN Ten interview, speaks with Min Jin Lee, a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I wrote and published essays in The Korea Times when I was in high school. Many years later, I quit being a lawyer to write full-time. However, neither early publication nor quitting a career made me feel like a writer. I began to feel like a real writer when I started taking evening writing classes at the 92nd Street Y in my late 20s and early 30s, because I met other adults who were serious about craft and were willing to disrupt their lives to learn it.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
I’d steal themes from Sinclair Lewis, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, and Honore de Balzac; plot from Theodore Dreiser, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Edith Wharton; and sentences from John Updike and Joan Didion.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
I’m obsessed with faith, inequity, lost love, and history.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
In college, I wrote and published essays about feminism, educational reform, and identity politics. I recall taking some flak for my views. However, later in life, I found it much tougher and riskier to write about my illnesses and failures.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
I think it is advisable to censor oneself from harming others unnecessarily. Not everything should be said or written. I don’t mind if you disagree, but I find meanness untenable. That said, I do not believe that governments should censor the press—the bulwark of a true democracy. Lately, what I find alarming is that rather than just censoring information or ideas (limiting/blocking), oppressive governments are disseminating false ideology and lies through purportedly legitimate news channels, creating a nearly impossible environment for individuals to discern the truth and to behave appropriately.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
For me, it is to observe carefully and to think deeply about what I see, then and only then to record my impressions fairly and accurately. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, I want to be a fair and emotionally truthful writer. Also, I think I should tell a story worth the reader’s time and attention.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
More than ever, we need public intellectuals. The essays of Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, bell hooks, C.S. Lewis, Joan Didion, and Virginia Woolf changed my life and gave me courage to persevere. More recently, smart writers like Jaron Lanier, Rebecca Traister, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Andrew Solomon, Susan Faludi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hilton Als, and Siddhartha Mukherjee are leading new ways of thinking in their respective fields.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers? or What book would you like to see on the incoming administration’s reading list?
For what it’s worth, I would send leaders of repressive regimes The Drama of the Gifted Child and For Your Own Good by psychoanalyst Alice Miller, and gosh, maybe some good texts by pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. If I could, I’d send along a talented therapist.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
All of us need the powers and tools of observation. As writers, observation is our way to study, reflect, shape, and express. As writers, we fear and fight surveillance because surveillance is when those who are in power use the tools of observation against the observed and use the information gained in surveillance against the observed when the behaviors of the observed are inconvenient to those who are in power.
Min Jin Lee’s debut novel Free Food for Millionaires was a No. 1 Book Sense Pick, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, a Wall Street Journal Juggle Book Club selection, and a national best seller; it was one of the Top 10 Novels of the Year for The Times of London, NPR’s Fresh Air, and USA Today. She has received the NYFA Fellowship for Fiction, the Peden Prize from The Missouri Review for Best Story, and the Narrative Prize for New and Emerging Writer. Her fiction has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts and has appeared most recently in One Story. Min Jin went to Yale College where she was awarded both the Henry Wright Prize for Nonfiction and the James Ashmun Veech Prize for Fiction. She attended law school at Georgetown University and worked as a lawyer for several years in New York prior to writing full-time. From 2007 to 2011, Min Jin lived in Tokyo, Japan where she wrote Pachinko (February 7, 2017). She lives in New York City with her family.