History, Storytelling, and Asian American Identity: A Conversation with Min Jin Lee

In its first in-person event since the spring of 2020, The Ethics of Now series welcomed “Pachinko” novelist Min Jin Lee to the Durham Arts Council on April 8, 2022.

Adriane Lentz Smith and Min Jin Lee
Adriane Lentz-Smith (right) and Min Jin Lee in conversation at the Durham Arts Council on Friday, April 8, 2022. An audience of 175 attended the talk, which was followed by a book signing.

In an hour-long conversation with host Adriane Lentz-Smith and audience members, Lee discussed a variety of topics—from happiness, morality, and the insights afforded by history to storytelling, racism, and Asian American identity. Below are some excerpts from her comments.

On happiness

One of the reasons I wanted to come here today is you’re the ethics institute, and that is something that I care profoundly about…I don’t believe in [happiness.] I really don’t. I think that the pursuit of happiness is causing people to be miserable. I believe in joy, I believe in gratitude, I believe in meaning, I believe in purpose, I believe in moral goodness. I believe in satisfaction and contentment. But the pursuit of happiness, I think, is a really immature thing.

On her moral sensibility, reading the Bible, and writing

If you are telling stories, and stories are really just our lives made into order, you have to see what you cannot do and what you can do. One of the great lies we tell ourselves in the 21st century is that we don’t judge. What nonsense! We’re judging all the time. You go on Twitter for about three minutes, and you are angry about something. Because we think something was done in a wrong way, which means you’re judging…

We are constantly thinking about morality—what is allowable, what is not allowable, what should be held accountable, what should not be held accountable. And Bible or the Quran or the Torah…they are all discussing what we need in order to live a wise life…

In my reading of the Bible every day, I have learned so much about story and about human characterization, so I wouldn’t stop even if you made me.

On studying history as an undergraduate student

Min Jin Lee
Lee spoke with humor, candor, and empathy about viewing human experience through the eyes of a novelist and researcher.

I wanted to be an English or Literature major, but that seemed so glamorous to me…I thought that I would in major in history, because it’s essentially storytelling, but it’s all nonfiction. It also sounded very solid. Back then, it was very solid, whereas now, it’s, “Oh, you’re a history major, you want to be a waiter.”

Everything that I’ve done in my life…[is] because I have such a strong foundation in history. I tell people all the time, if I didn’t read as much as I did, and I do—I really couldn’t function in the world. And I have nothing but respect for STEM. I went to the Bronx High School of Science, which means that I have an inordinate amount of expertise in math and sciences, and yet I also understand that behind science is this idea of inquiry, and inquiry is a humanities discipline.

So I want to integrate both fact-based learning but also inquiry and philosophy, which is so important, and now that I’ve interviewed so many important people in the world…I have met all these billionaires, and so many of them are philosophy majors. Yeah! So they’re not waiters—and by the way, waiters are not bad!

On framing our lives as stories

I’ll have an incredibly brilliant student come to my office hours, and they’re sobbing. I’m like, “What’s the matter? Talk to me.” And they’ll tell me something that happened that was disappointing. And I say to them, “Do you know that you’re in Chapter Two?” And all of a sudden, it dissipates…and they can feel this relief…Depending on which story you’re telling, it can make you feel like you can control the chaos of life.

On anti-Asian violence

Right now, what’s happening with anti-Asian violence is deeply disturbing, because there’s a lot of documentation of what’s going on and the numbers are appalling, but I’m going to say something weird as a novelist. Beneath that rage that you and I feel…underneath it, I have a question: “Why don’t you like me?” That is my question. Let’s go below that: “I want you to like me. And when you don’t like me, it hurts me.” When you can have those discussions, things can change.

On the desire of Asian Americans to assimilate and to achieve (with the example of being published in The New Yorker)

I think that the wish to be American is something that many Asians and Asian Americans have…Now, obviously that term ‘American’ can mean very many things. If the wish to be American means a wish to be white, then that needs to be questioned.

As for the wish to be published by The New Yorker–I’m going to address it, because I’ve never met a writer who didn’t want to be published in The New Yorker! We think of The New Yorker as probably the most prestigious literary magazine in English, probably in the world. So, if we look at that, and we name that as what it is—the object—then what are we really saying? We’re really saying: we wish to be accepted by the most prestigious literary organization in the world. What we really wish for is recognition. We want universal acclaim.

When I’m with my students, I often say, if you have that wish, that’s not a bad wish. Let’s look at that wish and see what you really, really want, and let’s figure how to get it, and if you think it’s good for you.

Now, the whole thing with things like The New Yorker, or any other imprimaturs which make us feel that we’re accepted–if that requires mortification, and by mortification, I mean killing off parts of yourself in order to be accepted, I always say, hold on. Let’s take a look.

I have always fought very, very hard against trying to kill parts of myself off in order to be accepted, and as a matter of fact, it’s caused me a lot of problems…I have to struggle against a world that wants me to behave in a certain way that can be satisfying, that can get good results.

On “Pachinko” as a universal story

…I’ve leaned so deep into my Korean-ness, I thought for sure that I was going to create an isolated bubble of myself, but ironically, the more particular I got, the more specific I got, the more universal it eventually became. I wrote a book on spec. I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have a contract, I didn’t get paid to write this book. I spent 30 years of my life researching it on my own coin.

This book is taught in Korea and around the world by people who teach Korean history. If you had asked me, why would anybody want to read a book about the Korean-Japanese people, you would have been a reasonable person to ask the that question…but I said I’m going to just do it because I want to, because I was really upset about the inequities they’d suffered.

On loving your Korean family and Korean identity

I love being with Korean people. I have so much fun. They tease me and I tease them back. There’s a kind of generosity and openness that I really love.

Adriane Lentz-Smith and Min Jin Lee
Lentz-Smith and Lee listening to a question from an audience member. Many of the questions were about navigating Asian American identity in the United States amid pressures to assimilate, increased attacks on Asians, and the continued perception of Asians as “perpetual foreigners.”

I’m not saying all Korean people are this way. I get it. One of the reasons why I’m talking about it right this second, is because I hear this, too, when I interview Koreans. They say stuff like this to me: “You’re a nice Korean person…don’t trust those Korean people.”

In my interviews for “American Hagwon,” do you know how many kids I’ve interviewed, who are grown, who’ve said to me, their mothers or fathers have said, “when you go to this excellent school that I’m sending you to, that I sacrificed so much for, don’t hang out with the Koreans”? This is a Korean person telling their Korean kids this.

And I think to myself, I understand why the parent says this…the parents are trying to say, I want you to get the outcome that’s good. Therefore, I want you to have these four years of hell, of hating your peers…or your mirrors. So what you’re really saying is, “I want you to hate yourself. You are your enemy.”

So what I hear these messages…I think, things will change, when we say, we’re here. I like myself, and I like my brothers and sisters. I like my family.

Inside Kenan: Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings”

“Weeper telling the white man that Papa-Lo get soft but the white man don’t understand much of what Weeper is saying. He just nod and laugh and say I gotcha! then look at Josey Wales to repeat everything slower but he still laugh too loud at what wasn’t no joke. This make Josey Wales’ face even more cross because everybody know that he proud that he can speak good. The white man say we’re fighting for freedom from totalitarianism, terrorism and tyranny, but nobody know what he mean.”

Marlon James’ novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is full of passages like this, in which characters evaluate how they themselves and others talk. We are told that people “chat bad,” “talk proper,” “talk like a real Jamaican,” “talk…like [they] was born behind cow,” “speak good,” “talk like a Jamaican,” “talk like a white man,” “speak correctly.” Characters imitate and mock each other, and try on different dialects to gain authority, authenticity, or influence. One man, beaten and brutalized by a group of police officers, still manages to make fun of one of them for pronouncing accomplice “accomplicisties.” Another molds his speech to meet the expectations of an American diplomat: “I chat to him bad like some bush naigger and ask dumb questions like, So everyone in America have gun?…Why you don’t transfer Dirty Harry to the Jamaica branch? hee hee hee.” American tourists impress each other with their patois (Wait! Ho ho ho, is that you, busha? Ho ho ho, can’t see you these days, man, you get rich and switch?), while a gang enforcer rails against the Singer, an international superstar, because his fame and money has done nothing to change his speech: “To think you have all this money, all these gold record, have lipstick print on your cocky from all sort of white woman, and that is how you talk? If my life is juss fi’mi, mi no want it?

Each chapter of James’ book is written in first-person, but the character speaking changes from chapter to chapter. There is Papa-Lo, don of Copenhagen City; Barry Diflorio, the CIA station chief; Nina Burgess, a former receptionist; Bam Bam, a gang member in Papa-Lo’s organization; Josey Wales, Papa-Lo’s head enforces who has started to act on his own; and Sir Arthur Jennings, a dead politician. Each person has a distinct voice, a distinct cadence, and a distinct view on what makes speech good or bad.  

As a reader, I am pulled into this dynamic, whether I like it or not. James does not moderate between his characters. He does not tell us which voices we should trust, which narrators are unreliable, who has true insight into Jamaican politics, into the war brewing in Kingston. We are left to decide for ourselves what voices are authoritative, authentic, trustworthy, stupid. And we are left with our own skill, or lack thereof. For me, some characters, specifically those whose voices most approximate white English, even white Academic English, are easy. This is my world. Other voices are difficult. Like reading Chaucer, I have to read their words out loud in order to understand them. And even then, I can only guess at the meanings and associations of much of their vocabulary. I feel a little stupid. And impatient; I have to read so slowly, and it is a long book.

The politics of language in 1970s Jamaica may seem irrelevant to life at Duke. But first-years have just arrived on campus, and many are about to find out (if they haven’t already) that how you talk matters. Some arrive already speaking the approved language of academia. Because of where they are from, or the school they went to, or the tutoring their parents paid for, they know how to sound educated. Others arrive with other languages. Foreign dialects, southern drawls, working class vocabulary, the cadences of black English. Like the speech of Kingston’s Copenhagen City, these may serve as a badge of authenticity in some circles. In others, less so: people don’t quite hear your words, fail give your comments weight, assume you are a little dim. Class, race, education. Open your mouth, and just as in James’ book, people make assumptions. And then what do you do? Mock, imitate, code switch, retrain your tongue? What do you do when you are the one making the assumptions, the one who for some reason or another gets to decide the difference between “chatting bad” and “speaking proper”?

If these questions sound interesting to you, and you want to learn more about James’ rich novel, Kenan senior fellow Adriane Lentz-Smith will be interviewing Marlon James on Friday, September 7th, at 7:00 at the Durham Arts Council. This event is free and open to the public. Click here for more information.