Sitting across from best-selling New York author Min Jin Lee in a Tokyo expat cafe, I can’t help thinking that the heroine of her debut novel “Free Food For Millionaires” is the one sipping ice tea and talking sex. Like Lee, protagonist Casey Han is unusually tall, refined in speech, and deeply interested in hat-making.
“I got married when I was 24 and met my husband when I was 22, so what I know about men in a personal experience could literally fill an index card,” laughs Lee, 39. Published last year, “Free Food” brims with adultery and soured relationships. It comes off as part Korean “Sex and the City,” part Manhattan soap opera, but mostly as a Jane Austen-style novel of progress. Some of its themes are unique, and all of its characters are etched in deep detail. Now, having moved to Tokyo last year, Lee is focusing on the circumstances facing Koreans who live in Japan, the long-suffering “Zainichi” community whose loyalties are often divided between North and South Korea.
One of Lee’s favorite quotes is by U.S. author James Baldwin, and it tells of the significance to her of personal and ethnic identity: “The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.” “Free Food” is a study in this dictate. Princeton-schooled Casey desperately tries to ascend New York’s social ladders but is walled in by her Korean immigrant background. She has a secret white boyfriend because her father, a poor dry-cleaner, is a bigot. Casey has a love for millinery, but feels obligated to get a job at an investment bank. Those around her sabotage their happiness as well, gambling away their careers or betraying their spouses for sex. An early passage describes Casey’s stultifying career choices, defined by her family obligations:
“There was always law school. She’d managed to get into Columbia. But her friends’ fathers were beleaguered lawyers, their lives unappealing. Casey’s lawyer customers at Sabine’s, the department store where she’d worked weekends, advised her, ‘For money, go to B school. To save lives, med.’ The unholy trinity of Law, Business, and Medicine seemed the only faith in town. It was arrogant, perhaps rash, for an immigrant girl from the boroughs to want to choose her own trade. Nevertheless, Casey wasn’t ready to relinquish her dream, however vague, for a secure profession. Without telling her father, she wrote Columbia to defer a year.”
Casey is an antiheroine in that she has a knack for making bad judgments and irrational decisions. Many are symptomatic of deep malignancies.
“Fiction is a very good device where you can show that without being proselytizing,” notes Lee, who admires how characterization determines fate in Balzac’s stories. Her novel is remarkable for its unflinching treatment of Koreans in America — domestic violence, rape and racism are prominent — as well as its delineations of the space between minority and majority, a theme that dominates the narrative. Its perspective shifts among characters of different ethnicity and class, but most are Korean. Lee says the doctors, dry-cleaners and churchgoers in her work are archetypes of the Korean-American community.
She knows her subject well. Shame and fear are powerful forces in the culture, she notes. “I think that the shame of being different is very painful for a lot of people.”
The arc of her life hewed to the rigid expectations made of Casey — Lee went to Yale, became a lawyer and landed a plum job as a corporate attorney in New York. But the artist inside her wasn’t satisfied with a typical life.
“I’ve often felt like an outsider, not necessarily because I’m Korean, an immigrant or female,” says Lee. “I think writers are odd people. We’re always observing, and we’re cautious people. We really want attention but at the same time we’re ashamed of wanting attention. All those bizarre qualities of being outside are necessary for being a writer. Because of that perspective, I’m more interested in literal minorities. I’m interested in telling those stories because I think appearances are so deceiving.”
Dressed in white, Lee is a slender wisp of a woman curled around a drinking straw. Her bright eyes seem to take in every detail of her surroundings. In writing, she says, understanding personal motivation is more important than observation; she did about 40 interviews for “Free Food” to make its characters believable. She speaks of Anthony Trollope, to whom she’s compared, her refuge in books during high school in the Bronx, and years as a lawyer. She quit at age 26 to write because, as she explains, “My dream was more clear than security. I really wanted to write fiction.” It took her 12 years to publish her first book, but when it was released “Free Food” was a critical sensation. Last year she moved to Tokyo, where she now leads a “milk and cookies life” as a housewife and mother.
“I’d seen a lot of media about how bizarre Japan is, but what I really see is how normal and quiet everything is. But the thing I find a little weird is on the train, just how disconnected everyone is. Everyone seems so alone, even in a big crowd. I find that to be a little sad.”
Lee is about 100 pages into her next novel. It will focus on Koreans in Japan under the title “Pachinko.” Set in Tokyo and Osaka, the story centers on trader Solomon Choi, who becomes embroiled in a Wall Street scandal, and his father Moses, a pachinko parlor operator. Koreans, many descended from people forcibly brought to Japan during the 20th century, dominate the pachinko industry because traditionally they have been barred from better jobs here. The pinball-like game is rich with metaphoric potential. Players zone out in the miasma of fast beats and cigarette smoke in parlors, which are both casino and opium den. The black sheep of Japanese leisure, pachinko has never been exported like karaoke or manga. It’s utterly inscrutable to foreigners, but a significant proportion of the Japanese population is in thrall to the chrome bearings clattering through pin grids.
“I like addicts. They’re very honest about their level of pain. You have to suffer a lot to have an addiction and there is a lot of suffering in life. Most people who lead fairly conventional lives deny their level of suffering. When I meet a person who’s really broken down, I get it. Life is tough, and they’re just trying to figure out how to manage.”
Lee is fascinated by Japan’s perceptions of Koreans, from public adulation of stars like actor Bae Yong Joon and pop pinup BoA to rightwing stereotypes of Koreans as anti-Japanese troublemakers. She tells of walking into a mobile phone shop in Tokyo where a pair of loud, scantily clad female customers was drawing attention. A clerk told her they must be Korean “because they’re tall.” She adds that an Asian journalist she admires is sometimes said to be Korean because he criticizes Japan.
“There is an assumption that if you’re ethnically Korean, you’re automatically against Japan. That’s just bananas,” says Lee. “But if you’re a poor person who’s ethnically Korean in Japan, it’s very difficult — you can’t move out of certain neighborhoods, you can’t get certain jobs. Despite the success of the creator of Softbank (Masayoshi Son, a Korean-Japanese), you can’t say everything is good.” She adds: “The unfairness is very sad. It should be highlighted and eliminated. That’s what we should always go for as writers — we’re trying to expose injustice.”
“Free Food for Millionaires” is about love, and “Pachinko” will be about friendship, especially bonds among men.
“Koreans here have the problems we all have — problems with love, shame, fear and loyalty,” she says. “I’m not a Zainichi Korean, but I do understand that the diaspora of Koreans throughout the world has led to their own communities. And I’m very interested in that world.”
Lee’s parents were born in North and South Korea and immigrated to Queens when she was seven. She has paternal relatives who were lost behind the Demilitarized Zone. Another novel she plans will be about reunions of kin and the distant possibility of an undivided peninsula.
Immigrants are always liminal figures, caught between ancestral homeland and adopted home, often identifying with neither. As an artist and outsider, Lee is naturally drawn to them.
“Korean-Americans are an interesting group because they’re not actually Korean, they’re this other thing, a hybrid bicultural people. People say that depending on what year you immigrated, that’s when you’re stuck in terms of your perception of Korea. For me this is true — I’m stuck in 1976.”
Lee’s views of her homeland will undoubtedly change as she journeys there from Japan. She’s cautiously optimistic that bilateral relations, struggling under the weight of 20th-century history and territorial rows, will progress. “I believe that Seung Yeop Lee just hit a home run for the Giants this week, and I was really happy for him. I guess I see that as progress.”