Min Jin Lee, acclaimed author of the bestselling book “Pachinko,” spoke at the official launch of this year’s issue of “West 10th,” the official journal of NYU’s undergraduate Creative Writing program.
Held at NYU’s Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, the event was billed as part of the annual PEN World Voices Festival, a weeklong series of readings, panels and workshops by writers from around the world. Put on by the free speech advocacy group PEN America, the festival aims to broaden channels of dialogue between the United States and the world through literature.
The event started with readings from NYU undergraduates of their original, creative writing from the recent issue. In her remarks, Lee praised the student writers for their poise.
“You just knocked me out, really,” Lee said to the crowd.
Lee then read an excerpt from her novel “Pachinko,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award and selected by The New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2017. Her bubbly warmth gave way for the emotional power of her prose as she read a passage about a young Korean woman peddling kimchi — a traditional Korean side dish — to make a living in Japan on the brink of World War II.
“I don’t read this very much, because it upsets me,” she said.
Lee continued to talk about her roundabout path to full-time writing. Born in Korea, she immigrated to Queens with her family as a young child, and despite the difficulties of moving to a new country and learning an unfamiliar language, she was happy because she had a whole world of books to keep her company. After developing her childhood love for reading, Lee studied History and Law at Yale University.
“I wanted to figure out if people of color could be writers,” she said, specifically referencing the work of Korean American authors Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Kim Ronyoung.
After Yale and a chronic illness made her reevaluate her priorities, she worked as a corporate lawyer for two years before quitting to focus on her writing full-time. Unable to pay or relocate for a master’s of fine arts, she honed her writing skills through classes at places like the Asian American Writers Workshop and the Gotham Writers Workshop.
“In New York City, it is possible to study with the best –– like Jhumpa Lahiri and Shirley Hazzard –– for almost nothing before they become huge,” she said.
“Pachinko” chronicles the lives of Koreans living in Japan during and after colonial rule. She told the crowd she had no intention of writing historical fiction, but after becoming fascinated with the stories of Koreans in Japan, she didn’t want to write about anything else.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 23 print edition. Email Alex Cullina at [email protected]