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BABEL brings Min Jin Lee

Bearing Witness, Touching Nerves

Photo by Elena Seibert


March 20

8 p.m. at Kleinhans Music Hall

(1 Symphony Circle)

Justbuffalo.org or 832-5400


When Pachinko, a sprawling Korean family saga set during the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea and into the late twentieth century, was published in 2017 to critical and popular acclaim, no one was more amazed than author Min Jin Lee.


“I was surprised it was so well received around the world,” says Lee, a National Book Award finalist for the novel, the title of which references a popular Korean pinball game of chance. To date, her book has been translated for readers in twenty-seven countries. The Korean-American author, whose family moved to America when she was seven years old, comes to Buffalo this month as part of the Just Buffalo Literary Center’s celebrated BABEL lecture series.


Lee grew up in Queens, the setting for a “wonderful” childhood. “It was terrific—my teachers, librarians, all were very welcoming,” she recalls. Lee has long been intrigued by issues around adaptation, belonging, and notions of home. Pachinko grew from a story she heard from a missionary who’d served in Osaka, about a displaced teen’s suicide. The book’s gestation period, involving academic and primary research, was long. Lee lived in Japan from 2007 to 2011, a fertile period for conducting interviews with Korean-Japanese people and visiting relevant story sites. What emerged was a much fuller, more resonant picture of a time and place, and the ultimately hopeful trajectory of one family’s resilience. In a telephone interview, Lee talks about what inspires and empowers her writing.


The first line of Pachinko is “History has failed us.” What do you mean by that?

I think history keeps failing us. Inequity and greed crowd out recollection and memory of what has happened. Right now, there are 68.5 million displaced people around the world, highest number ever—that’s from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is easy to get discouraged, but I do remain hopeful. As a student of history, I am aware of cycles. We have seen this kind of nativism before. Individuals are extraordinary, even though groups and leaders may fail us.


Next book?

A novel on education. Honestly, I try not to think too much about it, and not get distracted by awards or public reception. I really want to say something that is worth people’s time—everything is so transient these days. I like technology, but it has affected reading habits, so we are not reading deeply, but in a shallow way. Books can make people take back their attention!


Whose writing do you most admire?

I really love a lot of dead people: George Eliot, Tolstoy, and Edith Wharton are all great. Sinclair Lewis was interested in the national landscape, early on describing the rise of totalitarianism in the United States. Living writers on my list include Meg Wolitzer, Toni Morrison, and all the BABEL speakers who come to Buffalo!  They are extraordinary writers tackling important issues.


Anything you’d like to do you’ve never done?   

I wish I could sing! Also wish I could speak multiple languages really well, but you have to make choices about how you spend your time.


What about downtime for you?

I do have trouble relaxing; that’s not how I was raised. But this time I made a New Year’s resolution to take two days off every week, to give myself a sense of a weekend. I don’t have a wish to do anything luxurious—just to be quiet, in the midst of too much noise. 


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