Min Jin Lee Still Believes in Truth

Years ago, in my MFA program, I wrote a short story, which was butchered in my workshop. Looking back, I now understand that the story had many flaws, but at that time, as a foreigner struggling to write in English, I attributed my failure to my use of omniscient narration. It seemed to make sense, given that nearly all of my classmates wrote in a close-third limited perspective. Yet when I started using this perspective, I found that despite my best efforts to present different characters’ perspectives, my fictional world grew narrower.

So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered the novels of Min Jin Lee, which use the omniscient point of view, allowing for numerous perspectives, much like the best works by Dostoevsky. These novels confront us with the diverse beliefs and values of a community of people—often in conflict with each other—and help us to understand why people do the things they do. In our moment of polarization, Lee’s writing has value because it shows us a thorny road to understanding, rather than a smooth one.

I spoke with Lee about omniscient narration, the pursuit of truth, and the purpose of education.

Jianan Qian: I want to start by expressing how much your novels have inspired me to appreciate the use of an omniscient narrative perspective. Nowadays, many MFA programs encourage their fiction students to write in a close third-person perspective, which often ends up sounding like a disguised form of first person. But your writing opened my eyes to the value of using multiple voices. Would you speak more to your choice of omniscient narration?

Min Jin Lee: I love omniscient narration. I do it because nearly all the books that I loved and grew up with—nineteenth-century European and American novels—were written using omniscient narration. In the past 50 to 60 years, the trend has leaned toward a close first-person or third-person limited narration. You’re correct that third-person limited point of view is much like first-person. You have a narrator functioning with the point of view of one character. You can do wonderful things with it, but as much as I love reading first-person and third-person limited, it’s not what I wanted to write. I write social novels—novels about society and the problems I see about society. I didn’t want to write from one character’s point of view. Of course, you could have alternating chapters with third-person or first-person limited, which I find a bit tricky because unless the voice is profoundly distinct, the reader doesn’t always identify the character properly. Also, I have so many characters that I wouldn’t want to limit the shifting perspective to let’s say, three or four characters. I prefer omniscient for my purposes, but I do admire first and third limited point of view a great deal for their intimacy.

JQ: Did you start out writing with this perspective, or did you go through a trial-and-error stage to arrive at your current style?

MJL: It took me a long time to understand how to crack the code. Not technically, because technically you can learn how to do it easily enough. What I needed to do is to grow up as a person, as somebody who could try to understand everybody’s point of view. I found it much more flexible for me to use this point of view the older I got. Even now when I write in first-person, there’s a kind of omniscient sense to it—people who read my essays often say this. I think it’s because I’m not talking about me, but this idea of everybody in a unified voice. I encourage my students to do it. But the form of the short story, which is what’s usually employed in a workshop for pedagogical purposes, does not lend itself well to omniscient point of view. So I always say “try to do it” because it’s sort of fun, while recognizing the limitations of the omniscient in a shorter format. I disagree when people say that the omniscient narration seems too cold and distant. It depends on the author. When I read omniscient point of view of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Eliot, or Austen, I don’t sense coldness at all. In fact, I sense their warmth toward humanity, not just toward one human. I think that’s what we should be striving for.

JQ: You once said that you had to abandon an earlier draft of Pachinko.  I’m curious to know more about what motivated you to start over, and how you approached the task of reimagining the story from scratch.

MJL: When I was 19, I learned about the Koreans in Japan. I was very angry. And yet I tried to ask myself, What can I do? Then when I was in my mid-twenties, I wrote a draft of a novel called Motherland. I had to throw away 90% of the draft because it was angry, and worse than angry—it was dull. When I moved to Japan, I met Korean-Japanese people and I realized that I had to repent of my self-righteousness. Engaging art doesn’t come from a space of self-righteousness and anger. I had to start again. I think my career is this series of humiliations where I feel so stupid all the time. Even though when I’m really angry, I think I’m so clever. So it’s an on-going dialogue between self-righteousness and utter humiliation. Somewhere in between is the truth. I told myself to put down the sword of vengeance and instead tell the truth and somehow find love. The latter is what the reader really wants.

JQ: How do you define “truth”?

MJL: I think there is objective truth. I disagree vehemently with people who say, “Your truth is not my truth.” We can agree on certain things as a society. There are rules to follow. One of the issues in our contemporary world stems from the widespread idea that everything is relative. That isn’t true. Again, I use the word “truth” not as an adjective, but as a noun. There is a truth. I think oppression is evil. I think evil does exist. I think of the golden rule: If you wouldn’t want to be treated in a certain way, then you know that behavior is not right. And yet, just because we have more power or resources or connections, we think that we can behave in this way. We must listen to the discontent from oppressed minorities because what they are saying is uncomfortable. Things will never get better until we start to listen. It’s not a comfortable time for everybody because there are so many different ways to voice our discontent. And yet, unfortunately, in this kind of very advanced economy and technology, we are seeing a greater division between the haves and the have nots. We’re trying to pretend that’s not happening. But there’s far too much evidence of inequity.

JQ: You touch upon class in a way that is not often discussed in the US. How important do you think the notion of class is helping us to understand current racial politics?

MJL: I think class and caste make us uncomfortable because sometimes caste is a broader definition that encompasses our complex identities, as well as class, informing who we are. I am concerned that if we don’t have an honest discussion about class and caste, will things ever change? I’m going to say something odd. A lot of writers don’t want to talk about class, race, and history because very often, writers come from ruling class families. It’s not anyone’s fault for being born wealthy. I am not remotely interested in putting anybody down. As a matter of fact, if you have a trust fund, I’m very happy for you. It’s wrong to blame people for having money, but more often, why do we allow people who have more money to oppress those who do not? And if you’re somebody who was born without money but eventually gains wealth and behaves just as badly, that’s not good either. I don’t think of poverty or wealth as a badge of pride. I think that unless we start to expose and discuss the experiences of class, things will never change.

JQ: Your novel-in-progress American Hagwon explores the topic of education, which particularly resonates with me as a Chinese person with many Asian and Asian American friends. I see a connection between the over-emphasis on academic accomplishments and generational tensions, as many of us feel like we’re never good enough for our parents and end up chasing achievements like hamsters on a wheel. How can we educate our children to aim high while also being happy?

MJL: I think the critical phrase I’m hearing in your question is this idea of “aiming high.” When I think about height, we’re talking about the imagery of climbing or reaching. One problem I have found in my research is that our larger, globalized economy has made middle-class, working-class, and upper-class parents feel hysterical about getting the highest-status education. It’s not just for Asians—I really want to emphasize this. As I am working on this book, one thing that I noticed in all my interviews with Koreans—I won’t speak for anybody else—around the world is how much they care about education. In many ways, it was poignant and beautiful and powerful to think that if they have an education, they can change. And they wanted to give this ideal education to their children. What troubled me was the idolatry of education and the notion that one is deemed worthless or inferior without it. That was the troubling “status” part.

Right now, unfortunately, much of the world seems to want to participate in getting an education from the name-brand, highly selective institutions in the United States. The world, not just Americans. Unfortunately, the number of spots in some of these schools has not increased. Let’s say you want to get an MFA degree from Iowa which is considered a premier MFA institution in the United States—considering how many applications come in per year, it’s a miracle to get in. Many qualified people probably didn’t get in, and it doesn’t make them inferior as writers. I’ve seen people who don’t get into places X, Y, Z, and they’re utterly destroyed, so I think to myself, What was all this about? Was it about getting the degree or about writing fiction? They are different things. What is the purpose of the education? What is the education that you seek? And what is the status marker of the education? They are distinct things. Sometimes we forget because we’re so in the soup of the culture that we can’t see straight.

JQ: It reminds me of your college experience. At Yale, you didn’t care about grades at all. You tried to take as many courses and learn as much as possible. You saw the purpose instead of the status marker of the education.

MJL: Yes, and I paid the price for it, but I don’t regret it and would do it again. At the time, when I was younger, I didn’t know that you had to have good grades for graduate school and fellowships. No one told me because even the fact that I went to a college like that was quite a miracle to my parents. I wanted to go there because my favorite writer had gone there. Once I was there, I thought I was free to feed my brain as much as I could. I’m glad I did. But when I had to face the music and apply to things post-graduation, my GPA was too low. When I share this with my students, they look at me like I’m an idiot. But I look at them and think about how I graduated with eight or nine additional courses from Yale University, which was really remarkable. Are you really going to judge me for this? It’s funny that people look at the symbol and not what’s underneath. We’ve all been tricked. Just because somebody went to Yale, that doesn’t mean they’re smart, wise, or savvy. I know this because I went to Yale. Not everybody was smart.

JQ: It’s hard to change these cultural perceptions. What can we do as individuals to make changes?

coverMJL: Whenever I’m given the opportunity, I discuss my failures and mediocrity. I tell the truth of what happened. And then I’ve noticed that other people tell the truth too. I tell people about the first time I failed the New York State bar exam because they often assume that I did everything perfectly. Far from it—it took me almost 11 years to publish my first novel, and I was working really hard. As it turns out, where you went to college and the rate that you publish your first novel has no relationship at all. I say that because writing fiction is different than taking an exam. Writing a good novel is certainly different than competence in other capacities. In a way it makes life fairer. I think things can change. So many things in history have changed. They are changed because individuals and others have decided that they will tell the truth.

JQ: When you write fiction, do you have a primary readership in your mind?

MJL: I’m not thinking of my reader primarily as a white American. I am thinking of somebody like me. I’m a Korean who writes in English. I’m a Korean American, specifically from New York, and Korean Americans from Georgia or Los Angeles are different than I am. In my universe, I’m a human being. I exist. My complexity is normal, not abnormal. One thing that often happens to people of color and outsiders who write books for mainstream presses is that we often become a curiosity and a teacher for the majority. I don’t see myself that way. I actually see myself as the center.

I’m also a very demanding reader. If the book is boring or stupid or pretentious, I wouldn’t want to read it. In a way, writing for a demanding reader like me apparently does expand my readership. I have done events in large concert halls with 3,000 participants, and the majority of them were white. I’m astonished by that. About 50 or 60 of the participants were Asian or Asian American. Most of my readers in America—if you look at the numbers—were initially white and Black because that’s who most of the readers in America are. I have many more Asian and Asian American readers now. I’m grateful to have a global readership. But I do not have any wish to spoon-feed any reader a condescending idea of who a Korean person is. This is the danger of an outsider writing for the insider, which makes for weak fiction.

JQ: As an outsider myself, I often felt anxious about having to explain everything.

MJL: I also think that readers are smart. If you are respectful to them, they will keep up with you. I also think readers of fiction are special people because we have empathy for other human beings. If you write about human beings, the human readers will keep going with you, as long as you’re honest about their humanity. All the extra things like the language or the cultural context will become clear if we set the scene appropriately.

JQ: One last question: What advice would you give to your 20-something self ?

MJL: I would tell her to keep a low overhead. I believe it was the advice given by Grace Paley to beginning writers. To have a low overhead is to live within your means and focus on what you care about. One thing I can say about my past is that I’ve always taken writing seriously. That meant that I couldn’t do certain things, couldn’t go to certain places, and had to miss certain events. My key focus was my husband, my child, my parents, and my work—not always in that order. I couldn’t afford many things. I wanted to get an MFA. I wanted to go to writing colonies. That said, I kept reading. I kept writing terrible things. My work got better.

We have these absurd romantic ideas about the modern writer. In America, it used to be that you had to be a Jack Kerouac type of person, always on the road, sleeping with women and drinking. I think it’s bullshit. As a matter of fact, I know so many good writers in America who are very serious about their work and live soberly, resisting all the foolish distractions. You have to be that way because most of the world doesn’t care about books. That doesn’t bother me as much because I’ve already made the decision that writing is important to me, and I’ve come to terms with that choice. If you’re trying to chase the things that the world values, then becoming a writer is not what you want to do. If you want to be famous, don’t be a writer. If you want to be rich, I’d avoid being a writer. But if you want to write and you have things to say, then I’d say, Sit down and do your work. For whatever it may be worth, I’m rooting for you and your sublime vision.

The Chinese translation of this interview appeared in The Shanghai Review of Books.

Jianan Qian
is a staff writer at The Millions. She has published four books in her native language Chinese. In English, her works have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, The O. Henry Prize Collection, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.

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