On Wednesday, March 17, author Min Jin Lee delivered the annual Mark Bebie ’70 Memorial Lecture to Upper School students at a morning assembly. Lee is a writer whose award-winning fiction explores the intersection of race, ethnicity, immigration, class, religion, gender, and identity of a diasporic people. “Pachinko,” her second novel, is an epic story that follows a Korean family who migrates to Japan. It was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and is a New York Times Bestseller.
Lee opened the lecture with an emotional acknowledgement of the pandemic, civil unrest, and racial violence, and their toll on each individual. “How very hurtful this all is, when we are already hurting and afraid,” she said, while addressing the March 16 killing of eight people, including six Asian women, in Atlanta. Lee spoke about the connecting bond of reading, the power of empathy, and the need to come together to “figure out a better story and new and innovative solutions.”
Lee then spoke about her own experience in high school, and her trajectory through college and into law school before leaving law to write full-time. She shared her experience facing rejection on her first novels, and how her life was shaped by a diagnosis of chronic hepatitis B in high school. After moving to Japan for her husband’s work, she began research for the novel “Pachinko.”
She closed the lecture with a message to students about their individual superpower, that they “know how to love when it is difficult,” before taking a series of questions from the audience. Students asked about advice for young writers, about displaced peoples and the definition of a homeland, about the role of religion in her writing, and the challenging impacts of the pandemic on Asian Americans in New York City.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Lee immigrated to Queens, New York with her family when she was seven years old. She studied history at Yale College and law at Georgetown University. She practiced law for two years before turning to writing.
Lee’s fiction has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts and One Story. Her writings about culture, politics, books, travel, and food have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, Vogue, Travel + Leisure, Wall Street Journal, and Food & Wine.