Cover Min Jin Lee (Photo: Winnie Au)

The author of the 2017 novel Pachinko and a finalist for the National Book Award in the US says Asian representation in world literature should be changed

As part of the reporting for Tatler’s August cover story, we speak to Min Jin Lee, a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction for her novel Pachinko, who shares her insights into writing the Asian experience and how Asian representation needs to be changed.

In 1976, seven-year-old Min Jin Lee and her family left South Korea for what her father believed would be “greater freedoms in the US”. Having lost his family in the Korean war, he wanted to protect his children from similar tragedy. And while the move brought many advantages, the decision has meant Lee has faced a different sort of battle throughout her life: racism.

Even now, as a globally celebrated author, she is still targeted for her Asian appearance and name. And, despite the recognition she has received for her work, particularly of her New York Times-bestselling, and National Book Award finalist 2017 novel Pachinko, she still struggles to make her voice heard. “It has always been challenging to write and publish about Asians in the English language, and though there are greater opportunities in the US today, it is still difficult for all writers of any [non-white] race to publish their work for a mainstream audience,” she says. “Anglophone Asians have struggled to represent ourselves and our respective communities of origin with accuracy.”

But this struggle is a huge part of what prompted Lee to turn her childhood dream of being a writer into a career, and then using the products of that career to speak out against discrimination. “I want to honour and recognise the long history of our struggle”, she says. “The way we see ourselves and the way the non-Asian western majority may see us are often different, and bridging that difference is a valuable goal.”

While her writing has always been political, Lee has been even more active in the last year in drawing attention to Asian hate, appearing on shows such as Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk and MSNBC’s The Last Word, as well as publishing works in publications like The New York Times and across her own social media. But while, as she says, “The root causes of Asian hate are varied and complex: racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, colonialism, imperialism, wars in Asia, economic and social threat of rise of Asian power,” adding that there is also a real threat of internalised racism. “Internalised racism can be dangerous when Asians ratify biases and stereotypes against members of our own community. I have heard Asians say things like: 'Asians/Koreans/Chinese/Filipinos/Vietnamese ... do this …' and 'Asian/Koreans/Chinese/Filipinos/Vietnamese ... do that …' With great gentleness and respect, I try to discourage these sort of statements, because there are billions of Asians, and we should not stereotype ourselves.”

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Lee, who is a writer-in-residence at liberal arts school Amherst College, believes it is important for people to come together and end Asian hate. Some of that work needs to be done at a foundational level, and she says young people should be taught to fully appreciate the importance of diversity. “We can change the educational curriculum (especially secondary level education) to study the long history of colonialism, imperialism, and racism as well as the struggle and achievement in spite of racist oppression.”

And, she urges, action needs to be taken now.

“If we ignore, tolerate, or minimise Asian hate, not only do we suffer, we will continue to witness its growth,” she says. “In particular, I am concerned with its impact on the self-esteem of our youth. As a parent and college professor, I am deeply concerned about how we adults respond to the rise of Asian hate.”