portrait of author Min Jin Lee
Mar 16, 2024
Flathead Beacon

In First Visit to Montana, Author Min Jin Lee to Give Talk at Flathead Valley Community College

By Mike Kordenbrock

In explaining why she’ll be taking her first trip to Montana to speak at Flathead Valley Community College for an event that will be free to students of all grade levels, the celebrated novelist and writer Min Jin Lee begins to describe herself as an introvert who happens to receive lots of invitations to things.

As is the case with many introverts – people who gravitate towards quiet, solitude, and more limited social engagements – accepting invitations, and then attending big events can be a draining, exhausting experience, and so Lee said she tries to be selective.

In 2024, that has included participating in a January panel with the writers Colm Toibin and Rumaan Alam at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater in New York City to discuss the 100th anniversary of E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India,” being honored in February at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute’s 75th Anniversary Gala, and after her Kalispell talk, another talk at the University of Utah, before her public engagements subside until a May discussion at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston called “Min Jin Lee: Writing and the Korean Wave.”

A quick spin through Lee’s professional biography puts into some perspective why these invitations arrive. Her 2007 debut novel, “Free Food for Millionaires,” landed on top 10 books of the year lists for The Times of London, NPR’s Fresh Air and USA Today, and was a national bestseller. Her second novel, “Pachinko” was published in 2017, and again earned her accolades and nominations. It was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction, and in addition to being a New York Times bestseller and an international bestseller translated into 35 languages, it was one of the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year, and landed on similar lists for BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, while also appearing on best books of the year lists for NPR, PBS and CNN. As Lee told the Beacon, she recently finished writing the draft of her third novel, and is currently working on rewriting it.

Lee has also received prestigious fellowships, including from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. A member of the New York Foundation for the Arts Hall of Fame, and the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, and the winner of the 2022 Manhae Grand Prize for Literature in South Korea, Lee is currently the writer-in-residence at Amherst College and recently served as the editor of the 2023 edition of the Best American Short Stories series.

Michael Luo, an editor for The New Yorker magazine, described her in a 2022 piece as a writer whose gift is an ability to “write sweeping, magisterial books that take on ponderous political themes – like the Korean diasporic experience, the invisibility of marginalized groups in history, the limits of assimilation — and to make their unhurried, quiet intrigues read like thrillers.”

As for why she chose to accept an invitation to come to FVCC, Lee said there were two main reasons. On the one hand, she was curious to finally see Montana and meet Montanans for the first time, and figure out just how different things might be from New York City, where she has lived for much of her life.

“I’m from New York City, I was born in Seoul, I’ve lived in Tokyo … it’s very hard to impress me with a city … I think for me Montana is very glamorous. Ohio is very glamorous to me. Wyoming is very glamorous to me, because I think, ‘Oh, I don’t know this.’” Lee said.

As someone who steeps themselves in early 19th and early 20th century American authors – something she explained as part of her ongoing study of omniscient narration – Lee said that she’s also drawn to the South, and described an appreciation for opportunities to visit places where people significant to her once lived. That has included visiting the home in Ketchum, Idaho, where Ernest Hemingway spent his last days; and also a trip to Warrensburg, Missouri, to stand in the same auditorium where her late uncle John Y. Kim, who sponsored her family’s immigration to the United States, studied as a college student at the University of Central Missouri.  

But beyond her continued efforts to see and in some way understand parts of the United States with which she is less familiar, Lee emphasized that she is coming to Kalispell because she is big proponent of community college education in the United States.

“It’s something that I believe in very strongly,” she said. “I thought it’d be very cool connect to that audience, in particular because very often when you hear about Montana in New York City, very often you focus on elite people who kind of fly in and fly out, and just take advantage of the nature part, but I wanted to meet people who are from Montana, who care about Montana, who feel connected enough to go to community college, and to feel a sense of mission there.”

Her talk will be about failure, struggle, why she does what she does, and writing as a craft.

“It’s what I do better than most people,” Lee said of failure. “I’m really good at humiliation. And I think if I can teach you how to fail better, I’ve done something that’s worth taking a plane trip over.”

For people who are skeptical that Lee’s talk will have relevance to those whose interests don’t lie in reading and writing, she would probably argue otherwise. While she has concerns about the future of reading, or more specifically reading deeply, as it relates to the technologically driven distractions that are so widespread in today’s world, Lee said that she has a somewhat cynical view of why reading will continue to be of importance in the world. In short, she said that in her experience, powerful people read, and read often.

“This is my little TED talk for my students, very often, which is if you want to get ahead in life, if you want to understand human motivation, if I were you, I would read the wisdom garnered from the best kinds of books that you can possibly find,” Lee said. “Because it’s all there.”

Min Jin Lee’s talk at FVCC is part of the college’s WCC Speaker Series. The event is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. on March 18 at the Wachholz College Center. The event is supported, in part, by the Broussard family. For more information and to get tickets, visit Free tickets are available for students of all grade levels.