Author Min Jin Lee: 'Free Food For Millionaires'

Min Jin Lee wanted to capture the experience of children of immigrants living in America. Her debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, tells the story of Casey Han, a daughter of Korean immigrants living in New York. Lee discusses her book and the passion behind her writing.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the sounds of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Heard on the Street is just ahead. But first, Min Jin Lee wanted to capture the emotional experience of the children of immigrants living in America. Her debut novel is called "Free Food for Millionaires." It tells the story of Casey Han, a daughter of Korean immigrants in New York.

Casey is like other smart, ambitious young women facing their post-graduate futures. A Princeton grad, she's finished school with a closet full of expensive clothes, a boyfriend her parents don't approve of, and no idea what she wants to do next. She's arrogant one minute, full of doubt the next.

But forming the backdrop to her own narrative is the story of Casey's parents and community: a story of sacrifice, cultural anxiety and a fierce desire to see their children succeed by their standards. It's an old story told with a new voice.

Min Jin Lee joins us now in the studio. Thanks for being here, Min Jin Lee.

Ms. MIN JIN LEE (Author, "Free Food for Millionaires"): Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What is "Free Food for Millionaires"?

Ms. LEE: Well, I wrote this with the comment that I really wanted to make in the first top note, is that isn't it ironic that the rich get richer every day cross culturally, cross country, cross race? Wherever we go, what I see is the people who are better looking, smarter, more attractive, more wealthy, they just get more stuff constantly. And I was saying, wow, isn't that just something that I've learned throughout life.

Having seen that, however, I personally, as a very privately optimistic person, believe that we're all millionaires. That we're all really wealthy because each person has a unique gift that's completely - that no one else has.

So in my characters - all my characters have a specific kind of wealth, whether it's beauty or voice or intelligence or ambition or social prowess, whatever. A kind of, you know, ease with other people. That's a kind of gift, too. And then I said to myself, well, if we're all millionaires in a kind of metaphorical way, what's the free food that we experience? And, for me, that's the kind of grace. And the notion of grace being unmerited favor.

MARTIN: What role do you think grace plays in the book?

Ms. LEE: I think that what's bizarre to me about life is that sometimes you have to have everything taken away before you experience grace or before you actually recognize that grace can happen to you. And so, throughout the book, each of my characters will experience a sense of dispossession. He or she will actually lose many things in order experience a kind of favor that occurs to him or her.

MARTIN: Casey is a very familiar character in literary terms. I kind of feel like I know her type but we don't know her. Why did you decide to put her at the center of your story?

Ms. LEE: I actually - this may sound terrible. I hope I don't get in trouble. But I think within the Korean American community, there are these groups of Korean American girls who are very lost, and they're very upset and angry and we don't actually ever hear about them. And my friends who are Korean, actually, we joke about the crazy Korean girls, the ones who are always shopping too much or getting in trouble - but we don't ever hear about them -and the ones who actually attempt suicide, are constantly depressed, have eating disorders. And I thought, you know, I know those girls and, in some ways, I've been that kind of girl.

And I thought, well, why don't I write about this character. And, to be honest, this is my fourth novel attempt and I didn't actually think that I could get away with a character like this, so I didn't actually think this book would get published. And after I finished the book, I had my sister read it. And I said to her what do you think of Casey, because she's kind of nuts. And my younger sister said, Casey is really nuts but she's really forgivable.

MARTIN: Why did you think you wouldn't necessarily be able to pull this off? Is it that you felt that people wouldn't believe that there was a Korean girl with all this angst and anger and all this, or did you feel that the market wouldn't accept it or that people just wouldn't believe it?

Ms. LEE: I think all three. I think people don't want to know about this kind of person. And I think the rule usually in literary fiction is you want to find the sympathetic character. And although I think she's sympathetic and maybe a lot of feminists might find her sympathetic, I think in some ways she can be really irritating because she does very counter-intuitive things.

MARTIN: I'm glad you said that because she is kind of annoying.

Ms. LEE: She can be kind of annoying.

MARTIN: She can be kind of annoying. She is a familiar character, particularly in the American context, because here's a girl who has what every parent wants for their kids. She's got a great education, something they sacrificed mightily to help her get. And the fact of her having had these experiences has driven her away from them in some way, and none of them knows what to do about that.

Ms. LEE: I think you're making a really important point about not just immigration but migration. So within any group, especially a large socioeconomic group, if people do things well, then actually the next generation will migrate from the first generation. And basically that's what happens here.

So Casey comes back home and she doesn't actually even connect with her parents anymore. And I think, isn't that ironic? Isn't that a conundrum? I mean, aren't you supposed to want the better things for your kids?

MARTIN: It's also the case that Casey's father at least tells a story of having been born to wealth in Korea, but in order to save him, his family sends him away. And of course Korea then is partitioned. He never sees them again. He is forced into poverty. He and his wife run a dry cleaners in Queens, which is, you know, a middle-class borough, and then she goes off to, you know, the Ivy League, she and her sister.

But then her struggle sort of has her being caught between two worlds. Because, on the other hand, when she goes to Princeton, she's reminded that she's a poor kid in a school full of wealthy people. So there's a passage I was hoping I could get you to read where Casey is kind of frustrated and irritated by her boyfriend, who she has yet to introduce to her parents. This will be familiar to, I'm sure, many people listening to us. But why don't you tell us a little bit about the passage. Tell me what you're going for here.

Ms. LEE: Well, Casey is seeing this white guy. Her mother makes a surprise visit, so what does Casey wants Jay to do, she wants him to hide in the closet basically.

MARTIN: Literally.

Ms. LEE: Literally. Go under the bed, go to the fire escape, whatever. And Jay doesn't want to. And at this point we're in Casey's point of view.

(Reading) But Casey didn't say anything, unable to express the pain she felt. Her lips whitened at the pressure of her jaw clenching. How could he possibly understand what it would mean for her mother to find her here? She suddenly hated him for being an American and for herself for feeling so (unintelligible) when she was with him.

She hated his ideals of rugged individualism, self-determination; this vain idea that life was what you're made of it as if it were some sort of paint-by-numbers kit. Only the most selfish person on Earth could live that way. Casey was selfish. She knew that. But she had no wish to hurt anyone. If her rotten choices hurt her, well then, she'd be willing to take that wager.

But it was hard to think of letting her parents down again and again. But her choices were always hurting her parents, or so they said. Yet Casey was an American, too. She had a strong desire to be happy and to have love, and she'd never considered such wishes to be Korean ones.

MARTIN: Do you think that a lot of your peers, the people you know, feel that way, second generation?

Ms. LEE: Absolutely. I think that social migration to another economic class requires a kind of negotiating with yourself. And also there's so much ambivalence in your heart about who you are and who you're really not. And I think, actually, very successful people have a kind of really good social versatility and a class versatility. But then with that kind of versatility comes the sense of fraudulence. Am I really this person? Who am I, exactly?

MARTIN: And she's irritated. I mean, she's been exposed to all these people from all over the world, with all of these experiences and, you know, wealth and sophistication. And she's happy to have this experience but she's also irritated, you know, at them, at herself, at her parents.

Ms. LEE: I think she's always feeling this sense of unease because she doesn't know exactly where she fits in. And I think that the sense of being fish or a fowl when you are accepted or invited to the table is such an interesting experience, because you're invited to the table but you're not so sure that that table, that position or that seat is really yours.

MARTIN: I'm talking with Min Jin Lee, author of the new book "Free Food For Millionaires." It's a novel about the Korean immigrant experience. The title also refers to one of the ways in which Casey travels across class, across time, across the city. It refers to the fact that she gets a job at a certain point. I'm not going to go and tell the circumstances by which she's kind of out on the street, but Casey gets kicked out of the house, or she leaves because her father beats her pretty viciously…

Ms. LEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: …in front of the other family members. This is not something sort of done in secret. He, in fact, tells her to stand up, take off her glasses so that he can hit her.

Ms. LEE: Right.

MARTIN: And he hits her badly enough that she has visible scars. And she goes and checks herself into a hotel and she has nothing. And she's got to go out and figure out how to get a job, and she gets a job at an investment bank. And the free food for millionaires is that when they close a deal, whatever the department that closes the deal buys lunch for everybody. And as they're all like running through the trough, like, as if they're starving, the guy who's taking her around says, oh, free food for millionaires.

Ms. LEE: That's very good recall, really good. But having said that, I think that that scene that we pointed about "Free Food For Millionaires" - I was taken aback when my friend told me that that's what happened at investment banks. Sometimes the wealthiest people actually push forward in line and get the most things. Again which proves, like, oh, look, the richer are getting richer. Isn't it funny?

But I also want to make this really kind of important comment for me personally, which is that what sustains you, like, what is food as a metaphor, like what nourishes us in the end. And actually, I was really inspired by a verse in the Bible - Deuteronomy 8:3, in the New Testament - this whole notion of, you know, man cannot live by bread alone.

So God's testing the Israelites and he's asked - and he's basically saying I've taken everything away because I want you to know that I sustained you. And that verse has always been with me because I always think, gosh, isn't it cruel, that you have to have everything taken away before you realize that you have good things in life.

MARTIN: There is one thing I was puzzled about, which is that a person who had all this stuff, you know, who was as messed up as she is, at some point you'd think - you kind of think somebody who would recommend therapy.

Ms. LEE: Yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Which she never does. And I'm just curious why somebody with all these yuppie friends, nobody says, Casey, you know, you've got to - maybe you should talk to somebody. And I just wondered, is that something - forgive me for putting it in these terms - is that something uniquely Korean that she just would not do?

Ms. LEE: I think that you've hit on something that's really essential to me, personally, about the mental health of Asian Americans and how it's so untreated. I really applaud you for talking about it. I'm personally in therapy and have been for the past three and a half years. And I can't tell you how helpful it's been to just talk to another person about how difficult being an adult is. I find being an adult very difficult. Being an adult artist, Asian American, incredibly difficult. Or trying anyway.

I think she should have been treated. I think that Casey should have been guided in other way to talk about her feelings. But in Korean American communities, I think mental health is really disregarded. And I think in a lot of working class communities across culture, across race are emotionalized. Our mental health is not considered to be something that's taken seriously. And I think that's a big problem.

MARTIN: Does Casey really need to suffer so much? And what message would you like us to draw from all that she has gone through?

Ms. LEE: I think Casey does need to suffer a lot. She's been given a lot to -in order for her to have a great future. In the ending - and I'm not giving anything away - is that we need to imagine a greater future without looking at our possessions. So in the end, she does lose possessions, material things. I think those things are truly transient. So I hope that we can think about that in another way.

MARTIN: I wonder, A, what reaction you're getting. And B, I wonder whether some of this imagery wasn't kind of revenge for all those bad "South Pacific" remakes all over the place.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEE: The people that I have already encountered, some of the Korean people that I have already met, have been incredibly pleased. And some have had actually said I feel like you're following me around with a tape recorder because this is actually my life. And that comment to me has been incredibly gratifying.

However, I am writing about sex and violence and women who betray each other. And these are the people that I know. And I think that if we're going to complain about the invisibility of Asian Americans in the media, we need to generate content. And I think that if I really want to be seen, if I really want you to know me, I'm going to tell you the things that I'm ashamed of because, at the risk of sounding of ridiculous, if you want to be loved, you have to be known.

MARTIN: What about some white readers?

Ms. LEE: Across the board, white readers have been very pleased with this book except for the fact that I think they often want Casey to do the easier thing. And I kind of think if Casey always did the easier thing, there really wouldn't be a book. It's sort of like when you watch a horror movie and you're kind of saying don't go down the basement, don't go down the basement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, keep in touch.

Ms. LEE: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Good luck to you. Min Jin Lee is the author of the new novel "Free Food For Millionaires."

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