A Lifetime of Reading Taught Min Jin Lee How to Write About Her Immigrant World

This past year, I’ve spent most of my time in my drafty office in Harlem, where the water leak from the lintel above the south-facing window has reappeared after some bad weather. The elementary school across the street has been closed. I miss the happy laughter of the children. I’ve had some troubling news, and had to gather myself and remember how to solve knotty problems. I turn to my shelves again.

On Zoom, I tell my college students: “I know it’s lousy right now, but it’ll get better. You’re tough. We’ll figure this out.” I believe this. However, grief lingers. My favorite uncle has died.

Uncle John was the second son of a Presbyterian minister, the headmaster of an orphanage school. He came to the United States when he was 23 — the age my son is now.

John Y. Kim arrived in Missouri as a student a few years after the Korean War. In Warrensburg, he managed to study history, get married and have a daughter. He wanted to be a journalist. After getting his degree from the University of Central Missouri, he headed to N.Y.U. for a master’s in history but ran out of money.

For a time, he worked as a waiter. The restaurant wouldn’t feed him. When he cleared the tables, diners left food untouched on their plates. If he was caught eating any of it, his boss would threaten to fire him. Though hungry, he’d scrape French fries off dinner plates and toss bowls of spaghetti into garbage bins.

In my mind, I can still see Uncle John’s handsome face with the square jawline, thick eyebrows highlighting his large dark eyes, the same shape as my mother’s. A young man wears a white waiter’s shirt and black worker’s slacks and stands over a bin. His knife moves across the thick porcelain plate, making a thud sound as food hits a plastic bag.

On a day off, Uncle John went to the New York Public Library to check the classifieds. He noticed that computer programmers had high starting salaries, so he borrowed books on programming. The former history graduate student read library books on computer science. Not long after, he got a job at an insurance company, then, later, I.B.M. hired him as a programmer, where he worked for most of his life.

In 1975, Uncle John, now an I.B.M. company man, sponsored his younger sister’s family to immigrate from South Korea. A year later, we came to Elmhurst, Queens, where Uncle John, his wife and their two American-born daughters lived. I was 7.

In our first year in America, Uncle John took my two sisters and me to the library in Elmhurst and got us cards. We could borrow as many books as we liked, he said. We loaded up our metal grocery cart with its tilted black wheels and white plastic hubs. It creaked all the way home.

I don’t remember how I learned to read books in Korea or America. As a child, I couldn’t speak well or find friends, but I was a very early reader.

I still read promiscuously — across genres, fields and media. However, I remain vulnerable to a certain kind of book, whatever its cultural origin, that embodies the ethos of American rugged individualism and the Korean quest for knowledge.

As a young reader, I didn’t know that these types of narratives were found most often in coming-of-age stories or memoirs. As a grown-up, I return to such books, especially when life is difficult. In literature, I’ve never been without consolation. Books have found me at every stage of my life, reminding me that if a character could change, so could I, and in turn, the story would pave another path for me.

During elementary school, as a new reader of English-language books, I discovered Lois Lenski, a prolific American writer and daughter of an immigrant. At the library, Lenski’s books populated whole shelves. She was the kind of author I preferred because once I finished one book, I could just pick up another.

In “Strawberry Girl,” one of Lenski’s most famous novels, the protagonist, Birdie, the new girl in town, goes to a one-room schoolhouse, where she encounters the Slater boys, who hate “book-larnin’.” The Slater boys “beat up to a jelly” the schoolmaster, shutting school for weeks. After fires, illness and neighbor squabbles, the book ends with the youngest Slater boy, Shoestring, wanting “to git book-larnin’.” When I finished the book, I recall nodding solemnly, gratified that the Slater boy might have a chance to leave poverty and a violent family.

In Elmhurst, my mother, father, two sisters and I lived in a rental apartment on a side street off Grand Avenue, with neighbors who labored long hours as cooks, waiters, cabdrivers, house painters, plumbers, hairdressers, doormen and small shopkeepers. My parents worked in Manhattan in their tiny store in a squalid building in Koreatown. During their first year, they ran a newsstand. In my class roster at P.S. 102, there were no Cabots or Lowells. I can recall a Patel, Gonzalez, Nieto, Rossi, Steinberg, Mehta, Gambetta, Csernovic and Rivera. For reference, the rich kid in my school had his birthday party at McDonald’s — his mom was a nurse, his dad a cop.

At work, my mother and father split a deli egg sandwich for lunch to save money. Dad wore two sweaters at the underheated store. My sisters and I wore off-brand sneakers from Fayva Shoes. But when I read about Lenski’s Florida “crackers,” I thought they were the hardscrabble ones, deserving all my sympathy. The girls in Lenski’s story wore dresses made from flour sacks. This was a fate that could be avoided with education, I reasoned.

Before middle school, I found Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” the quintessential New York immigrant novel, which underscored the power of education. When the young mother, Katie Nolan, who finished only the sixth grade herself, gives birth to her daughter, Katie’s immigrant mother, Mary, tells her that though she was a “greenhorn” who hadn’t known enough to help her own children, Katie could raise her children differently. Mary instructs her daughter to nail down an empty milk can in the dark corner of a closet to save coins in and to read to her children daily from good books so that they may read and write.

On payday, Katie, a janitor, throws coins into a tin, and each night she reads a page of Shakespeare and the Bible to her daughter, Francie, and, later, her son, Neely. Despite their hardships, Katie’s children begin to earn good money, surpassing the wage rate of the less educated adults.

Our first year in America, Uncle John took us to the I.B.M. Christmas party at a company recreation facility. No doubt the party was intended for immediate family members, but somehow Uncle John had included my sisters and me along with his daughters. In the large party room, buffet tables were laden with pans of prime rib and noodle casseroles. The number of cakes, cookies and colorful candies took my breath away. Uncle John told us to eat as much as we liked. Near the end of the party, Santa appeared and gave all the children presents. Strangely enough, I can’t recall what I received, but I remember the colored foil wrapping and ribbon.

My mother and father worked six days a week. They were on their feet all day and exhausted by the time they returned home. We had presents, but my mother didn’t have time for decorations, feasts or cards. At the I.B.M. party, the feeling I had was of visiting abundance. There were multicolored lights, tinsel, festooned trees and a man in a red velvet costume wearing a white beard giving me presents just because I was a child. Life could have trimmings.

In the presence of bounty, I still feel a sense of awe. My favorite book characters feel this, too. When young Francie Nolan goes to Losher’s bread factory for the family’s “semiweekly supply of stale bread,” she lingers in the nice-smelling outlet store, waiting her turn. It doesn’t matter that she’s buying stale bread and a pie with broken crusts that costs a nickel. At least she’s a customer. Surely, it could be worse: There could be a day when there is no nickel in the family budget for the pie — a day of just dry loaves or, perhaps, no bread at all.

In high school, I read heavier fare, in which the characters wanted things but didn’t get them or lost everything. That seemed to be the point — as if the reader needed to know that life would be hard. I read books in which life could pulverize your dreams. I’ll never forget the broken Hurstwood in Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie,” who refused to accept that his love would not be returned. I was learning about tragic archetypes like Balzac’s Père Goriot, who might have commiserated with Shakespeare’s King Lear. Life could take away everything if you weren’t minding the store and adapting as well as you could, and even if you were.

In my teenage years, there were the expected heartbreaks — boys did not like me back, girls refused my friendship, beloved ones moved away and I had unanswerable questions about God and my soul. Each time, I returned to the books, which I thought might free me from the anguish of needing love and acceptance. I would learn more and then be less vulnerable to heartache, to any of life’s disappointments.

I discovered “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” the astonishing document of a slave who taught himself to read at great peril to himself. Young Frederick pilfered bread from his slave master to barter for lessons from poor white children. By the time I read his memoir, I had been in America for less than a decade. Douglass’s words reminded me that the state forbids reading and writing when it wants to make freedom virtually impossible.

During Douglass’s lifetime, most girls in Korea were not allowed to read. Nobi, the hereditary serf class, had existed for centuries. Nobi men, women and children could be treated like property, cruelly abused and sold. The Nobi class was formally abolished only decades after the American Civil War.

I was learning that governments could keep knowledge from particular groups. Educated people could disempower those with less and keep them in subordinated positions.

I consumed shelves and shelves of 19th-century novels in high school because the worlds in those books felt more ordered than the chaos of adolescence. The more I read, the more I understood that my own life would be complex. I felt neither fully Korean nor fully American. I was neither a girl nor a woman. I was neither poor nor rich. I was from New York, but from Queens, not Manhattan — the only borough the world imagined was New York City.

To my mind, the most tragic British novel of thwarted education and domestic entrapment is Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure.” How I pitied and loved Jude Fawley, who yearned to become a scholar in Christminster. I couldn’t help admiring how Jude taught himself Latin and Greek while working in a bakery, then, later, as a stonemason.

My father had been a teenage war refugee from North Korea, who had taught himself to read English with a dictionary and some books, and who practiced speaking by running errands for American soldiers. Later, he put himself through college and studied to become a surgeon but had to quit when he developed tuberculosis. With weakened lungs, he needed a long rest, regular meals, fewer demands — again, luxuries. When he was well enough to return to school, he chose a simpler degree in business and deferred his medical dreams.

Unlike Jude or my father, I had the things I needed to learn.

During high school, Uncle John came over to our apartment with a giant box he could barely manage to carry on his own. He looked so happy. Inside the box was an I.B.M. Selectric typewriter. We set the typewriter down carefully on the dining table and plugged it in. Right away, there was the hum of the weighty machine. The Selectric, with its tan metal body and thoughtful vibration, announced: “I’m ready to type.”

My term papers were a joy to write on an office-quality machine, something my friends at the Bronx High School of Science did not own. I’d learned how to touch-type in middle school, and I was a good typist. By then we were living in Maspeth, another Queens neighborhood, by the famous gas tanks, on the second floor of a three-family house. I loved typing up my A.P. English papers for Mrs. Zalaznick.

In high school, I read Sinclair Lewis’s best books and applied early decision to Yale because Lewis had gone there. I was deferred, then accepted that April.

In college, I read even more. At the beginning of the semester, I would rush to the bookstore to get my textbooks. After choosing them, I’d scan the aisles and pick up copies of the syllabuses for all the classes I could not take. I had determined that a syllabus was the fastest way to figure out what were the most important books in a particular field. All these smart professors had toiled their whole lives in one field and compiled a list of books I had to know. How could I refuse their hard-earned crib notes?

As a parent of a college student, I am astonished that my shopkeeper parents paid my tuition in full. They didn’t want me to take out loans, so they took on the cost of my expensive education. In return, I thought I should get value for our money. I would learn as much as I could — the way a financially savvy person dines at an all-you-can-eat buffet: by going heavy on the shrimp and smoked salmon and saving room for chocolate-covered strawberries. Skipping the rolls.

Even if I couldn’t take the history of architecture, or 20th-century European philosophers, I hoarded the syllabuses. At least I’d know what to study later, on my own. I took extra classes because the tuition wasn’t based on credits. My grades were average, but I didn’t care. I took every literature class I could in order to keep reading novels.

I read through two courses on African-American literature, one on Jewish literature and the only one on Asian-American literature offered at the time. From my own reading, I already had a wonderful foundation in literature written by great dead white people. I loved those books; I still do. In college, I got to read books by great writers who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and I loved those, too.

I read Nella Larsen, Anzia Yezierska, Paule Marshall, Henry Roth, James Baldwin, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Younghill Kang, among others — and they led me to add new shelves in my heart. Reading these authors nourished me in a wholly different way and enlarged my thinking.

After college, I went to law school. I got married. After practicing law for two years, I quit to write fiction, expecting to produce a book in no time. I was wrong. I was writing but no one wanted any of it. It took me more than 10 years to publish my first novel.

There were times when my husband and I needed my lost income. I was so educated, and had read so many books, yet like a fool, I was still too vulnerable to the world.

By my mid-30s, I was a mother. One day, I was on the subway and, of course, reading. As I finished V. S. Naipaul’s “A House for Mr. Biswas,” I burst into tears. Oh, how I wanted Mr. Biswas, the humiliated sign-writer turned journalist, to get his heart’s desire.

As I walked home from the train station, it occurred to me that I had to write about the disgraced, the poor and the earnest strivers of Queens, and I would be able to tell their stories not because I was a writer but because I was a reader.

All those shelves of books had built my mind, teaching me how to shape a narrative about my people, from what they had lost and found. In life, even in my life, there was a coming-of-age, tragedy and meaning.

I visited Uncle John at his nursing home in February, a month before he died. We talked a little but mostly I wanted to see his face, sit by his side. I wanted to keep him company because he had kept me company all these years.

My mother had brought him bite-size cream puffs from a Korean bakery, and he tucked into them. He smiled, marveling at how tall my son was. He kept offering to buy us dinner.

There was so much I did not know how to say.

I still see his thoughtful eyes, full of hope and gifts.

I imagine Uncle John as a young man walking to the library and picking up a newspaper. He heads to the shelves to borrow some books. He solves life’s problems. He rescues us.

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