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Culture Q&A

Min Jin Lee

A novelist’s struggles

Author Min Jin Lee says writing isn’t a career—it’s a vocation

Frank McGrath/The Irish Independent/Eyevine/Redux

Min Jin Lee, born in South Korea, came to the United States in 1976 when she was 7 years old. She grew up in Queens, New York City, went to church, and worked behind the counter of her family jewelry store. She graduated from Yale, survived a serious liver disease, persevered through writing disappointments, and became a National Book Award finalist last year for her novel Pachinko. It’s really well-written, as is her first novel, so I wanted to interview her in front of some Patrick Henry College students who are aspiring writers.

What was your initial reaction to this amazing place called America? We came to JFK, the airport, and it looked exactly like Seoul but without Korean people. I was really disappointed because I thought America was going to be like Cinderella, with stagecoaches and ball gowns and people wearing party dresses. But America was also wondrous because it had all these cool things that we didn’t have in Korea when I was growing up, like peanut butter. Delicious. I love peanut butter.

Amen. Yes, hallelujah, peanut butter. America also had something rare and expensive in Korea: bananas. My uncle bought us an enormous tub filled with bananas—now I know it’s a cheap fruit—and said, “Eat as many as you’d like.” I’m thinking, “What a great country.”

Some people dream of pairing certain foods and certain wines, but the best pairing is peanut butter and banana. Absolutely. Couldn’t get any better.

Were you one of those kids who starts scribbling and writing stories? Not at all. I never thought I was going to be a writer. I’m a good reader—quick, thorough, understanding plot—but I didn’t think people like me (working-class, Korean-American) became writers. Today, kindergarten kids come home and say, “I published a story today.” They’ll show you four pieces of paper folded together with staples and say, “I’m an author.” I didn’t have that liberating feeling.

Why did you go to Yale? Because I got in and because my favorite writer, Sinclair Lewis, had gone there. If he had not, I would not have applied. Totally true.

You won two writing awards there. Yes, by a fluke.

How did you start writing? I was in a writing seminar where my socioeconomic class revealed itself very quickly. There were all these things I didn’t know. You’re sitting at a big oval table and I’m the rube in the room—and also the only nonwhite person. One day we were critiquing a story that mentioned Stonehenge. I raised my hand like an idiot and said, “Stonehenge? I don’t know what that is. Maybe you should define what that is for the reader who doesn’t know.” All the kids turned around and looked at me: Are you stupid? A lot of those kids had visited Stonehenge.

But your story, not theirs, won Yale’s writing award for best nonfiction story. What was it about? My mother, who endured so many things about coming to America. It was personal but it was blind admissions, so you didn’t put your name down. It won and I thought, “Maybe I’ll do that again.” I took a fiction class. The teacher cut out a tiny article from The New York Times where four little girls had attempted suicide because they were so poor: They did it to make sure their younger brother had money for school fees. The teacher gave me this little piece of news and said, “Why don’t you write something about it?” I did and submitted that. It won a prize.

Two for two. Two for two, I know. And still I thought, “I’ll go to law school because that’s a real job.”

Parental pressure there? No—I didn’t think I could make a living as a writer. Even now, I’m almost 50 and considered a successful writer, and it’s really hard. I was just turned down for two teaching positions. I didn’t get four fellowships this year. That was right after the National Book Award finalist.

You’re a National Book Award finalist. What does it take to get a fellowship? I have no idea, but I did get two fellowships from the eight I applied for. Not two for two anymore. But I only needed to have one, so two is good.

You graduated from Yale and then Georgetown Law School. You went into corporate law. How many billable hours did you accumulate? The month that I quit, I billed 300 hours. If you’re an honest person, you’re actually in the office about 350 to 360. I was there every single day and the only time I left was to go to church on Sunday—and I’d come right back.

Was there a certain breaking point: 300 hours a month? It was exactly that. I was a very good baby lawyer because I’m compliant. If you tell me, “Min Jin, read 12 boxes of documents,” I’ll say OK and will read every page and write the due diligence report. After 300 hours I had finished the task. I went to the partner and thought he would tell me to go home to rest. But I just got another assignment. I said to him, “I quit.”

Actually those words: “I quit?” “I quit. I can’t do this anymore.” Once I said it, I knew I wouldn’t go back.

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Nancy Pearcey

Design and identity

Reclaiming a high view of male and female sexuality 

Steve Gonzales/Genesis

Nancy Pearcey’s new book, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality, helps us understand how to respond when a Wisconsin resident born male becomes a high-school prom queen and a Missouri resident born female sues a school district. Pearcey is a professor at Houston Baptist University and the author of Total Truth and other books.

Please take us through the process by which homosexuality and transgenderism became prominent in American culture. Let’s start with an important thing you learned from Francis Schaeffer when you were a student at L’Abri in Switzerland. I learned that the concept of truth has been divided. He illustrated that using the metaphor of two stories in a building. After the rise of modern science, many people concluded that the only valid form of knowledge is science. That’s the lower story: objective facts. Morality and theology were reduced to matters of personal, private, subjective opinion. That’s the upper story, where people say, “That can be true for you but not true for me.” In secular academia, this division is called the fact/value split, and in Total Truth, I showed how it is the main barrier to communicating Christian principles: People don’t even realize you are making objective truth claims. In Love Thy Body, I show how the same split underlies today’s cutting-edge moral issues.

How does that also reflect the secular-sacred split? Tragically, many people have essentially a “Christianized” version of the fact/value split. They treat things like church, Bible study, and prayer as more important (upper story), but don’t know how to bring a holistic Biblical perspective to their jobs, professions, politics, and the rest of life (lower story). One of my grad students said, “I was always taught ‘spirit = good; body = bad.’”

‘Nature has an order, a plan, a purpose, a design. And we are happier and healthier when we live in accord with that design.’

Postmodernists also emphasize the upper story? Postmodernism basically says: Why should I take my identity from my body? What matters is my mind, feelings, desires, choices. This is at the core of arguments for homosexuality. Nobody really denies that on the level of biology, physiology, and anatomy, males and females are counterparts to one another. That’s how the human sexual and reproductive system is designed. So when a person embraces a same-sex identity, they are essentially saying, “Why should my body inform my identity? Why should my biological sex as male or female have any voice in my moral decisions?” This is a profoundly disrespectful view of the body. It gives us an opportunity to go beyond a negative message—“It’s wrong. Don’t do it”—and craft a positive message based on a higher view of the dignity and value of the body.

Christians have been attacked for having a low view of the body, but you’re proposing a high view. It’s widely accepted today that if someone feels an opposition between mind and body, it’s the mind that wins. But why accept such a demeaning view of the body? This is even easier to see in transgenderism: The transgender narrative says your gender identity has nothing to do with your biological sex. A BBC documentary says at the core of the debate is the idea that your mind “can be at war with your body”—that you can be trapped in the wrong body. A recent book by a Princeton professor gives a philosophical defense of transgenderism, yet admits that it involves “disconnect,” “disjunction,” “self-alienation,” and “self-estrangement.” Kids down to kindergarten are being taught that their body has nothing to do with who they are. We need to communicate compassion for people trapped in a dehumanizing, self-alienating, self-estranging view of the human being.

The homosexual rights movement has emphasized biological determinism. How is that changing? The cutting-edge view is sexual fluidity. Psychologist Lisa Diamond, who identifies as lesbian, found that 40 percent of homosexuals and 42 percent of lesbians reported sexual attraction to the opposite sex in the previous year. She also found that about 80 percent of people who came out as homosexual have changed their sexual identity label at least once—to heterosexual, bisexual, queer, or “unlabeled.”

Many people think a secular ethic puts too much value on sex. In reality it places too little value on sex. The hook-up script says sex can be completely physical, without any hint of love or commitment. Rolling Stone magazine quoted a young man who said sex is just “a piece of body touching another piece of body. [It is] existentially meaningless.” The hook-up culture treats humans as purely physical organisms, driven by purely physical urges. No wonder it is leaving a trail of wounded people. They’re trying to live out a worldview that does not fit who we are.

How do we fight the dominant secular view? Every ethic depends on a view of nature. Once you accept the notion that nature is a product of blind material forces, logically you end up with a low view of the body. The implication is that the body has no intrinsic purpose, and therefore the mind can use it for its own purposes. The outspoken lesbian Camille Paglia defends homosexuality in just those terms. She acknowledges that nature made humans a sexually reproducing species, but then asks, why not “defy” nature? “Fate, not God, has given us this flesh. We have absolute claim to our bodies and may do with them as we see fit.” In other words, if our bodies are products of undirected material forces, they convey no moral message, they give no clue to our identity.

To fight the secular ethic, we have to recover a teleological view of nature, from the Greek word telos, which means goal or purpose. It’s evident to observation that living things are structured for a purpose, that eyes are for seeing, ears are for hearing, fins are for swimming, and wings are for flying. The smoking gun is DNA: Every cell in the body is governed by a genetic code, which is language and information. Our bodies are not raw material that we can use “as we see fit.” Nature has an order, a plan, a purpose, a design. And we are happier and healthier when we live in accord with that design—when our biological sex, gender identity, and sexual desire are in harmony.

Love Thy Body includes several personal stories of change. A young man named Sean was exclusively attracted to other men, but today he’s married and has three kids. What changed? Sean said, “I stopped regarding my sexual desires as who I was and started regarding my body as who I was. Instead of trying to change my feelings, I accepted what I had, namely a male body, as a good gift from God.”

You quote Sean saying, “I came to think my feelings relatively superficial in comparison to my physical identity.” That’s revolutionary in our culture where feelings are so dominant. I recently read an interview with a 14-year-old girl who lived as a trans boy for three years, from age 11, then detransitioned to reclaim her identity as a girl. She said the turning point came when she learned that it’s OK “to love your body.”

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Kay Cole James

Vision and values

A sit-down with the Heritage Foundation’s new president

Gage Skidmore

Kay Coles James on Jan. 1 became president of the Heritage Foundation, America’s premier conservative think tank. Her previous leadership roles: secretary of Health and Human Resources in Virginia, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in George W. Bush’s administration, and many more. Here are edited excerpts of our interview in March.

You’ve written that you wanted to become a capital-M Mother, which within the black church community means “a well-respected woman with worn knees, a well-used Bible, candy in her purse for children, who has earned the privilege of saying exactly what she thinks.” Can you do that as Heritage president? I certainly can, and you may call me Mother James.

Mother James, I was impressed with your candor five years ago when we also did an interview here at Patrick Henry College and you commented, “I met recently with young African-American conservative professionals and said, ‘I have a newsflash for you. The cavalry is not coming. There is no one coming to save us. The conservative movement, the evangelical movement, and the Republican Party don’t care about us anymore.’” Do they care now? They are learning to care. They understand how important it is to care. To maintain freedom and liberty, we must spend time, energy, and resources in various communities, including cultural elites, minorities, women, and millennials. Many of our wonderful conservative organizations are comfortable just staying within and preaching to the choir instead of being evangelical, with a small “e.” The Heritage board chose someone who has as a passion growing our movement.

How will you appeal to the cultural elites? I have to appeal to their intellectual honesty.

‘To maintain freedom and liberty, we must spend time, energy, and resources in various communities, including cultural elites, minorities, women, and millennials.’

How much of that is there? Not a lot, I must confess. So I ask, “Are you prepared to be intellectually honest? Will you give me the freedom to call you on it when you’re not? You’re entitled to your opinions but not your own set of facts.” Heritage researchers write papers, and I’m excited to be with Patrick Henry students today because this is the farm team. They learn to rely on data and defend what they believe. Elsewhere, we hear, “I feel, in my opinion.” Those feelings and opinions are typically not based on anything other than some talking points pulled off Facebook.

Thinking of a member of the cultural elite who emphasizes feelings a lot and is also from a minority group, Oprah Winfrey … Oh, I’m looking forward to that one.

What would you say to her? We could find a lot of common ground. I don’t want to see poor people poor. She doesn’t either. I don’t want to see kids trapped in failure factories and unable to get a great education. Neither does she. I don’t want to see access to quality healthcare denied to those who desperately need it. Neither does she. The difference comes in our approach to how to solve those problems. So with Oprah I would lay out the common ground, appreciate who she is, and say, “Are you willing, Oprah, to set everything aside and let’s look at things that work?”

Education is a prime example? When I am dealing with young progressives on college campuses, I like to put up a picture of a kid who is obviously from an impoverished background, and I tell them that my children and my grandchildren have someone who’s crazy about them and that’s me. That poor kid whose picture I put up deserves someone who is crazy about them as well and who’s willing to take on teachers unions and school administrators. Are you willing to do that and set aside politics, set aside labels and talking points, set aside advocating on behalf of anyone other than that kid? If you lock Oprah Winfrey and me in a room, I’ll bet we could come out with some solutions for that kid.

Let’s say Oprah Winfrey responds to that persuasive argument by saying, “Donald Trump. No compassion.” Then what? Heritage is not an arm of the Republican National Committee or the Trump administration. We promote conservative philosophies, ideas, and policies. Whenever the RNC or the Trump administration veers from that, we take them on. I would say to Oprah: When someone is dying in a desert and a hand reaches out to give a cup of water, would you knock it away? Take Trump out of the picture and look at the cup of water. Is it real? Will it quench the thirst? I don’t care who it’s coming from, if it’s a real solution, I’ll take it.

So Oprah then says, tell me about the cup of water you’ve offered to DACA kids. I have compassion for kids brought here by their parents. They had no say in that. I get that they have hopes and dreams and aspirations. But you know what I also get? That there’s a kid in Appalachia who has hopes and dreams. There’s a kid in inner-city Chicago who has hopes and dreams, and in a country with limited resources, I’d just like to say Americans have dreamers too. Let’s take care of our American dreamers, and we can get to the DACA ones eventually. There should be a pathway to citizenship for those individuals, but I also have compassion for folks that I know that stood in line, went through the processes, and respected our laws.

On education, did the Bush administration make a mistake in not pushing school choice but instead emphasizing testing? We made a mistake in not pushing both. If school choice were enacted and people took their resources and money and picked better schools, you would see the public schools improve because they are going to want to keep those kids. I don’t support school choice because I want to see public schools shut down. I want to see poor kids have choice—and the competition will improve public schools.

Clarence Thomas in his autobiography writes about when he was nominated for the Supreme Court and underwent enormous abuse: “We asked four of our friends, Elizabeth and Steven Law and Kay and Charles James, to come over the next morning and join us in prayer. They showed up bright and early, carrying bags of doughnuts and bagels past the reporters camped outside the house. The six of us chatted for a little while, then sat in a circle, held hands, and asked the Lord for help. Both couples came back each day until the battle was over, and their company was a priceless gift. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name,’ Jesus said, ‘I am there among them.’ He was among us now.” Can you just tell us a bit more about that experience? Only that it’s been repeated more times than I’d like to think of with friends going through difficult times. We need to be a people with the audacity to believe in prayer. We need to be a people, when we see overwhelming challenges, who know we serve a mighty God and can go to Him in confidence and in prayer, knowing that the battle is not ours: It’s His.

Amen.

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