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A lifetime of reading taught Min Jin Lee to write about her immigrant world

At work, my mom and dad shared a deli egg sandwich for lunch to save money. Dad wore two sweaters in the underheated store. My sisters and I wore Fayva Shoes brand sneakers. But when I read Lenski’s crackers in Florida, I thought they were the hardest, deserving of my sympathy. Girls in Lenski’s story wore dresses made from sacks of flour. It was a fate that could be avoided with education, I reasoned.

Before college, I discovered “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, the quintessential immigrant novel from New York, which emphasized the power of education. When young mother, Katie Nolan, who herself only finished sixth grade, gives birth to her daughter, Katie’s immigrant mother, Mary, tells her that although she is a “green crow” who does Didn’t know enough to help her own children, Katie could raise her children differently. Mary asks her daughter to nail an empty milk box in the dark corner of a cupboard to put coins in and to read good books to her children daily so that they can read and write.

On payday, Katie, a janitor, throws coins into a box, and every night she reads a page from Shakespeare and the Bible to her daughter, Francie, and, later, to her son, Neely. Despite their struggles, Katie’s children begin to earn a lot of money, surpassing the pay rate of the least educated adults.

Our first year in America, Uncle John took us to IBM’s Christmas party at a corporate recreation facility. There is no doubt that the party was for immediate family members, but somehow Uncle John had included my sisters and I with his daughters. In the large party room, the buffet tables were filled with casseroles of prime rib and casseroles of noodles. The number of colorful cakes, cookies and candies took my breath away. Uncle John told us to eat as much as we wanted. Towards the end of the holiday, Santa Claus appeared and gave presents to all the children. Oddly enough, I don’t remember what I received, but I do remember the colored foil wrapping and the ribbon.

My mom and dad worked six days a week. They were up all day and exhausted by the time they got home. We had gifts, but my mom didn’t have time for decorations, parties, or cards. At the IBM party, the feeling I had was to visit abundance. There were multicolored lights, garlands, scalloped trees, and a man in a red velvet suit with a white beard giving me gifts just because I was a child. Life could have adornments.

In the presence of generosity, I always feel a sense of fear. My favorite book characters are feeling it too. When young Francie Nolan goes to Losher’s Bread Factory for “the semi-weekly supply of stale bread,” she lingers in the fragrant factory store, waiting for her turn. Never mind that she buys stale bread and a pie with broken crusts that costs a penny. At least she’s a client. 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 dry breads or, maybe, no bread at all.

In high school, I read heavier tariffs, in which the characters wanted things but didn’t have them or lost everything. That seemed to be the point – as if the reader needed to know that life would be difficult. I have read books in which life could pulverize your dreams. I will never forget the broken Hurstwood in “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser, who refused to accept that his love was not returned. I was discovering tragic archetypes like Balzac’s Père Goriot, who could have been sympathetic to Shakespeare’s King Lear. Life could take it all if you didn’t take care of the store and adapt as well as you could, and even if you were.

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