Marie Myung-Ok Lee

FPP Harlem spoke with novelist and essayist Marie Myung-Ok Lee (Somebody’s Daughter) about Korean birth mothers of adopted children, negotiating the “we” in New York City, and where to buy the best bacon in Harlem…

What does “community” mean to you?  

I see community as two things: (1) the people around where you live; and (2) based on common interests.

Is this something you’ve always wanted?


Have you ever resisted it?

I grew up in northern Minnesota in an all-white town and so “white” became “normal” for me. When I got to college, I sort of tried to recapitulate that, for my mental comfort. It took a while, for instance, to stop avoiding the Asian/Korean students. Eventually, I got over it, moved to NYC, and was even a founder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, which is the largest organization of its kind.

You often write about your family life, and the joys and struggles of raising a son with serious health issues and developmental disabilities. Recently, you wrote about the feeling of community you have with your son’s home aides. Has this been surprising to you? Does the election threaten to end this assistance? What has this “we” meant to you and your family?

Even before the election I was hearing that states have this form of assistance on the chopping block, and indeed I’d been, almost every year, involved in protests against Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s (RI-R) plan to cut services in the state budget. The ironic thing, it costs MORE to have children institutionalized than to have them at home, not to mention the effect it has on the family. But even knowing that, it’s a “safe” thing to cut because this constituency doesn’t vote or have a voice.

When writing about family life–especially in the New York Times and The Atlantic–have there been any surprises or unintended consequences?  Does your son understand that many people have read about him?

I have done my best to preserve J’s privacy (e.g., calling him J) because no, he doesn’t really understand things like magazines, so I do my best to guess about issues of consent. Mostly I’ve gotten positive feedback, a lot of people say I’ve been able to articulate what they feel about raising their own child, in a society where you don’t get a lot of positive feedback for it. One unintended and wonderful things about the NYT piece is that I’ve been trying to untangle the morass of trying to find services for J, and I think after some futile tries with no calls back…well, we got a little help.

As a Fulbright Scholar, you took oral histories of Korean birth mothers whose children were adopted abroad.  What did you learn from this work? 

That in the adoption triad the birth mother, the most essential person, is often made invisible and voiceless. Despite going in attempting to be as open-minded as possible, in speaking with the women (who were so generous, and brave), I realized I still saw their issues through a lens of prejudice, which is also embedded into the Korean language. Adoption is often termed “being sent away” (like mail), and to place a child for adoption is “throwing away” a child (same as for trash), birth-mothers are frequently referred to as “criminals.”

As someone working with both sides (I interviewed adoptees and their families as well), I could see that in the focus on actually getting the children, the birth mother was often relegated to this strange, almost imagined place where the adoptee instinctively knew in order not to perturb his adoptive family, the birthmother didn’t exist or occupied a fictive place. Granted, also, for prospective parents who want to “skip” the messiness and possible custody issues that can occur in domestic adoption, they specifically seek out things like Korean adoption, where, even though the children are not technically orphans, birthparents have no rights.

[P.S. This was for a novel and not nonfiction–for confidentiality’s sake, ALL the details were changed in the novel. Some of my background research was donated to the Library of Congress, but I keep the tapes in my possession.  The birthmothers understood this was for a novel, and they also understood that I could guard their privacy to the utmost.]

Are there any other collective voices you’re interested in recording, or sharing with the world through your prose? 

I am just interested in what makes people tick. I guess the next “collective” I’ve worked on is doctors–my novel Firstborn Son is about the medical profession and the future of medicine.

You’ve been to North Korea!  How did this happen? What do you think the people of North Korea most want us, on the outside, to know? 

The most unexpected thing for me, especially as a Korean American, was that at every turn, they would talk about how much they wanted tong-il, reunification. You may or may not know that it was the US and Russia (the US came up with the 38th parallel) that split the country in two; it’s not as if the DPRK went off on its own and formed an evil empire.

How do you think growing up as a girl of color in Hibbing, MN, helped shape your character, and your dreams?

I dreamed mostly of getting the hell out of there…and living in NYC and being a writer. As Eudora Welty said, anyone’s who’s survived childhood has a lifetime’s worth of stuff to write about.

New York vs. Rhode Island?

RI = ocean, easy place to live

NY = everything else

Do you miss Minnesota?

I like to visit, especially in summer. I don’t miss it.

What does it mean to be “we” in NYC?  

I think in NYC, as opposed to other place, you involuntarily have to develop a “we.” You cannot insist on being on a subway all by yourself. Space is at a premium, and the day is a constant dynamic of what you do with that space: push people out of it? Let them in? Coexist?

What do you love here in Harlem?

We have just started to walk about, but the vibe is very chill. I love the farmer’s markets (apparently they had a night market, which was very successful-I hope they do it again; it’s especially great for people who work during the day–also good excuse to get out and mingle with neighbors). I love Morningside Park. The Harlem Shambles is my go-to place for grassfed meat, and they have THE BEST BACON. Mostly, I also just like seeing people out and enjoying themselves, the way, often, people will just say hi to each other, and us, even though we are clearly not old hands in the neighborhood.

Do you have a favorite Harlem writer and/or book?

Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston.  Lorraine Hansberry had a funeral in Harlem, but I’m not sure if she’d be considered a Harlem writer, but in case she is, “A Raisin in the Sun” was probably one of my most profound discoveries while living in all-white Minnesota. I remember finding it in the library and thinking…You can write about THAT? And make it funny, too? It blew me away.

What piece of golden advice do you give novice writers?

I steal from William Saroyan: “You write, man, you write.”