Lee, Marie G. 1964- (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Lee, Marie G. 1964- (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Born April 25, 1964, in Hibbing, MN; daughter of William Chae-Sik (a physician) and Grace (a social worker) Lee; married Karl H. Jacoby (a history professor), 1998; children: Jason. Ethnicity: "Korean American." Education: Brown University, A.B., 1986. Politics: "Independent." Religion: Methodist. Hobbies and other interests: Tae kwon do, skiing, rollerblading.
Novelist. Data Resources/Standard and Poor's, New York, NY, consultant, 1986-88; Goldman Sachs & Co., New York, NY, editor, equity research, 1988-90; Yale University, New Haven, CT, lecturer in literature and creative writing, 1997-98; Brown University Center for Study of Race and Ethnicity in the Americas, visiting scholar and lecturer in creative writing, 2006—; currently freelance writer. Member, Read Aloud (school volunteer program), New York, NY.
PEN, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Asian-American Arts Alliance, Committee against Anti-Asian Violence, National Coalition against Censorship, Asian American Writers' Workshop (founder and president and member of board of directors, 1992-97).
Best Book Award, Friends of American Writers, Best Book for Reluctant Readers citation, American Library Association (ALA), and Books for the Teen Age citation, New York Public Library, all 1992, and Children's Choice citation, International Reading Association, 1994, all for Finding My Voice; Books for the Teen Age citation, New York Public Library, for If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun and Saying Goodbye; Books for the Teen Age citation, New York Public Library, 1997, and Best Books for Young Adults citation, ALA, 1998, both for Necessary Roughness; Fulbright scholar in Korea, 1997-98; Booklist Editors' Choice, 2005, for Somebody's Daughter; citations from National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Finding My Voice, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1992.
Saying Goodbye, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1994.
Necessary Roughness, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.
(Under name Marie Myung-Ok Lee) Somebody's Daughter, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2005.
If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1993.
Night of the Chupacabras, Avon (New York, NY), 1998.
F Is for Fabuloso (middle-grade novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1999.
New Year's Anthology, Avon (New York, NY), 1996.
Works anthologized in Matters of Fact, Prentice-Hall, 1992, New Worlds of Literature, Norton, 1994, New Year, New Love, Avon, 1996, and Writings by Immigrants, Their Children, and Grandchildren, Burning Bush Publications, 1997. Contributor to Kenyon Review and American Voice.
In her award-winning young-adult novels, which include Finding My Voice, If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun, Saying Goodbye, Necessary Roughness, and Somebody's Daughter, Marie G. Lee explores issues of ethnocentrism and racism as well as more ordinary teenage concerns. Lee, an Asian American, writes out of her own experiences growing up in America's heartland, the only Korean in her small Minnesota hometown. Reflecting the critical reception Lee has received during her career, Libby K. White wrote in her School Library Journal review of 1992's Finding My Voice that novelist Lee herself "gives voice to a point of view that has been wanting until recently in fiction about Asian-Americans."
As Lee recalled of her teen years in an article for ALAN Review, she and her friends were avid fans of Seventeen magazine—where Lee's first published essay appeared at age sixteen—and despite her ethnic heritage, she identified with the Caucasian models who posed for the magazine. Ultimately, however, Lee grew uncomfortable with her compulsion to fit in what she described in her essay as "a pair of shoes that you love but that don't fit." Attending a state hockey tournament as captain of the cheerleaders, Lee was offered a Seventeen-style makeover by a local department store. "At last, I thought. Seventeen was going to turn me into one of those All-American girls!" When the hairdresser and beautician were finished, Lee looked in the mirror and saw that she had been given a "China chop" haircut and eyes teased into a Cleopatra look with eyeliner. "I was humiliated," she recalled wrote in her ALAN Review essay. "Looking back to that time, I can see that there was definitely a sort of two-way cognitive dissonance going on: I thought of myself as culturally white, or at least All-American; other people—even my friends—saw me as a China doll. I was neither."
After high school Lee attended Brown University, where she originally intended to become a doctor. However, she soon changed her mind, majoring in economics with the intent of landing a practical job, and yet planning to become a writer. Sticking with her plan, Lee began her career in a research firm, then moving on to work for an investment bank. She continued to hone her writing in her free time, however, and it was during this time that she began work on what would become Finding My Voice. The inspiration for this first novel came from a ski trip. "I was back home in Minnesota, and my dad and I were driving to go skiing," she once recalled. "To get to the local ski hill, you have to pass through a few towns even smaller than the one we lived in. When we were going through Biwabik (the name even sounds small), I saw two guys in football letter jackets walking down the main street. I thought to myself, I want to write a story that will capture all this: what it's like to live in the snow and the cold, what it's like being in these small towns where everybody knows everybody, and having a letter jacket means you are really something." During the process of writing the book, other themes intruded upon this outline, such as fitting in, racism, and peer and parental pressure, and the resulting novel became almost autobiographical in some respects. "My high school life wasn't exactly like Ellen's," Lee noted, referring to the protagonist of Finding My Voice, "but some of the things that happened to her were similar to things that happened to me. I had people call me names because I was Asian, and I also had very strong, close friends who helped me see that these names had little to do with me as a person."
Ellen Sung, in Finding My Voice, is caught between two worlds. A senior at a Minnesota high school, she is prodded to succeed and become more "American" by her immigrant parents; at the same time, she feels the effects of racism from some classmates and even teachers. A gymnast and straight A student, Ellen is still made to feel an outsider, different from the other kids. Her crush on one of the most popular boys in her class, Tomper, will probably come to nothing, she knows, as she is so shy and studious. Tormented with the epithet "chink," Ellen must learn to stand up for herself. Ellen is expected to enter Harvard as her older sister did and become a doctor, like her father, and these pressures are added to by the racist attitudes of her rival, Marsha, on the gymnastics team. Eventually Tomper and Ellen become romantically involved, and this, coupled with Ellen's visits to prospective colleges, gives her a new-found sense of confidence. She begins to understand that she needs to see a bigger world beyond the confines of her small Minnesota town. A final confrontation with Marsha sends Ellen to the hospital, but she has taken a step toward individual freedom by standing up for herself.
Critical response to Lee's debut novel was very positive. Penny Blubaugh, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, called the book "a sensitive coming-of-age story" and went on to note that it "should provoke anger and thought." Writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Betsy Hearne observed that although the plot is episodic, "the tension increases steadily with Ellen's emotional stress, and the characterization deepens credibly." Hearne concluded in her Bulletin of the Center of Children's Books review that "readers will empathize with Ellen's pain and celebrate her emerging confidence," and a Kirkus Reviews writer praised Lee's "portrait of a quietly sensitive teenager" as one "filled with searing truths about day-to-day racism."
Ellen's story continues in Saying Goodbye, which finds the young woman dealing with another form of discrimination during her undergraduate years at Harvard University. A college freshman, Ellen is majoring in pre-med and enjoying her classes in creative writing. Her roommate, Leecia, also a member of a racial minority, assumes that Ellen identifies as passionately with her Asian heritage as Leecia does in her African American background. Then Ellen begins dating with a Korean American named Jae. This romantic relationship, as well as her growing interest in tae kwon do, finally inspires her to explore her Korean heritage. When Harvard's African American Alliance sponsors a black rap singer on campus, Ellen is forced to deal with the complex issue of racism: the singer in question is infamous for performing lyrics that voice threats against inner-city Korean shopkeepers, and Leecia supports his performance despite this. Jae, in contrast, is affronted by the singer, and Ellen sides with him. Now she must chose between joining Jae in demonstrating against the rap performance or preserving her friendship with Leecia.
Reviewing Saying Goodbye, Horn Book contributor Maeve Visser Knoth wrote that Lee's "intriguing" and "topical novel addresses pressures faced by young adults to align themselves with one group, and see the world in terms of stark contrast." Gail Richmond, writing in School Library Journal, observed that the questions posed, which deal with culture as well as socio-economic identity, may induce readers to "reflect on Ellen's experiences and learn from them." while Hearne concluded that "Lee doesn't cop out on the ending: neither of her friendships will ever be quite the same, nor does her stabilized relationship with Jae alleviate the pain of alienation she feels from the women in her life."
The narrowness of small-town America is the focus of Necessary Roughness, which follows teenage twins Chan Kim and his twin sister, Young, on their move from multicultural Los Angeles to all-white Iron River, Minnesota. Chan tries to fit in by adopting his soccer skills to the use of the high-school football team, and his twin sister plays flute in the band. Despite their efforts, they are met with racism, and Chan becomes the focus of a locker-room attack. Unfortunately, Chan fights the cultural wars as much at home as he does at school: Mr. Kim derides as childish his son's participation in school sports. Young's tragic death in a car accident only makes things worse for Chan; the "necessary roughness" his football coach is always talking about has expanded to unnecessary dimensions. Now the teen must learn to come to terms with all the conflicting forces in his life.
A Kirkus Reviews contributor observed in a review of Necessary Roughness that in Lee's "gritty and moving novel" football serves as "the central metaphor for how a Korean family confronts life, death, and assimilation." Booklist critic Stephanie Zvirin noted that Lee is "at her strongest when writing about prejudice and describing Chan's classic confrontational relationship with his father," while Alan McLeod, writing in ALAN Review, called the book "moving, entertaining, and painful."
In Somebody's Daughter Lee introduces Lee Soon-Min, a Korean girl who is adopted, brought to Minnesota, renamed Sarah, and raised by caring but the emotionally isolating Scandinavian-American Thorsons. At age nineteen Sarah enrolls in a university exchange program at Chosun University in Korea, where she learns the language and immerses herself in discovering details about her birth family's past. She especially hopes to find out information about her birth parents, a couple she believed had been killed in a car accident. As the young woman soon discovers, her mother, Kyung-Sook, is actually alive and gave up her infant daughter after Sarah's American-born father abandoned her. Introduced in chapters that alternate in perspective between Sarah and Kyung-Sook, Lee's "colorful characters crackle and pop off the page," noted Booklist contributor Allison Block, the reviewer concluding that Somebody's Daughter is a "gem of a novel." "Told with grace and elegance, this novel shows a wonderful talent at work," Lisa Rohrbaugh maintained in her Library Journal appraisal, while School Library Journal reviewer Sheila Janega wrote that Lee's "vivid" description of Korea's multifaceted culture, "as told through Sarah's first-person narrative," bring to life a "strong and memorable" people.
In addition to her novels for older teens, Lee also addresses middle-grade readers in If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun, Night of the Chupacabras, and F Is for Fabulosa. If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun was inspired by a woman several years younger than Lee who had come to Lee's hometown as a Korean adoptee. Alice Larsen, the novel's protagonist, considers herself to be white and has never considered her Korean heritage. Alice is totally assimilated; a cheerleader, she is even gaining the attention of one of the cutest boys in her middle school. When Yoon Jun, a recent immigrant from his native Korea, joins her class, Alice's world is turned upside down. Alice's pastor father asks her to help bring the new boy up to speed on American culture, but the girl soon realizes that making Yoon Jun "American" will be no easy task: his English is poor, and he is pudgy and foreign-looking to Alice. Soon Alice wants no part of Yoon Jun, and no part of the epithets that are thrown their way by the students she thought were her friends. Ultimately, a joint assignment working on a project about Korea helps the two preteens bridge their differences and also introduces Alice to her Korean cultural heritage. Noting that "Alice's turnaround is well handled and instructive," a Publishers Weekly reviewer added that Lee's protagonist is "a character readers will understand and recognize." Booklist reviewer Janice Del Negro remarked that If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun is rare in its ability to focus on "racial pride and prejudice in an accessible fashion." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Karen Ray observed that the novel "will appeal to children who, for whatever reason, feel they don't quite fit in." Ray concluded that Lee "deals with the subject of racism in a way that is both explicit and sensitive. Alice's delicately developed friendship with Yoon Jun teaches her about Korea, but more important, it teaches her about doing the right thing."
Two young Korean Americans travel from New York City to their uncle's Mexico ranch in Night of the Chupacabras, only to find themselves in the middle of a mystery that involves a mythical bloodsucking creature. Also for younger readers, F Is for Fabulosa finds seventh-grade Korean immigrant Jin-Ha adjusting to life in America while also compensating for her mother's strange inability to grasp the English language. When not serving as Mom's interpreter, the middle-schooler also deals with peer pressure, a racist math teacher, and her worries over a failing test score (the title of Lee's novel quotes Jin-Ha's response to her mom's question about the meaning of the "F" scrawled on the top of a math quiz). Meanwhile, the teen's father has his own issues to deal with: in Korea he was a respected scholar but in America he now supports his family as an automobile mechanic. As Jin-Ha works to overcome similar social and language impediments which, in her case, resulted in her failing math grade, she also gains friends that provide her with much-needed encouragement. In a Publishers Weekly review of the novel, a critic praised F Is for Fabulosa as "warm-hearted if predictable." Calling Jin-Ha a "delightfully plucky" heroine, Shelley Townsend-Hudson added in Booklist that Lee presents "a sensitive story about [a family's] struggle to survive in a new country."
"I have been asked more than once when I am going to be through with the ‘race thing’ and go onto more ‘universal themes,’" Lee noted in her ALAN Review article. "I always answer that with a ‘probably never.’ [African American novelist] Toni Morrison has gone so far as to say that she has never ever really felt she was an American. I don't take that extreme a view, but I do feel that growing up a person of color in this country, one that traces its history back to Anglo-European foundations, has had the effect that my perceptions of American life are inevitably filtered through a prism of race…. [A] writer has to know herself first, or her work won't be honest; and for me, being an American of Korean descent and being a writer are inextricably linked." "I want readers to know … that behind every racial slur there's a person," she explained in discussing her decision to write for teens, "and in this light, I believe books have the capacity to educate."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Asian American Almanac, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Authors and Illustrators for Young Adults, Volume 27, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Lives of Famous Asian Americans: Literature, Chelsea House, 1995.
Rosey Grier's All-American Heroes: Multicultural Success Stories, Master Media (New York, NY), 1993.
ALAN Review, winter, 1995, Marie G. Lee, "How I Grew"; spring, 1997, review of Necessary Roughness.
Book Links, January, 1994, p. 28.
Booklist, September 1, 1992, review of Finding My Voice, p. 48; July, 1993, Janice Del Negro, review of If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun, p. 1966; January 1, 1997, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Necessary Roughness, p. 844; November 15, 1998, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Night of the Chupacabras, p. 591; September 15, 1999, Shelley Townsend-Hudson, review of F Is for Fabuloso, p. 249; February 15, 2005, Allison Block, review of Somebody's Daughter, p. 1061.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1992, Betsy Hearne, review of Finding My Voice, pp. 47-48; April, 1993, review of If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun, p. 256; July-August, 1994, Betsy Hearne, review of Saying Goodbye, p. 364; April, 1995, p. 256.
Horn Book, July-August, 1994, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of Saying Goodbye, p. 458; January-February, 1997, pp. 61-62.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1992, review of Finding My Voice, p. 1190; March 15, 1994, review of Saying Goodbye, p. 398; November 1, 1996, review of Necessary Roughness, p. 1602; October 15, 1998, review of Night of the Chupacabras, p. 1533; September 15, 1999, review of F Is for Fabuloso, p. 1502; January 15, 2005, review of Somebody's Daughter, p. 76.
Kliatt, January, 1995, Barbara Shepp, review of Finding My Voice, p. 9; September, 1995, Gerrie Human, review of If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun, p. 11.
Library Journal, May 15, 2005, Lisa Rohrbaugh, review of Somebody's Daughter, p. 107.
New York Times Book Review, June 27, 1993, Karen Ray, review of If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun, p. 21; November 6, 1994, review of Saying Goodbye, p. 32; April 16, 2000, review of F Is for Fabuloso, p. 30.
People, April 18, 2005, Ellen Shapiro, review of Somebody's Daughter, p. 51.
Publishers Weekly, July 6, 1992, review of Finding My Voice, p. 57; May 10, 1993, review of If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun, p. 72; November 25, 1996, p. 76; August 2, 1999, review of F Is for Fabuloso, p. 85; February 21, 2005, review of Somebody's Daughter, p. 156.
School Library Journal, October, 1992, Libby K. White, review of Finding My Voice, pp. 143-144; April, 1993, review of If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun, p. 121; August, 1994, Gail Richmond, review of Saying Goodbye, p. 168; December, 1998, Linda L. Plevak, review of Night of the Chupacabras, p. 128; December, 1999, Sylvia V. Meisner, review of F Is for Fabuloso, p. 136; April, 2005, Sheila Janega, review of Somebody's Daughter, p. 162.
Stone Soup, November-December, 1993, review of If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun, pp. 40-41.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1992, Penny Blubaugh, review of Finding My Voice, p. 282; June, 1994, review of Saying Goodbye, p. 86; August, 2005, Pam Carlson, review of Somebody's Daughter, p. 220.
Green Fertility: Marie G. Lee Blog Site,http://www.greenfertility.blogspot.com (April 15, 2007).
Marie G. Lee Home Page,http://www.marielee.net (April 15, 2007).