Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Jungin Angie Lee grew up among artists, her grandfather was a writer and a musician, and her grandmother was a painter and a poet. Lee’s familial lineage of writers influenced her desire to be one herself, a desire clearly exemplified by a recently uncovered first-grade drawing which reads, “I want to be a writer.”  

Headshot photo Angie Lee
Jungin Angie Lee, an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers' Workshop (photo by Cale Stelken).

“I was privileged to see, early in life, how writing or art could be a career,” Lee remarks. “This was a great luxury and inspiration, and it has encouraged me to continue pursuing my passions in writing.” 

Lee began her first semester at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop this fall and is the recipient of the Graduate College’s Iowa Arts Fellowship. As an undergraduate student at Stanford University, Lee had the opportunity to study with Professor Lan Samantha Chang, Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. 

“During the pandemic, I was Zooming into Stanford, and it was a great pleasure to have Angie in my fiction writing class,” Chang recalls. “She was doing extraordinary work, and I was blown away by her fiction.” 

Currently, Lee’s focus is on writing short stories, and she has the goal to complete a novel one day. Lee pulls from her own experiences to write the work she wants to see in the world. 

“I like to write about disability because I'm affected by it myself,” Lee says. “I was born with spinal muscular atrophy, so I use a wheelchair to get around. I find myself craving fiction about characters who have disabilities because there's not enough of it.” 

Initially, Lee struggled with labeling herself and her work, but Professor Chang provided advice that shaped her perspective. 

“I talked to Sam about my dilemma of not wanting to pigeonhole myself as a certain type of writer by primarily focusing on disability in my work,” Lee comments. “She very kindly looked at me and said, ‘But, wouldn't it be great if more stories about disability simply exist in the world?’”  

Chang elaborates on the importance that writers feel they can connect their own human experience to their work. 

“As writers, we must tell the truth of the world as we've experienced it,” Chang says. “It's especially important for people to feel that they can tell their own truth and their own stories.” 

Letting a story come to life 

During her undergraduate experience, Lee received funding for research to support her work on a novel which explores the differences in perspective between patients with rare diseases and the researchers who are trying to treat these diseases.  

“I got to travel to Boston and meet with folks at pharmaceutical companies, scientists experimenting with treatments on mice, and individuals who market the drugs once they are approved for commercial use,” Lee says. 

Angie Lee seated in her wheelchair in front of a poster presentation of her research
Lee presents her research at the Symposium of
Undergraduate Research and Public Services

Lee’s experience as a patient of a rare disease prompted her interest in investigating the research side of treatment. 

“I had no idea how these researchers went about their daily lives or work,” Lee comments. “The research trip helped lay a foundation for this particular novel that I want to continue working on.” 

Although this research experience was influential to Lee in her journey as a writer, she elucidates that usually she tries to get as much of the story down before pursuing research. 

"One of the coolest things about fiction is that you're not limited to fact to convey what’s real,” Lee explains. “If I start researching too early, I tend to focus too much on real-world occurrences that I find interesting or terrifying and try to squeeze them into my work. I would rather let my story come to life on its own first.” 

Chang highlights Lee’s unique ability to breathe life into her stories, map the intricacies of her characters, and unravel complex relationships that connect with readers. 

“Angie is exploring characters whose stories have not, to my knowledge, been told,” Chang says. “And she's doing it with exceptional skill and understanding of craft that brings out the daily lives and details of her protagonists.” 

Living in a community of writers 

A few months into the program, Lee describes her experience living in Iowa City, feeling surrounded by a community of writers. Chang highlights how Iowa City fosters an environment that supports authors and other creatives.  

“Part of the legacy of the Writers’ Workshop lies in the supportiveness of the community and the size and excellence of the cohort,” Chang comments. “We bring an unusually large number of talented writers to a supportive town that is special, in part, for its resources of writers and readers.” 

Angie Lee reads a story with a panel of people
Lee gives a reading at the Ragdale Residency

“It's a small city, but it's brimming with art and literature,” Lee narrates. “I was just at a cafe with some friends and the table next to us was deep in discussion about a short story while the table on the other side of us was talking about screenwriting. I feel very thankful to have the next two years here to focus on writing.” 

As Lee continues her journey in the Writers’ Workshop, she hopes that her stories will connect with readers and shed new light on human experiences.  

“The existence of more work about disability is valuable in and of itself,” Lee says. “But, beyond its existence, I would hope that my work moves readers to think about themselves or the world around them in a new way.”