KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson, host of the KEI podcast Korean Kontext, recently interviewed Min Jin Lee, author of the critically acclaimed book Pachinko, a novel centered around the struggles of a Korean family living in Japan.
The following is a partial transcript of that conversation, which has been edited for space. The rest of the episode can be found here.
Jenna Gibson: To start from the beginning, what motivated you to write Pachinko, a novel that mainly follows a Korean family in Japan? How did you become inspired to tell the stories of Koreans living in Japan?
Min Jin Lee: Well, I was 19 years old and I was in college and I went to a lecture given by an American missionary who worked with the Koreans in Japan and I learned about the history of the Koreans in Japan at that moment in time. I didn’t know anything about it, really. I had a vague idea about the occupation, but I didn’t know what it was like for the people there.
And then I heard a story that was quite disturbing to me, where he talked about a 13-year-old boy in his parish who jumped off a building and killed himself because he was just terribly bullied. And in the yearbook which his parents had found, his Japanese classmates had written, “go back to where you belong,” “I hate you,” and they wrote these words “die, die, die.” And this little boy was, of course, ethnically Korean but he was born in Japan and his parents were born in Japan. And it was very hard for me to understand that this could exist.
I think what really motivated me really was that moment in time when I was at the university and I heard that story, because I couldn’t understand how children could be so hateful. I mean, I know children, children can be mean, but I couldn’t imagine a kind of rejection based on ethnicity because I had been an American immigrant and I had not been treated that way when I was growing up in Queens.
I didn’t end up writing about bullying, that’s not what the book is about at all, but something about that moment in time, it just filled me with this kind of indignation. And when I was in college I think I felt like the whole world was so unfair anyway, and then later on when I got older I started really thinking about – what does that mean and how does that affect all of us? You know, I didn’t experience the war myself, I didn’t experience the occupation myself, so why should it affect me? But something about this idea of trauma that had affected my parents, and somehow I believe very strongly that next generations carry a kind of trauma unconsciously just from sheer exposure. So I wanted to explore that, I had a lot of questions.
Jenna Gibson: I wanted to ask you about the fact that, while you talk about all these various characters and their struggles, you centered a lot of the story around Sunja and her experiences as a young woman, as a mother, as the pillar for her family. Can you tell our listeners a bit more about Sunja as a character, and how you wove in some of these themes that a lot of female readers, myself included, can really identify with?
Min Jin Lee: I think that what’s really troubling to me is that Sunja is a character in a moment in time who is illiterate, who is poor, who has no connections, who has no legal protections from the society in which she lives. And you would think that a person like that doesn’t exist anymore, but the truth is that most women around the world actually have Sunja’s experience today. And because women of color and because women around the world still live in a patriarchal structure, women have to figure out how they will adapt and resist, and take care of themselves as well as their families if they have families.
And I was so surprised at the resonance that this book is having around the world because I was consciously thinking of it as a feminist, as a global feminist, at the same time I was also thinking about it in terms of narration, I was like “what do you do when all these things are happening, but you don’t have any input on the decisions that you make in your life except what you can do on a very very small scale?”
Sunja’s acts of resistance, Sunja’s acts of adaptation are not theoretical and they’re certainly not explicit – she wouldn’t say “oh, I’m a feminist.” I think her attitude is “what fire do I have to put out today.” And I really wanted to focus on that in a very pragmatic sense, but I also wanted to write a novel that was interesting and a joy to read. I wanted the person who was reading it, whether she’s a feminist or not, to feel like “oh, this is what my grandmother went through in America, or what my mother goes through right now,” because even today, there are so many people in this country who are illiterate, who have so few protections, and yet they still have to put out the fires that present themselves.
Jenna Gibson: So, you’re talking about some of the social issues that underpin a lot of what’s going on in Pachinko, and here on Korean Kontext, I like to talk about different topics including some of these important social issues, culture, etc. But of course being in DC many times we end up talking about politics, so I have to ask you about one of the things in your book that stood out to me – the theme of Korea’s occupation, the war, and the division of the peninsula. How and why did you weave these broader political and historical themes into the story of this family?
Min Jin Lee: I think that I made a conscious decision to I was to take it all on, and that was completely insane because it ended up taking up most of my life. I’m 49 years old and this book took up a good part of my life because I needed to understand that not just historically, anthropologically, sociologically, economically, as well as religion and philosophy and sociology, because I actually read all those things about the Korean Japanese…And this is like a huge task that you set up for yourself because every Korean in the world is affected by the division of the peninsula.
It affects you because your compatriots live in a bisected geographical nation, and that bisection was not because of democracy. That line was drawn by two young American men who had never been to Korea. So many people are affected by these choices that had nothing to do with Koreans, and it’s fascinating. And I wanted people to make the discussion more relevant and for it to keep going on because…if you really want to feel powerful about your life you have to understand how your life came to be, and how do we prevent this from going on in the future.
Jenna Gibson: Pachinko has been getting a lot of praise, appearing on multiple lists as one of the best books of the year. How do you feel knowing that so many people loved your work? Do you have any particular stories or moments that stood out to you as more and more people have been responding to the book?
Min Jin Lee: I’m totally in shock. I’m totally in shock and I’m so grateful. It hit the top ten for USA Today, The New York Times. It hit the reviews. It hit the lists of the Financial Times and probably 30 other publications, and it’s a shock because when I wrote this book and because I worked on it for such a long time I felt like nobody cares…After I wrote it, I figured who cares about 600,000 people in the 21st century in the world. This is a micro-ethnicity, micro-community, why should I do this. And then I remember handing it to my agent and I just figured okay well she can’t sell it then I’m just gonna, you know, move along and work on the next thing or try to sell shoes or whatever. And I’m not being comical right there because I quit being a lawyer and I stopped keeping up with my CLE requirements. It wasn’t like I could just go back and pick up and be an attorney again.
So in terms of surprise stories, all these lists are surprises. And also I had Ambassador Caroline Kennedy write to me unsolicited because she had read the book. I was really surprised. The first minister of Scotland read the book and she tweeted about it. You know Roxanne Gay picked it for her favorite book in the Washington Post. John Boyne, who’s a really important writer in Ireland, it’s his favorite book. You’re thinking why do they care, and you realize oh they enjoy the reading and they enjoy the learning. And I think for me that’s always been so important is that you can’t just be like a page turner
I’m in shock so it’s great, but at the same time you kinda can’t take it all that seriously, because, you know, you’ll just become a jerk. So the thing is – be grateful, and kinda just go to the next thing and then just be grateful.
Photo from Pedro Szekely’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.