This beautifully written novel depicts four generations of a Korean family struggling with poverty, war, and discrimination. But love, work ethic and loyalty are the foundations the characters rely on to survive. In Pachinko, her second novel, author Min Jin Lee takes the reader on a sweeping journey from the Japanese colonization of Korea in the 1900s to the life of oppressed exiles in Japan through to the 1980s. Lauded as one of the best books of the year, Pachinko is transporting, thought-provoking and captivating — everything you want in a good read.
Lee spoke with Hong Kong Moms and offered insight into her process of writing this memorable novel.
Hong Kong Moms: It must have been a huge challenge to research and write a story spanning so many decades and generations… what was your process like?
Min Jin Lee: Well, I had a whole manuscript written from 1996-2004. That manuscript was never submitted for publication because it wasn’t very good as a novel. From that manuscript, I salvaged one chapter, which was published in 2002 in The Missouri Review.
I researched and wrote another novel, which eventually became Pachinko, from the years 2007-2016. The process was discouraging, and I found it daunting from beginning to end. I revise a great deal, so by the time you see a sentence, it has been worked over quite a lot. I want simplicity in my prose, and this is very intentional. It took me a long time to research the book and to write the kind of book in a fictional style that I most admire (omniscient narrative). I have spent twenty-two years writing full time and have managed to produce two published novels, so I am not fast.
HKM: How did you weave together all of the historical details into a fictional story?
MJL: I had to learn all the history, economics, anthropology, sociology, and psychology then I had to make sure that all of it was nearly forgotten so that that narrative could flow. I think too many details can intrude a narrative so I had to be very judicious. I wanted the facts to support the reader’s narrative experience but not to overwhelm her. I think a book should erase the presence of the author in a way so that the reader can inhabit the narrative more fully.
HKM: Explain the metaphor of pachinko to the story or what pachinko represents.
MJL: Pachinko is an adult gambling game, and in one way, I wanted to describe the experience of gamblers who play a game that they are meant to lose. It is not that I like or dislike gambling, but life can be a kind of unfair game, and yet life requires us to play it.
HKM: How personal is this story to you?
MJL: I got the idea for the book in 1989, and I have worked on the book actively for almost twenty years. I feel like most of my real emotional life is in this book.
HKM: How is your experience as a Korean-American reflected in your writing?
MJL: My first published novel Free Food for Millionaires reflects the lives of Korean-Americans in New York City, and it was a conscious decision to reflect the diaspora experience of Koreans. My first novel is about Koreans in America; my second novel Pachinko is about Koreans in Japan. My third novel American Hagwon will be about the role of education in the lives of Koreans around the world. These three novels will form my diaspora trilogy called “The Koreans.”
HKM: Did you travel to Korea and Japan at all while writing this book?
MJL: I lived in Japan from 2007-2011, and I traveled to South Korea numerous times for research. In Japan, I traveled to Osaka, Yokohama, and Kyoto for research as well.
HKM: What was the impetus for transitioning from lawyer to full-time writing?
MJL: I had had a chronic liver disease since I was sixteen years old. I was cured through Interferon B when I was in my mid thirties.
I worked as a lawyer till I was 25 years old, so I practiced for less than two years. Being a corporate lawyer was very difficult for me in terms of the number of hours I worked. I enjoyed my actual work as a lawyer, but I really could not handle the hours required. I had thought that writing novels would be easier. Alas.
HKM: How have you used your law skills in your writing career?
MJL: I think being a lawyer gave me a kind of intellectual rigor and discipline in terms of argument (theses). I can spot issues (themes) in a legal way, which can help a story, I think. Also, working in an office gave me a structural discipline.
HKM: Do you see any modern day parallels to your story?
MJL: There are 65 million refugees in the world today, and very few places seem to really want them in their nation. The Koreans who ended up in Japan were economic migrants, refugees and forced labor. When Japan lost the war, the Koreans were unwanted yet had nowhere to go. Sadly, I fear that we will always have unwanted groups of people in this world and I believe that as people of conscience, we must remember and serve to eradicate the suffering of the poor, disenfranchised and the displaced.
HKM: As a writer, will you continue to tell stories centered on Korean history and the struggles of the Korean people?
MJL: My next novel is about the role of education for Koreans. I think Koreans are fascinating, and I enjoy stories about them.
HKM: What lessons do you want readers to walk away with after reading this book?
MJL: It is always my hope that the reader is both edified and entertained. A novel should be absorbing and worthy of the reader’s attention. If my reader felt seen and wishes to see more, then, I think I was useful.
We are fortunate to have the opportunity to meet the talented Min Jin Lee, as she is coming to Hong Kong! She will be discuss Pachinko at the Hong Kong Literary Festival on November 11th at the Fringe Club. We’d love to see you there!