Min Jin Lee: Identity, Love, and Exile


An Interview by Dini Karasik

Photo credit: Elena Seibert

Photo credit: Elena Seibert

Min Jin Lee is no stranger to success. She has won several awards for her essays and short fiction, and her 2007 debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, was a national bestseller recognized by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Times of London, and NPR's Fresh Air, among others. Her new novel, Pachinko, forthcoming in February, is a gripping saga about a family whose origins begin in 1900s Korea. A series of events leads the family to Japan just prior to WWII where they live in exile for the next several decades, "bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity." 

Critics are hailing Pachinko as one of the most anticipated books of 2017.

 


ORIGINS

Talk about your trajectory as a writer. I’m very interested in your decision to write versus practice law. I’m curious about the ways in which you’ve navigated or continue to manage these two identities: lawyer & writer. 

LEE

I practiced law for two years (1993-1995) then quit to write full time. I had a liver illness diagnosed while I was in high school, and the illness made me vulnerable to sporadic fatigue and later to more serious issues. In my early thirties, I had liver cirrhosis, and thanks to Interferon B treatments, I have since been fully cured. I mention the illness, because more than being a lawyer or a writer, I have been a person with an illness for the formative years of my adult life, and being told repeatedly that I may get fatally worse from a young age made me think very hard about how to spend my time. In short, illness made me think about why I should write rather than practice law when I prefer writing and what I should write about rather than just any topic whatsoever. Though I no longer practice, I still feel like a lawyer—someone who can be thoughtful about what is most relevant in a problem and how a person should prioritize the issues at hand, and I am a writer, i.e., a person who observes carefully and puts her thoughts down on paper in a directed manner to create a shaped narrative.

ORIGINS

Can you tell us about pachinko and its significance not only in Korean culture but also in post-World War II Japan?

LEE

Pachinko is an adult gambling game, which became highly popular after World War II. It is also a multi-billion dollar industry with double the export revenues of the Japanese car industry. One out of eleven Japanese play pachinko regularly; however, it is also viewed with contempt and suspicion by middle class Japanese. As permanent residents, Korean-Japanese are foreigners even though they have been born in Japan for generations, and throughout the 20th century, Japanese companies and local governments would not hire them. Consequently, many had to find work in Korean-Japanese owned businesses such as pachinko parlors or yakiniku (Korean barbecue/galbi) restaurants. Nearly every Korean-Japanese person I encountered or researched had someone in his or her family with some distant or near connection to the pachinko industry—which includes machine manufacturers, pachinko balls, keihin (gifts) booths, bento makers, etc. Historically, the pachinko industry offered an employment refuge for poor people who could not find employment elsewhere.

Grand Central Publishing

Grand Central Publishing

ORIGINS

Identity is an overarching theme in Pachinko. The characters struggle with, mediate, deny, and, in some cases, redefine their identities. Often, identity plagues them. In what ways were you consciously dealing with identity in this book and what did the process of writing Pachinko reveal about your own identity, if anything?

LEE

Identity is central to this novel. The Korean-Japanese people are treated differently—legally, socially, culturally—by the majority because of their ethnic identity. The process of writing this book taught me a great deal about being an ethnic person who is distinct from the majority. All of us have so many aspects of our identities, and for me, the process of writing this book constantly reminded of my ethnic heritage as well as my American identity. Also, I felt aware of my gender, sexual orientation, marital status, parent status, religion, education, socio-economic status—many of which were so different from the Korean-Japanese people I met and interviewed. Also, I have never felt any close affiliation politically with either South Korea or North Korea, whereas, a Korean-Japanese who does not naturalize and is a permanent resident must choose one of the two governments for his or her passport, which must feel incredibly strange since most never set foot on either country.

ORIGINS

Origins matter to Sunja, the main character, and many of the other characters who often revere and defer to their elders. They uphold honor and tradition in spite of social, economic, and political pressures. Often Korea—both North and South—serves as a silent member of the cast. We think of origins as something static, but maybe our origins are as susceptible to evolution and perception as any other human reality. This seems evident in the ways in which several of the Korean characters who are born in Japan or in the United States, for example, think about themselves in relation to the “motherland.” What does this say about our affinity for cultural affiliations and/or our declarations about and definitions of ethnicity, race, nationality, etc.?

LEE

Your question is highly relevant to Americans and to all who identify as global citizens, especially because all of us are becoming increasingly transnational in our identities. Technology has broken down so many boundaries, and images and data are constantly exchanged, forging new hybrid identities, which are distinct from the values transmitted from our respective original communities. I think Sunja and women like her upheld values they didn’t necessarily create because their identities of origin compelled them to do so in a new, unwelcoming land. What I witnessed and learned from my research was that migrant and immigrant people held onto the values of their original communities because their adopted spaces were so often hostile to them. When communities welcome strangers and give them great latitude and tolerance, more strangers tend to assimilate faster because they feel safe and wish to increase their stakes. 

ORIGINS

For some, there is a certain acceptance of one’s fate; Kyungee, Noa, Solomon, and Hana are different faces of this prism. Then there is Sunja, who seems to acclimate to new circumstances but also has an inner strength and courage to forge ahead in life. Mozasu, too. He recognizes his own strengths and weaknesses but overcomes his limitations—both individual and societal—and enjoys great success as a father and man. Talk about these juxtapositions and their significance to this family’s story.

LEE

In my interviews and research, I noticed that people tend to respond to change with either fatalism or a reliance on personal agency. Most people do a combination of both and add on other philosophical values; however, one value tends to dominate in most personalities. Highly successful people across cultures tend to adapt well and be versatile regardless of circumstances; I found this to be true in nearly all the places I researched. That said, adaptability requires great psychological resourcefulness and strong mental and spiritual foundations. What I found interesting was when social norms encouraged passivity and fatalism and viewed individual adaptability as threatening. Naturally, in those environments, it was dangerous to be independent and active.

ORIGINS

When Solomon turns 14, he is required to register with the Japanese government. When he goes to get his identification papers, he is fingerprinted and interviewed. He must confront the uncertainty of whether he will be allowed to stay in Japan—even though he was born there—or be deported to Korea, a country he has never visited (though he visits later) and where he has no living relatives. This storyline has obvious relevance for today, especially here in the United States where there’s talk of registering Muslims in the aftermath of our most recent presidential election. But it also speaks to the larger issue of how governments often regard and treat immigrants. Talk about this.

LEE

The fingerprinting issue was highly politicized for the Korean-Japanese because historically it was a conscious mode of surveillance for the government. Surveillance of those who are considered "other" and dangerous to the majority is a polarizing issue today across cultures and nations. America had internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, and those who were interned were American citizens. This was not even a hundred years ago. For all intents and purposes, The Korean-Japanese do not look very different from the Japanese, so it is fascinating and disturbing to witness the cultural obsession with bloodlines. Things have not changed very much. There are almost 65 million refugees in this world. Many of us appear to be afraid of whoever is the other and seek leaders who want to exclude newcomers. That said, I think progressive peoples everywhere need to reclaim painful dialogue in place of our echo chambers. I don’t think it is helpful to judge or categorically dismiss those who are excluding the minority. I think we may need to listen carefully to what is at stake for those who are making these divisive policies. That said, at any point in time, any one of us can be the other, and I think this is worth noting.

ORIGINS

Trauma and shame are threads that run through each character’s life in this book and in one of your interviews you talk about your interest in these themes. This reminds me of an article I read recently about how trauma can affect one’s genes, making it possible for subsequent generations to be affected—biologically, I suppose—by a grandparent’s or parent’s trauma. Whether or not trauma is passed down genetically, it certainly can affect not only its victim but also countless more. Why is it important to examine trauma and shame in a literary context?

LEE

I believe that trauma and shame are inherited, reinforced and reenacted in our respective families. Also, I believe that nations and cultures are larger families that replicate these dynamics. I am interested in exploring these painful legacies and also how they are healed actively and gradually. I believe history is a record of these psychological injuries and art can serve to repair, respond and heal. 

ORIGINS

I thought your exploration of the immigrant experience was expert. Talk about the ways in which this perspective is depicted in the novel. e.g. the tension between Phoebe and Solomon or Kazu and Solomon; the different iterations of assimilation (Noa, Hansu Koh); the experience of the Korean immigrant experience in America, Japan, and Latin America.

LEE

Thank you. I am profoundly interested in the diaspora and what it means to be a Korean in the world. I have met and interviewed immigrants from all continents, and I am continually affected by how those who leave feel about those who stay and vice-a-versa. In South Korea, I have been looked upon as a curiosity because I am interested in the history that many South Koreans no longer care about, and I don’t mind this at all. I think it makes sense that since I am continually told that I am different and I am “something,” naturally, I want to know more about this something. When a person is a member of a dominant and mostly homogenous group, I think she or he does not have the same compulsion of discovery. All the characters you mention are outside their communities of origin either through physical movement or through a generational progression, and these evolutions and migrations affect them personally and interpersonally. I had the chance to interview Koreans from Brazil and Japanese from Colombia, and they were culturally Brazilian and Colombian, respectively, but they were so different from the majority, too. Lastly, I want to say that you noticed something really important to me: the different iterations of assimilation that you mention carved strong markers in the characters’ personalities and behaviors. 

ORIGINS

The theme of exile is also alive and well in this book. Sanju leaves Korea, never to return. Yoseb, after suffering debilitating injuries, becomes a different man, relegated to his bed. Noa also exiles himself, both in life and in death. And so does Hana, come to think of it. There are also those who return home to North Korea, never to be heard from again. How do you think about exile and its impact on one’s identity and the collective identity of a given group of people?

LEE

As boundaries break down and people move more across the globe, we witness and experience a greater sense of literal or metaphorical exile, which includes feelings of loss, abandonment, rejection, and reclamation. I think this condition exists metaphysically and existentially, too. Many feel alien within their own families, and this may have nothing to do with race, class or other birth classifications. I find that there is a great deal of suffering that occurs because of this sense of exile and homelessness in the world.

ORIGINS

Religion, Christianity in particular, is a backdrop to this book. Can you talk about this and how it functions as a literary device?

LEE

Korean history can’t really be understood from the late 19th century to present day without understanding the significant role of Christianity in politics and education. Christians were very important to organizing political uprisings in early 20th century in Korea, and Christians of many stripes continue to play a significant role in the governance of South Korea today. Koreans around the world have strong feelings about Christianity, either for or against, and I wanted very much to express this in the lives of my characters. I find that religion occupies a very central space in the lives of believers, and I often find that intellectuals dismiss religion casually, and this is, I think, a missed opportunity in understanding how people behave.  Also, this book, like my first, is written in a 19th century style of omniscient narration, and in my own fiction, I prefer the idea and believe in the assertions of an omniscient narrator written in the past tense.

ORIGINS

Throughout the book, we learn that women are born to suffer. They must endure. They must subjugate their own desires or be undone by them. I’m thinking of Hana and Etsuko—both of whom suffer mightily after acting on their sexual desires. Conversely, Kyunghee does not act on her desire to be with Kim Changho and she suffers his loss. She sacrifices love. And now that I think of it, love between men and women feels elusive in this novel. It is strongest and always prevails in the context of family. Is that fair to say? 

LEE

I was shocked by how many ethnically Korean women I interviewed discussed the necessity of suffering in a woman’s life. That said, I think the idea of not needing to suffer in life and choosing happiness is a fairly recent American notion. This idea of elective happiness and needlessness of suffering causes feelings of great anguish, resentment, and powerlessness to those who have unasked-for suffering. The reality is that terrible, unspeakably tragic things happen to so many people. How are we to make sense of this in a 21st century life paradigm of an all-consuming happiness-seeking quest, I wonder? I disagree with the idea of blaming those who suffer from depression, illness, difficult family members, addictions, etc., and as I get older, I think it is more compassionate to see that suffering is a part of life, and learning how to cope or persevere may be more helpful rather than to deny its inevitable arrival at one’s doorstep at different points in one’s life. As for love, I noticed often that ordinary women of regular means had to choose familial love over romantic love and had to view romantic love with great suspicion because a bad romantic choice could materially impact the quality of a woman's life. This idea is not that different than the idea that biology is destiny since women’s lives change with pregnancy and child-rearing more immediately and dramatically than in the lives of men.

ORIGINS

What surprised you about what you had written once you were done with Pachinko?

LEE

Gosh, I was very surprised that it took such a long time from the moment of inspiration (1989) to the final moment of publication (2017), and that I felt stubbornly compelled to carry this book with me for nearly three decades. Also, I have been surprised by the way this book has grown and taken a life outside of my vision. I am surprised by the interest this book has garnered.


Min Jin Lee’s debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires was a Top 10 Novels of the Year for The Times of London, NPR’s Fresh Air, and USA Today. Her short fiction has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts. Her writings have appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, The Times of London, Vogue, Travel+Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, and Food & Wine. Her essays and literary criticism have been anthologized widely. She served as a columnist for the Chosun Ilbo, the leading paper of South Korea. From 2007-2011, she lived in Tokyo where she researched and wrote Pachinko. She lives in New York with her family.

Posted on January 23, 2017 .