The multigenerational saga is making a comeback. For a decade and a half (too long), Jeffery Eugenides’s Middlesex has been the literary publicist’s exemplar of choice when positioning new books in the genre (“It’s Middlesex meets Jaws!”). But in the past year alone, a surprising number of multigenerational epics have been lauded by critics and bestseller lists alike: Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, for instance, along with a renewed interest in the Poldark novels thanks to the BBC series.
Min Jin Lee‘s second novel, Pachinko, may be the crest of this particular wave. A heartbreaking story of immigrants who suffer needlessly thanks to bigotry, prejudice, and institutionalized oppression, it could not have been published at a more relevant time in America. From the 1880s in Korea to the 1980s in Japan, it chronicles four generations of a single immigrant family through marriages, betrayals, births, and deaths.
I recently spoke with Lee about her writing process and what we can learn from the history of Korean immigrants in Japan. Quotes from this conversation were pulled for the cover story in the February issue of Bookpage.
Adam Morgan: Why is Pachinko especially relevant for American readers in 2017?
Min Jin Lee: The most recent presidential election has demonstrated a deeply divided nation. What is even more troubling to me is how all the different groups cannot seem to comprehend the point of views of the other groups. There are divisions across class, gender, age, education levels, race, culture, abilities, sexual identities, religion, political alliances, and among other categories. The divisions exist within families. There are no easy explanations for these divisions and there seems to be even less inclusive and effective dialogue.
What I do know for certain is that all of us have felt otherized and certainly have been lumped into an unhelpful us-or-them binary. In an increasingly polarized world with great economic, educational and socio-cultural disparities, I want to believe that we can turn to narratives to empathize with all the parties who participate in both inclusion and exclusion.
It took so much of my life to write this novel, and even though the work and the waiting was its own trial of my own making, I have to acknowledge that it was helpful to age along with the book because I had the opportunity to encounter and learn as many different perspectives as possible. At age 48, I find it harder to dismiss the viewpoints with which I had once reflexively disagreed. In a community novel, I felt the freedom to reflect the differences.
Adam Morgan: What attracted you to the Zainichi as a writer, and why is it such a vital story to tell?
Min Jin Lee: I want to answer your very important question by defining the term zainichi to those who may not know its meaning. Zainichi translates to foreign citizens literally “staying in Japan.” The term—widely accepted by both Japanese and Korean-Japanese to describe ethnically Korean persons who migrated to Japan during the colonial era (1910-1945) and their descendants—is technically a misnomer since the Korean-Japanese are permanent residents and in some cases naturalized Japanese citizens. The Korean-Japanese, or Zainichi, are by definition considered foreign, transient, and other by the Japanese people. Moreover, some Korean-Japanese, especially children who are traumatically bullied, are seen as other to themselves.
I was profoundly disturbed by this idea of being seen as permanently other at key stages of one’s psychological development. The fascinating history of the Korean-Japanese is one of the clearest manifestations of legal, social, and cultural practices of exclusion and otherization as an enduring social norm found in the context of a modern, well-educated and developed democratic nation.
Adam Morgan: Of all the titles and images you could have chosen, why the pachinko machine?
Min Jin Lee: The book was initially titled Motherland, and it changed to Pachinko because nearly every Korean-Japanese person I interviewed or researched was somehow related (either intimately or very distantly) to the pachinko business, one of the very few businesses Koreans were allowed to work in or have an ownership interest. The pachinko business, a multi-billion dollar industry with double the export revenues of the Japanese automobile industry, is often viewed with great suspicion and contempt by middle class Japanese. However, one out of every eleven Japanese adults plays pachinko regularly, and there is at least one pachinko parlor in every train station and shopping street in Japan. Pachinko is a game of chance and manipulation, and I was interested in this gambling business as a metaphor.
Adam Morgan: I know you lived in Japan for four years. Was that move predicted by your need to do field research for Pachinko, or was it a lucky coincidence?
Min Jin Lee: I moved to Japan in 2007 because my husband got a job in Tokyo, and the upside of the move was that I could do field research for Pachinko. The field research (interviews and travel) forced me to throw out the initial manuscript and made me write a historical novel based on primarily one family. You are correct that the move to Tokyo was a lucky coincidence for the book, but when I had to let go of the initial draft and start again—buddy, I was not a happy camper.
Adam Morgan: You’ve called this book your second in a themed trilogy. How does it compare and relate to Free Food for Millionaires and the forthcoming American Hagwon, in your mind?
Min Jin Lee: I am interested in the diasporic experience of peoples. Boundaries around the world are broken if not breaking and geography is a fluid concept. As peoples migrate or settle temporarily, the indigenous peoples and the long-settled peoples will have multiple reactions. I am interested in writing about what it means to be an ethnic Korean in the world, and 20th-century Korean history makes little sense without a deep engagement of the history of Koreans in Japan.
Free Food for Millionaires is about the Korean community in the northeast region of America who are trying to understand the role of money and aspiration in a rigid class-based society that pretends to be porous. American Hagwon will explore the significant role of education for Koreans, stemming from the Confucian examination system, and played out in 21st century New York.
Adam Morgan: “History had failed us, but no matter,” is such a fantastic first line. How did you settle on that line and how many iterations did the opening go through?
Min Jin Lee: Thank you. This book took forever to write, but the first line was a gift and it arrived whole in my mind. It is the thesis of my work, and even though the execution of the story was tough, the concept was very clear to me from the beginning. To me, it is self-evident that history fails ordinary people, but we persevere.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Published February 7, 2017
Min Jin Lee‘s debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, was one of the “Top 10 Novels of the Year” for The Times (London), NPR’s Fresh Air, and USA Today. Her short fiction has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts. Her writings have appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, The Times (London), Vogue, Travel+Leisure, Wall Street Journal, New York Times Magazine, 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. She lives in New York with her family.
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.