I just could not be­lieve that peo­ple would de­spise a child so much purely be­cause of his eth­nic back­ground


Min Jin Lee was a great ad­mirer of the late Frank McCourt. The Korean-Amer­i­can writer of­ten thinks of some­thing that her Ir­ish-Amer­i­can coun­ter­part said af­ter win­ning the Pulitzer Prize for Angela’s Ashes in his late 60s. “He claimed it was good that this hadn’t hap­pened ear­lier be­cause he would have be­come such an ass­hole,” she laughs. “That re­ally sums up my feel­ings about what’s hap­pen­ing to me now.”

Just like McCourt, Lee has learned to ap­pre­ci­ate the con­cept of de­layed grat­i­fi­ca­tion. At the age of 48, she is en­joy­ing wide­spread ac­claim for her se­cond novel Pachinko, a poignant and de­fi­antly old-fash­ioned fam­ily saga set in 20th cen­tury Ja­pan. To be­come an in­ter­na­tional best­seller, how­ever, she first had to en­dure many years of re­jec­tion, penny-pinch­ing and (in her own words), “feel­ing like a com­plete idiot”.

Within min­utes of our meet­ing in a cen­tral Dublin ho­tel lounge, Lee shows that her thrifti­ness re­mains fully in­tact. She is mar­ried to a half-Ja­panese man of Ir­ish de­scent called Duffy and loves com­ing here, par­tic­u­larly for the soda bread. “I just had lunch in a café and took some away for later,” she smiles, care­fully un­wrap­ping a servi­ette to show me her prize.

Lee spe­cialises in writ­ing about peo­ple for whom food of any kind is a lux­ury. Pachinko is her lit­er­ary tribute to the ‘Zainichi’, poverty-stricken Kore­ans who be­came eco­nomic mi­grants to Ja­pan af­ter their coun­try was an­nexed in 1910. Since then they have been forced to fight for the Ja­panese army, kid­napped as sex slaves for soldiers and con­stantly dis­crim­i­nated against in all sorts of de­mean­ing ways. As one of the novel’s main char­ac­ters laments: “In Seoul, peo­ple like me get called ‘Ja­panese bas­tard’, and in Ja­pan I’m just an­other dirty Korean, no mat­ter how much money I make or how nice I am.”

Pachinko’s ti­tle comes from a pop­u­lar gam­bling ar­cade game, which gen­er­ates over $200bn for the Ja­panese econ­omy ev­ery year (twice as much as the au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try) but is still looked down upon be­cause most of its out­lets are run by Kore­ans. “It’s a per­fect metaphor be­cause ev­ery­one knows the game is rigged and yet they still play,” Lee ex­plains. “In the same way, I feel this is a very un­fair world but we carry on show­ing up be­cause we have no choice.”

Lee first be­gan plan­ning Pachinko way back in 1989, when she was a history stu­dent at Yale Univer­sity. “One day I skipped class to at­tend a lec­ture by an Amer­i­can mis­sion­ary who had worked with Korean peo­ple in Ja­pan. He told us about meet­ing the fam­ily of a 13-year-old boy who killed him­self by jump­ing off a build­ing. When they looked at his school year­book af­ter­wards, it was full of mes­sages such as, ‘We hate you’, ‘You smell of gar­lic’ and ‘Die! Die! Die!’

“That story has stayed with me all my life. I just could not be­lieve that peo­ple would de­spise a child so much purely be­cause of his eth­nic back­ground. Soon I de­cided that the best way to un­der­stand this kind of ha­tred was to write a story about it.”

Books have al­ways been a life­line for Lee, who was born in Seoul and brought to New York by her par­ents at the age of seven. She de­scribes her­self as a shy child with few friends who taught her­self English by read­ing long 19th cen­tury nov­els (Ge­orge Eliot and the Brontë sis­ters were par­tic­u­lar favourites) bor­rowed from the lo­cal li­brary. “It means that I speak a lit­tle more for­mally than most peo­ple,” she ex­plains, “which is good for in­ter­views but not so much in real life!”

Lee’s path to see­ing her own name on a book cover has been a long and tor­tu­ous one. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, she lacked the con­fi­dence to write full-time and trained as a cor­po­rate lawyer in­stead. Ev­ery­thing changed when she de­vel­oped cir­rho­sis aris­ing from chronic hep­ati­tis B, a se­vere liver con­di­tion that af­fects many peo­ple from an Asian back­ground.

“The doc­tors made it very clear to me that I should ex­pect to die young. That was a ter­ri­ble shock, of course, but it also made me fo­cus on what I re­ally wanted to do with my life. I was earn­ing $82,000 (€74,000) a year as an at­tor­ney, a vast amount of money for me — but I de­cided to quit and do some­thing that was more closely aligned with my own val­ues.”

Lee spent the next decade rais­ing her son, at­tend­ing cheap writ­ing classes and work­ing on a draft of what would even­tu­ally be­come Pachinko. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, she had to ac­cept that the book just wasn’t work­ing. “The his­tor­i­cal de­tails were all care­fully re­searched and fully cor­rect. But the story it­self was just too much like a vic­tims’ man­i­festo. It didn’t make me feel any­thing and so I knew it wouldn’t make read­ers feel any­thing ei­ther.”

Lee per­se­vered, writ­ing es­says and short sto­ries for mag­a­zines while be­gin­ning a new novel about Kore­ans’ ex­pe­ri­ence in the United States. This was pub­lished as Free Food for Mil­lion­aires in 2007 and en­joyed some com­mer­cial suc­cess. Shortly af­ter­wards, her hus­band was of­fered a new job in Tokyo and she won­dered if it might be pos­si­ble to res­ur­rect Pachinko af­ter all.

“When I be­gan meet­ing mem­bers of the Zainichi and ask­ing about their past, I re­alised I had got them all wrong. They didn’t see them­selves as vic­tims, they were funny, re­silient peo­ple who were too busy get­ting on with their lives. Un­for­tu­nately, I also dis­cov­ered that the old prej­u­dice was still there — when our toi­let broke down and I called the land­lord, he said, ‘You Kore­ans are al­ways com­plain­ing!’”

Lee’s epic nar­ra­tive traces the Zainichi ex­peri- ence through four gen­er­a­tions, with gru­elling plot lines that in­clude the nu­clear bomb­ing of Na­gasaki, the shame of preg­nancy out­side mar­riage and the con­stant threat of im­pris­on­ment with­out trial. Through­out th­ese hard­ships it is usu­ally the women who have to hold their fam­i­lies to­gether. “This is not be­cause we are stronger, it’s be­cause we’re bet­ter equipped to deal with hu­mil­i­a­tion,” Lee be­lieves. “We’re not ham­pered by the no­tion of mas­culin­ity that makes men feel like fail­ures when things go wrong.”

Lee also hopes Pachinko will strike a par­tic­u­lar chord with read­ers in this coun­try, point­ing out that the Kore­ans and the Ir­ish both have wor­ry­ingly high al­co­hol and sui­cide rates. “The psy­cho­log­i­cal wounds from coloni­sa­tion go very deep,” she says. “At a sub­con­scious level, some peo­ple feel very an­gry about what has hap­pened in the past and of­ten they turn that rage against them­selves.”

Now that Lee has tapped into a rich fic­tional seam, she plans to carry on min­ing it. Her next novel will be called Hag­won, named af­ter the in­ten­sive grind schools that am­bi­tious Kore­ans all over the world put their chil­dren through. She also has hopes that Pachinko might be adapted for tele­vi­sion, al­though she adds: “I’ve been warned that Asian sto­ries are not con­sid­ered com­mer­cial enough for the US net­works.”

With her cir­rho­sis fully cured, Min Jin Lee ex­udes the seren­ity of a woman who knows she made the right ca­reer move all those years ago. She de­scribes her­self as “ex­tremely grate­ful” for the way life has worked out, which is why she be­gins each writ­ing ses­sion by read­ing the Bi­ble and say­ing a short prayer.

“The sort of nov­els I write, with lots of char­ac­ters and an om­ni­scient nar­ra­tor, are sup­posed to be out of fash­ion be­cause we live in a post-God so­ci­ety. But I don’t mind that at all. When I’m cre­at­ing a big fic­tional world and de­cid­ing what will hap­pen to all th­ese peo­ple, I feel like I’m play­ing God my­self.”

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is pub­lished by Apollo

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