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