Author Min Jin Lee’s success was 30 years in the making | A List
The phenomenal success of the New York Times best-selling book, Pachinko (2017) didn’t happen overnight; it was 30 years in the making. The novel by author Min Jin Lee, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and a runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, was first conceived in 1989. It took her three decades, on and off, of extensive research, writing and re-writing before she was ready to send her labour of love to the printers and into the hands of readers.
The novel went on to garner multiple accolades and top bestseller lists, and was recently picked up by Apple to be turned into a big-budget drama series. Pachinko will be the focus of her upcoming talk at the Singapore Writers Festival (1 to 10 Nov).
Pachinko is a rich historical novel that follows the journey of a Korean family’s immigrant experience in Japan across four generations. Titled after the Japanese arcade game otherwise known as pinball, Pachinko is a metaphoric expression of the lives that the characters led – with the odds stacked high against them. The family’s tenacity, however, lifted them above societal discrimination and they eventually found success operating a chain of pachinko parlours.
The topic of diaspora and issues of identity, family and sense of belonging are close to the heart of the Korean-American author, who moved with her family from Seoul to the United States when she was seven. While she has not experienced hostile racist encounters, she admits to moments of “feeling alienated and permanently foreign” because she looks different and has a foreign-sounding name. And although she grew up in the US, she maintains a “deeply romantic attachment to the Korean Peninsula” and feels a strong connection with people from both North and South Korea.
Pachinko is the second book in her Korean diaspora trilogy. The debut novel was Free Food for Millionaires (2007), and she is working on the final instalment of the trilogy, American Hagwon. The novel centres on the Korean obsession with education and hagwons, private tuition centres that parents send their children to in hopes of securing a better future for them.
Ahead of her talk in Singapore, she tells The A List what makes her tick, as a writer and reader.
Which character in Pachinko do you feel for the most, and why?
The character that I identify with the most and have greatest sympathy for is Mozasu because he is limited and yet, has a wish to survive. I think he is a good person, and that meant a great deal to me. I explored how good people deal with injustice and systems that are deeply unfair through his character, and Mozasu’s tactic of survival is a very noble one.
The character I liked the most is Koh Hansu, to everyone’s surprise, because he is a very vital character. As an artist, he is someone who gives me great range of possibilities of storytelling. But a story like Pachinko can’t be told about Hansu, so I lean on him to help me understand this world. However, I don’t want to know him personally.
You battled chronic liver disease and have since recovered from it. How has the illness shaped your writing?
Illness has always affected my work. I had a greater sensitivity to when people are sick, and I think that experience has been very formative for me because I don’t think of life as being forever.
I realise my mortality and consequently, I think a great deal about the way I use my time. I think very much about trying to be a decent person when life is actually full of disappointments, heartbreaks and anger. Because heaven forbid I die tomorrow, I hope my conversation with you was useful, meaningful and good. (Illness) helped me to think this way, so I know my time and energy matters.
What are you currently reading?
I am re-reading Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know (2018). The memoir is her story of adoption and search for her Korean birth family.
What is your all-time favourite book that you keep returning to, and why?
My favourite novel of all time is Middlemarch (1871-72) by George Eliot, and the book I return to and read six days a week is the Bible. It was a habit I started because Willa Cather, one of my favourite American writers, read the Bible before she wrote every day. I love doing it, it is a beautiful book whether you are a Christian or not.
Responses have been edited for clarity. Details of An Hour with: Min Jin Lee at the Singapore Writers Festival here.