Min Jin Lee read from her new novel Pachinko last week at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. She was joined by Harold Augenbraum for a discussion about the origins of the book, her interest in Korean-Japanese, and the persistent reluctance to accept outsiders in Japan.
Pachinko is a mechanical parlor game originating in Japan. Pachinko parlors are primarily owned and operated by a Korean minority. Entertainment, especially games like Pachinko, were seen as acceptable for such minority populations in Japan. Lee’s multi-generational novel explores the lives of Korean-Japanese living as an oppressed people in the nation.
To write the book, Lee embarked on a great deal of research including interviews and academic articles. She traveled to Japan and met people with complicated lives. For many second or third generation Korean-Japanese, they still are not thought of Japanese. By contrast, Lee explains how growing up in Queens, New York, she felt safe and normal. This security and ability to adapt is a uniquely American concept. Most of the world doesn’t allow people to feel that way, even as naturalized citizens.
While Japanese empire was responsible for bringing Koreans to Japan, these immigrants were often responsible for the civilization’s dirty work. They were excluded from many kinds of employment and careers, and yet when the Americans dropped atomic bombs, plenty of Koreans were in the blast zone.
“I loved Japan,” Lee says of her time living there, but adds that they have a generational problem in their inability to absorb and welcome outsiders, especially Korean-Japanese. As a point of contrast, she points to arriving at JFK International Airport and presenting her blue passport where border agents are always there to say, “Welcome home.”
Lee began writing this novel in 1989. She stopped writing for a time before coming back to it again in 1996. At least two other books were written and discarded. She then wrote Food For Millionaires and published that novel before coming back again to Panchinko. At one point the Missouri Review published an excerpt as a story. Most of the novel had to change. She says she definitely lost control and got depressed.
In the end, she was always going to come back to the novel until it was completed.
“I am a finisher,” she says, explaining that her first two novels are part of what she considers a trilogy of books exploring Koreans, and eventually she will write that third part.
“I wrote this as a wannabe long form journalist,” Lee says. She began after conducting interviews of Korean Japanese people. They accepted the loss of citizenship and the loss of the ability to get a job in Japan. “I don’t know how much you think about tax law,” she says, but adds that tax law and insurance law affects every part of our lives.
“There is something about writing stories that changes something in our hearts.”
Many of the characters in the book have sex, and often the sex is very good. Lee says that the people she spoke with always talked about their affairs. She also met a lot of sex workers–a job often left to Korean-Japanese.
Sex work is also something that is easy to slide into through organized crime, often through high interest money lending that borrowers can’t manage. A series of tiny decisions ends up leading to big problems.
The novel stops in 1989, in part because the rules and regulations began to change. Pachinko is now on the decline as fewer young people play. Of course, as an industry it’s worth tens of billions of dollars. Partly too, the Koreans running the parlors are getting older and their children move on. Once people have money, they get an education and enter other industries.