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Singapore Writers Festival 2019: An Interview with Min Jin Lee, Author of Pachinko and Free Food For Millionaires

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“I like writing because I don’t like talking very much,” says author Min Jin Lee. “I was really one of those quiet Asian kids as a child, and it was something I had to work through when I realised that in America, if you don’t know how to talk well, people will think you’re stupid, and I definitely didn’t want people to think that about me.”

That might come off as a little surprising, considering how easily we slip into conversation at 8am on a Friday morning, with Lee wide awake, incredibly perky (“jetlag,” she claims) and honestly, feels as if we’re meeting up like old friends. There’s a warmth and genuine-ness to her demeanour as we settle down with a morning coffee, somehow having wound up sitting down at some tables in front of a Korean restaurant (not yet open), an induction stove embedded into the space between us, as if we are about to share a meal. 

Best known for her novel Pachinko, which garnered critical acclaim and listed across multiple “Best Of 2017” lists, the book deals with a rather rare topic – the state of Koreans in Japan, telling the sprawling historical narrative of a single Korean family from one generation to another. “Race is such a key part of one’s experience growing up, but people don’t want to talk about it for some reason,” says Lee, who herself moved to America with her family at just 7 years old, where they ran a newspaper kiosk. “Living in ethnically diverse Queens, New York, it really is a wonderful, welcoming place to go for an immigrant, which can be hard in some other places.”

Lee hit upon the idea for Pachinko years ago in college at the age of 19, when she attended a lecture by a missionary doing work for Koreans in Japan. Back then and even now, the subject remains relatively buried, and research and firsthand accounts can be hard to find records of. In that lecture, the missionary spoke of a 13-year old Korean boy who committed suicide, precisely because he was bullied by his Japanese peers, derogatory insults scrawled all over his notebook because he was Korean.

Lee was gripped by shock and anger at the time, and channeled that into the first version of Pachinko she began writing a few years later. Then called Motherland, she spent seven years working on the manuscript before realising it was unpublishable, choosing not to send it out. “Motherland was a terrible and boring book,” says Lee. “It was driven by my reaction to how Koreans were always and still continue to be discriminated against in Japan – unfair. It was something that made no sense to me because as an American, it was almost unthinkable that a government would continue to exclude and be prejudiced against a people who’d been living in their country for over 100 years. The book was bad because it was all about my anger, my political agenda, and let’s just say that those do not make for a good novel.”

In the period between the Motherland manuscript and Pachinko (2017), Lee went on to publish her first novel – Free Food For Millionaires (2007), which spoke of the Korean-American experience. A massive tome at over 800 pages (almost double of Pachinko), the book continues to be studied by some college students even today, thanks to its college-level bildungsroman structure. With the success of Free Food For Millionaires, Lee dived back into Motherland, and decided to plunge herself into research to craft a better novel instead, travelling to Japan to conduct interviews with Japanese and Koreans and figuring out precisely what it was like to be a Korean in Japan. “I met all these Korean-Japanese people when I was doing my research,” she says. “And even though they recognised how unfair it was to them, they were still these funny, passionate people you wanted to be friends with, and they themselves still had their fair share of Japanese friends. I knew then that I couldn’t rely on my previous, over-simplistic method of claiming victimhood to write the book, and had to start all over again.”

On how the title shifted from Motherland to Pachinko, in her research, Lee discovered something quite curious – that almost each and every person she spoke to (or their relatives) had some kind of connection to pachinko, the most popular form of gambling in Japan, deeply embedded into its culture. In interviewing employees of pachinko parlours, Lee began to think of pachinko as a kind of metaphor for life itself. “When you gamble, the odds are stacked against you, and statistically, the house tends to win,” says Lee. “The game is rigged, but even knowing that, you still end up playing, often losing but sometimes, if you’re lucky, winning some money. It’s a lot like life, where the system just isn’t fair to ordinary people. But while it makes me unhappy to think about that, there’s something incredibly beautiful about how people still persist in spite of it, and gives you some form of hope in seeing how resilient human beings can be.”

Suffering and resilience ended up becoming a key theme in Pachinko as well, with many of the characters often fighting for their survival. While Lee never did experience that exact same fight for survival, she’s had her fair share of challenges in life, most significantly the liver disease that had haunted her for two decades. “I was a lawyer for just two years, so I’ve actually spent more time studying to be a lawyer than being a lawyer,” Lee remarks. “In my university days, I was actually told that my condition is likely to have developed into something like cancer, and when I became a lawyer, I was working so hard that my parents started to get concerned. When I switched over to writing, they were quite relieved that I might have a quieter life instead, while still knowing that I’d give my all with writing still.”

“You know, I can’t believe I actually thought writing might have been easier than law!” Lee laughs. “It took me a very long time to figure out how to write the kinds of novels I wanted to write, novels that were thick in scope and talked about a community, and dealt with diasporas and how people move around the globe and how boundaries are created. I wanted to know how a border and the place we go to changes you, and how in turn, you end up changing the place instead.”

In addition to her two novels, Lee has also written short stories across the years, but states that they’re no easier to write than novels. “Writing a good short story is like polishing a diamond, and it takes a very skilful person to polish a diamond” she theorises. “If you make a mistake in a short story, it’s very obvious and someone reading it will go ‘well, that was dumb’. In comparison, a novel has a lot more room, and readers tend to be more generous with mistakes, with readers accepting issues so long as they can follow the plot.”

“In comparison, non-fiction is so much easier to write because I’m really just writing down facts,” Lee muses. “Fiction is a lot more like reaching into the chaos, taking random things that happen every day, and you have to somehow pull meaning and create a narrative out of that. It’s something that involves a combination of imagination and audacity, to insist that there’s a meaning behind these stories and to tease out their relevance to our lives, and to not know if what we’re positing is even true or not!”

“In my case, my novels have taken up such a long time, and I’ve been polishing them with so many drafts, that by the time they reach the publishing stage, I’ve reached a point where I really am very proud of them,” she adds. “Nowadays, people have so little time or the attention span to read, and so have to be extra picky when it comes to the books they choose. Readers are really smart these days, and you need to have a way to engage them with dramatic narrative and relatable characters and the underlying messages, and often, it’s the first five pages that will determine whether you continue reading the book till the end of not. My job is to convince you on the basis that it’ll be powerful, or emotional or pleasurable, otherwise you wouldn’t want to waste your time when you could well be streaming a show on Netflix instead.”

Besides Pachinko now en route to becoming a TV series from Apple TV, Lee has also been busy at work with the forthcoming third book in her Koreans trilogy, American Hagwon (due in late 2022), as well as her memoir coming out next year. “It became clear to me that this was going to be a trilogy after finishing Pachinko,” Lee explains. “It’s really about what it means to be Korean, whether it’s Koreans in America (Free Food) or Koreans in Japan (Pachinko). My third book then, in exploring the Korean identity, would be all about what’s the most important value to Koreans. The answer is not religion, not family values, but education. That gets manifested in the idea of hagwons (cram schools) and that’s also why I’m in Singapore – for research. You guys have some of the best and most widespread tuition centres in the world, and it’s so deeply embedded in our cultures that you almost can’t afford to not send your child to tuition.”

“I visited a maid employment agency yesterday, and I saw all these women from different countries coming in just to get work. I spoke to the employers and found out how in order for them to get employment, she needs to live in somebody’s house, and ends up getting paid maybe $600 a month just to survive,” Lee says of her research in Singapore so far. “They’re so busy trying to send money back because they’re hoping that back home, their child or even grandchild eventually gets to have a better education and have a better life when they grow up as a result. That gives their generation the comfort and opportunity to think about things other than just survival, to sometimes ask the more existential questions in life, which are really tough to answer, and their responsibility now shifts to having to think about these issues of inequality and freedom.”

In speaking about her forthcoming memoir, titled Name Recognition: A Memoir, A Visibility and a Voice, we somehow circle back again to the idea of silence and her own lack of voice as a child. “I really didn’t talk at all, not to my peers or to anyone, and I was just so terrified,” she says. “But over the years I really have realised how important it is to have that voice, and for visibility for all of us, and especially minorities like Asians in America. When I see my students, they’re all so vibrant and interesting, but the fact that the world doesn’t see that is incredibly inequitable and I do get upset about it sometimes.”

With that in mind, I casually mention what seems like a wave of Asian culture in America, from K-pop fever sweeping the globe to an undeniable obsession with boba tea to Crazy Rich Asiansand our conversation pivots towards talk of soft power and visibility. “The popularity of Crazy Rich Asians has demonstrated the economic power that Asians have in the world, and it’s getting Hollywood to pay attention to that,” Says Lee. “After all, everyone, even Asians, deserve a romcom. Soft power is power, and that comes in the form of visibility of culture – that Asians aren’t just these robots, but real people with feelings and desires and a history and ideas, stories and expressions to share with the world. We have to insist that our voices be heard, discussed and included at the table, and important to engage with that and have access to that soft power and representation, for the sake of a better world.”

But despite all these misgivings and issues of suffering and problems in the world and throughout history, much like her metaphor of the pachinko machine being a symbol of endless resilience against the rigged game of life, of the Sisyphean myth we’ve all been stuck in, Lee gives a very interesting view on her own outlook. “You know the cards you can buy from shops when someone is in mourning?” Those cards often take the form of a blank, cream coloured card with a black border around it,” she explains. “I’m one of those people who’s very aware of those black borders, and knowing it’s there, I want to talk about it, to address it, and hopefully, do something about it so we can change that.”

An Hour With Min Jin Lee was held at the Victoria Theatre on 9th November 2019. For more information about her, visit her website and follow her on Twitter @minjinlee11

The Singapore Writers Festival 2019 takes place from 1st to 10th November 2019. Advance Sales Festival Passes and Youth Passes are available from now till 2nd September 2019 via SISTIC For more information, visit their website or Facebook.

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