Interview with 'Pachinko' Author Min Jin Lee

We sat down with Min Jin Lee to talk about centering Korean-Japanese communities, reading selectively, and creating space for solitude.

Pachinko was the Girls’ Night In book club pick a few months ago. We sat down with author Min Jin Lee to learn more about her inspiration behind the book, and how she practices self-care.

Writing & Career

CF: What inspired you to write Pachinko?

MJL: I attended a lecture when I was 19 in college, and it featured an American missionary who worked with the Korean-Japanese community in Osaka. I was struck by a story he told about a boy who was bullied. In the end, I did not write so much about this child, but how he was treated made me want to learn more about this history and the stories about his world.

The story covers many generations and families over several decades. How did you decide where to start and end the story?

I initially wrote a novel called “Motherland,” which was primarily one generation, but it wasn’t very good. So after I lived in Japan, I realized that the most recent generation makes little sense without considering the story of their origins, so I had to go back and write another book. I ended the book “Pachinko” in 1989, which was when I first learned about the Korean-Japanese people.

I read that you lived in Tokyo for 4 years while researching for Pachinko. What were some of the most important takeaways that made it into the book?

Through my interviews, I learned that the Korean-Japanese people do not see themselves as passive victims, who had been mistreated by the hands of history. Rather, they saw themselves as ordinary people. They wanted to be seen as normal and to be treated fairly. They resisted easy categorizations, and they humbled me in many ways by their humility and diligence and resilience.

One of my favorite things about historical fiction is that beyond the story the reader also learns something. Were you intentionally trying to educate readers on what life was like for Koreans in Japan during and after the war or was that more a byproduct of the story you wanted to tell?

I studied history, and I love it as a discipline, but I wanted to write a novel about how history is the background rather than the foreground, and once I focused on the people, the history took its proper place. Most people do not have the power to respond directly to history; instead, most people live with and work around historical events.

There’s been so much praise for Pachinko (and rightfully so!). What’s been the most memorable or moving response you’ve received?

I have been stunned by the generosity of readers around the world. The President of the World Bank and the U.S. Ambassador to Japan sent kind notes about the book, which surprised me. Moreover, I receive gorgeous letters from so many different readers around the world, and if it weren’t for my cataracts, I would reply to each of them at length. I never thought I would publish this book in this way, let alone, have so many smart and gracious readers. I am very grateful to each reader.

What advice would you give other aspiring female authors?

I think it is impossible to write well without reading the very best books. I am careful about what I read and how I read. I treasure good books, and I read beyond my own experience all the time, because I want to grow.

Self Care

What does self-care mean to you and how are you practicing it?

For me, self-care is being very quiet and accepting my solitude. I need a lot of time to think and reflect on what is going on. I find it difficult to talk and be with others without having true mental rest. I love people, but I cannot be around large groups for very long. I have social anxiety.

For me, self-care is being very quiet and accepting my solitude.

What’s the last book you read that you couldn’t put down?

I love Alex Chee’s collection of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. He can write fiction and non-fiction beautifully.

What do you do when you have a night in with no obligations?

I eat something really delicious, and I read.

What woman or women who are inspiring you right now?

Angela Merkel, Claudia Rankine, Caroline Kennedy, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Roxane Gay, Jeannie Suk Gersen, Sonia Sotomayor, and Glory Edim.

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