Pachinko: Why Reading an Epic Korean Novel Matters

I first became aware of Korea as an iconic setting for profound fiction when reading Paul Yoon’s award-winning collection of short stories, Once the Shore. Despite having traveled to over 27 countries by the time I was thirteen, I’m embarrassed to say how little I knew about Korea, or about Korean literature.

Korea has once again risen to the forefront of our nation’s consciousness. Divided into two nations in 1948, the colonization of Korea by Japan began before 1910. Korea was ruled by the imperial nation of Japan until the end of World War II. Over 5 million Koreans were forced into labor, and (according to CNN), over 200,000 young Korean girls and women (known as “comfort women) were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military. 

Which brings me to Korean-born American author Min Jin Lee, and her epic novel PACHINKO.  I met Min Jin Lee last February at Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore’s annual Literary Feast.

“I come from a working-class background,” Min told the audience, “and at Yale, I was absolutely outclassed.” 

Min was 19 years old when she heard a story about a 13-year-old Korean Japanese boy who jumped out a window and committed suicide after classmates had written into his class album, “Go back to where you came from … die, die, die.” 

The story burned itself into her brain. “I wanted to explore the complexities of the evil in our hearts,” she said. “I wanted to talk about what it means to hate each other.”

Her father had been born in northern Korea, her mother in southern Korea. They understood diaspora. They understood how hate could drive a wedge through one’s homeland. 

In 1996, Min decided to explore these questions through fiction.

“After all, how hard can it be to be a novelist?” she asked herself.

She quit her job at the law firm where she practiced, and with $15,000 in her savings account, spent seven years living in Japan, researching and writing PACHINKO. 

But to tell this story, she needed to tell the story of a country. And that required writing a family saga spread not over two or three generations, but four—a family exiled from their Korean homeland and forced to live in the land of their imperialist neighbor, Japan. It also required writing that saga using an omniscient narrator. 

“I was interested in how we all might have conflicting points of view. I love, love, love beautiful 19th century English writing, but this had to be in a 20th century American style. 

The novel begins: “History has failed us, but no matter.” 

This failure, of a family’s history, or a country’s history, or for that matter the history of one young Korean girl, mild and tender as a newborn calf, is a failure that ties together each chapter of the novel.

It also ties us, the reader, to our own history. 

Min does not ask overtly, “How can Americans separate their history from the history of all others driven from their homeland.”

But the question remains for the reader, long after the last page of this ambitious novel has been turned. And what we read does matter. 

NOTE: Read more about Min Jin Lee and her writing here. Read the NPR review of Pachinko here.


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