'Pachinko' author reflects on pandemic, grief and hope for the future
Korean-American author Min Jin Lee is known for her impactful opening sentences.
Her first novel, “Free Food for Millionaires” (2007), begins with “Competence can be a curse,” while “Pachinko” (2017), which is set to be made into an Apple TV+ series, begins with “History has failed us, but no matter.”
Her most recent published writing, an essay in the New York Times on April 7, details her experience living in the era of Covid-19.
“This past year, I’ve spent most of my time in my drafty office in Harlem, where the water leak from the lintel above the south-facing window has reappeared after some bad weather,” the essay begins, expressing her frustration with life in a pandemic.
But, Lee goes on to talk about hope rather than focus on despair. A master of autobiographical fiction, Lee details the story of her uncle John Y. Kim who passed away during the pandemic. Kim immigrated to the United States a few years after the Korean War and waited tables to make a living. The restaurant refused to give him any meals and his hunger was only exacerbated serving diners their meals. His boss even threatened to fire him if he was caught eating any of the guests’ leftovers.
Struggling to survive in a new country, Kim found solace in the local library.
There he taught himself programming through books and eventually secured a job at IBM as a programmer. After sponsoring Lee’s family to immigrate to the United States, the first place Kim took the young Lee was to the library.
Lee moved from Korea to the United States when she was seven years old. She remembers her parents were always working to make a living, and she “couldn’t speak well or find friends” as a child.
Just like her uncle, she also found comfort in the library. She especially enjoyed works by writers who were immigrants as well, but read “promiscuously” across all genres, which improved her fluency in English and helped her adapt to life in America. Reading also sparked her dream of becoming an author herself one day.
Lee's parents wanted her to become a corporate lawyer so she attended Yale University and studied law at Georgetown University Law Center. But she quit after two years due to the extreme workload, and also because she wanted to become an author not a lawyer. But, it wasn't until a decade later that her first book was published.
The story of her life is reflected in the semi-autobiographical “Free Food for Millionaires,” which is about a woman who graduates from Columbia Law School but pursues her passion of writing. Netflix acquired the rights to “Free Food for Millionaires” for a film adaptation in January.
The filming for the drama adaptation of her sophomore novel “Pachinko," which received widespread praise including from former U.S. President Barack Obama, began filming last October.
The novel “Pachinko” tells the story of ethnic Koreans in Japan, known as Zainichi Koreans, who face severe discrimination. The New York Times named the novel as one of the 10 Best Books of 2017.
Pachinko is a vertical pinball machine game which is mostly used for gambling in Japan. While most gambling is illegal in Japan, a legal loophole allows pachinko since it rewards players with tokens, not cash; although the tokens end up being legally traded with cash at separate vendors.
Japanese people perceive pachinko as a seedy business, and an estimated 80 percent of pachinko parlor owners are Zainichi Korean since it used to be the only livelihood they could find in a job market where they were heavily discriminated against.
Pachinko parlors “gave off a strong odor of poverty and criminality” as mentioned in the novel, and owning one is a stereotype of Zainichi Koreans.
The novel’s main protagonist Sunja and her husband move from then-colonized Korea to a Korean ghetto in Osaka, facing many struggles and racism amid the turbulence of modern history. The book follows four generations of the family.
Lee was inspired to write “Pachinko” after living in Japan for four years from 2007 to 2011, when her half-Japanese husband was working at a firm in Tokyo.
She interviewed numerous Zainichi Koreans, many of them pachinko owners and bar hostesses. Lee’s extensive research and interviews seep into the novel.
For Apple TV+’s eight-episode screen adaptation of “Pachinko,” the cast mainly consists of Korean and Japanese actors, including “Minari” actor Youn Yuh-jung, K-drama heartthrob Lee Min-ho and Zainichi Korean actor Soji Arai.
Korean-American television writer Soo Hugh will write the script with dialogue in Korean, Japanese and English; a proud milestone for Lee and Asians in American entertainment.
Lee says her uncle John helped create her identity as a writer.
“I imagine Uncle John as a young man walking to the library and picking up a newspaper,” she wrote. “He heads to the shelves to borrow some books. He solves life’s problems. He rescues us.”
What Lee tries to convey through her essay and her work is a sense of hope. Despite the pandemic and her lingering grief due to her uncle’s passing, Lee says life goes on and people can overcome any adversity together.
As she tells her college students during Zoom lectures, “I know it’s lousy right now, but it’ll get better. You’re tough. We’ll figure this out.”
BY CHUN SU-JIN, HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]