Writers Speak | Min Jin Lee in conversation with Claire Messud | Summary and Q&A

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June 4, 2018
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Harvard University
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Writers Speak | Min Jin Lee in conversation with Claire Messud

TL;DR

Pachinko is a historical novel that sheds light on the experiences of Korean Japanese through the story of Sunja, a young Korean woman, and her family, and explores themes of discrimination, identity, and selfhood.

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Key Insights

  • 😀 Pachinko addresses the discrimination faced by the Korean community in Japan and explores the complex themes of identity, migration, and selfhood.
  • 🛟 Christianity plays a significant role in the lives of the characters, serving as a source of strength, resistance, and community.
  • 🙂 The novel sheds light on the history and experiences of Korean Japanese individuals and challenges prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions.
  • 💍 Pachinko highlights the importance of pleasure and playfulness in storytelling, enabling readers to engage with the narrative on a deeper level.

Transcript

Welcome. Thank you for coming on this dreary day. Yesterday was so beautiful, but I guess yesterday you wouldn't have been here. You might have wanted to stay out in the nice weather. So maybe it's an incentive to come inside and share in the great pleasure of having Min Jin Lee with us this evening. So I'm going to read a little introduction. Min ... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: What events in Sunja's life shape her future and the lives of her relatives and offspring?

Sunja's affair with an older married businessman leads to her becoming pregnant. She ends up marrying a young Christian minister who offers her an act of charity. Together, they move to Japan where their fates, and those of their relatives and offspring, are followed from the early 20th century to 1989.

Q: How does Pachinko address questions of national and cultural identity?

Pachinko explores the experiences of Korean Japanese individuals, who are caught between two cultures, Korean and Japanese, and struggle to find a sense of belonging. The novel delves into the complexities of identity, migration, and the challenges faced by those who are marginalized and disenfranchised.

Q: What is the significance of Christianity in the novel?

Christianity plays a crucial role in the lives of the characters in Pachinko. It has a historical and political context in Korea, where it helped break down the caste system and fought against the Japanese government during the colonialization period. The novel also explores themes of faith, betrayal, and the impact of religion on individual lives.

Q: How does the author create a sense of pleasure and playfulness in the novel despite its dark themes?

Min Jin Lee infuses the novel with a vibrant energy and a touch of humor, which alleviates the darkness of the story. The interactions between the characters and the exploration of everyday life, work, and family dynamics add a sense of vitality and authenticity to the narrative, making it a pleasurable read despite the serious themes.

Summary

In this video, Min Jin Lee talks about her novel, Pachinko, and the research and inspiration behind it. She discusses the history of the Korean community in Japan and the discrimination and challenges they face. Lee also reads an excerpt from the novel, highlighting a scene in which a Korean family goes to the ward office in Yokohama to get registration papers for their son. The reading emphasizes the discrimination and prejudice they experience. Through her novel, Lee aims to shed light on this overlooked chapter of Asian history and address questions of cultural identity, migration, and selfhood.

Questions & Answers

Q: What inspired Min Jin Lee to write the novel, Pachinko?

Min Jin Lee was inspired to write Pachinko after learning about the history of the Korean community in Japan during her undergraduate studies at Yale. She was particularly moved by a story of a young boy who committed suicide after being bullied by his Japanese classmates. This story and the lack of knowledge about the Korean Japanese community motivated her to write the novel.

Q: How does Min Jin Lee describe the discrimination faced by Korean Japanese individuals?

In Japan, Korean Japanese people face discrimination and prejudice. They are often seen as criminals, deceitful, aggressive, and agitators. They are subject to negative stereotypes and can be excluded from social events, friendships, and even marriage. Korean Japanese individuals are sometimes considered "other" and not fully accepted as part of the Japanese society.

Q: How does Min Jin Lee portray the cultural experiences of Korean Americans in the novel?

In Pachinko, Min Jin Lee explores the cultural experiences of Korean Americans by highlighting the divide between their experiences and those of Korean Japanese individuals. The novel features a Korean Japanese character who falls in love with a Korean American, and their cultural differences and backgrounds become significant factors in their relationship. This portrayal opens up discussions about identity, cultural assimilation, and the complexities of cultural heritage.

Q: What challenges did Min Jin Lee face while writing Pachinko?

Min Jin Lee initially struggled with writing Pachinko due to the incompatibility of the characters she first interviewed and her vision for the novel. The successful, polished, and well-groomed individuals she met lacked the rawness and depth necessary to carry a long novel. However, she eventually found inspiration by delving into the pain and struggles the characters had to bear across generations, giving birth to new characters and a new narrative.

Q: What is the significance of the reading Min Jin Lee shares in the video?

The reading from Pachinko portrays the discrimination faced by Korean Japanese individuals in Japan. It showcases a scene where a Korean family faces prejudice and humiliation when registering their son at the ward office. The reading highlights the social rejection and objectification that Korean Japanese people often experience, demonstrating the need for understanding and awareness of their struggles.

Q: How does Pachinko contribute to the understanding of Asian history and cultural identity?

Pachinko provides insights into a lesser-known chapter of Asian history, focusing on the experiences of Korean Japanese individuals. It explores themes of cultural identity, migration, and selfhood while addressing the discrimination faced by this community. The novel also challenges Eurocentric perspectives in history and advocates for a more inclusive education on global events, particularly in relation to Asia.

Q: What inspired the characters in Pachinko, such as Hansu and Sunja?

The characters in Pachinko were inspired by various sources, including photographs, archival research, and the stories and experiences of Korean Japanese individuals. For example, the character of Hansu was inspired by a photograph of a fish broker wearing a white linen suit, and the character of Sunja was born out of the author's imagination and the desire to create a strong and resilient protagonist.

Q: How does Pachinko address questions of cultural assimilation and discrimination?

Pachinko explores the challenges and complexities of cultural assimilation and discrimination through the experiences of the Korean Japanese characters. It delves into the struggle for acceptance, the pressure to conform to societal expectations, and the discrimination that arises from being seen as different or other. The novel sheds light on the emotional and psychological impact of these experiences on individuals and the Korean community as a whole.

Q: How does Pachinko impact readers' understanding of Asian history and cultural identity?

Pachinko deepens readers' understanding of Asian history by bringing attention to a specific community and period that is often overlooked or unknown. It highlights the discrimination and oppression faced by Korean Japanese people and addresses questions of cultural identity, migration, and selfhood. The novel challenges prevailing stereotypes and encourages empathy and understanding for marginalized communities.

Q: What were some of the themes and takeaways from Min Jin Lee's talk?

Some of the themes discussed in Min Jin Lee's talk include the discrimination faced by Korean Japanese individuals, the complexity of cultural identity, and the need for a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of history. The talk emphasizes the importance of storytelling and empathy in bridging gaps in knowledge and fostering a more inclusive society that values and respects diverse cultural experiences.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Pachinko is a highly acclaimed historical novel that tells the story of Sunja, a young Korean woman, and her family living in Japan from the early 20th century to 1989.

  • The novel explores the discrimination faced by the Korean community in Japan and delves into issues of identity, migration, ambition, religion, and selfhood.

  • Pachinko depicts the struggles and triumphs of Sunja and her family as they navigate the complex social and political landscape of Japanese society.

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