Min Jin Lee on examining assimilation, suffering, and our greater pursuits

Photo credit: Elena Seinbert

This interview was originally published in the September 7, 2018 issue of The Slant, a weekly newsletter featuring Asian American news, media and culture. Want more features like this? Subscribe today for free.

Min Jin Lee is widely known as the author of Pachinko, which details four generations of an immigrant Korean family during the Japanese occupation. Lee spent four years in Korea researching and interviewing people to capture the generational narratives of Pachinko, inspired by the biblical story of Joseph.

Pachinko has been named Best Book of the Year by PBS, NPR, and the New York Times. I caught up with Min Jin Lee over e-mail to discuss motherhood, dual cultural identities, and the new Apple series based on her work.

How do you tackle the baggage of being an “Asian American” author?

There is definitely baggage, but I try to put it into perspective. It is an extraordinary privilege to be a working artist. Always, I feel the burden of representation, but I also feel the immense magnitude of my community and its growing power. There are a lot of labels, indeed, but those labels can have good meanings, too. I try to draw strength from my complicated history, and I want to bear witness to the great reserves of stories found in all of our respective communities.

In Pachinko, you write about the suffering of women, and especially that of mothers. Sunja, whose identity revolves around motherhood, anchors the story. Did you resonate with Sunja in particular?

In my interviews, women spoke often of suffering, and how it should be expected, rather than just avoided. This taught me to resist my Western tendency not to speak of suffering, but rather to accept that suffering happens to all and to really look at our suffering carefully. I did not identify primarily with Sunja; she is so very important, but her struggles were so much greater than my own. I am a wife, mother, sister, daughter-in-law, and immigrant; however, I am literate, educated and privileged as a 21st-century woman living in an advanced democratic economy. My struggles look very different than Sunja’s.

You mention in another interview that as Americans, we can find comfort in knowing that it is possible to overturn inequitable things — yet in many parts of the world, there is no redress for suffering or injustice. How do you write about this without falling into a sense of helplessness?

Even when there is no legal redress for an objective harm, individuals have the power to resist in a multitude of ways. It is both critical and valuable to recognize all the ways less powerful people work around their real injuries. I want to recognize that even in captivity, under oppression, or facing seemingly impossible tyranny, some human beings have laid claim to some portion of dignity, integrity, and mental freedom — not all people but some, and this gives me strength. Reading slave narratives, diaries of concentration camp victims, journals of prisoners reveals that human beings are at times truly powerful and imaginative in their resistance. Writers can bear witness to such deeds.

There’s a segment in the book that talks about the challenges of having dual cultural identities — and even the challenges of being in a relationship with someone who might not share that same understanding. How much of that was informed by your own relationships and observations?

I think it is possible to love someone from your own background who can have very different ways of understanding the world. I once dated a wonderful Korean American immigrant man who held different views on education than I did. His views did not make me care for him any less. In fact, he taught me new things because his point of view was quite original. Most of the people we love do not believe/think/perceive/forgive/act as we do. I like this. It is not easy, but I find that these differences push me to re-think/re-imagine my limited world.

To escape racism, one of your characters puts aside his Korean background and adopts a Japanese one. You explore the idea of cultural erasure for the sake of wider acceptance — which is painful to think about at its core. Why was it important for you to share this theme?

Assimilation is necessary but demands a kind of mortification, which makes us cut away/deaden/kill parts of our former selves. All applied learning of new knowledge requires some assimilation, because we are doing a new thing, therefore the old way is gone. Now if you take this idea and magnify it on our personality, it can yield a whole new identity.

So, then, where does the old identity go? Can it remain? After college graduation, can you still be the same person you were in high school? This level of assimilation happens all the time. I see this occurring more rapidly to very successful people, who try to endlessly improve, and sometimes realize too late that somehow, their old selves are somehow erased.

I feel great compassion for those wish to be better, to grow, to improve — all such ideas are certainly the much-heralded precepts of many advanced economies/democracies; however, sometimes, we do not always questions what exactly is better and why. Why is being thin so important? Why is being more educated so much better? Why is more money desirable? None of these things — thinness, education, money — are inherently bad; but the quest for certain goals without examination can cause great harm. I study this pursuit in all my works.

How do you feel about your writing being produced into an Apple series and how do you want your story to be shown through a digital format?

I am delighted that Apple TV is interested in making the book into a series. The showrunner Soo Hugh is an enormously talented writer and producer, and Michael Ellenberg and Dani Gorin of Media Res are tremendously gifted producers, so I trust them to create a very high quality translation of the work for the television medium. The show will be done in original languages, shot in East Asia, so it will be incredible, I think, to imagine and then render this story as a global drama.

Which of the generational stories did you resonate with the most and why?

I connected more often with Mozasu’s and Noa’s generation, because they felt more familiar to me.

Min Jin Lee is also the author of the novel Free Food for Millionaires. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, NPR’s Selected Shorts, The Guardian, and many more. Korean-born, Lee immigrated to Queens, NY with her family at the age of 7. She would go on to receive a Yale and Georgetown degree, and worked as a lawyer before becoming a writer full time.

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Stories from the editors of The Slant, once a weekly Asian American newsletter. Find out more at https://slant.email.

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