Author Min Jin Lee touched on her relentless pursuit to become a writer despite coping with illness and collecting piles of rejection letters before she found late success with her critically acclaimed novel, Pachinko, at a virtual lecture on Wednesday evening.
Spanning across a large section of Korean history, Pachinko tells the story of four generations of a Korean family who endure extreme trials, beginning during the Japanese colonization of Korea in 1910.
Recounting the trials of the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and violence against Asian Americans, Lee noted that everyone is capable of persevering through extreme trials. Reflecting on her personal struggles to garner literary acclaim, she spoke about the years she spent writing stories that were never published, honing her craft through writing classes at a local community center. It took Lee 20 years before she gained a large readership due to Pachinko’s success within the past three years.
“It’s because you have a superpower,” Lee said of finding perseverance in her lecture. “You know how to love and to do what is right when you are tired. You know that being different or unpopular or rejected—and perhaps when it’s inconvenient—cannot be reasons alone to forsake something or someone. … And though our burdens, yours and mine, are very different, and though our wishes are different, we do have this power to care, and we do have this power to persist, because we know that we must.”
Pachinko has garnered many awards since its publication in 2017 and has solidified Lee’s status as an internationally recognized author following her 2007 novel Free Food for Millionaires. Pachinko was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, a runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, winner of the Medici Book Club Prize, and one of The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2017. It is currently in production as a limited Apple TV+ series.
Lee read a passage from early in the novel, when the pregnant only daughter of a poor Korean family named Sunja exchanges farewells with her mother at a train station. After saying goodbye, Sunja and her new husband, a Protestant minister infected with tuberculosis, head for Japan.
Following the reading, history department associate professor Arissa Oh and English professor Elizabeth Graver facilitated a Q&A session, fielding questions from over 500 online attendees. Lee expanded upon her process of creating characters, her motivation to continue writing, the international audience drawn to her works, and her current projects. Additionally, she explained her choice to write “community novels” that assemble a vast network of characters rooted in Korean history and culture. She said she unified the voices of several characters and multiple story lines in Pachinko by utilizing a central narrator who provides insights into each of the characters’ struggles.
“I’m aware of you, and I’m aware of the people that you love, and I feel like as a writer, that is my job,” Lee said. “When you think about a ‘community novel,’ I stress that very strongly about it being a community novel because I don’t think anybody actually lives alone. … So, I guess what I wanted to do was to try to figure out how to integrate the reality of all the people I’m concerned about and also assert my vision of that world. For me, if I could honor that vision by writing community novels, then I did sort of intersect my singular voice with having voices of everybody.”
The lecture and reading were sponsored by the Boston College Lowell Humanities Series as part of its Fiction Days author series. The event was also co-sponsored by the American Studies and Asian American Studies programs.
Screenshot by Asher Kang