Stone the Crows

30 May 2019 | Karen Kao

There is a scene in Pachinko by Min Jin Lee where the Korean Yoseb Baek decides to move from Osaka to Nagasaki. He needs more money for his growing family. He arrives in time for the Americans to drop an atomic bomb on the city. Yoseb survives the blast but he’s crippled for life.

In the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, I saw a painting of crows. It’s there to depict the treatment of the Korean bombing victims. Their bodies were left to decay where they fell. Crows came and ate their eyes.

The history between Korea and Japan is a long and ugly one. Pachinko opens with the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1910. The novel could have been a rant against the Japanese or a portrayal of implausibly kindly Koreans oppressed by implausibly evil Japanese. But that’s not Pachinko. It’s a novel about flawed human beings and survival.

Minor Characters

Min Jin Lee hates attention. In her OpEd piece this month for The New York Times, Lee wrote about her struggle to speak. When her family immigrated from Seoul to the US in 1976, Lee spoke no English. She hid in classrooms and libraries. Books taught her the difference between Western norms and Korean ideals.

In Korea, a girl was virtuous if she sacrificed for her family or nation, but in the West, a girl was worthy if she had pluck and if she could speak up even when afraid. As a kid, I’d watched Koreans criticizing a man for being all talk and no work. In America, a man was considered stupid or weak if he couldn’t stand up for himself.

Min Jin Lee, “Breaking my own silence” in The New York Times, International edition, 22 May 2019

Lee self-identifies as a minor character. She likes to observe the people no one else notices. This is perhaps why Lee is so good at making her characters real.

I know that even if a person is quiet, not terribly special looking, nor accomplished, that person can be vital for a moment or vital to another person. It’s my job to notice those moments and put it down on paper so it fits into the story.

Lillian Li, “We Are Family: An Interview with Min Jin Lee” in Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 1 Aug 2018

Lee populates Pachinko with insignificant people. There are no generals or politicians. No glamorous women or child geniuses. The characters of Pachinko are ordinary people trying to survive in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, whether that’s occupation, war or poverty.

A Tasty Broth

Endurance is a theme in Pachinko. Lee introduces us to the concept early on. Hoonie is born in Yeongdo, a small fishing village outside the port of Busan. He has a cleft lip and a clubfoot. Yet Hoonie is not an unhappy man. His mother taught him well.

She had never seen her son talk to a girl; most village girls avoided the sight of him, and Hoonie would have known enough not to want something he could not have

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

Despite the odds, Hoonie finds love. He marries and has a daughter, Sunja. Their life is grinding and yet there is joy in it, too. The hopefulness that runs throughout Pachinko is constantly at odds with the reality of life in colonial Korea. Sunja narrowly escapes an attack by a bunch of Japanese schoolboys out for fun. The man who saves her, Hansu, becomes her lover.

But Hansu turns out to have a wife back in Japan. Sunja is ruined. Enter the Presbyterian minister Isak Baek. He’s from Pyongyang en route to join his brother and a new congregation in Osaka, Japan. Isak and Sunja marry. They take the boat to Osaka. Isak’s brother Yoseb and his wife Kyunghee are there to welcome them.

After dinner, the two couples walked to the public bathhouse, where the men and women bathed separately. The bathers were Japanese mostly, and they refused to acknowledge Kyunghee and Sunja. This had been expected. […] yes, life in Osaka would be difficult, but things would change for the better. They’d make a tasty broth from stones and bitterness.

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

Violence

Pachinko is marked by violence. The violence of colonialism, war in the Pacific, the political conflict inside Korea. Yet most of this violence takes place off-stage. It’s a choice that Lee’s fellow Korean writer Han Kang has also made. Lee has a particular reason to avoid the gore.

The imagination is very powerful, and we can understand how difficult a terrible trial can be without seeing it graphically. In a way, I think the more graphic certain violent scenes are, the less emotionally resonant they are. As a people, we are becoming more inured to violence and gore, and yet, we are still no less vulnerable to pain. I trust the imagination of the reader. I respect its breadth and scope.

Interview with Lillian Li

For Lee, the true pain resides in the aftermath of a tragedy. A survivor like Yoseb now incapacitated or Sunja as a widow. In one rare instance, we witness a moment of violence: Hansu beating the prostitute Noriko. The anguish of that incident resides in its consequences.

The horrified mama-san took her to the hospital, and even after the surgeons did their work, the girl’s nose would never look the same. Noriko was ruined. The mama-san couldn’t recover her expenses so she sent Noriko off to a toruko where she would have to bathe and serve men in the nude until she was too old to work that job. Her tits and ass would last half a dozen years at most in the hot water. Then she would have to find something else to do.

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

Craft

It took Lee a decade to write Pachinko and another decade to complete her next novel, Free Food for Millionaires. That time span makes sense given her rigorous approach to research.

I read as much of the important academic research on the field as possible, then I read mainstream media reporting. Around the same time, I interview and do fieldwork. I am a social scientist/scholar/journalist wanna-be.

Interview with Lillian Li

Lee’s approach toward writing is no less impressive. She starts with writing then conducts her research. After each round of research, she’ll re-write. The more research she does, the more she needs to re-write. There are times when the written research is wholly at odds with the interviews Lee conducts. It’s not that the research is wrong. It’s because people, in Lee’s world, are exceptional. And if her new research demonstrates that she must start all over again, that’s fine, too.

I know it is discouraging to have to burn down the barn, but I have never been unsatisfied with writing a new draft. The new draft approaches the vision, and this is deeply seductive for me.

Idem

Lee the writer seems to be as long-suffering as any of her characters. She also comes across as compassionate, both to others and herself. When she starts writing a first draft, she has a particular reader in mind.

I find it helpful to think of a kind, loving person who values me. When I write, I am gentle with myself.

Idem

Min Jin Lee is at work on her third novel. For fans who cannot wait until this novel appears, Pachinko will soon be a TV series. The characters will speak three languages – Korean, Japanese, and English – just like the multicultural Baek family. As Solomon Baek would say:

Arigato very much.