Min Jin Lee: 2018 National Book Festival

>> Peter Vankevich: Okay, welcome to the afternoon session of the fiction stage here I’m Peter Vankevich If you see any ushers or have any questions, please check with us You’ll all see our uniforms on right now I just want to introduce you to Lynn Neary She’s the arts correspondent for NPR, and I will add she’s on a lot of shows I don’t think I ever turn on when I’m driving and get on NPR, which is my number-one station, without hearing Lynn on one of the shows there So welcome, Lynn >> Lynn Neary: Good to be here So it’s so good to be here again This is the fourth time I’ve come to the National Book Festival to interview wonderful authors like Min Jin Lee, and I love this event, as I say every year, because I feel like it brings all the book lovers in Washington, DC together in one huge building, and there’s this great energy around books and reading And one of the questions that I get a lot as the books and publishing correspondent for NPR is, you know, how do you choose the books, and I was thinking about this as I got ready for this interview, because I feel like I helped discover Pachinko I interviewed Min Jin Lee pretty early on, and I was thinking, well, how did I, because you know, we get a lot of books, and you’re not supposed to judge a book by the cover, but I really like that cover, and I saw the word, and I saw Pachinko, and I didn’t really know what that was And then I read something about it, and I realized it was this game in Japan, and I remembered when I was in Japan many years ago, I had seen these brightly colored parlors all over the place, and then I realized that the cover was actually a picture of a pachinko board, and I thought that was pretty cool Then I heard it was about — I read it was about Japanese Koreans, and I thought I don’t know anything about that, and then I read that they were somehow involved with pachinko, so put that all together I was very intrigued, so I opened the book It starts with a love story What’s wrong with that? Then it moves on to historical fiction Then it becomes a family saga, and it ends as a coming of age story It’s what every fiction lover loves What was not to love about Pachinko? So that was how I discovered the book, and I’m happy that I may have helped some of you hear about it through my interview with Min Jin Lee, because I had not read your first book — I have to be honest with you — which is Free Food for Millionaires, and I know that it took you a long time to write Pachinko, right How long? >> Min Jin Lee: Thirty years >> Lynn Neary: And you didn’t know very much about Korean Japanese when you started, did you? >> Min Jin Lee: Oh, no, I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, but before we talk, I just want to embarrass Lynn a little bit because I have the stage So I just wanted to thank you so much for your championing of this book because for a person like me from my background, for people who take 30 years to write a book, if you don’t have a really smart prize-winning journalist saying please read this book, it’s actually really hard to break out of the fray So there are 600,000 to a million published every year in America They all go to her office >> Lynn Neary: That’s true, and I have to tell you we didn’t have an intern >> Min Jin Lee: Thank God for that cover >> Lynn Neary: Yeah We didn’t have an intern this summer, so you should see the books piling up at NPR right now >> Min Jin Lee: No, I’m judging the National Book Awards this year, and there’s 370 books for fiction >> Lynn Neary: I know, and we should ask — I’m going to ask you — >> Min Jin Lee: Yeah >> Lynn Neary: — about that before we start talking about — >> Min Jin Lee: Right >> Lynn Neary: — Pachinko, because that means you have to read 370 books? >> Min Jin Lee: I can’t talk about it, but yes, everybody has gotten my attention, and that’s all I’ve been doing, because I just read and read and read some more There’s a lot of — >> Lynn Neary: I don’t even understand how you read that many books in a year >> Min Jin Lee: It’s really hard It’s really hard, and it’s really hard to write — >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: — when you’re reading I mean you know >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: We’re reading all the time >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: And eating a lot of chocolate, for me >> Lynn Neary: Well, let’s talk about Pachinko, because — >> Min Jin Lee: I do want to say thank you I just wanted to say >> Lynn Neary: Well, you’re welcome, because I really do This is a wonderful book, for those of you who haven’t caught up with it yet, and I think a lot of you have, which is why you’re here, but I just wanted to ask you, you know, you yourself, how you sort of stumbled upon — you kind of stumbled upon this subject, didn’t you? >> Min Jin Lee: I did So when I was in college, I had all these problems I’m sure none of you did, but I was a history major, which means that I knew my direct path in life So I was totally lost, and I was dating this really bad guy — it’s all true — and the head of my residential college said would you go to a master’s tea, which now it’s called like the head tea or something like that, and nobody wanted to go because it was an American missionary

talking about the Korean Japanese, a very sexy topic So I went because the person who asked me was a minister, and it’s really hard to say no to Harry Adams because he’s a really great person So I went, and so it was me and another guy named Wilson, so there was two of us, there’s an American missionary who has dedicated his entire life to serving to serving the poor Korean Japanese, so I felt like I had to go, and then Harry Adams There was four of us, a humongous plate of cookies, and it was about 15 minutes >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: And he talked about the history of the Koreans in Japan, and I knew nothing, and I thought it was really sad and, you know, very moving, but then I didn’t think that I was going to spend my life doing this, because I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: But he mentioned this one story of a little boy who had climbed up to his apartment building, and he jumped off to his death immediately following his middle school graduation, and it turned out that he was ethnically Korean, his parents were ethnically Korean, and his parents were trying to figure out why this would happen, and they went through his middle school yearbook, and his Japanese classmates had written go back to where you belong, I hate you, and they wrote you smell like kimchi, and they wrote the words die, die, die And I think it just moved me in a different way, because that was not my experience of living in America, because I was an immigrant >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: And I grew up in Queens, and I had so many people be so incredibly kind to me, and I know that’s not the experience of all Asian-Americans in this country, but because I grew up in Queens and I went to high school in the Bronx, I was really normal >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: So I was really surprised by it, and when I quit being a lawyer, I started to work on this book >> Lynn Neary: Yeah, and you had to do a lot of research >> Min Jin Lee: Yeah >> Lynn Neary: But you interviewed a lot of people, I mean I think Tell us a little bit about that part of the research? >> Min Jin Lee: Well, you know that what you read versus what people say are so different, and the way people present are so different So I have — I don’t know if you know this, but I had a very serious speaking issue until I was almost in high school I didn’t really talk to people, and it wasn’t because I didn’t know English It’s just because I had all this social anxiety, so I took all these classes and all these things Ones of the ways it allows me to talk to people is if I feel like I have a formal interview, then I feel like I can ask questions and it’s not rude, because I do have a billion questions in my head, but then I feel like well, that doesn’t seem quite right, to just talk So I started to interview all these Korean-Japanese people in Japan, and I learned that all the books that I had read were statistically accurate and factually correct, especially all the history, anthropology, and sociology and law books, because I read all those like things, but the thing that was not correct was that most Korean-Japanese people that I met, not all, but most, they really don’t see themselves as victims They don’t see themselves as some sort of like pathetic patsy who really couldn’t figure out what to do As a matter of fact, they were so defiantly in charge of their lives, and I was like oh, I have to rethink this So I had to throw away an entire manuscript that I had written, and I started all over again, and Sunja was really born in 2008 >> Lynn Neary: Sunja is the central character — >> Min Jin Lee: Right >> Lynn Neary: — in this book >> Min Jin Lee: Because the first book, the main character was Solomon So if you know the book, Solomon’s like this part of the book now, so >> Lynn Neary: And Sunja, of course, is this young woman who falls in love with the wrong guy, which a lot of us have done over the years, right >> Min Jin Lee: I’ve done it I’ve been dumped by the wrong guy >> Lynn Neary: But then a very — she’s kind of rescued by another man who’s a very kind man, a missionary He’s going to Japan And I was just fascinated in terms of the history, because I didn’t know anything about it I had no idea that so many Koreans had immigrated to Japan at one time What caused that immigration? I mean what was the — >> Min Jin Lee: So the colonial history of Korea is a really sad one So from 1910 to 1945, until the war ended, the Koreans were essentially a colony of Japan, so Japan basically owned Korea and acted as such, and there’s a lot of revisionist historians who have different points of view about this, but for the most part, it can be agreed that most of the Koreans who went to Japan were economic migrants or forcible labor, but there was definitely both So in that time, because the Japanese were coming in as the colonizer, they took over a lot of the land Like a million Japanese went to Korea, and over a million Koreans went to Japan

But obviously the status is different, right, and then when they did a major land tax, a lot of the farmers as well as the peasants were taken away from their land and their sustenance, so a lot of Koreans, if they wanted to have any viability, went to Japan >> Lynn Neary: Yeah, and the other thing that I found interesting just historically was the realization of how people got caught in Japan, you know, in the Korean War It really brought to life the realization of what happened with the partition of Korea at that point >> Min Jin Lee: Right, because in 1945, Korea gets partitioned, and in 1950, you have the war, and as soon as Japan lost the war, so many things happened in Japan, but the first thing that happened for the Koreans in Japan is they lost their citizenship, so they were no longer colonial members They became stateless So they could have gone back to South — gone back to South Korea or to North Korea at that point However, they had cholera in the country, they had lost everything that they had, most of their family members were dying, and this incredible poverty, and then you had the US government that was in charge of Japan saying you couldn’t take more than a certain amount of property back So imagine if you have a hundred dollars’ worth of something and they tell you that can only take two dollars back, and then when you go there, there’s nothing there >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: So they stayed >> Lynn Neary: So we’re talking about the history, but this is a novel, and it’s one of those great sprawling family sagas >> Min Jin Lee: Oh, thank you >> Lynn Neary: And you know, I love those kinds of books, and so they’re the kind of books you just sort of fall into and get very engrossed What is it about that kind of a book, first of all, that you like as a writer and a reader, and why did you choose to write that kind of novel to tell this great historical story? >> Min Jin Lee: I had no intention of writing this book, and I will never do this again I turned 50 in November, and I was like if I have to do this again, it would take another 30 years So I guess, yeah, at 80 I might have another book in me, but no, the reason why I would never do this again is because I think I felt a sense of responsibility to the Korean-Japanese because I’m Korean-American, so I did an incredible amount of research for this book, and then I didn’t realize having to deal with that timeline of 80, 90 years — there’s a really serious reason why most people don’t write this kind of book, and when I first started, it was going to be like a five-year book, and this ended up becoming an 80-year book >> Lynn Neary: Wow >> Min Jin Lee: And it’s a lot of wars, and there’s a lot of contentious history in there, so I was really afraid of being wrong, because if I offended somebody, then I would hear about it, and most of all, I was afraid of offending the Korean-Japanese because they have been so mistreated, and I would never exploit this story for my gain, and also, I didn’t expect this today You guys are a surprise, so [ Applause ] But I do think that the reason why I ended up writing this book is because I don’t have an MFA I majored in history I went to law school at Georgetown, and then I thought that the only books for me that I kept on returning to over and over again were 19th century omniscient narration, and I wanted to try that, so my first book is also omniscient narration, and so is this one Those are my books that I really prefer to read more than any other time I wanted to write a social, realistic novel about the troubles but at the same time to have a really strong human story and a family story, so I ended up writing it this way, but I did not know how hard it was >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: I had no idea >> Lynn Neary: When did you realize pachinko had to be not just part of the story but like crucial, a crucial part of the story, that this had to be about pachinko in some way? >> Min Jin Lee: Well, I didn’t — I knew that there were some Koreans involved in pachinko in Japan, but when I went to Japan, and I lived there from 2007 to 2011 — >> Lynn Neary: And we should say — people might not know what pachinko is, so maybe you should explain what pachinko is first >> Min Jin Lee: Oh, sure You’re right Well, my publisher always goes you talk about what pachinko is, but I just sort of assume that you guys know So pachinko is a 203 billion-dollar industry It’s 4% of the Japanese GDP, so it’s a corner of the Japanese economy So it’s not like when you and I think about going to Las Vegas once in our lifetime and doing things that are shameful Not at all Once a week, 11 Japanese people — I mean one out of 11 people play pachinko once a week That’s a lot >> Lynn Neary: It’s a gambling — >> Min Jin Lee: It’s a gambling game >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: It’s an adult gambling game It’s not for kids

It’s incredibly noisy I’ve never met a western person who likes pachinko ever Like I’ve looked I really researched this >> Lynn Neary: And they’re very bright, these parlors, as I recall >> Min Jin Lee: Yeah, they’re incredibly bright and garish, and they’re open all the time, and yet because gambling is illegal in Japan still, there are all these different workarounds that they do in order to make it a gambling game, but people play it regularly, not just as a sport, but actually for income, because you can sort of eke out an existence from playing pachinko So those people are called pachi pro, pachinko pros >> Lynn Neary: And this is a way that — this was an industry that the Korean-Japanese — they run it, don’t they, pretty much? >> Min Jin Lee: They’re incredibly involved in it >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: They’re dominant in it because people who — unfortunately, due to the colonial history and even until today, even 2018, the Korean-Japanese are not considered full Japanese citizens, and even if they have been living there for four generations, they’re not considered regular Japanese Consequently, there’s a lot of employment discrimination against the Korean-Japanese, and it has been historically for over a hundred years Most Korean-Japanese, even if they converted to Japanese citizenship today, face employment discrimination So one of the industries that really took them in was pachinko, and the other industry that took women are barbecue restaurants, Korean restaurants, so that’s where the women would end up working, and the men would work on pachinko, but because pachinko is a gambling industry, people in Japan, even though it’s so important, believe that it’s very low-class They consider it related to criminal behavior because it used to be, about 40 years ago, very heavily criminalized There are parts of it that were quite dangerous, but it isn’t anymore It really isn’t anymore There’s very little wiggle room because it’s so heavily regulated However, even if you work in pachinko today for like — let’s say you own an advertising company, and you advertise for people in the pachinko industry You’re discriminated against socially because people think of you as somebody who’s vulgar, low-class and criminal, and those people tend to be Korean, and again, I was really surprised that even today that people who are ethnically Korean can face this discrimination >> Lynn Neary: What was it like for you as a Korean going to Japan, having been raised in this country, researching and asking people questions about what it was like to be Korean-Japanese? What was it like for you to — did you experience any discrimination? >> Min Jin Lee: Oh, yeah >> Lynn Neary: Were you uncomfortable in Japan? >> Min Jin Lee: Yeah, I was uncomfortable in Japan, and I think the primary reason why I was uncomfortable in Japan is because I’ve never been treated like that before, and the model minority myth is a very dangerous one for Asian-Americans, but in a way, nobody ever — it’s like if I walk down the street, and like let’s say I stole something from your purse Most people will probably not think it’s me Most people will probably think I’m good at math There’s a lot of like these weird — >> Lynn Neary: Are you? >> Min Jin Lee: I’m not bad, and I’m proud of it because I had to really work at it, but anyway, but you have all these model minority stereotypes which are really quite harmful to people However, in Japan, what was really strange is that people thought that I was argumentative and criminal and aggressive, and I was like wow, no one’s ever thought I was aggressive before That’s interesting But after the initial sort of surprise wears off, you realize that it intersects every aspect of your daily life So for me, I was visiting, and my husband is half-Japanese, so I have Japanese family, so I had kind of an inside connection, but at any point, I could speak the most important, unfortunately or fortunately, language in the world, which is English, so the privilege that you have as an English-speaker is so incredibly powerful in Asia, because all of a sudden, you can just kind of skip some things, and also, it’s not even money Education and language is an incredible form of power, so that was very helpful, but I don’t speak Japanese, so in that sense, I was disempowered, and that was really hard for me, but specific instances of discrimination did occur So for example, we are renting this really beautiful apartment that my husband’s company rented for us, like a place I could never afford to live by myself, and one day, the toilet upstairs was leaking, so I had to call the management company, and they came and they fixed it, but they created a huge hole And after they fixed it, they said we’re going to come the next day and repair it, and I said well, —

— I think you have to wait a few days because if you don’t dry the plaster, you’ll get mold, because I am neurotic, and I said well, I’m happy to take off from work, and in two days, I’ll meet you when it’s fully dry, and then you can put the plaster on And the management company said to me you Koreans are always complaining, and I was thinking to myself like it’s not even my building Like if there’s mold, it’s your problem, but I thought I was being nice >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: And neurotic >> Lynn Neary: Maybe you were being a New Yorker >> Min Jin Lee: Right [ Laughter ] Point taken >> Lynn Neary: Well, I’m a New Yorker today, so it’s okay, but I think that’s so interesting, that you can be the same person in two different cultures and be perceived completely — like to have that experience of being — >> Min Jin Lee: Yeah >> Lynn Neary: — perceived completely differently You’re the same person, and yet in one culture, people will think of you as — I don’t know Maybe they think of you as shy and retiring I’m not sure that would be right >> Min Jin Lee: Right >> Lynn Neary: But certainly not aggressive, but you know, aggressive in Japan That’s interesting >> Min Jin Lee: Well, what’s weird is that I didn’t really even learn how to talk to regular people until almost high school I had to take all these classes, so my natural MO is always actually to be very quiet, and I always think that if you’re out in public — and I have this Thomas the Tank Engine theory For those of you who don’t know, his whole thing — it’s a little train It’s a kid’s story Do you know Thomas the Tank Engine? >> Lynn Neary: Yes Yeah, yeah >> Min Jin Lee: Okay So what you want to be when you’re Thomas is that you want to be a useful engine, so whenever I’m invited to do things like this, I have to go to the bathroom like 18 times >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: You were there, so And I tell myself I have to be useful, so you have to talk and you have to share things that have use to the audience Otherwise it’s just vainglory So it was really surprising to me that if I had the courage to speak in Japan that people might think that I was being pushy or talkative, which I think is different than when you and I think talking is service >> Lynn Neary: Yeah, it is So all right So you’re in Japan You’re researching this book for many years >> Min Jin Lee: Many years >> Lynn Neary: And then you start to — and then you start to write it, and right from the beginning, did you know pachinko was, that this industry was going to be sort of — >> Min Jin Lee: No >> Lynn Neary: — a through line of this story? Because eventually, Sunja’s sons both get into the business, and I won’t go into details of how that happens because it would give some things away, I think, but they both get into it, and it gets them out of poverty, but it doesn’t get them out of their situation or out of the situation of being discriminated against >> Min Jin Lee: No, and you can’t escape it if you’re Korean in Japan even today >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: You might be really careful even today of telling people that you’re ethnically Korean, and if you are in Japan, any of you, and you meet somebody who’s Asian and they don’t seem Japanese, if you ask them are you Korean, they could be incredibly offended So please be careful, because they have a sense of privacy that is so intense, because you may be entirely innocent in your intentions of asking where you’re from or who your people are, but to them, they have faced such extreme discrimination that they may be more reticent about saying who they are So I get letters, many, many letters, every day now from Korean-Japanese people saying my name is, let’s say, Junia Tanaka, but then their Korean name is something else, and they’ll say I’ve never told anybody before, and I think to myself that must be exhausting, to just always walk around being somebody else and feeling like I can’t say what I am, and the analogue that I think of in the US is really your religion So like let’s say you are privately Muslim or privately Jewish and you have a reason for being private about it I respect that, and I think interestingly, in Japan, you really have to be careful >> Lynn Neary: You know, I was going to ask you about, you know, what’s going on with the film Crazy Rich Asians right now, where, you know, it’s this number-one film and based on a book, based on a series of books, actually, and there will be two more films, because there are two more books, but I was going to ask you if something similar is happening among writers, that, you know, there’s a sort of — Asian, particularly Asian women writers, seem to be having their moment We just met Celeste Ng recently >> Min Jin Lee: Yeah, yeah >> Lynn Neary: Her book is doing so well First of all, is that happening? But then before I want to ask you that question, I want to — it’s making me rethink saying Asian as a sort of descriptive of anybody who looks like you and who is a writer

>> Min Jin Lee: Right >> Lynn Neary: Is that the correct thing to say? I mean because you’re making — now we’re hearing about, you know, the Japanese and the Korean being so different >> Min Jin Lee: Oh, absolutely Well, what’s funny to me is that, and my friends who are Latinx explain it as well, very beautifully, which is that in America, you have these enormous tents, and Asian America is a huge tent It’s huge, because you have East Asian, and Southeast Asian, and South Asians, and we have such different experiences So my friends who are South Asian are always telling me to be brown is different than to be East Asian, which is absolutely true, and then, you know, being Sikh versus Muslim versus Hindu is incredibly different, but somehow we’re in this tent Australia once in a while says we’re Asian, and we’re like I don’t know, but okay I’m full of love You know, when you leave the US, you’re not going to find this tent They think that you’re silly if you say you’re Latinx, because a person from Honduras versus a person from Mexico have such different experiences >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: But I will say that because I know Asian-American history so well, I get really upset when we think about the way the Chinese are being discriminated against I’m not Chinese, but I’m Asian-American, and therefore I feel very connected to federal legislation which barred the entrance of the Chinese only because they’re ethnically Chinese That happened in the US, and they built the railroads in this country Or I get really upset about the internment, right So I’m Korean and here I am being defensive about the Japanese, but that’s because I’m Asian-American I’m in this tent I kind of think it’s like a good historical event, but going back to your question of descriptor, it’s what we have, and labels and terms are so limited, but it’s what we have right now When someone else comes up with something better, — >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: — I’ll think about it, too, yeah >> Lynn Neary: So then I can ask the question >> Min Jin Lee: Sure >> Lynn Neary: Are Asian writers having a moment now, in the same way that Asian actors are? >> Min Jin Lee: They’re related, right, because I create IMPORTANT, intellectual property, which will end up becoming translated into film or TV, and I remember when my first book came out in 2007, a very, very famous Tony award-winning writer went to Hollywood and said could Free Food for Millionaires be made, and pretty much every door was shut in his face because they said Asians need not apply That was the message, and then recently, Pachinko, it has been optioned for an Apple TV show, which I think is going to happen I was told We’ll see So to answer your question, is it having a moment, it could be having a moment, but I have to say it’s heartbreaking to think about it being a moment >> Lynn Neary: I know >> Min Jin Lee: Right? >> Lynn Neary: Okay Well, what other word could we use, then? You’re the writer >> Min Jin Lee: No, no No, no, but the thing is no, you’re correct You’re correct to think it’s a moment, because it is a moment in history, and actually, as we study history, history’s made up of different moments, and what does that mean? Will it turn? Like will the door really be opened? So all these Asian-American actors are really freaking out, rightfully so, that this is Asian August Did you know that? That was Asian August, but September — what is it? I don’t know So a lot of Asian-American actors and writers and directors are thinking if Crazy Rich Asians does not do well, what does it mean for all the others when the last one was 25 years ago, and there are many Asian-Americans who have to feel pretty mum about speaking about Crazy Rich Asians in any kind of negative way because they feel like if they did, they’d be race traitors Now Crazy Rich Asians is in many ways a very entertaining romantic story It shouldn’t have to be the truth Like it should just be a wonderful romantic story, and it’s limited Like there are a lot of people in Singapore who are upset about it >> Lynn Neary: Right >> Min Jin Lee: And you can follow it if you want to, but I think you’re kind of allowed to be one thing Like I would like it if — I remember when Spike Lee came out, people were really critical of him >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: And I think he gave the right response, which is we should have lots of African-Americans making film, and he’s right Like we should have many different kinds of stories, so I really hope this moment does become an opening of a huge path of different kinds of work, because I think that we’re global >> Lynn Neary: Yeah >> Min Jin Lee: We’re global citizens, which means that we have to understand each other as fully human beings, and that comes through different kinds of stories >> Lynn Neary: Yeah What do you want people to take away —

— from the story of Korean-Japanese that you tell in Pachinko? >> Min Jin Lee: I wanted to write a very specific story about this community, but above all, I wanted to talk about what it’s like to have to forgive people who hate you, and that’s something that all of us have experienced People have hated us, all of us, for whatever arbitrary reason or for a justified reason How do you forgive and somehow maintain your humanity? That was important to me >> Lynn Neary: And it is No, you’re right, because it is a book about forgiveness, and I’m trying to — I’m trying to think about that now Well, it’s hard to talk about without talking about what happens towards the end of the book, and there are two sons, and one of them — one of them, it seems to be things are going to be okay, and the other one, things aren’t okay >> Min Jin Lee: Right >> Lynn Neary: But they both have a pretty rough time >> Min Jin Lee: Yeah >> Lynn Neary: But still, Sunja’s story, from this young, innocent girl who had no idea what she was getting into to where she ends up in Japan, is just an amazing journey that this one women has taken, and then we have to see the consequences for her own family, which are, in some cases, tragic >> Min Jin Lee: What I really took away from all of my interviews with the dozens and dozens of Korean-Japanese people that I met were that there was always this one generation, the first generation, of people who were illiterate, usually So I’m not writing about powerful, elite, rich people They started out as illiterate, unwanted people who were ashamed of where they came from and where people are constantly saying that you’re not acceptable for who you are, and I was so struck by so many women who are really poor, who are illiterate, who were the beasts of burden for the next generation, and I thought well, how do I write that story? That’s a difficult story, because they didn’t leave any primary documents behind, and because I was trained in history, I ended up having to do all these interviews, but the interviews were constantly contradicting everything that I was reading, because human beings are so contradictory We don’t make any sense Like I could intend something, but then I end up doing something else Like I had no idea I was going to cry today I’m sorry I’m full of feelings But I think I want to be open to my intentions of writing about this community and how the Korean-Japanese should be seen, but I also want all of us to experience what it’s like to be that character, and this is what fiction does I think we can identify with people who look nothing like us, who don’t have our experiences People have often asked me do I identify with Sunja, and I have to say not really, right I mean you and I have privileges that are so extraordinary compared to a person like this >> Lynn Neary: Right >> Min Jin Lee: And yet you enter into another experience Like as a parent, you enter into it, or as a sister, you enter into it, and I think that’s really important >> Lynn Neary: Well, and I think that’s why making a historical novel like this a family story as well is what then makes it possible for us to understand — >> Min Jin Lee: I hope so >> Lynn Neary: — across generations and across, you know, historical eras and across class lines and race lines and everything else, because this is a woman who’s trying to make things work for her family and the people she loves, and that’s something we can pretty much all identify with Now I’m going to cry So no, but I mean — >> Min Jin Lee: You’re the one who made me cry >> Lynn Neary: I think that’s the whole idea of a family saga, don’t you think, of this kind of a book that tells a family story? >> Min Jin Lee: I think so I feel foolish because I wanted to write a family saga, in terms of craft, technically well, but in my intention as a writer, that wasn’t what I was going for in terms of the story, but what I ended up doing, because I do feel like a minor character in life, that I wanted so much for the minor characters in this book to have a complete storyline So every single one of my characters, if you plotted it, because I have, they will have a beginning and a middle and an end, and I wanted them to experience this kind of Aristotelian reversal and to have a recognition, and then for you to experience a catharsis, because I needed to be free from this story Like I’m so glad this book is done You have no idea >> Lynn Neary: So in about five minutes, we’re going to open the floor to questions, but I want to just ask you one quick question

about the minor characters, because I think that’s really interesting, what you did with the minor characters, and in particular, as an example, two of the minor characters you realize are going to become comfort girls, although they don’t know it The last time you see them, they’re going off, and if you know the history and you know the history of the Korean comfort girls, you know these two young women, that’s that where they’re headed, and they don’t know it, and I thought that was really fascinating You bring in Nagasaki that way, where characters are going into something that we know happened and they don’t know that’s where they’re headed Somebody’s heading to Nagasaki It hasn’t happened yet, and I thought that was pretty fascinating, what you did with those minor characters >> Min Jin Lee: I wanted all these aspects of history to be in this book, and my ambitions were obscene I realize that now, when I look back and I go why did you want all of it in there, but I thought it was 80 years It had to be in there, because if I left it out, then it would’ve been really bad, and yet I have to go back to this idea of telling fiction — is that now that I’m judging this here and I look at modern contemporary literature, I see why I didn’t understand what I was doing, because I had been looking at so many old books and rereading them to understand how they do it, and I realized that oh, I guess I could have just written about one character Why didn’t I do that? But I’m not going to, but I do understand that the contemporary fiction mode isn’t what I do, so in that sense, I don’t really belong in this canon >> Lynn Neary: Well, I know that you can’t read right now because you’re reading one of the 377 books or whatever it was you said, but are you — and I know that you’ve been so busy This book is so successful Did it change your life completely? >> Min Jin Lee: It’s changed my life completely It has >> Lynn Neary: How so? >> Min Jin Lee: I haven’t seen the money for it yet, to be honest People keep thinking like wow, your husband can retire I’m like no No, as a matter of fact, last year — this is kind of a funny/sad story, but my husband lost his job on my pub day >> Lynn Neary: Oh, wow >> Min Jin Lee: Can you imagine? So in the morning of my pub day on February 7th, he calls me, and he’d never lost his job before, and he said I lost my job, and I was like what the fuck Pardon me >> Lynn Neary: We can bleep that >> Min Jin Lee: Can than be edited? I was so upset, and then he was such a prince, though, because even at the book party that our friends threw, he was really gracious and kind, but then we thought that he’d get a job right away, but then he got a job nine months later So in that time, whenever someone asked me to do anything, I was like okay, where do I go? So I think I worked a lot harder because I was terrified, and we didn’t have health insurance, and that was just so scary to me, and in a way, I did feel — and I was really embarrassed I was really embarrassed about the thing of being in a situation again where I couldn’t afford things I was like oh, I thought that, you know, I’m going to be 50 I should be okay, and my son’s tuition bill came, and it was so high, so that was just like — >> Lynn Neary: The money’s going to come Don’t worry >> Min Jin Lee: Yeah Well, yeah, for sure, but — >> Lynn Neary: I have one last question for you before we open up the floor, which is even though it’s changed so much and you’ve been so busy, are you going to write? Do you have an idea for another book, maybe not quite as big as this? >> Min Jin Lee: Oh, the next book’s going to be really big So it’s a trilogy [ Laughter ] I know >> Lynn Neary: I thought you weren’t going to do that again >> Min Jin Lee: No It’s not going to be a historical novel, I don’t think So the first book is Free Food for Millionaires, which is Koreans in America; the second book is Koreans in Japan, Pachinko; and the third one is about the role of education for Koreans all over the world So it’s called American Hagwon, and a hagwon is a tutoring center, and you have billions of tutoring centers in Washington, DC, Virginia, and Maryland So if you ever a Korean sign and it says something like IV Excellence SAT tutoring, that’s a hagwon, and there are more and more non-Koreans going to Korean hagwons now, and I wanted to write about that >> Lynn Neary: Oh, that’s great, and now I’m going to open up the floor if anybody’s interested in asking a question Right here >> Hi. Sorry I had to jump to the front of the line My name is Sue Young, and I took notes because I’m so nervous, so please bear with me Your book was incredible >> Min Jin Lee: Thank you >> It’s the fourth book that I’ve read by a Korean author, and so thank you for that I really appreciate that As somebody who was born to a mother who’s deaf — she was born in 1945 in South Korea — it was interesting to see the portrayal of the —

— occupation of Japan so differently So as my mother who, you know, was able to tell me about running, you know, over dead bodies and hiding, you know, like during the Korean War and things like that, and talking about the Japanese, and like my grandmother still speaks Japanese — she’s 96 — because she was an educator during the occupation, but then to see like the actual historical pieces that you introduce The book was like so crazy, mind-boggling, so thank you for that I mean as a Korean-American, I really appreciated that history, and so actually, one of my questions is how did you access that history, and you talked about that a little bit, but I also did want to know how interviewing the Japanese-Koreans or the Korean-Japanese changed you as a Korean-American and how maybe you understood yourself and your own history and maybe your own identity as it relates to, you know, Korea, the Korean peninsula and all the things Sorry, that was long >> Min Jin Lee: So thank you for your generosity I really appreciate that So you have two questions The first question is how did I do the research So I really work as a wannabe academic journalist, so I start with the very serious academic research always first I read everything that’s very academic, stuff that’s not mainstream, and then I do secondary mainstream written research, and then in going — and coterminously, I also interview people of different backgrounds for whatever I’m doing So both of my books involved over a hundred, at least a hundred people per book, and I even took classes when I needed to So I work in a really weird way, but I really like it, because it gives me a great sense of authority about what I speak about The second question about in terms of how did interviewing the Korean-Japanese affect me a Korean-American is that I didn’t realize that I was an angry person, and this anger I think is incredibly healthy I think we Americans have a sense of self-righteousness and indignation which is incredibly healthful to make change in civil rights, and I think going to law school was really healthful for me, because I believe that even though the wheels of justice take a really long time, as they should in some ways, because you can’t have laws changing all the time — but we do need to have those changes, and I believe that it’s possible to seek redress for an injustice, and that’s a very American idea It’s a very optimistic idea, whereas when I was in Asia, whether I was in Japan or Korea or even in China, there was a greater sense of just the way it is, — >> Right, right >> Min Jin Lee: — so we have to work around things So I understand when people have to work around a situation, but I also believe that you can have direct redress, and we should at least try, and I think that’s a good kind of anger that Americans have >> Speaking of minor characters, thank you for the disabled father I appreciate that character, even though he was very minor Just as somebody who is born to somebody who’s deaf, it’s nice to see that in literature Thank you >> Min Jin Lee: Thank you >> Lynn Neary: Thank you Maybe we’ll go to this mic next and then to you >> Hi. Nice to meet you Thank you again for speaking My mom is actually Korean-Japanese, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen any sort of literature like this I have to admit I’m only like 40 pages in, so I’m sorry, but it meant a lot as an Asian-American, because my Korean-American friend actually recognized that as an important story for me to know, and I would say that my Korean-Japanese family never really talked about it I didn’t know until I was like 18 or 19, like really understood, that we were actually Korean It was sort of like a family secret, I think, a societal secret, and I really would like to know your experience with talking to Korean-Japanese people or also Japanese people Did you ever say I’m writing this book about Korean-Japanese people, and what were sort of their reactions, both from the Korean-Japanese and Japanese themselves? You mentioned your husband is half Japanese, so how did his family react when you said I’m going to uncover this part of society, as I know that’s not something a lot of people in Japanese society want to talk about as an issue? >> Min Jin Lee: Oh, it’s a really great question I think you really want to understand how I approached speaking to the Korean-Japanese about my task, and I think that two things that you should know is that I write fiction, so most people think that I’m entirely harmless, and you’ll never be quoted directly, and I would always give my interviewees the option of being acknowledged or not, and some people chose not to be acknowledged because they didn’t want people to know that they had spoken to me about their families, which I respected So it’s true I am harmless, because you’ll always be cloaked in fiction, and then secondly, I think that they thought that it was adorable I was going to try, because no one has actually ever written a novel about the Korean-Japanese for adults in English ever This is the first book I know because I’ve done the research, and if you look

for it, it’s not there, and there are books in translation, but there’s nothing right now that I could think of that’s an epic, 80-year-old family saga about the Korean-Japanese, but I don’t know if you know, but there’s three different kinds of Korean-Japanese people in Japan today You could be a South Korean passport-carrying Korean-Japanese You could be a North Korean card-carrying person So even today, there are Korean-Japanese who identify with North Korean government, and they send their children to school from Kindergarten all the way up to university being identified with North Korea, and those people cannot travel outside the country because North Korea and Japan don’t have a diplomatic relationship And the third kind of Korean-Japanese person is someone who becomes a Japanese citizen in the way that I’ve become an American citizen And all those three are very different, and I interviewed each one of those groups, and their personalities are totally different It isn’t like meeting a Korean from LA and a Korean in Philly We’re different, but not that different >> Thank you >> Lynn Neary: Okay Thank you Sir? >> My supervisor at work is Korean-American, and he spent about four years at Tokyo University in Japan and did experience discrimination there, even at Japan’s leading university, and the stories are very moving that he told me, but yesterday, we had lunch, and the main topic of discussion was the lawsuit against Harvard University on the discrimination — >> Lynn Neary: Oh, yeah >> — against Asian-Americans, and he does feel there is discrimination even at, you know, America’s leading institutions, and I wanted to get your opinion on that as an attorney [ Laughter ] >> Min Jin Lee: Okay You know, they told me that I don’t have to answer every question, but this is a tough one, and it’s a really good question, and I’m glad you asked it, because discrimination comes in many different ways I’m going to tell you right now that I do not agree with Edward Blum and his lawsuit, and the reason why I don’t believe in what he is doing personally is because I don’t think he has good intentions I think there’s truth and there’s intentions, and they both have to be aligned for me, so I do not believe that Asian-Americans are supposed to be fighting other people who are beneficiaries — affirmative action I believe in affirmative action That said, I believe absolutely that these admissions offices throughout this country are giving Asian-American children lower scores That is truly happening So if I had to fight, I would say we need to have more transparency in the admissions offices, because what’s happening right now to Asian-American children in this country is truly diabolical So yes, I believe they’ve been discriminated against However, I do not agree with Edward Blum and his purposes I believe that we should be going after legacy admissions [ Applause ] And I went to a fancy-pants school, too, so And I also believe that we need to be really thinking about how our kid gets in, not because we’re against that child getting in, but because for that child, he or she needs to understand how this all works, because children are talking about it anyway These are young adults They know what’s going on However, I do believe that affirmative action is incredibly important, and there’s many different ways we could understand this topic without having Asian-Americans being pitted against African-Americans I think that’s reprehensible >> Lynn Neary: All right We literally have one minute left Do you have a short question that requires a short answer? >> I have a short question, but he has the book in his hand, — >> Okay >> — so if he wants to — >> I hope mine is short I wanted to ask like what subtleties of Korean language — or rather, in work that I’ve done in translation, I’ve found that there are some things that are hard to render in English in their full capacity What were some of the challenges you faced when translating their Korean voices into English? >> Can I add a follow-up, just because my question was very similar to that? I liked how you chose to use certain Korean words throughout the book without actually defining them, but I felt that I knew what they were when I reading them, and I thought that was an incredible literary tool that you used I just — >> Lynn Neary: Okay, she’s got to answer it now >> — wanted to know why you chose those words and how you chose them >> Lynn Neary: You’ve got 30 seconds >> Min Jin Lee: So those questions are definitely paired Thank you >> I have one on a — pachinko —

— as a game is a metaphor for how the Japanese people have been treated >> Lynn Neary: All right Okay >> Koreans have been treated >> Lynn Neary: You have really given her a challenge, I have to say, because we’re actually out of time >> Min Jin Lee: Yeah >> Lynn Neary: But go ahead >> Min Jin Lee: Just bring it Okay. So I found that in my interviews, I often try to replicate the voices that I heard, but because I work like a wannabe journalist, I’m constantly trying to understand the meter and rhyme of the way people talk, so that’s one, and then secondly, to answer your question, I chose the words which I believe that we global citizens should know about Korean, in the same way when I went to law school, I learned Latin phrases like “res ipsa loquitor,” or when I read 19th-century novels, there are French phrases that I needed to learn if I wanted to know that in the Russian court, the diplomatic language was French So in order to be an educated person of a certain view, we had to know certain phrases and European languages I am positing, and in almost an obnoxious way, with great audacity, that you should know some Korean >> Lynn Neary: That’s great >> Min Jin Lee: And the last question, about the metaphor, is that pachinko is a gambling game, and as you know, in Las Vegas or elsewhere, the house always wins Pachinko is rigged, because the house will always win Most of us, I would argue almost all of us, are on the outsides of the world and in terms of connections, and yet we still have to play a rigged game all the time, and so I’m arguing that pachinko is like life Thank you >> Lynn Neary: Okay Thanks so much