Doing It Wrong: An Interview with Min Jin Lee

by    /  June 21, 2018  / No comments

Min Jin Lee. Image via Twitter.

Min Jin Lee will be the first person to tell you—this writing thing? She did it all wrong. Indeed, her story, her style, and her career, have never been conventional. But isn’t that the key to creativity after all—to defy the norm?

Her latest book, Pachinko, was written over the course of nearly thirty years. The story itself spans generations, following a Korean immigrant family’s life in Japan. Pachinko was a national bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Award, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and a featured top read in numerous publications including the BBC, Newsweek, the Chicago Review of Books and more. The first line of Pachinko echoes through the book and beyond: History has failed us, but no matter. Lee’s writing takes hold, and it doesn’t let go.

Lee visited City of Asylum Pittsburgh in February of 2018. She talked with Sampsonia Way about her family’s own immigration experience, her fascination with work, and the history of Korea and Japan.

This book spans so many places and times and people. What was the process like, to build the layers and layers of generations, and bring all these different people into the story?

Well the first version of the book that I wrote from 1996 to 2003 didn’t have any of these characters. The book was supposed to be about Solomon, which is kind of bananas. Everyone’s like, How is that possible? He’s like 2% of the book right now. But when I lived in Japan between 2007 to 2011, I interviewed all these Solomon-type people, these Wall Street guys who are Korean-Japanese or fourth generation. And when I met them, I found they’re just not that interesting. So I figured I can’t write a novel about them. When I talked to them, they were very clear about who was interesting in their family, and it was often the first generation who did extraordinary things just to survive. For example, raising pigs. Their grandfathers would collect garbage to feed the pigs that lived in their houses. Or their great grandmothers who would make moonshine, or the equivalent, and would get arrested every week. This kind of world was very interesting and I couldn’t believe that they did that, and I decided that I would have to create those characters. Then that became a whole other book, so I threw away the first book entirely. Except for one chapter.

I don’t recommend this as a way to write a book. [laughs] It’s the dumbest way to write a book probably.

I am curious about what made you stick to the form of the novel and to fiction as a genre, as opposed to just publishing a collection of interviews with these folks?

Oh because I am not an ethnographer. I like anthropology a lot, I love the way anthropologists work, so in some ways I’m like a fake anthropologist. I get to do fake ethnographies and no one’s going to say I did it wrong because I am not an anthropologist! It gives you a lot of freedom. Let’s say I was going to write about a young woman who does interviews for literary journals. So I decide I am going to interview you. I would hang out with you for like two days as you do your work, and then I would talk to you, but I would also watch you work. That’s sort of what I do for all of my characters. That takes an enormous amount of time. Then I’ll probably end up using about 2% of what we do together, but that’s the way I work.

What makes me stick with it is that I want to recreate something that’s different than what I see. I think that’s what fiction writers are doing. They’re telling the truth, and at the same time they’re asserting a thesis about the world. And I guess in many ways I don’t like the way the world is. I’m constantly figuring out how to create this alternate world that has a verisimilitude, that has an emotional truth to it, and then I see how that plays out. So I’m answering a lot of questions that I have about life. There are so many things that I don’t understand, and I get to work through in fiction. I couldn’t do that in nonfiction. In nonfiction you have a mandate of telling the truth. I am telling the emotional truth, I’m not telling the literal truth.

History has failed us, but no matter.

Daniel Alarcon was here a few weeks ago. He is Peruvian but he grew up in Alabama. He writes about Peru, and he talks about the consciousness of a homeland that you have when you grow up somewhere else. I am curious about the sort of emotional truth that you grew up with about Korea, and how it found its way into the book.

Oh that’s a great question. I like Daniel’s work a lot and you can see how he informs the power of his homeland with his new homeland. He has an enormous amount of empathy, and the characters are so human. I think that’s really one of the distinct qualities about Daniel’s work. My point of view of Korea is a child’s point of view. Because I left when I was seven and a half, there was an enormous amount of innocence. While I was growing up, a lot of horrible things happened politically in South Korea, and yet, I had a mother who was teaching piano at home. I remember things like getting ice cream as treats if we had some extra money, or how my father always wore a suit to the office; that’s sort of what I remember as a child. And that innocence is really nice because, now that I learned the historical aspect of what was really going on, I think, gosh, they must have been terrified in some ways. They must have been terrified sufficiently to say, “We would like to immigrate to another country and start all over again being essentially working class.”

My parents were middle class in Korea and they became working class in the United States, so it must have been that kind of fear, of political disruption, that would motivate somebody to uproot their lives and start all over again. My father came when he was forty, and I think, gosh, what would it take for me, at age forty, to go to another country where my language isn’t spoken and I don’t have hardly any money, very few connections, and start all over again? It’s really hard for me to imagine a reason why I would do that. It would have to be something cataclysmic, ‘cause I’m forty-nine now. And where could I go? The equivalent would be me going to, let’s say, Chile, and starting again.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

Thinking about transnationality, I think Solomon is a really interesting character because he goes to American university but then he has these experiences in Tokyo which are very connected with his Korean-ness. How do you see economic globalization changing the way we think about a certain nationalism, or a certain national identity?

Well what makes me really sad is that the positive part of globalization and transnationalism is felt by those who are very elite. There is an ever-greater polarity between those who can call themselves global citizens, and those who are just citizens, who have no idea that the world is being changed dramatically by the disintermediation of technology. Unless you are part of the world in which you can act in an advanced way and anticipate all the things that are happening to your career, you are going to be in trouble. And that’s what’s happening right now because every single industry around the world, not just the United States, is being disintermediated by technology. We are not talking about that change, or about how people aren’t being paid for their work anymore, or how certain people have to do four jobs in order to make the same amount of money or even less, or how the cost of housing is rising, or how we’re becoming more urbanized. All those thing are going on, and rather than talking about that and having legal and systemic changes happen, we’re scapegoating newcomers.

You talk about all of these different identities of yours, and the lack of representation of them in the writing world– being Korean-American, the daughter of immigrants, being a woman. Do you think that being ill early on in your life overrode all of those things that could have discouraged you, the voices that said, “You don’t belong in the literary world?”

I can’t even believe now that I’m still a writer [laughs], I can’t believe we’re having this conversation and that someone is actually recording me! All of this is totally out of my background. Whenever these things happen I think, How can I use this? When I was growing up, I wasn’t thinking, Oh I’m going to be a writer and good things are going to happen to my books. It was completely absurd. As a matter of fact, whenever people treat me like I’m somebody who has value, I’m always really sort of surprised, and it’s not in any way because I don’t value myself, but because I didn’t grow up in a culture where anybody really wanted to know what I thought enough to put it down on paper. And to think that people want to share my thoughts and and disseminate them into the world, which is what’s going on right now, is such a shock to me. But I do think that being very ill for decades, where doctors had said that I would die very young, did force me to think, Well if I am on this planet for a certain number of years, what shall I do with my time? And at that point, I didn’t really care anymore about respectability, or about stability. I thought, Well let’s say I’ve got until age thirty. But I’m gonna be forty nine– no, fifty– this year, and I’m absolutely healthy now. Because of good health insurance that I had, I would add, and I wish it was available to everybody because of that. I think I have a sobriety about every second of my life, and I’m really grateful for that. I’m not trying to romanticize being sick. I think illness is terrible I don’t wish it on anyone. However for me, because I got this information so early, it did give me a kind of reality check. I had to think, What do I want to do and who do I want to see? Where do I want to go? All those things matter to me enormously. And sometimes I can be a bit brusk about things. I will just flat-out say if I don’t want to do something if that thing doesn’t matter, and what I mean by “it doesn’t matter” is it doesn’t add any value to the world. And I do care a lot about this, so sometimes when people tell me that someone wants to do something that’s really dreadful, I think, Would you be happy with yourself after you do this thing? So in one way I definitely feel like I’m going to be fifty, but in another way I’ve been fifty for a long time. I was fifty when I was seventeen. Which is kind of a drag. I’m sure my friends were kind of like, “God, she’s still here!” I was the kind of person who would be sober at a party and take you home and say, “It’s not a good idea that you do this.” I was really worried about these big questions like, what does it all mean? I think a lot about that– What does it all mean?

I’m constantly figuring out how to create this alternate world that has a verisimilitude, that has an emotional truth to it.

And the way that you came to writing was not “textbook” either.

No, no, I did it wrong. I did a lot of these things wrong because, again, I didn’t have any models. I didn’t know who to ask. I thought, for example, that if I went to law school and became a lawyer that my life would be so easy. My parents worked in a really crummy store six days a week and I never saw them. They were so busy working and they were so dog-tired. I worked in the store a lot when I was growing up and when I was in college, so I knew that working in a disgusting store in Midtown Manhattan where you had rats in the basement was no kind of life. I thought, I’ll go to a fancy college, I’ll go to a fancy law school, and I’m going to be a lawyer. But then I was working more hours than they were, and I thought, Oh this is crazy– how did this happen? I was working seven days a week and I didn’t even go home for dinner with my family. I never saw my husband. So I thought, Okay this doesn’t make any sense either. I didn’t have the preview. I always feel like when I meet young people, I’m always giving them previews, saying Well if you choose to become, let’s say, an art director, this is what’s gonna happen, I always feel like I want someone to tell them because they don’t know, because I didn’t know. As for the writing, I didn’t know that this was the preview of what would happen, that it would take me twelve years to publish my first book. And Pachinko took me, golly, twenty-seven years, because I had written it before I wrote my first book. I’m like the patron saint of late writers [laughs].

I think it’s fantastic. Now that you are talking about work, it makes me really curious about the work of all of the characters in the book.

I care about work. I care a lot about work.

And these characters are all working. Whether they’re running a small boarding house, or working in a huge international business. Was that something you really wanted to weave into the stories?

I care so much about work because it’s pretty much how we spend our time. You can say that you’re a mother, or you can say that you’re a sister, and those are identities of choice and biology. But how do you actually support that life? Ninety-nine percent of the time you have to go make money, so I’m really interested in how people make money. When I was growing up, everyone I knew had some sort of job, even young people. I had a friend whose father had a Chinese restaurant. It was in no way a nice restaurant– it was like this little kind of shithole in the corner– I remember he would cook out of these two woks in the closet, and as soon as my friend Mimi would walk in there she would go behind the cash register and put on an apron to be ready for business. If there were no customers, she’d be folding napkins or putting fortune cookies in bags or something. And of course, because I was her friend, I would help out. I’m always interested in asking, How do you spend your time? How do you put a roof over your head? And, How do you get health insurance? All those questions are really important. When I do my fake ethnographies, I really want to know what you do and how you got there.

How do you see yourself in regards to this writing community, specifically this American writing community which in many ways revolves around the MFA?

Right, and I don’t have one! [laughs]

It’s difficult to get a job. I’ve been turned down for several positions because I don’t have an MFA. Even after all the recent accolades and nice stuff that’s happened to me, there have been times where I try to apply for a position and they’ve told me that I couldn’t get one because I don’t have an MFA, so I should go and apply for a low residency program or something. Really? Am I really going to do that? And, how about if I don’t get funding?

I’m always curious about who is fortunate enough to have one hundred thousand dollars to get an MFA. And the funding aspect is a funny thing. I’ve seen people who are really really talented not get funding, and I’ve seen people who are really talented get funding, but then the person who is not talented in the eyes of the admissions office publishes very good books. So you never know. Even if you get to a place where you believe in yourself enough to go to arts school and you want to produce art, it’s really quite an astonishing thing to have that kind of debt.

The thing that I worry about with young people now is student loans. I cannot believe the staggering weight of loans for young people. To come out of school at twenty-one, twenty-two, and have five or six figure debt is almost immoral. How do we do this to children? When they sign up for these debts, they’re just little babies. They’re eighteen. My son is twenty, and I think he’s so mature with some things, but when it comes to money, he’s still just twenty because he doesn’t have that much experience with it. To sign those contracts and have that bound to you, and then you can’t have bankruptcy laws that protect you from those things…it’s unconscionable.

I think it’s an abstract number to you when you sign up for it.

Of course, it’s an abstract number

Because you know that your loans will be, say, fifty thousand dollars, but you don’t have any idea that that number means in regards to the amount of work it will take to actually pay that off.

It’s the work.

The majority of the rest of your life.

And it’ll take a long time to repay that, and it’ll impact your life and the choices that you want to make, so I worry a great deal about it. And I talk to people about how difficult that’ll be.

I was mentoring a kid a couple years ago, and he was very sweet, and he said he wanted to be a bartender. I said, Why do you want to be a bartender? Well, he comes from a working class background, and he said, Well, because my dad knows a bartender who makes five hundred dollars a week, like in cash. And he was just goggle-eyed and so impressed. And I said, Well that’s a lot of money and it’s hard to make five hundred dollars in cash every week, so let’s do the numbers. So we sat down and we did 500 dollars times 52. And then there’s taxes, and how much does an apartment cost in New York? And how about electricity? How about cable? How about, would you like to have a cell phone? And then we started breaking things down, and he said, Oh my god that’s not much money at all! And then I said– and this was before the smoking law changed– I said, And then you also risk yourself to a very high level of cancer for smoking, because there’s secondary smoke that you’re constantly inhaling, and that’s part of your job. Do you have health insurance at this bar where you work, where you make that five hundred a week? And he looked at me like, Man you are such a party pooper! [laughs].

But I wanted to protect him from thinking that that was enough, because he had the ability to do many things, but he thought, he had it figured out and he would be a bartender. And I told him it’s a good job but it’s also a tough job for a lot of reasons. That’s the kind of thing that I’m interested in. Social realism– that’s all I do, that’s the only reason why I write omniscient narration, because I’m interested in social realism and how we integrate the lives of every person in the community. And I can’t ignore work. I can’t ignore it.

I don’t think time is money, I think life is time. And time is life.

With that interest in social realism, I’m really curious about what you feel you learned in the writing training that you did have, taking community classes, that you might not have learned in academia.

There are a lot of people who have deferred dreams. At some point, when you figure out that you really like something, you’re going to have to take yourself seriously. I understand if you don’t have the money to get to x, y, and z. That’s one thing. But it’s important to take your wishes seriously.

Recently I was asked why I don’t speak Korean very well, and I thought, Well, I would like to speak Korean better and read Korean better, but I’ve also had to spend that time working on other things. I think I write omniscient narration very well and that took time for me to work on. I had to make a choice. That’s the other thing about life– you have twenty-four hours, and you have to figure out what you’re going to do with those hours every minute. If you’re serious about wanting to be an artist, then you have to pay your dues and you have to deal with the humiliation, the rejection, and the high rate of failure, while still trying to figure out how to get better at craft.

Very often people think it’s inspiration that makes you bang out a draft. But I don’t know any artists like that. I just don’t. I know lots of incredibly talented writers– at least from a distance, or in some sort of casual way– and I see how they work and how long it takes them to create something very beautiful. It takes time and energy and money and resources and an enormous amount of: I’m sorry I can’t hang out with you because I gotta go write . So, when I meet people who are that serious, that’s one thing. But when I take classes at community centers, I’ve noticed that you can spend an entire life not taking the work seriously, and at a certain point, it’s hard to start again. So whenever I meet somebody and they say, I want to write a book, I say, Start now. Start immediately. This Saturday. [laughs]

Do you think that representation plays into that though? Do you think that seeing someone else who’s done it, makes it easier to say- I can take myself seriously because someone else took themselves seriously?

Absolutely. If you think about how much delay it took Western women to write fiction or to make art or to write poetry, it was largely because of representation. I didn’t know that a Korean-American woman from my background could ever be a writer, and then when I was at college, I took a class in Asian-American literature– kind of on a lark– and I learned about these two Korean-American women who had published novels in America. The first one was Dictee by Theresa Kay Kyung Cha, and after she published it, she was murdered violently.

So that was Theresa Kay Kyung Cha. And then I read a book called Claywalls by Kim Ronyoung, and she died a few years later from cancer after she published her first book. And I thought, Okay well that doesn’t bode very well Korean-American women writing books! I’m being kind of flippant about it, but you do need to see people doing things that you care about. And you’re trying to do it because again, it’s really hard to find a preview, or a manual on writing books. You could get an MFA. And one of the things that I admire about people who get MFA’s is that they said, I’m taking it seriously. I’m taking it so seriously that I’m going to move, pay money, or get money, and, risk being vulnerable by really admitting that I want to be an artist, which is really difficult thing to say, ‘cause it’s not like in America where we’re all going around saying we want to be artists. If you tell people that you want to be a writer, the first thing they usually do is ask me if I’ve published anything or if it’s been made into a movie yet.

It’s one thing to have that encounter, but to have it repeatedly, over and over again gets old. In the same way, I have friends who are getting PhD’s, and their family members are like, You’re still in school? Haven’t you finished that yet? I think sticking to your guns is difficult.

I’m curious too about the reception of this book in the States. It’s worth saying that it is absolutely an international book, it’s translated and being sold in Turkey, Poland…

It has sold to 25 countries.

Right, far more than I even have on my list here! But I think that the consciousness that so many Americans have is that Asian American literature all just goes on one shelf, so many people aren’t aware of all the intricacies within it. What are your thoughts on that, on the reactions that you have gotten to the book, and on this Korean-Japanese history that so many people don’t know about?

It’s not taught anywhere. If you were interested in the history of the Korean and Japanese, which is a micro micro history, you’d have to work pretty hard to find it. There are academics who have written beautiful books on it, so on the back of my book, you’ll see a paragraph dedicated to the most important scholars in the field, and I hope people go to it.

One of the things that I’ve noticed about the reception about this book, that really surprised me, is how late the Asian-Americans came to the book. But I think it’s because of how publishing works– there are aproximately six hundred thousand to one million books published in the United States every year. Six hundred thousand to a million books. Every year. How is the average reader supposed to figure out what to read? And then there’s also this industry, this mill of people, telling you, You gotta read this; you gotta read that. When I meet readers around the country and around the world, they seem a bit irritated. Because they’ve been betrayed by a lot of reviews. So their attitude is: You told me this was really good and then I read it and it’s a piece of shit, and I understand that because I’m asked to review books all the time, and I get galleys, and I think some books are good, but do I want to pay twenty dollars for it? I don’t know.

And even more than spending the twenty dollars, do I really want to spend twelve hours of my life with this book? And I think that the author has to do that work to earn your attention. For example, when you have a child, and they come and show you a beautiful crayon drawing, you should tell them that it’s beautiful crayon drawing, and you should be really supportive and put it on the refrigerator. But that doesn’t mean that someone’s going to pay a dollar for that crayon drawing. I think that if I’m asking you for money and time, my book has to stand up to the value of your time and your money. And in that sense, I’m a very bizarre writer, because I think that’s only fair. It’s not because I’m such a capitalist. It’s because I would like to be fair and be treated in this way.

I’ve been really fortunate because people have said to me, I stopped reading for a long time, and then I read this book. And it made me want to read again. Do you have recommendations? And I feel pretty lucky and grateful, that they’ve had this response. But I understand that impulse. I only have two books. As I said, I’m going to be fifty, and that’s not a lot of output because I have been working seriously since I was twenty-six. So clearly I’m a very fast writer [laughs].

I care a lot about the topic as well as the craft, and it does take an enormous amount of time to do both well. In terms of reception, Asian-Americans are coming to the book now, and I think it’s gotten the accolades that have sufficient meaning to some immigrant groups who say, Okay I’m going to buy this book. Then usually what ends up happening is, they’ll buy ten copies. It’s really interesting– I’ve been doing readings now for about a year and a half, and when I have Asians come, usually the Koreans will buy ten copies, and they’ll have a list and say, I want you to sign to all these people [laughs]. It’s after the fact that they realize that the book is good. But they do a kind of market testing. And I think that if you get market tested by an Asian-American reader, it’s pretty tough to pass that test, and I feel very fortunate that I finally have. But it’s taken a long time.

I think that if I’m asking you for money and time, my book has to stand up to the value of your time and your money.

I think of something Ocean Vuong said about writing generously, about a piece of writing being a gift to the reader. When you talk about your career, I mean, that’s it. It sounds like you’ve worked very hard to make this gift that you can give to people

I hope so. I hope so. I would really be upset if someone said that this was a waste of their time. Because again, life is time– I don’t think time is money, I think life is time. And time is life. You want to be able to use that life in a very valuable way. I think you should be entertained, but you should also be edified. If you’re not edified and entertained, I think you should go to the next book. I really can’t stand it if I have to read a book and I think, I am learning a lot but this is killing me, it’s so boring. For me, reading has always been about pleasure, and there should be pleasure in a book.

Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk.

Thank you.

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