Pachinko was a National Book Award finalist this year, and has been named one of The New York Times’ 10 best books of 2017. Lee spent years living in Tokyo, interviewing Korean immigrants as she researched and wrote the book. Free Food for Millionaires, her first novel, was published in 2007. She lives in New York City and spoke to me by phone.
Min Jin Lee: After I quit being a lawyer in ’95, I was having a lot of trouble writing. Then I read somewhere that Willa Cather read a chapter of the Bible every day before she started work. I thought—okay, I’ll try it. Before each writing session, I started to read the Bible like a writer, thinking about language, character, and themes. And as I read the Book of Genesis, I started to see why the Bible has been the ur-text for so many Western writers of classics: It’s such a rich text, one that could spawn thousands if not hundreds of thousands of novels, poems, and plays.
I was especially amazed by the story of Joseph, which has stuck with me now all these years and become such an important part of the way I think about my life and work. It’s a crazy story. For those who may not know, Joseph is the beloved child of Jacob. His brothers can’t stand him because they’re jealous of his status as the favorite son, and also because he’s a tattletale. Initially, his brothers decide to kill him—though they end up selling him into slavery instead—this terrible act of betrayal that changes his life completely. We follow Joseph into slavery, and from there, into prison. After great personal trials and a miraculous deliverance based on his ability to interpret dreams, he eventually rises to the rank of vizier, the second-in-command to the Egyptian pharaoh, and ends up saving many peoples from famine, including his brothers and his father.
After Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers are terrified that he’ll hold a grudge against them because their father can no longer keep Joseph from harming them. The brothers concoct a story saying, essentially, “Oh, by the way—before dad died he told us to tell you that you have to forgive us for selling you into slavery. Sorry about all that.” But rather than taking revenge on his brothers, Joseph believes there has been a higher purpose to his suffering.
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good,” he tells them, “to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” The gist of it is: What man intended for evil, God intended for good.
It’s just an incredible thing to say, considering everything he went through. I’m amazed by the insistence that all of the suffering, the inequity, and injustice he endured happened for a reason.
That kind of optimism or sense of divine purpose is very hard to muster as a modern person. Like Joseph, we all have inequities inflicted upon us, and when we experience inequity and injustice and evil, our sense of powerlessness and despair can be overwhelming. When will we see justice?, we want to know. When will we see fairness? When will things be okay? I understand the impulse to believe God doesn’t care. But I find that I very strongly want to believe that there’s a reason for the evil that we see and experience. Though there is so much evil, I want to believe in ultimate moral justice. I believe that, as in the story of Joseph, goodness has the potential to rise out of the darkness that befalls us.