For Min Jin Lee, the author of Pachinko, writing a novel is a nearly god-like act of creation, a way to preside over a small universe that authors fashion in the image of their beliefs. In a conversation for this series, she explained why her commitment to third-person “omniscient” narration is not just an aesthetic choice, but also an ethical one: That mode’s flexibility lets her build a functioning, self-contained world, one that’s governed by an overarching moral physics.
But if omniscient narration allows Lee to play god, the question is what kind of god to be. For inspiration, she looks to the biblical story of Joseph, a tale that’s helped to shape the way she thinks about good and evil. She explained how the story instilled her with a radical belief that supercharges her fiction: If suffering and injustice can be recast as opportunities for empathy and forgiveness, even life’s worst events can feel like divine fate.
Pachinko dramatizes this idea starting in a Korean fishing town, early in the 20th century, with a cast of characters rendered with startling humanity. As a series of unfortunate events leads Sunja, the only daughter of a widowed innkeeper, from Korea to a new life in Japan, the hard circumstances of each character—physical deformity, a case of tuberculosis, an unplanned pregnancy—become opportunities for transformation. Named for a Japanese pinball game that combines both skill and luck, Pachinko shows how momentous acts of kindness and cruelty shape lives through subsequent generations.
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.
This belief is reflected in the kind of stories I want to tell. As an artist, my wheelhouse is 19th-century literature. I want to write realist novels in a Victorian sense, and the writers I admire in that style tend to do omniscient narration. The omniscient narrator is a bizarre technique, when you think about it, and no one uses it much anymore. But for the novels I want to write, it’s the only approach that makes sense to me. Writing this way, you’re not embracing the subjectivity of a specific character. Instead—like the novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries—you play God, effectively, manifesting a kind of complete design within the chaos of life.
When you write this way, you’ve got to ask yourself about the fictional universe you create. Will you be a morally just god or an immoral god? My art has to reflect the moral justice that I believe in. Not that I’m interested in preaching, or writing a treatise about how people should start the revolution. But I am interested, as in Joseph’s story, in showing the ways goodness can rise out of suffering. And I’m interested in creating radical empathy through art. That’s the little task that I set for myself. I don’t know if it’s for everyone, but it’s for me.
I think literature is especially good at awakening that part of our capacity. It’s one of the few things that can really convince human beings to view each other as human beings. We’re so willing to dehumanize entire populations in order for us to conveniently go along with our lives. We know exactly one North Korean, for example. The rest of them, we don’t know—but it makes it very easy to bomb North Korea if we pretend they’re all one person. Literature makes it harder to dehumanize people in this way. When I make art, my job is to create drama with dynamic characters who change convincingly over time. If I do my job well, the reader changes, too.
Film does this too, and so does television, but books require a different kind of attentiveness. There’s an activeness in the engagement with books that movies and TV can’t approach in the same way. Also, novels just take longer to read. If I can get you to participate in this world I’ve created for 10 or 20 or 30 hours, you start to see things differently. You start to participate in the struggles of people like Sunja. And as you begin to care about her husband, about the fate of her children—all of a sudden, these people you’re reading about are not just “some Koreans,” a faceless group of politically oppressed immigrants in Japan. They're people. And I have tried very hard to humanize them, to draw them with enough detail that the reader can love them.
As I wrote Pachinko, I interviewed many Korean Japanese, individuals who suffered a hundred thousand times more than I’ve ever suffered in my life. What struck me most of all was how resilient they were—how much joy they felt, despite everything that had happened to them. Their humor, their ability to sing, or dance, or make light of people who were unkind. And I found this to be incredibly gratifying, because I think I initially viewed them only through the lens of their struggles. I was stuck in a space of focusing on the world’s darkness. But the people I interviewed reminded me that, even in darkness, there are still weddings. There are still children. There’s laughter. You can’t just look at the dark and you can’t just look at the light: Real human lives are a constant interplay of light and dark. And that gave me a great deal of great hope, an idea about how to carry on.
I did not invent their optimism, and I did not expect it. They gave it to me like a present. And I realized that I was more upset about what had happened to them, in many ways, more than they were. I think I was more upset because, as an American, I feel a sense of indignation at injustice, and I also feel like I can have redress. As a lawyer, I know that I can seek justice in a very specific formal way. Not that these efforts have always had a good outcome in our legal history, and they can require people to take continuous action for a very long time. But in America there have been some wonderful overturning of inequitable things, even if it’s taken 20 years or 50 years or 100 years. As Americans, we know it’s possible. But this was a reminder that, in other parts of the world, there is often no redress for suffering or inequity. I think that’s the reason why my interviewees looked at me and said, “Wow, Min, you’re really upset about this.” I felt incredibly amazed by their graciousness in response to their suffering.
In terms of personal faith, I’m a Presbyterian, which does form my understanding of the world. Presbyterians are kind of funny Protestants because we believe in both free will and predestination—so you’re always toggling between the ideas of free will and fate. You believe that, underneath it all, there is a larger plan. But you’re not a fatalist. You believe that your free will matters. One way we exercise free will is by choosing to respond to injury with forgiveness, which is probably the hardest thing to do in the world. If someone punches you in the face, it’s tremendously hard to forgive them as you stand there with your broken nose, bleeding. But I want to believe that even the gravest injuries are an opportunity to respond with empathy, honesty, and justice, the way Joseph responds to his brothers. And I saw that grace, that capacity, in the Korean Japanese I interviewed.
Last night I was speaking at the Strand with some really smart writers, and the great, engaged audience asked us pressing questions about despair. How should we respond to this past year, they wanted to know, with our leadership behaving in ways that are so shocking? My thought is: You should despair, and you should lament. It would be cruel to say you don’t have the right to despair, just because worse atrocities are happening elsewhere in the world. But then, there’s the free will part: What is your response to that despair? Ultimately, what will you do? You can’t just give up. Compassion is so important, but if you really want justice, you have to take action.
What started out for me as a way to deal with my anxiety before I started to write—a kind of homage to Willa Cather—became something that has informed me as a writer in all of my practice. I changed because I read Joseph’s story. I’m so moved by his response, the active way he responded to the deep injustices of his life. After all—it’s not like strangers sold him into slavery. His brothers sold him into slavery. They sent him down this rabbit hole of incredible unfairness. But he was able to see in his own misfortune, a call towards righteousness, and a sign that the world bends toward justice. I try to adopt this incredibly hopeful stance in my writing, even as I consider the worst suffering of my characters. Books simulate a moral universe, microcosms with the power to change how we respond to our own troubled circumstances. By reading the story of Joseph’s transformation, I was transformed, too.