“Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.” ― Min Jin Lee, Pachinko.
Pachinko(2017) is a historical family saga following four generations from Korea to Japan, spanning over nearly a century. The narration moves at a slow pace starting in 1910 in the small fishing village of Yeongdo in Korea shortly after the Japanese occupation.
An old couple takes on lodgers. Their son Hoonie is born with a clump foot and cleft lip. Despite his socially stigmatised physical condition, Hoonie is happily married to Yangjin. They have a daughter, Sunja, who is the pride and joy of her father. In her teenage years, Sunja falls in love with the much older and wealthier Koh Hansu. She is soon pregnant but learns that Koh Hansu is married and refuses his proposition to be his kept mistress. At the same time, a pastor lodges with the family, Baek Isak. He is told of Sunjas troubles and proposes to marry her and raise the child as his own in Japan. Sunja accepts the proposal, which turns out to be a decision with reverberations that will go down through generations to come.
This is one of the most phenomenal novels I have read in a long time. It has been both educational, interesting and heartbreaking to read about the trials that Koreans have faced historically, and still face as many are still treated as second-class citizens in Japan today.
The immigrant experience and struggles to create a life in a foreign land that doesn’t allow you to become a citizen, or live on equal terms, is daunting. To think of how generation after generation has to reapply for their status in the country, the only country they have ever known, every few years is such an appalling example of structural racism.
“It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor. When she told her friends in New York about this curious historical anomaly and the pervasive ethnic bias, they were incredulous at the thought that the friendly, well-mannered Japanese they knew could ever think she was somehow criminal, lazy, filthy, or aggressive—the negative stereotypical traits of Koreans in Japan.” ― Min Jin Lee, Pachinko.
It is fascinating to follow one generation after another struggling with their sense of identity and the division in the immigrant experience throughout this phenomenal novel. Min Jin Lee masterfully captures the worldly- and socioeconomic changes and what they entail for each generation.
The title, Pachinko, is taken from a popular Japanese game mainly played by men in parlours. I have watched a few videos explaining the game, but I must admit it has made me none the wiser. These gambling parlours were not highly considered in the past. As a result, many Koreans ended up working and running Pachinko businesses in Japan.
Min Jin Lee(b.1968) is a Korean American author and journalist based in New York. She is the author of two novels, her debut Free Food for Millionaires came out in 2007, and her latest novel Pachinko in 2017. Lee was a finalist for the National Book Award 2017 with Pachinko, the novel was also runner-up Dayton Literary Peace Prize in Fiction 2018.