Depression-era New York, through the art of children
‘Pachinko’ author Min Jin Lee answers your questions
Judy Woodruff: Every month, Now Read This, our book club partnership with The New York Times, features a different book.
Jeffrey Brown talks with author Min Jin Lee and announces our pick for August.
Jeffrey Brown: "History has failed us, but no matter," the opening line of the acclaimed novel "Pachinko."
It's a page-turning epic of four generations of Koreans living in their homeland and as second-class immigrants in Japan. It was our book club pick this month.
I know many read along with us. And a number have sent in questions for author Min Jin Lee, whom I'm delighted to welcome now.
Min Jin Lee: Hi, Jeff.
Jeffrey Brown: And I'm glad you could be part of the book club.
Min Jin Lee: Thanks so much for having me.
Jeffrey Brown: First, let's start by addressing maybe that first line. "History has failed us."
Tell those who didn't read the book or are less aware of it, what were you after?
vWell, that's my thesis statement.
Jeffrey Brown: The thesis statement.
Min Jin Lee: It's my thesis statement.
And I was really trying to argue that I think that history has failed ordinary people around the world, because we're not documented. We're not recorded. And we don't understand what's happened to us, because all of us, historically, because so many people didn't leave primary documents.
So it's not that historians are bad people. They're not elitist. It's just that they can't. So, if you're illiterate, for example, people don't know anything about you, unless people are recording you in real time.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
So you ended up telling a multigenerational story of poor people, basically, moved on around through history.
Min Jin Lee: And they're forced to move.
So I was really interested in trying to figure out, what were their stories like? And I used to believe that they were victims. And then I met so many of them who are descendants, and I realized, no, they're incredibly fierce and intelligent and incredibly adaptive.
Jeffrey Brown: All right, let's start with the questions. In fact, the first one goes right to that issue.
Min Jin Lee: Oh, super.
Jeffrey Brown: So, let's take a look at that.
Patrica Carr: I was very interested in the history and the culture in the book. Would you talk a little bit about your research and preparation for the novel?
Min Jin Lee: Oh, I majored in history in college.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes?
Min Jin Lee: So I really like research. And I like reading nonfiction. I love biographies. And I like anthropology and sociology. So I did a lot of academic research first.
And then I did secondary research in terms of the academic and mainstream research. And then I started to really talk to the Korean Japanese when I lived in Japan from 2007...
Jeffrey Brown: You lived there yourself?
Min Jin Lee: I lived there because my husband got a job there.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Min Jin Lee: And when I met the Korean Japanese, I realized that all the books were great, but they had a really serious point of view. And it didn't really capture the personality of the people.
And I thought, oh, fiction can do that. Fiction has the ability to expand people's points of view, and also to have the contradictions, because people are so contradictory.
Jeffrey Brown: And this -- just to set the scene, but this takes us through the entire really 20th century, starting in a very poor area of Korea.
Min Jin Lee: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: So you went back and studied the history?
Min Jin Lee: I did. I did. I even went to historic villages.
I met a lot of people who speak Korean in a very different way than people from Seoul, for example.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Min Jin Lee: And a lot of the times, I was so dumbfounded by the complexity and the variety of Koreans in Japan.
And then I met the Koreans -- Koreans in Korea. And there was like an incredible variety there, too. So I thought, oh, even I was guilty of having a monolithic view of people in Korea and Japan.
Jeffrey Brown: OK, let's go to our next question. Let's see what's coming here.
Anatole Ghio: I have two questions. First, was Koh Hansu modeled off the character of Rhett Butler from "Gone With the Wind"?
And, second, how and where do you discover your characters?
Jeffrey Brown: OK, well, Koh Hansu is one of the key characters, but to maybe address it more generally, about how you come up with some of these characters.
Min Jin Lee: The way I come up with characters is by meeting people. And I find people really fascinating, and I take composites.
So, I don't actually have a character that comes up in my head. Usually, they come from interviews. So I will interview a lot of different people, and certain types come up.
Jeffrey Brown: So the research really goes right to the character, huh?
Min Jin Lee: Oh, yes, I actually work very much like an academic, not so much like a fiction writer, who often says, I hear a song or I hear a voice. Like, I don't work that way.
I usually come straight from the history and sociology and I go, oh, these people existed.
Jeffrey Brown: OK, next question.
Diana Levey: Why did you choose to write from the viewpoints of multiple characters, rather than focusing on an individual and letting his or her story reveal and populate the cultural, economic, political and psychological situations?
Jeffrey Brown: Multi characters. Interesting question, huh?
Min Jin Lee: So I use the omniscient narration, which is my hat tip to 19th century literature that I wanted to write, and it's my favorite kind of book.
But I wanted to write a social realist novel. I wanted to tackle immigration. I wanted to tackle homeland. I wanted to tackle identity in a whole community. And, in that sense, I can't be limited to one character or two characters.
So I had to have this huge panorama. And I really like it, because I like minor characters very much. I have always felt like a minor character, so I feel very comfortable talking about them.
Jeffrey Brown: OK, let's go to one more question for this section.
Nora Flynn Miller: If your novel was taught in a high school English class, what are the themes that you would want young people to be challenged by and discuss in a literature course?
Min Jin Lee: That's a terrific question.
And I have been told that it's taught in colleges and in high schools right now, and I have spoken at a couple of high school. But the thing that you're not going to get right away is, I would love for people to talk about a community, because very often people talk about the immigration, the refugee issues, as well as xenophobia.
All those things are absolutely in the book, but I'm interested in the idea of, when you have a student,how does she see herself in a community? What is her role?
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Min Jin Lee: Because I think, in the U.S., we have so much but individuality.
And I think, actually, individuals are really important, but what's really important is how we're connected to each other.
Jeffrey Brown: All right, stay right there. We're going to continue our conversation. And we're going to post all of it on our Web site and Facebook page.
And for now, I will say, Min Jin Lee, thank you for "Pachinko," and thank you for joining us.
Min Jin Lee: Thank you, Jeff.
Jeffrey Brown: But before we go, let me announce our pick for August.
We're changing it up a bit, and we'd like to perhaps introduce you to a new author. Her name is Lesley Nneka Arimah. She was raised in Nigeria and the U.S. and honored by the National Book Foundation in its five under age 35 category. Her story collection, "What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky," which is a great title, right, was named a book -- a best book of 2017 by numerous publications.
I'm looking forward to reading it. And I hope you will join us once again for our book club, Now Read This, a partnership with The New York Times.
Judy Woodruff: Also online, Min Jin Lee takes us into the kitchen with her mom, where they show us how to prepare stuffed cucumber kimchi, a family recipe that plays a role in the novel.
That's at PBS.org/NewsHour.