By Min Jin Lee
“History has failed us, but no matter.”- first line of Pachinko
I want to branch out, read different genres and writing forms. I want to open myself to LGBTQ stories and what they can teach. Authors that don’t look like me, love like I do, speak my language, are writing important work. That’s why I chose to read Pachinko. It helps that this book and its author have won major awards and accolades from prestigious publications. I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Min Jin Lee is a Korean-born author who has lived the majority of her life in the United States. Pachinko is the story of four generations who live in early 20th century Japan.
In a broad sense, the opening line quoted above captures the whole book. When the story opens, Japan has annexed part of Korea creating a subjugated society. Koreans are considered dirty, smelly, stupid, backward folk. Their customs from the garments they wear to the food they eat is scrutinized by the Japanese. The first generation she writes about lives in poverty with little means to improve their status. The husband and wife have lost two children and their third is born with a physical deformity, which lessens his chances of a good marriage. This boy, Hoonie, who we see become a man with a deformity that helps shape his outlook on life, does not let it define him. He is so good and kind and loves his family.
Through the story we meet men and women who each has his own obstacle, but what ties them together through years (besides their familial lineage) is the struggle to overcome his/her obstacles while under the weight of racism and cultural-intolerance. Lee confronts us with questions, some of which are:
What is bravery? Does it always look the same?
Is our family’s past our burden to bear?
Are cultural attitudes and traditions just as harmful as an oppressive colonialist ideology?
What does it mean to be wealthy?
What does it mean to be a father?
When should we let go of pride?
Lee’s portrayal of Korean and Japanese society is fascinating. As someone who can admit not knowing much about these cultures, I learned about food, religion and faith, clothing, politics, sociological castes, Japanese pinball, and historical facts. I was intrigued by the women’s work ethic and desire to do what they considered right. The high pressure, especially for a man, to have his family look and act a certain way is somewhat relatable for other cultures, but details are what make it unique in this story.
The great span of time in this book allows us to watch these characters. We know what they’ve gone through and we see what it does for them. Like any good story, Pachinko gives us the opportunity to listen and learn; to be quiet and open to things we don’t know or understand–yet. It is a reminder to get to know someone. Each person’s story is her own and we have to remember to consider it before judging her character, her family, her station in life.