In Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko a dying Korean man tells his young Korean-Japanese son that “living every
day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.” This profound sentiment
can serve as a thematic summary of the novel and it is a familiar concept to marginalized persons in every part of
the world. While the sentiment may be familiar, the setting may not as Lee illuminates and contextualizes an
overlooked portion of our collective human history with specificity and grace. Familiar, too, are the stereotypes
that follow these immigrants of Korean ancestry throughout out the book (the dichotomy of the “good’ vs ‘bad”
Korean, the idea that they exist to do the dirty work citizens would rather not) and despite living in Japan for
generations, they are considered foreigners, subject to discrimination and deportation at a moment’s notice,
permanent guests in a land that is their home.
Pachinko brings life to the complex trajectories of Koreans in Japan, those who both thrive and fail in
the shadowy not-quite-citizenship of unwanted immigrants residing in their colonizer’s land. It is rich soil for
a writer to till and Lee digs deep, interweaving a myriad of conditions — gender, class, beauty — a nesting doll
of oppressions that fully reflect the realities of the past and present. Gender in particular, specifically the
choices women make to survive, steer significant portions of the novel, and one woman’s choice is the seed from
which the novel blooms, yielding numerous characters with compelling stories to follow. And it is in rendering
these individuals that Pachinko shines, as Lee uses omniscience to delve into the minds of even the most
minor characters, dense asides that contextualize a person in a sentence or paragraph, lending a fullness to the
narrative and breathing life that pushes characters beyond their historical context into multifaceted persons.
The cumulative effect of this, of fully-realized major and minor characters, throws the past into relief, reminding
us that history is composed of individuals who have done their best to endure. Spanning less than a hundred years,
Pachinko is a dense and vividly layered account of this slice of contemporary Korean and Japanese history.
Deeply moving, gorgeously rendered, intensely researched and whip smart, it is required reading that will stay
with you for some time.
— Lesley Arimah
2018 finalist judge
Noa stared at her. She would always believe that he was someone else, that he wasn’t himself but some fanciful
idea of a foreign person; she would always feel like she was someone special because she had condescended to be
with someone everyone else hated. His presence would prove to the world that she was a good person, an educated
person, a liberal person. Noa didn’t care about being Korean when he was with her; in fact, he didn’t care about
being Korean or Japanese with anyone. He wanted to be, to be just himself, whatever that meant; he wanted to
forget himself sometimes. But that wasn’t possible. It would never be possible with her.
"I will pack up your things and have them sent to your house by messenger. I don’t want to see you anymore.
Please never come see me again."
"Noa, what are you saying?" Akiko said, astonished. "Is this the Korean temper that I’ve never seen that before?"
"You and I. It cannot be."
"Because it cannot." There was nothing else he could think of, and he wanted to spare her the cruelty of what
he had learned, because she would not believe that she was no different than her parents, that seeing him as
only Korean—good or bad—was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and
Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.
2018 Fiction Runner-Up
(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)
Min Jin Lee
“The world is broken because we do not love enough. War, peace, and art require at least three elements:
imagination, will, and action—and ironically, all three are enacted because men and women feel love. This
is the central paradox—we love—the other, self, family, faith, or nation—and we use that love—of something,
or someone, for anything—to justify our violence, compromises, and creation. We know that peace is far
more difficult than war or art, because peace requires both forgiveness and restraint; so somehow, we must
learn to love peace far more than war. If literature bears witness to true narrative and if it awakens
compassion, reconciliation may indeed be possible. Where men and women have failed to love, literature may
inspire greater love for all those we’d once thought we feared or hated. I write fiction because I believe
that our love can refine our worse nature. I am deeply honored to join the Dayton Literary Peace Prize
family of writers as we pursue our collective call toward global peace.”
— Min Jin Lee
* * *
Min Jin Lee is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (2018) and the Radcliffe Institute of
Advanced Study at Harvard (2018-9). Lee’s recent novel Pachinko was a finalist for the National Book Award, a
New York Times bestseller, a Top 10 Books of the Year for the New York Times, a joint book club
selection of PBS NewsHour and the New York Times, and on over 75 best-of-the-year lists. Lee’s debut novel,
Free Food for Millionaires, was a Top 10 Books of the Year for The Times, NPR’s Fresh Air
and USA Today.
Her writings have appeared in The New Yorker, Guardian, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book
Review, The Times Literary Supplement, The Times, Vogue, and Wall Street Journal. She has served as
a columnist for The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s leading newspaper, for three seasons.