Welcome. Thank you for coming
on this dreary day. Yesterday was so beautiful,
but I guess yesterday you wouldn’t have been here. You might have wanted to
stay out in the nice weather. So maybe it’s an incentive
to come inside and share in the great pleasure of
having Min Jin Lee with us this evening. So I’m going to read
a little introduction. Min is going to read. And then we’ll have
a conversation. I think we’re nearing the
end of the academic year. I just want to thank one more
time Professor Homi Bhabha, Professor Steve Beal, and the
inimitable Sarah Raiser, who makes everything happen,
who and everybody at the Mahindra
Humanities Center who have organized these events
over the course of the year. And thank you all for coming. Without you, we wouldn’t
have any events. So I’m carrying a
microphone I don’t need, because there’s one here. Whatever. It’s been an amazing year for
Min Jin Lee and her highly acclaimed novel, Pachinko,
a New York Times best seller for the better
part of this year. By which I mean a whole year. It was chosen by that
paper as one of the 10 best books of 2017, was a finalist
for last year’s National Book Award, and has been lauded
by fellow writers as diverse as Junot Diaz, Colson Whitehead,
David Mitchell, and Roxanne Gaye, who named Pachinko as
her favorite book of 2017. Min is a recipient of
a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for the
upcoming year and also, wonderfully for us, of
a Radcliffe Fellowship thanks to Dean Liz Cohen, who
I think is, if she’s not here, she’s on her way. This means that Min will be here
in Cambridge from September, hopefully able at last to
work on her current project after a long year on the
road, during which time she has visited more cities
than I know the names of and has spoken to more
enthusiastic readers than many writers
have in a lifetime. But what this panoply of amazing
accolades, toasts, and treats does not show is the rigorous
effort and commitment behind the writing of this book. Min’s first novel, Free
Food For Millionaires was published in 2007. Also very well
received and translated into numerous languages, it’s a
scintillating and witty comedy of manners that follows
the travails of Casey Han, a young Korean American
Princeton graduate who makes her way in New York at
the turn of the 21st century. There was a full decade between
that book and the publication of Pachinko, a sign of
the intense labor involved in producing this rich
historical narrative. But Min has explained that the
origins of Pachinko in fact go back 30 years to her
undergraduate studies at Yale, when she first learned
about the Korean community in Japan. She wrote an initial
version of the novel in the late ’90s,
a portion of which was published in the
Missouri Review in 2002. In 2007, Min moved to Japan,
where she lived for four years, and there she
discovered that quote, “I had to change everything
and start again.” Pachinko is the
result, the marriage, of many years of
research and revision influenced by the realities
of the lives of the Korean Japanese that Min encountered
when living in Japan. Dickensian in its scale and
in its roving omniscient perspective, Pachinko also
offers a contemporary reader the rich pleasures of
a 19th century novel, an expansive cast of characters,
a broad sweep of time, the flow of relationships
across borders and decades. At the center of the plot is
Sunja, a young Korean woman whose affair with an
older married businessman will shape her future. After she falls pregnant,
a young Christian minister marries her as an
act of charity, and the couple
move to Japan where we will follow their fates
and those of their relatives and offspring from the early
part of the 20th century through 1989. This bustling canvas
covers everything from the oppression of
Christians in pre-war Japan to the effects of AIDS. Part of Min’s triumph
is to have written a novel that in spite
of its dark themes is eminently readable. Indeed, addictive is a word
many have used to describe it, including myself. She informs us about a
largely unknown chapter of Asian history, unknown that
is, to we ignorant Americans, and addresses questions of
national and cultural identity, migration, disenfranchisement,
ambition, religion, and selfhood. But this novel is
no worthy textbook. In an era of autofiction
and interiority, Pachinko marks a return to an
older form of storytelling, the broad tapestry
of social drama which affords the reader
enormous pleasure. Please join me in
welcoming Min Jin Lee. [APPLAUSE] Wow. Good evening. It’s such a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much. I had no idea if
anybody would come. So thank you for
not embarrassing me in front of Claire. [LAUGHS] I wanted to thank– where’s Sarah? I want to thank Sarah for
all the heavy lifting. I want to thank Claire
for this invitation. If anybody else
would have asked, I would have thought
about coming sometime this year or next year. But because Claire asked me
to come, I came immediately. I moved everything to come. Because you don’t
know this, but I am such an incredible fan
of Claire Messud’s fiction. She’s an incredible writer. She’s probably one of the
most important writers that we have produced
in this country. And I’m so full of
admiration for her fiction. The fact that she introduced
me is like, I’m just agog. [LAUGHS] So thank you, Claire. Thank you so much. Well, it’s true, I’m
a very fast writer. This book only took me 30 years. [LAUGHS] It’s so embarrassing. Oh my god. [LAUGHS] Every time I have to
explain why I took so long, I keep thinking,
couldn’t you have thought of this in a different way? I think I should share
with you that I did not intend to be a fiction writer. I did not intend to
write a historical novel. I did not intend to be here. This is all quite a
big surprise to me. I did intend always,
however, to tell the truth. And I think that when you
are committed to the truth, there’s something
that keeps you going and makes you pay
attention, and it makes you care about the
way you present the truth. And the truth that
happened to me in my life was that in 1989, when
I was in university, I was 19 years old,
I was very lost, because I didn’t know
what to do with my life. I had applied to Yale
College because where Claire and I had
gone to college, but I think I’m older
than you, Claire aren’t I? No, I think I’m older than you. OK. You look good. [LAUGHTER] So I applied to
college because I had fallen in love with an
author named Sinclair Lewis who wrote books like Main
Street, Arrowsmith, Babbitt, and most recently quite
relevant, It Can’t Happen Here, where a fascist,
basically, and a dictator gets elected to
lead the government. Anyway, so I read these
books by Sinclair Lewis and it really just
kind of opened my head, and I really couldn’t
quite figure out why he was so important to me. And I did a little
research on him, and back then, this was 1984
when I was in high school, I thought that I would
go to the library, because this before Google when
you can just type in a name and somebody’s
biography just shows up, I researched into
Sinclair Lewis. And Sinclair Lewis was the
third son of a Minnesota doctor. And his mother had died,
and his father really didn’t want him around because
he was kind of annoying. He was very tall. He had terrible skin and
really bad social manners. He had no friends. So of course, I
identified with him because I was like,
that’s like me. And then after I read all
those books, I thought, I have to go to this
college that he went to, because he had gone there. And when I somehow miraculously
got into this other college in Connecticut, I
was so surprised because he wasn’t there. It turned out that he
had graduated in 1908. So clearly math is
not my strong point. But I think there’s
a part of me that thought the spirit of
Sinclair Lewis would be there. And in a way, it was. Because I think I
started to understand how writing was made. And I think that’s what I
really learned in college. However, it never ever occurred
to me that I could be a writer. There wasn’t anyone who looked
like me who was a writer. All the people that I
read didn’t look like me. And of course, I wasn’t
like Sinclair Lewis. I could admire Sinclair
Lewis, but it wasn’t something that I thought I could do. Anyway, I did take an Asian
American literature class, because I thought maybe Asian
Americans do write literature. And then I read two books
by Korean Americans. One was a book called
Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, which is a kind of an
experimental, incredible work. It’s kind of fiction
and nonfiction, and it has every
single language. And it was really brilliant
and I really admired it. I don’t think I
understood all of it. But I was like, wow,
somebody could make this, and she could be
Korean American. And then I researched,
again, pre Google, and it turned out that she was
violently raped and murdered right after she published
this book in 1985. And I thought, that’s not good. And then I read another book,
the other book in the syllabus by a Korean American. It was called Clay
Walls by Kim Ronyoung. A really fantastic
historical novel which nobody reads anymore, but
I really encourage you to take a look at it. It’s published by an
independent press. You can get it anywhere. And after I read it, I thought,
wow, look, it can be done. And then it turned out that
she had died from cancer right after publishing that book. So I went to law school. [LAUGHTER] I thought it was wise
on multiple accounts. But before I went
to law school, I decided that I was going
to major in history. And I was invited to a lecture
by the university chaplain Harry Adams. Do you know Harry Adams? OK. So I was one of the few kids
who went to church at Yale. And it was odd. I don’t know what it is, but
I feel really comfortable at church. I don’t really like Christians
that much, but I like church. It’s like the most honest
thing I can tell you. So I think I was one of the very
few undergraduates who attended services at Battell Chapel. And it was always me and
all these empty pews, because no one really
went to church, because it was completely
not a cool thing to do. And I think Harry Adams
University chaplain, who also taught sermonology,
that’s actually a topic, at the Divinity School, gave
these incredibly cool sermons. And I would just sit there
going, wow, this is so neat. And none of my friends
ever want to go to church. All right, whatever. But I sat there. But I think he felt sorry
for me, and at the same time I was probably his
only constituent. So I was his parish. And one day he
asked me if I would go to a master’s tea, which
they don’t have anymore. They have college teas, but
they don’t have master’s teas anymore. And they invite people to
come in and talk about things that are going on in the world. And I said yes, because
I could not imagine saying no to Harry Adams. So I go to this thing. And it turns out that there
are four people in the room. The speaker, Harry Adams, me,
and another undergraduate, Wilson. You can’t leave. So I just sat there
and I ate cookies and I listened to this
American missionary talk. And I thought, oh my gosh,
an American missionary. How dreadful. How colonialist. [LAUGHS] And all I could think
of are these kind of ideas that I would
read in history classes about Christianizing the savages
and just all these things that really offended me politically. And I’m sitting there
thinking, I’m just going to eat my cookies
and it’ll be 45 minutes and it will be over. How bad could it be? And then the American missionary
worked with the Koreans in Japan. And he told the three of us the
history of the Koreans in Japan and how what an incredibly
troubling history this was. And I thought,
this is quite sad, and I didn’t know
anything about it. None of this was taught to me
at any part of my education, including at home. I knew that the Koreans were
colonized by the Japanese, but I didn’t really
understand what it meant to be Korean
living in Japan and having stayed there for
four or five generations. And then he mentioned
this one story about a little boy
who was in his parish. This 13-year-old
child had climbed up to an apartment building
and he jumped to his death. And then his parents– I’m losing somebody already. So the parents were
really so traumatized by this little boy’s death, and
they went through his things to try to figure out why
this boy would kill himself. And they found his
middle school yearbook, because a boy had
just graduated. And in the middle
school yearbook, his Japanese
classmates had written, go back to where you
belong, I hate you, you smell like garlic,
you smell like kimchi. And they wrote the
words die, die, die. And that story basically
changed the course of my life. I didn’t know that it was
changing the course of my life. And I think that there should
be a public service announcement that says that when you attend
lectures at universities with guest speakers,
your life could change. [LAUGHS] I couldn’t forget the story. It was so troubling to me. And even though I did
graduate as a history major, even though I did go to
law school and practice for two years, I
knew that somehow I needed to understand
this truth for this child and for this family. And then after I
quit being a lawyer, I wrote one novel called
Revival of the Senses, which was really pretentious, and
it was rejected by everybody. Everybody. Like, on beautiful,
creamy stationery. And there wasn’t a
single encouraging word like continue, revise. [LAUGHS] It wasn’t there. And I have copies to prove it. And then I thought I would
write a book about the Koreans in Japan. So I sat down, and
like a good student, I did all the research
that was necessary and that was available to me. I read a great deal of
immense, tremendous scholarship by people in the disciplines
of sociology, history, anthropology, and
immigration law. And I put together this kind
of idea about the Koreans in Japan. And I wrote a book
between 1996 to 2003. And then after I finished it,
I realized it too was dreadful. So I didn’t send it out. And at that point, I was very
discouraged with my life. And then I decided that I
would write about the Koreans in America. Today I’m going to read to
you a very, very short section of this book Pachinko,
which eventually came out of the earlier
version that I wrote. We are going to have–
it’s a very brief reading. It’s about six minutes total. And we are not in
Cambridge right now. We are in Yokohama. It is 1976. And in this scene, there
are three characters that we can be mindful of. We have Moses, a pachinko
parlor owner, his son, Solomon, who is a teenage
boy, and then we also have Etsuko, who is Japanese,
and she is a restaurant owner. And I wanted to read
this to you today because I think that right now
I am heartbroken, as many of you may be, about the way we treat
outsiders in this country. I know that it doesn’t represent
the best of who we are, but I know that there are
many pockets of resistance in this country that really
believe that outsiders are also part of our family. So I share this with you. Right now we are
not in Cambridge. It’s 1976. We’re in Yokohama, and
I hope that you will do what we readers do best. I hope that you will
imagine with me. The Yokohama ward office
was a giant gray box with an obscure sign. And the first
clerk that they saw was a very tall man
with a narrow face and a shock of black hair
buzzed off at the sides. And he stared at
Etsuko shamelessly, his eyes darting across
her breasts, her hips, and her jeweled fingers. She was overdressed compared
to Moses and Solomon, who wore white dress shirts, dark
slacks, and black dress shoes. And they looked like the
gentle Mormon missionaries who used to glide through
her village on their bicycles when she was a girl. “Your name.” The clerk squinted at the form
that Solomon was filling out. “Solomon.” “What kind of name is that?” “It’s from the Bible. He was a King and the son of
David, a man of great wisdom. My great uncle named me.” And the boy smiled at the clerk
as if he were sharing a secret. He was a very polite
boy, but because he had gone to school
with Americans and other kinds of foreigners
at his international schools, he sometimes said things that a
Japanese would never have said. “Solomon. King. Great wisdom. Koreans don’t have
kings anymore.” “What did you say?” Etsuko asked. And quickly Moses
pulled her back. And she glanced at Moses. His temper was far
worse than hers. Once when a restaurant guest had
tried to make her sit with him, Moses, who happened to
be there that night, walked over, picked
him up bodily, and threw him outside
the restaurant, breaking the man’s ribs. And she was expecting no
less of a reaction now. But Moses averted his
eyes from the clerk and stared at
Solomon’s right hand. And Moses smiled. “Excuse me, sir. We’re in a hurry to
return home, because it’s the boy’s birthday. Is there anything else
that we should do? Thank you very much
for understanding.” And confused, Solomon
turned to Etsuko, and she flashed
him a warning look. And the clerk pointed
to the back of the room and told Moses and
Etsuko to sit down. And Solomon remained
standing opposite the clerk. And in the long, rectangular
room shaped like a train car, with bank teller windows running
parallel along opposite walls, half a dozen people
sat on benches reading their newspapers and manga. And Etsuko wondered if
they were all Korean. And Moses sat down, and
then he got up again, and he asked if she
wanted a can of tea from the vending machine,
and she nodded yes. She felt like slapping
the clerk’s face. In middle school, she had
once slapped a gossipy girl, and it had been very satisfying. When Moses returned with
their tea, she thanked him. “You must have known. You must have warned him. I mean, you told him that today
would not be so easy, no?” And after the words came
out, they sounded harsh and she felt sorry. “No. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything to him.” And he opened and he closed
his fists rhythmically. “I came here with my
mother and brother Noa for my first
registration papers. The clerk was normal, nice even. So I asked you to come. I thought maybe having a woman,
a Japanese woman, would help.” And he exhaled
through his nostrils. “It was stupid to
wish for a kindness.” “No, no, no. You couldn’t have warned him. I shouldn’t have
said it like that.” “It is hopeless. I cannot change his fate. He is Korean. He has to get
those papers and he has to follow all the
steps of the law perfectly. Once at a ward’s
office, a clerk told me that I was a guest
in his country.” “You and Solomon
were born here.” “Yes. My brother Noa was
born here too.” And Moses covered his
face with his hands. “Anyway, the clerk wasn’t
wrong, and this is something that Solomon must understand. We can be deported. We have no motherland. And life is full of things
that he cannot control. So he must adapt. My boy has to survive.” And Solomon returned to them. And next he had his
photograph taken. And afterward, he had
to go to another room to get fingerprinted. And then they can go home. She took Solomon’s
left index finger and gently dipped into the pot
filled with thick, black ink. And the clerk
watched him do this. Solomon depressed his
finger onto a white card, as if he was a child painting. And Moses looked away,
and he sighed audibly. The clerk told him to
pick up the registration papers in the next room. “Let’s get your dog
tags,” Moses said. Solomon faced his father. “Hm?” “It’s what we dogs must have.” And the clerk looked
furious suddenly. “The fingerprints and
the registration cards are vitally important
for government records. There is no need to
feel insulted by this. It is an immigration regulation
required for foreign–” And Etsuko stepped forward. But you don’t make your
children get fingerprinted on their birthday, do you? And the clerk’s neck turned red. “My son is dead.” And Etsuko bit her lip. She didn’t want to feel
anything for this woman. But she knew what it was
like to lose your children. It was like you’re cursed,
and nothing would ever restore the desolation in your life. “Koreans do a lot of good for
this country,” Etsuko said. “They do the difficult jobs that
the Japanese don’t want to do. They pay taxes, they obey
laws, they raise good families, they create jobs.” “You Koreans always
tell me this.” And Etsuko touched his
arm and the three of them walked out of the building. She wanted to crawl
outside of the gray box and see the light
of outdoors again. She long for the white
mountains of Hokkaido and though she had never
done so in her childhood, she wanted to walk in
the cold, snowy forests beneath the flanks of
the dark, leafless trees. In life there was so
much insult and injury, and she had no choice but
to collect what was hers. But now she wished to
take Solomon’s shame and add it to her pile although
she was already so overwhelmed. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] I have never had people
give me paper before. And you can take it home. Oh my. Don’t tell anyone I said so. You can take it home. Is that OK, Sarah? Can I take it? What did I do with my glasses? Did I lose my glasses? Well, I lost my glasses. They’re right there. Oh, thank you. Thank you, young person. I stood up and they fell down. That’s very kind of you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for that
beautiful reading. It makes me want to– perhaps
a place to start is to ask you, I mean, all the research in
the world couldn’t give you– I mean, you used
statistics on that, but it couldn’t give you that. And to ask how things
changed when you actually went and spent time in Japan. You know, everybody
wants to know. And this is a really
important question, because we’re trying
to understand how does this history affect today. And I was really struck because
Japan is an amazing country. And for those of you
who’ve been there, you’re going to like it if you– I’m sure you like it a lot. You should visit if
you have not been. The food there is
better than France. Really. French people say this. I have quotes. And I loved living
there in part. But the part that was
really hard for me is that it’s not a culture in
which you are meant to stay. You are meant to visit. And if you stay, you will
never, ever, ever be Japanese. So you could stay
there for 100 years. But if you’re not by blood
Japanese, you are not Japanese. And in their defense, and I
can’t believe I’m saying this, in their defense, I understand. Most of the world
actually believes that you do not have citizenship
or acceptance as a birthright. The United States, Canada,
Australia, the United Kingdom, that’s a very special
idea that we’re going to give you
citizenship and acceptance just because you’re
born in that country. Most other places in
the world, actually the majority of the countries
in the world, it is by blood. So I do understand
it, and I think that it’s not necessarily
something that I admire or want to have in my
paradigm of the ideal utopia, but it is what it is. And you have to take
the consequences for it. So when you have all these
advanced economies basically limiting immigration,
you have the consequences of not having people who are
going to take care of you when you get older too. And you don’t have
social surpluses in terms of taxes and things like that. But to go back to your
question, even today in 2018, you could be ethnically
Korean, and you are not considered Japanese. Even if you’re a
third generation or? You could be fifth generation
with legal citizenship, which is not easy to get. You can get it. And if you were to
get it, you still would not be considered
a Japanese person. You would have the rights and
liberties in a legal sense, but not really. But so people like
Moses and Solomon. They wouldn’t? What passport would they get? They would have a South
Korean passport, most likely. So right now there’s
three different kinds of Koreans in Japan. You could be a North
Korean Japanese. And there are North
Korean Japanese today who are fourth or fifth
generation Korean Japanese. And they don’t have a passport,
because Japan and North Korea do not have a
diplomatic relationship. They have a little
card, and they would register on a regular basis. And the years change, whatever
term it is for that year. You would go register
in the [KOREAN] office. It was a North Korean
office in which you have to register yourself. Or you would be a South
Korean Japanese citizen, much like my characters. And you would have a
South Korean passport. You don’t have a
Japanese passport. And even if you’ve never
been to South Korea, you have a South
Korean passport. You’re a permanent resident. Right. But it would indicate
somewhere in it that you were a
Japanese resident? That’s right. You’re a permanent resident
and you have the right to travel because you have
a South Korean passport, and South Korea and Japan
have a normalization treaty. And consequently,
they can travel. However, they’re not
really South Koreans. I mean, most of them
don’t speak Korean. And it’s one of the elements
in the novel is that over time, the languages that people
write, the language that people write and speak changes. And so Noa, for
example, becomes– I mean, he tries to
become fully Japanese. He even passes. He even tells people. He tells his own wife and his
children that he’s Japanese. But then it’s noted, which I’ve
also found interesting that– That’s actually quite
common, by the way. The people around him– I don’t want to give
any of the plot away. But later on say, oh I
suspected that he might be or I thought that he might be. So I mean, that even that
is an element of society. Even today. There’s a kind of murmuring
that’s always going on. I think she’s really Korean. Well, you know, she’s Korean. And then all of a sudden,
that sort of explains why she’s tacky or wears
too much glitter or I mean, whatever it is there’s
something wrong with you, it can be explained by,
well, you know, she’s Korean. She talks too much. She’s Korean. She’s too aggressive. She’s Korean. So it’s really quite
shocking, because I didn’t know these negative
stereotypes existed about the Koreans
until I went to Japan. Because in America, you have
the other false stereotype of the model minority. Like I’m really good at math. I’m not. I’m really hard working. Sometimes. Not on everything. Whatever it is. You have these
false stereotypes. But then in Japan,
Koreans are considered criminal, deceitful,
aggressive, agitators. Very often that’s the
thing that always comes up. Agitators. They stir up trouble. I’m a little proud of that one. Well, maybe we need to send
some Korean Japanese this way to stir up some trouble
in this country. I don’t know. But I’m curious. So way back in 1980– Nine. Nine when you heard this
missionary speak and you discovered something
about your nation’s past and present that you
hadn’t known, or your parents– so did you go home and say,
mom, dad, what’s up with this? I don’t have those parents. No. I didn’t talk
about it with them. My father is a war refugee. So he lost his whole
family in 1950. He was 16 and he was sent away
by his mother with his older half brother to the south
saying, go away for a few days, because a communist
army is coming, and they’re doing
a sweep of boys. So you need to get out of here. And somehow through
her connections, he got passage in
an American ship, and he was sent all
the way to Pusan. He thought he was going to
be gone for three days, maybe a week tops. He never saw his parents again. He never saw his mother again. He never saw his sisters again. Anybody or his home. He was 16, and he kind of
made his life that way. So when he told us
stories about his past, it was almost like this
kind of picaresque, oh, and then I sold food in the
street and I became a pirate. My father was actually
a fabric pirate at one point in his life. Because it was illegal to
sell certain kinds of fabrics after the war. Because you had this
American government that would take over
both Korea and Japan and they had all these
rules about certain things that you couldn’t trade. So he would go to
Japan, buy this fabric, and then sell it in South Korea. And then so he would make a
profit and things like that. So he had a lot
of ventures going. And he’s a very
resourceful person. So I would hear
stories about that, very sort of
uplifting, positive, you can solve your problems. But we didn’t get a lot
of big historical stories of how Korea, in many
ways, was humiliated. And I think that very often,
Korean families do not like to talk about
this aspect, because it was such a painful period. And the stories of
resistance, they do exist, but most kids don’t know them. Do you think in
retrospect that that sense of untold stories
even growing up was part of what drove
you to be a writer? I definitely think
that all of us suffer from the untold
stories in our families. And I think sometimes
you can even look at people acting out
because there some secret two generations ago. I really believe in
all of that stuff about intergenerational
trauma being carried down in our cells. I really, really believe that. Somebody was explaining. I was at a talk
just the other day at the LA Festival of Books. Forgive me, because
there’s probably somebody here in this room
who did the research. But something where
with mice they– what was it that
they associated? Was it the scent of cherry
blossoms was associated with– they did something to the mice
that made the mice terrified. And three generations
later of mice, the mice were terrified by the
scent of cherry blossoms. Which is actually, I guess
that’s scientific proof. Well, I think so. And I think there’s a part of
us that has these questions. Why am I afraid of this? Why does this upset me? And it’s not that every
child that you have is going to be upset by it. But you will have one child
somewhere in the family who really wants to know. And I think I became really
obsessed with this idea that children
could hate children and that a social norm
could be constructed that would say that it’s
OK to hate those children, that somehow those children
were dirty or criminal or untrustworthy. You can’t have them
into your house, because they would somehow
contaminate the furniture. I heard so many stories
from the Korean Japanese where they weren’t allowed to
go to their friends’ homes. Or if you fell in love with
somebody who was Japanese, then you couldn’t
get married and you couldn’t meet their families. So I did, I don’t know, dozens
upon dozens of interviews. And I would ask questions
like, oh, what do you think? Do you think
discrimination exists? I would just be plain old
American asking this question. And they would
say, oh, depending upon which affiliation,
North Korean, South Korean, or legally Japanese, they
would have different answers. But very often I would
have them say, oh no, no. Things are really good in Japan. I really love it here. And they just really didn’t
want to cause any trouble. But then about 45
minutes into the lunch, they would tell me a story
about how they fell in love. It was always a love story. So interpersonal discrimination
is always so interesting, because they reject you
for really who you are. So they’re saying that I am
willing to have sex with you, but I can’t present
you to other people. That kind of social rejection
and sexual objectification is so traumatic for people
that they kind of repress it as kind of an
anecdote after saying in a kind of blanket
statement, no, no, discrimination doesn’t exist. And I’d be like, well,
isn’t that interesting how that family wouldn’t meet
with you because you’re Korean? And they would say, yes,
but you know, I understand. We have different cultures
and that’s why it’s not OK. It’s interesting though, because
even as you’re telling me this, I feel that perhaps less– I hope much less in the United
States than 30 or 50 years ago. But certainly in the past, this
happened in the United States all the time, and it
still to some degree does. I had friends of mine
who are white Anglo-Saxon Protestant who grew up
in upstate New York. And he was very well
off and he said across the street were these very
lovely Jewish families. And he said he wasn’t
allowed to talk to them. He’s only like 65. So that’s not a
very long time ago. No. Well, I remember when I– But it troubled him. He was like, why
can’t I talk to them? But his parents said, you
can’t talk to those kids because they’re Jewish. And he’s like why? There was no why. He just couldn’t do it. And that kind of
information is so hard to comprehend and
accept, obviously. One of the things that comes up
in the later part of the novel is that Solomon gets
a girlfriend who is Korean American. Yes. And I mean, the divide between
their cultural experiences is pretty profound. Huge. And problematic. Is that something–
Did you feel as you– I mean, you were
compelled by this story. Did you also feel
that in some way this novel is bringing the news? That you’re opening the eyes
of all ignorant Americans, but including Korean
Americans in this country? Well, I don’t think
anyone is ignorant. I mean, ignorance makes it
seem as if we consciously try not to learn it. It’s just not taught. It’s kind of like when you
look at a biology textbook today versus when I took
biology 35 years ago. Wow. [LAUGHS] It was a
much slimmer book. There’s all of this stuff
that happened in biology. The idea of genetics,
which was kind of like a cute idea in 1985. Now it’s like, genetics. So it’s like that with history. There’s so much more history
that we need to know. So people are constantly
making decisions about what can we teach. What is really troubling to
me is the Eurocentric nature of the way history
is taught when the arenas and the
theaters of where historical conflicts
and political conflicts are taking place today
are not just Europe. So the fact that we know
nothing about the Middle East. It’s shocking how little we
know about the Middle East or how we know so
little about Asia when almost all
the Cold War proxy wars took place in
the theater of Asia and still we don’t know. And it’s not taught. So I kind of think it should
be kind of like genetics. It should be moved a bit more
center when we teach history. I think we would
all benefit from it. I think our policymakers
would benefit from it. I think our policymakers
would benefit from it. [LAUGHTER] I’m interested, because
I read an interview where you said you had
no intention, I mean, that you didn’t want to
read a historical novel. No. It’s really hard. I read something else that said
that the first version started in the ’70s. So what happened? Well, I interviewed
all these people who were like Solomon in Japan. I interviewed all
these Korean Japanese who worked in Wall Street. So I met these guys from
Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and all these other
really fancy banks. Really very good
looking, very well put together young
people who worked, who were kind of
basically Solomon avatars. And I talked to them and I
thought, you are so boring. You cannot carry a long novel. You can definitely carry
two to three chapters. Right? And I’d like you for
two to three chapters, but I don’t think I would
inflict that on you, Claire. And I think about this a lot. I think about how things
should be interesting. The people that I want you to
meet should be interesting. And very often
what I realized was that it wasn’t that
those characters, the people that I interviewed
weren’t interesting. It’s that they had such
incredible polish and grooming that they had lost
something of a rawness. And I needed to figure out,
why did you lose your rawness? Who told you that you
couldn’t have it anymore? And I think in these
kinds of environments where we’re very elite and
polished and successful, it’s really scary to cry and to
be upset and to have troubles. To say I don’t have money
or that I don’t have access or that I got rejected. Those things make
people really nervous. Aren’t we supposed to
be having a good time? And I think that when I
met these young people who were already so successful,
so launched so early in life, they weren’t willing
to talk about what really was upsetting them. So then invariably I
realized, oh, they’re this way because they have had
to carry so much of the pain of the other generations. And I thought, oh
my god, I’m going to have to write a
historical novel. So I did. But it took me freaking forever. So you had how many versions? This is the– because
there was the first one that you wrote from ’96. Which is garbage now. Part that I read is
something that I saved. So what percentage
overlap would you say? Five. Right. So and then– [INAUDIBLE] didn’t exist. Moses didn’t exist. Noa didn’t exist. Sunja was born in Japan
in 2008 in my mind. Wow. She’s pretty important
in this book. Well, she carries it. She’s [INAUDIBLE]. Exactly. And Hansu. And Hansu. He didn’t exist either. Wow. Wow. I know. So it was a very different book. A very, very different book. And I was so happy when
I found these characters. How did you? Did they just come to you? Was it from stories
that you were told? It was all the interviews,
photographs, archival research. So Hansu came out
of a photograph that I saw, a black and white
photograph of fish brokers. And there was this guy
wearing a white linen suit. He’s a fish broker. And white patent leather shoes. And it said he’s an
important fish broker. And I was like, there’s my guy. There’s my guy. Because imagine everybody
else is filthy and smelly, but he’s looking pristine. And you guys are
probably too young, but remember Fantasy Island? I do. Ricardo Montalban. Right. He was like Mr. Roarke. And I was like, Mr.
Roarke is in Korea. I’m going to write about him. And what about her? Where did she come from? She came from the markets. So I did a lot of
market research. Not market research. But I went to [INAUDIBLE]. I was like, that’s
actually a term, isn’t it? No. Some sort of UX experience. So I went to the
markets, the open markets where Koreans were working. And I looked at all these
ajummas, these sort of women who work in these markets. And they were so feisty
and funny and resourceful. I would interview
them about things and they would
kind of look at me like, why are you bothering me? And they had this kind of, they
were just going to fix stuff and they were going to
get on with their day, and they would not be disturbed
by the likes of me or anything else. And they also had
this vulnerability. Because at one point,
I tried to pretend to be one of those people. So I would to the markets and
I would sort of stand there. And you realize just
how terrifying it is. Because you don’t have walls. You’re just in the stall. And you have something
in front of you. And somehow you have
to sell the thing that you have in front of you. And anybody could approach you. And you can’t go
to the bathroom. You just can’t just
leave your stuff. So you have all these kind
of diurnal requirements of being a peddler. And doing that
for a while really made me realize just how
convenient my life is. I have doors. I could close my door. Bathrooms. I could go to a clean bathroom. I mean, a clean
bathroom is a big deal. To not have deal
with the scents. The smells were so overwhelming. What’d you sell? Oh, I didn’t actually
sell anything. Well, I mean, I’ve worked
in my parents’ store. So I have that experience. But they had a
little tiny store. So I know what
that’s like to work in that kind of environment. So when you were pretending to
be one of those [INAUDIBLE]?? I would just sort of
stand there and then I would try to figure
out what they would do. And just that feeling
of standing there beside these women. And also you’re working
while you’re selling. So you’re frying
dough and you’re covering it up with
something and then you have to find packaging. Even something like
packaging was something that I didn’t understand. But of course that makes sense. When you get a cup of
coffee at some place, they have a paper cup. But if you’re selling
something at that moment, you don’t have these
convenient disposable packages. Right. You couldn’t have
learned it from a book? No. No, no. I want to ask you too
about Christianity. And it’s very important
to the characters and down through the generations also. It’s in their names, right? It’s something that people
know immediately about them. And I wonder what– you yourself are a Christian,
your family’s Christian. I’m Presbyterian. Because I know that Casey
Han is Christian too. And she’s agnostic. Right. But she comes from a
very religious family. And I think it was something
that I was wondering about as I was reading
the novel is how much a particular
experience that is within the Korean
Japanese experience. What percentage of that
population is Christian and what are the particular
trials that people– I mean, some of them
are in the novel. And how and why that’s
important to you novelistically. Oh, it’s important
historically and politically. So when I learned about
the story of the Koreans in Japan and my anxiety
about missionaries, I came out of a very
clear political stance that I had as a
progressive person. So I felt very defensive. I didn’t think that
Koreans were savages that needed to be Christianized. So I had this kind
of, my back was up. And then the more I
studied Korean history, I realized I’m an idiot. Because Christianity has been
part of the Korean peninsula since actually the 14th century. And if you look at the
end of the 19th century and the 20th century of
the peninsula of Korea, there were so many aspects
of Christianity which affected the caste system. Because Korea had a very
unjust caste system. They even had
untouchables in Korea. So I’m sure there are
people in this audience who probably know better than I do. And what Christianity did,
this Western religion, was to break down
the caste system. Because they made this
idea that all of us are united as brothers
and sisters in Christ. So then all of a sudden,
you had to kind of rethink. It’s like, oh, that person that
I can’t talk to because they’re [KOREAN],, which means
that they are untouchable and they work with the dead or
butchers or leather workers, you couldn’t really
deal with them. You’d have to because
you’re supposed to worship the same God. The other radical thing
that was important to me is the education of women. Because you could be
very high born in Korea and still in the Yi
dynasty you could not learn how to go– you
couldn’t go to school. So if any of you here have
a grandparent, a grandmother or a great grandmother,
who was literate, I could bet you $1,000
today that somehow they were attached to some missionary. There’s no other way. Because whatever
class that she was in, she would not have been
encouraged to read. It would have been considered
really shameful to actually make your daughter read. What’s your problem? Why would your daughter
know how to read? So that was important. So you have these two aspects
of breaking down castes, breaking down gender barriers
in education of women. And the other big thing
is that Christians were the big agitators against
the Japanese government and the colonialization
of Korea. And consequently, you have
this legacy of civil rights that occurred. And even today with the most
recent candlelight vigil, a lot of that has a kind of
a hat tipping to Catholicism. Because a lot of Catholic
priests were very involved in protecting union leaders. And if people were
taken into prison, they would often do
hostage negotiations to save the union agitators. And they would give them refuge
and sanctuary to union leaders who were fighting for democracy. Because the way Korea
has developed so quickly, there were some very
corrupt and unfair things that were done to the Korean
people by capitalists. And the government
worked very closely with the industrialists,
and therefore huge swathes of poor
Koreans were exploited. And very often,
churches were involved. So it’s not to say that
churches are perfect. But you can’t really erase
the role of Christianity in Korean history. So I’m going to
take people to task. So whenever I do meet
Koreans and they’re talking about
Christianity and they’re looking at it from
the lens of I looked at when I was 19 of just
having your [INAUDIBLE] saying, oh, you don’t need
this Western religion. I think, actually, if
you study Korean history or you know Korean people,
Christianity is not necessarily always a bad thing. In the same way if you look
at the civil rights movement in America, the role of church. You can’t take out the fact
that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister. You can’t take that away from
Representative John Lewis. He’s actually a minister. So these theologies give
inspiration to people to do very, very
risky, scary things. So for me, I mean, we know
we have to study motivation. What motivates a character to do
things that are so terrifying? To have the courage. To have the courage. So I had to put that in. What about form? This is, in many
ways, reminiscent of a 19th century novel. In that sense, it’s
immensely popular, but it could be unpopular,
because it isn’t fashionable. Your novel isn’t
fashionable in its approach. And I wondered– I remembered it must be– Claire Messud just said
my book’s not fashionable. [LAUGHTER] Well, I’m not
fashionable either. No, but you’re absolutely right. I’ve been told this a lot. But it must be 25 years ago, I
remember, maybe it’s even 30, I was at a reading. Allan Gurganus, who wrote Oldest
Living Confederate Widow Tells All was reading from that
book, which was new then, which if you remember will date. I have a first edition. Which will date the novel. And he stood up and
he gave his reading and then he was talking. Somebody asked him
about the point of view. And he said, well,
of course it’s the first person, because
the third person is finished. It’s not possible
any longer to write in an omniscient third person. This has to do with the
fragmentation of our society. It has to do with
secularization. It has to do with our– God is dead. Loss of the faith in the divine. All we have is
subjectivity now, so all we have is the first person. I was very distressed by
that at age whatever, 23. Really, can that be? And I puzzled over
it for a long time. But it’s certainly true that
anecdotally, you look around and I realize how few. And certainly you
speak to young writers. No one doing it. I prefer to write
in the first person. Or they do third person
shifting by chapters, which is basically first person. With [INAUDIBLE] style. Right. Or second person. Yes, occasionally second person. Which is also first person. Right, which is
also first person. And so the question is, did
it feel like a radical choice? Did it feel like
the only choice? Your other novel is also
in the third person. It’s the only form that
I want to write in. And it’s because the people
that I love to read so much were these omniscient narrators. And I like them. I love the idea that you
can create a book out of every person in this room. Every single person would– actually, my books
have enough space for everybody in this book. And maybe there will be
eight central characters. And somehow each of
you would somehow kinetically affect each other. In the same way, that’s
how it works in life. And I wanted to have
that canvas and to have that kind of
freedom, because I’m interested in building a world. I’m a world builder. And that means that I
need to know everything about this entire world. But the thing that
really upsets me about the omniscient narration
is that it takes a long time to do it accurately
and to tell it honestly about people’s roles. And I’m obsessed with work. So I’m constantly interviewing
people about their work. So when I meet a guy who can– It’s another wonderful
thing in this novel. You learn a lot
about people’s work. Right. I love work. So when I meet
somebody who knows how to fix the microphone,
I really want to know. Andy, what do you do? See, there’s Andy back there. And how do you
know the difference between a lav versus a
stand mic versus a boom? I mean, I’m interested
in how that works, because that’s how
we earn our living. And I want to
understand how we make a living, because
earning a living is how we get on with our day. So much of the way we
spend our time is work. And I’m interested
in it, and I’m interested in why
you chose that work or why that work chose you. And what happens when
you don’t have that work? That’s interesting too. So I’m interested in things
like love and betrayal and all those things
are so important. But I want to know how
you spend your time. And then I wanted
to write my comment on how we spend our time
and how we make our money and how we lose our money. So there are two questions. In time I want before too
long to open it up to others. But I want to ask
you about the title. But before we get to the
title, I want to ask you. You were saying about
eight major characters and then the minor ones. Structurally, how do you
set about tackling something with such a big canvas? Do you have a big white
board with lots of– I use Scrivener. What’s that? Scrivener. So I didn’t use it
for my first book, because it’s a
much shorter book. So I don’t mind
having lots of people. I do lots and lots of outlines. I’m constantly writing outlines. And whenever I
talk to students, I recommend that they use
really inexpensive paper and to not get attached. So do not buy a leather
tooled bound journal and think that you have to
write something lapidary in it. Do not do that. You should have half
used legal pads, ideal, that somebody
else is throwing away. And you should doodle
and it should be playful. But I believe in having
lots of outlines. But then the Scrivener
thing was very helpful for this book because
of the history. So Scrivener is
a tool that a lot of academics and journalists
use to write nonfiction work. And you could see– it’s just an
organizing software. Very helpful if you
have many chapters. And I always have
over 50 chapters. But you knew that you would
have over 50 chapters? Oh yeah, I could see
it in my head for sure. OK. And were there minor
characters along the way that surprised you? Oh yes. I love that. I mean, I was surprised by– But I’m the kind of person who
falls in love with an elevator. I’ll be in an elevator and I’ll
do think, oh my god, you’re amazing. Can I just follow you? I’m not going to be a
stalker or anything. But I’m just very vulnerable
to people’s beauty and charm and earnestness. I definitely feel so vulnerable
to people’s earnestness. Sincerity and authenticity. And I hate that word,
because it’s been co-opted by the business people. But when someone seems true
to me, there’s nothing sexier. There’s nothing sexier than
someone who is very true. And I think, ah. It has nothing to do
with their appearances. And I want to put
them in a book. So have you ever set out
to put minor characters in a book in that way and
then had to kill them off? Sure. But I also find that
if I like something, then somebody who likes my
work will like that person. So I mean, how do you
feel about your readers? The way I look at
my readers is that I think I don’t know if I’ll
have that many readers. Now you’ll know. But whoever my
readers are, I think they’ll want to be with me. In the same way, there
are certain readers who don’t want to be. I want to be with George Eliot. Whatever George Eliot writes,
I want to be with her. She could write anything. In the same way Annie Dillard
could write about sand and I’m like, I
want to read that. I need to read that. Other people may
not feel that way. And I think when Claire Messud
comes out with a new book, I get really excited. I order it in first edition
hardcover, and so should you. But there’s a kind of you
get excited because you’re with a person’s moral vision. And I use that word moral
vision very specifically. And I like that. It makes me feel comfortable. So I think I don’t worry too
much about the aesthetics. Because if I’m true
to my aesthetic, somehow it will cohere. Yeah. I mean, one of the things that
I sort of come back to often as a writer, in
teaching certainly, is the degree to which
it’s a balance of freedom and constraint. So there’s the outline,
but you will stray from it. There’s the shape that you
envisage, but you will be– there’s what you envisage,
but you will inevitably be surprised along the way. And if you aren’t
surprised, why do it? Also what do you
think about pleasure? I think pleasure
is very important. Me too. I think that pleasure
is so important. Because it’s not
like we get paid to write these
books in a big way. I mean, it would make more
sense if we did other things with our lives. Always. Right? So I think that for
me, the pleasure has to be in the playfulness of
my vision and in the reworking. And if certain characters
show up and they surprise me, I think, oh, I get
to play some more. And that gives me an
enormous sense of pleasure. I think what takes
the pleasure out of writing books is
all the other stuff. The expectations. We had a class
earlier today where I met very talented writers,
some of whom are here. I always worry that they have
a feeling that they have to– they expect things
from this book. They expect things from
their publications. And I think that’s
what causes heartbreak. Yeah, I mean, I do think there’s
a longer conversation that you spoke of it a bit
at lunchtime saying you do this because it
matters to you and not for any other reason. I mean, no rational person
spends 30 years on a book. I mean, you can’t
be very bright. [LAUGHTER] I beg to differ. You know what I mean. You can’t be very practical. I’m not a practical person. It’s not a practical decision. And there’s always
something else that the world thinks
you should be doing. It’s always yeah. Like paying your taxes. I had to get an
extension this year. I can imagine. Min has been on
the road nonstop. Freaking forever, yeah. So just quickly, so the
title, which refers to a game. And you’ve spoken about
the choice of that game. I mean, that game has
become central to the novel. But it’s almost more
metaphorically important too, I think. Oh, it’s really important. And I wondered if you wanted
to talk a little about that. Sure. No, my publisher’s always
asking me to talk about it and I always forget. So I wonder if my
editor called you today. No. No. So pachinko is a $203
billion business, which is a cornerstone
of the Japanese economy. It is twice the export revenues
of the Japanese auto industry. That’s enormous. So when you think about $203
billion, for the lay person, it’s really hard to
imagine what that means. But if you know that you
have something called the Subaru or the
Toyota or the Honda, then you realize,
oh, $203 billion. And that’s a declining number. It used to be bigger. Every year that
number gets smaller. However, it’s still
twice export revenues. So it isn’t like when you and
I think about going to Vegas or going to a gambling hall. So you’ll find a pachinko parlor
in pretty much every street, every train station, every bus
station, every shopping center you’ll see a pachinko parlor. Even in the most
rural areas, you’ll find even bigger
pachinko parlors with like 5,000 machines. So pachinko is a
vertical pinball game. It is not for children. It is only for adults,
and it’s gambling. And you can make money from it. This business became really
important after the war, and it is dominated by the
Korean Japanese, mostly men. And the reason why the
Korean Japanese men went into this industry
is because they could not find jobs elsewhere. And the women usually went
into the yakiniku business, which is a Korean BBQ. So women went into
food, men went into this gambling business. Pachinko is played
by the Japanese once a week by one out of 11
Japanese play it once a week. So it’s pretty normal. It isn’t like when you and
I go to Vegas, let’s say, once every lifetime and kind
of go, whoo-hoo, we did that. It’s part of your life. And what I should
say here, it’s very important, is that unlike the
way we think about going to, let’s say, Atlantic
City or Vegas, we don’t say that the people
who work there are dirty, low class, criminal,
supporters of North Korean nuclear armament building. We don’t say those things. We think my cousin John might be
dealing cards in Atlantic City. That’s just his job. Unfortunately, people who
work in the pachinko industry are considered low
class, dirty, and all the negative stereotypes
of the business are imputed to ethnic Koreans. So even if you
weren’t in pachinko, you’re considered those things. I have not yet met a
single Korean person from Japan who doesn’t have
somebody in his or her family that has some
connection to pachinko. There’s an uncle,
a cousin, somebody. I wanted to argue, because
pachinko, like gambling, is a rigged business. There’s no way that
you’ll win every time. The odds will always
favor the house. And yet you play. And I wanted to argue that
life is like pachinko. That it’s rigged,
but we still play. Well, what’s the alternative? Thank you. [LAUGHTER] I mean, I feel with the pachinko
parlor, you could just go home. Right, yeah. But in life, not
so many choices. No, there aren’t. And I guess it really
depends on how you play. I mean, one last
question and then– Sure. I mean, it’s interesting
because there’s so much in this book that is dark. And yet the book is not
a dark book to read. It’s actually exhilarating
and vital and full of all sorts of– I mean, it’s just constantly. And sometimes very funny too. Do you think that’s
something that just arises from your worldview,
your vision as a writer? Was that conscious
or deliberate? Did you think, oh, I must
leaven this dark stretch. I must put something
happy after something sad? Oh, this is really important. I found my conversation
with the Korean Japanese to be so moving, to be so
delightful, so humorous that everything that I had
in my first book I realized was trash because it was
so dark and so depressing and so self righteous. So Motherland, this book
that I had written before, which was factually
incredibly accurate, was a very indignant
book, and it was dull. Oh my god, it was so dull. And I didn’t send it
out because I knew that it wouldn’t have a chance. And then when I
was writing this, I kept hearing the voices. So when I read, I try
to sound like the way I heard my interviewees speak. And that’s the
reason why interviews are so important to me,
because I could hear them, and then I try to
understand their melody as well as the rhythm
of their speech. Because everybody
is so different. But the Korean
Japanese, depending upon which region
that you grew up in or which
political affiliation you had, actually
talked differently in terms of their meter. So I tried really
hard to get that. That’s wonderful. I have a friend who’s
a playwright who speaks about how when
he’s writing a part, it’s always for him embodied. And he’s picturing
is it somebody who’s big and barrel chested
who speaks from the chest or is it anybody who
speaks from the front? We’re animals and we
live in our bodies. I like that. Until you have that embodied
sense of your characters, which that’s what you’re saying in a
way about hearing their voices. I like that so much. When I was a kid, I didn’t
talk until I was almost at the end of middle school. And I took all these
speech classes. And I think during that
time when I wasn’t talking, I was really paying
attention to how people talk, because I wanted to
learn how to talk. I know it sounds really odd. I don’t even know what I had. But my sisters were fine. So it wasn’t that I
couldn’t speak English or I couldn’t speak
Korean or couldn’t speak. It was like I just
couldn’t figure out how to have a conversation
with another person. I didn’t know how to
break in a conversation. I didn’t know how to listen. And also middle school
girls were just so puzzling. I think everybody
feels that way. So in that context, I think I
have become a very good mimic. Because I have been
really paying attention to how people talk and I
want to understand, oh, is that what a ruling
class person does? Is that what a working
class person does from Queens versus a ruling
class person who grew up in, let’s say, Connecticut? Everybody has a
different kind of stance. So I’ve been watching
people’s body language. I study body language a lot. I mean, you do too right? You can’t not. And I like it. Again, it gives me pleasure. It makes me feel safe. I think that safety is very
important for foreigners. I definitely feel
like a foreigner, even though that makes no sense. And part of that alienation
from other people, I think I manage it
through study of behavior. And that makes a
lot of sense to me. And I oddly feel
like a foreigner too. But you lived in
other countries. Yeah. And I had a friend who once
said to me, oh, in America, there’s no social class. And I said, what? Rubbish. [LAUGHS] Have you not been
paying attention? But anyway, but I think
part of it is not reading, actually, as you say, the
way people move in the world and how differently
people move in the world. There are many people, I’m sure. Yes, I know some people
may need to leave. If you do, that’s fine. I will miss you. But now is the time
for you guys to ask what questions you may have. We don’t have a mic? We do have a mic happening. Sir, a mic is on its way. Yes sir. Hang on one second. In terms of language and
rhythm and that sort of thing, when you were there speaking
with the Japanese Koreans, some of them may not have
spoken Korean if they were there for generations. Did you learn Japanese
before you went there? What did you conduct
your interviews in? That’s an excellent question. Your name is? Phil. So Phil’s question is, how
did I conduct my interviews? And so depending upon
who my subject was, I would have to
hire interviewers. I do have some working
knowledge of Korean and some tiny working
knowledge of Japanese. But it’s not enough
in any way to conduct a thoughtful interview. I conducted a lot of interviews
with translators as well as in English, depending
upon who I could talk to. But the way I
conduct interviews. For example, Phil,
may I ask what you do? Great. You’re a headhunter. Perfect. So you actually interview
all the time, right? In English. So if I had to have a
headhunter in my book, and for those of you who don’t
know what headhunting is, it’s people who help
other people find jobs. That’s probably the
safest way to look at it. So they’re actually assessing
personalities constantly. So if I had to have a
headhunter in my book, I would probably interview
maybe six or seven. So let’s say I have Phil. I would talk to you. We would have lunch. And then for about
three hours or so, I would ask you a
lot of questions. I would probably use about
2% of what we talk about. So very often it isn’t
just what you say, because most of what
people say isn’t true. Right? I mean, unfortunately. Whether it’s out of
politeness or whether it’s because of ignorance or
whether it’s because of– I don’t think it’s
always malicious. I don’t think it’s
always malicious. I think people don’t
say what they really feel because we have
certain laws in society that says we can’t say those things. Which is kind of in some ways
unfortunate but in some ways very fortunate,
because I don’t think I really want to know everything
that you think about me. It may not be good. So I really need to
spend time with a person. So part of my
interview isn’t what’s actually what I write down. And also I never record
anything on a tape recorder. Because it makes
a person freeze. So I use, again, a
half used legal pad. I scrawl a couple
of things down. But mostly I’m looking at, oh,
does he nod when I say this? Or does he touch his hair? Or why does he fiddle
with his glasses when I asked a
troubling question? I’m looking for your tells. That’s kind of what I do. Because a tell of a headhunter
may be different than a tell of a person who’s
looking for a job. So I’m really studying that. And then I might spend
time at your office to see what do other
headhunters think about Phil. Why is he considered
a leader in his job? Does that make sense? And then doing that 360
takes a lot of time. But it does give me
a lot of confidence though when I write about
that subject, which is nice, because I’m not a very confident
person about different kinds of work. Interesting. I remember having a conversation
with Jennifer Egan where she talked about the
insanely labor intensive way that she has of working. And it’s true. Similarly, when you’re
saying you might interview six or seven, did you say? Yeah, absolutely. Right. That’s three hours apiece. That’s a lot of time. It’s a lot. It’s a good way to
avoid writing too. Yeah, I bet. Yes ma’am, in the back. Yes. Hi. Thank you for coming
and being with us. My name’s Anna, and I’m
a graduate student here. And I have a follow up
question to his question and then I had one
other short question. Thinking about the translation
for your interviews, I’m wondering about
the translation of the book and kind of
what the plans are for that. Or for some of your interviewees
or Japanese Koreans, Japanese, what has the reception
been to your book there? That’s my first question. And my second question
was just knowing that this story is based
on a series of interviews and a lot of research
that you did, I wondered if you
could talk a little bit about the relationship
between Sunja and her mother and where that story came from. So Anna’s question. The first one is that
it’s sold 24 countries. And last month it sold to Japan. So that was really
exciting for me, because I had kind of given up. And it’s being published
by Bungeishunju, which is a very prestigious publisher. But they really came in
after every single person said it’s OK. So that’s really surprising,
because the greatest audience, I think, would be in Japan. I never thought you guys
would read this book. It just wasn’t part
of my consciousness. I figured I’ll finish it
and if nobody buys it, then I thought I
would approach maybe a third tier academic press
and publish it for free. Because I knew that there was a
need for the book because it’s the first book about the Korean
Japanese written in English as a novel. So I figured
somebody may want it. Some grad student,
some poor grad student may read this thing. And I thought that
would be the end of it and I could move
on with my life. And I really did think
about selling real estate. I did. I did. I think I’d be good. [LAUGHTER] It’s always open to you. Wouldn’t you buy
a house from me? And not that it’s
an easy job, but I had interviewed enough real
estate brokers thinking, I think I can make that work. So anyhow, so that’s
my first question. I think I covered it about
all these different countries. And in terms of its reception,
it has been received very well. I have been fortunate enough to
be on tour for a year and eight months around the world. So I have met a lot of
Korean Japanese people. I have been incredibly so
fortunate to meet them. And it’s terrifying for me. It’s terrifying because they
usually come with the book and they’ll hold it and they’ll
say, I heard about this book. And I heard that you
are Korean American and you are not Korean Japanese. That’s when your stomach lurches
and you just want to die. And I just stand there
waiting for that decision. And I have yet to have
a negative review. Every single one has been
so overwhelmingly emotional and positive. And they have said that it has
reflected their family stories. So they cry, I cry, we all cry. It’s very emotional. There’s a lot of hugging. And it’s very gratifying
because, again, I didn’t think that
anybody would read it. So that’s question number one. And the second question was? About Sunja and her mother. Oh yes, this is troubling. The way Korean women, especially
the women that I interviewed, have been told by their culture
to think about their roles is one primarily
where the virtue arises from being sacrificial. So this is a very serious thing. So if you look at all
the folktales of Korea, the girls who are
virtuous are the ones who will sacrifice their
lives, their bodies, and all their time for the
benefit of their families. And so one of the things
that I did hear repeatedly in all my interviews is that
a woman’s lot is to suffer, which becomes sort of
a refrain in this book. And it came out of the mouths
of my interview subjects. And in it one of the
things that I did realize is that between
generations, there’s a lot of resentment
with this idea. Of course, I’m going
to be 50 this year. I don’t want to
suffer all the time. And I can’t imagine
a young woman who goes to Harvard would say,
I want to suffer all the time and that she should
always expect it. However, I did
think in some ways America has a romance with
not wanting to suffer, and it causes
Americans to suffer a lot in this quest for
happiness and this quest to feel good all the time. And the quest to not have
suffering, to eliminate it, to pretend that it
doesn’t exist also causes people an
enormous amount of shame when they are suffering. So I found that wisdom from
these usually poor women to be fascinating. And of course, the
more I researched, all around the world,
they expect suffering. History is long. There’s a lot of suffering. And I think that was
very helpful to me. But to talk about that
relationship between Sunja and Yangjin, I think Yangjin
felt really furious because all her life she did sacrifice. And then she
realized, what was it all for if I can’t
have my daughter? So there is an
eruption that occurs at some point in the
book because of that. There’s a young man over there. Thank you. My name is Zia. My question is much, much less
interesting than the preceding one. What kind of attributes
does the reader have, the reader in your mind,
if you have a reader in mind? What do you expect of
them when you’re writing? I have a very specific
reader in mind when I draft. I think of my sister. My younger sister
thinks I’m wonderful. [LAUGHTER] That’s a nice reader to have. She thinks that everything
that I say is interesting. She thinks I’m a brave person. And I’m a very fearful person. So I just think it’s amazing
that my younger sister can actually see this about me. So whenever I write, I think,
oh, I think Sang will like it, because she likes
everything that I do. It’s very helpful for drafting. When I edit, I come back
and I’m quite serious. I become my little legal person
and I can do all my editing. But when I draft, when I
actually let the stuff happen, I think of my sister. That said, when I think about
publication, the final thing, when I think about
Zia or Anna or Phil, when I think about
you guys, I think I owe you something
that’s worth your time. That’s very important. Because to ask you to pay
$27, it is a lot of money. And from my working
class background, I didn’t grow up with
a family of books. We didn’t own books. We had to borrow them. So the idea that you
pay $27 is a big deal. However, I know that
for entertainment, we spend a lot of money. So $27 may not be
a lot of money. However, the thing that’s
really valuable to me is that if you are willing to
spend 14 to 16 hours with me, I think it should be edifying,
and it must give you pleasure. If it does not
give you pleasure, then I think I have failed. So I think that
when I give myself pleasure in creating
this work, I also have to have aesthetic standards
in which I know what will work. I mean, I’ve studied Aristotle. I know that sounded
so pretentious. Forgive me. Always saying to the students,
start with the poetics. Start with the poetics. Right, start with the poetics. But if you have this idea
of recognition, reversal, and catharsis, you
know that there is a rule that can make
the reader feel seen or the viewer feel
seen, because he’s writing about plays, obviously. So I think that the
bond that you and I have for the 14, 16 hours
is a really sacred one in which you trust me. So if you trust me, I
have to deliver something. And I think that bond
is really important. And I’ve been very
fortunate in my travels to meet a lot of readers who
feel very burned by the fact that writers are showing
off, but they’re not thinking about their
edification plus pleasure. I’m not just
interested in pleasure. I’m not just interested
in edification. But it has to be both. Those are the books
that I like to read. They must have the insight
that was very hard earned by the author. And I think that’s
the reason why I’m willing to pound
the pavement for it. Because if I don’t
necessarily earn it myself, I have to get it from other
people who are wiser than me. So that’s my long answer to
your reader question, which was not a bad questions, Zia. Yes. Hi. You were in class
today, weren’t you? I was. I was at the lunch. Yes, but you didn’t talk. No, but I cried in front of you. I guess that’s something. Well, I cry too. It means that we have
our feelings left. I’m Emily. I’m an undergrad. In a workshop right now we’re
talking a lot about revision and going through
different ways to revise. And it sounds like the
process of drafting for you is extremely pleasurable
and you said you don’t really get writer’s block. And so I was
wondering in revision, how do you get to
the point where you can see the story anew,
where you can step out of it and figure out what needs
to be changed around, figure out what the next
version of the story is? Especially with such
long manuscripts. Well, it’s kind of
what we discussed in class a little bit. And for those of you who
weren’t in class today, I do this thing called
finding your theme. So I make the students tell
me what they’re working on, and then I ask them to do a
very emotional essay in about 10 minutes in which
I’m trying to make sure that you bypass your censors. Because the censors, that’s
what ruins all of us. And that’s the reason why I
think of my lovely sister, because I think she
thinks I’m wonderful. And so I don’t have to think
about a forbidding voice. I don’t have a forbidding
voice when I draft. And then there’s
always a disconnect between usually the
project that the person is working on versus what
they really care about. But once you find
out what the theme is and the question that you
want to ask from that theme, you will have the courage
to work on that revision, and you’ll be able to shape it
exactly the way you want to. I really believe that. And I think very
often people get lost when they stay very
true to their almost like what do you call that? The abstract. You know when you
read an academic text and it’s really great and they
have this little abstract. Very often I think
the best abstracts are written after the
entire thing is written. But if you start
with the abstract and you try to create
an entire paper, you’re going to
fail in some ways, because you’re too
attached to your thesis. You could be wrong. So what I’m trying to
encourage you to do, and this is going of
sound really nutty, but maybe you’ve
never had an affair. Don’t tell me. Maybe somebody in this
room has had an affair or has thought about
having an affair. And I’m not encouraging
you to do that. They’re very messy. I have interviewed so many
people who’ve had affairs. It’s not pretty and very rarely
is it worthwhile that I have learned from these interviews. But let’s say you’re
about to have an affair and you feel the
sense of penalty that’s swinging like the sword
of Damocles over your head. I should not have this affair. And yet you want to. I want you to be attracted
to your manuscript like that. So forget the affair. I want you to be so
hot about your work that you want to go back to it. That you would get up early in
the morning and go to the gym. That you would save your pennies
and buy yourself a negligee. I want you to have this kind of
sense of it has to be worth it. It has to be so incredibly
scintillating and pleasurable and attractive to you. And then you will work
out a lot of stuff. So you’ll have the
drafting, but you’ll have the metaphysical questions. And I think that you
will create a good shape. And if you’re that
into it, I assure you, you will have readers. And that really comes down
to managing expectations. I think that whether you have
10 readers, 50 readers, 500 readers, or 10,000
readers, I think you’re really lucky if you
have passionate readers. It’s not the number. It’s the quality. So that’s my suggestion
for revision. Maybe we have time
for one last question. Goodness, and now
there are 15 hands. It was the affair. [LAUGHTER] Yes ma’am. Hi, my name is Gina. I’m an undergrad as well. I was wondering how your
experience as a Korean American influenced you in
writing the book. Because even though it’s
a separate very different experiences, like Korean
American and Korean Japanese, you’re both I guess
sort of foreigners in a place where a
majority of people are not of your ethnicity. So I was wondering if you
speak a little about that. Sure. I feel really outside. And when I was growing up, I
thought that I was outside, not just because my sisters
and I were immigrants and we were basically
working class. I think I felt outside because I
had all these social anxieties. I just really could not
fit in with other kids. So I thought that when I grew
up and if I became educated, I would find my tribe. Does that make sense? And then the only tribe that
I really made sense with were books. Like with dead people. Those books where you have the
finest version of yourself. I felt really comfortable
and safe around them. And then when I got
older, I thought maybe if I find the right
Koreans, I’ll belong. And it turned out
that that’s not true. I thought if I hung out with
the right kinds of people who are interested
in the world who are progressive I would belong. And that turned out that
was not true either. And then finally
I decided, oh, I’m going to have this existential
alienation, and that’s OK. That’s OK. And as a matter of fact,
it’s a really useful lens. Because you could
take that condition. And all of us actually have it. All of us feel
existential alienation. We don’t like to
admit it because it makes us feel flawed. But I have never met a person
who doesn’t have that sense. Especially at some stage
in his or her life, they have that
feeling of why am I not fitting in with the
person who loves me even? You can be married
and have families and you can still feel
the sense of unease. But going back to what
you said is that it does provide this sort of lens. Because when you figure that
out, it could make you angry. It could make you
so angry that you will kill 10 people in Toronto. Or it could make you identify
with other people and say, I’m lonely. It takes great courage
to say I’m lonely. But it shouldn’t, because
everybody is fucking lonely. So I always find that
to be interesting when I meet younger
people and they have that sense of discomfort. You’re actually totally
normal, and you’re supposed to feel this,
and we have a name for it. And it can be a super power. It can make you radically
sympathetic and empathic with other people in the world. So I do feel different
because of my– I did feel different. And I really thought it
was the obvious things like class and race,
ethnicity, citizenship. But then I just realized
no, I’m just odd. [LAUGHS] And it was
sort of a relief. That seems like a
great place to stop. Min, thank you so much. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]