Event Recap: Pachinko

Sophia Danison

This past Tuesday, a vast MIT lecture hall was filled to the brim with an audience eager to listen to Min Jin Lee speak about her National-Book-Award-finalist, New York Times-bestselling novel Pachinko. Organized as part of the CIS Starr Forum Speaker Series, MIT and Harvard students with some rare free time, book groups, myself, and members of the community filled almost every seat in the auditorium.

Pachinko reflects the themes of fierce motherhood, love and partnership, exclusion and harm, as her characters navigate the social landscape of Japan during and after wartime. Comments from members of the audience made it clear that not only has Lee crafted a novel with masterful storytelling and thoughtful prose, but the subject matter of Pachinko itself delivers an affirmative impact to the identities and individual experiences of Japanese and Korean Americans. One student in particular told a somewhat awestruck Lee that witnessing her book reach the top charts validated his own experience as an Asian American, because her story brought visibility to the struggle that ethnic outsiders face in society. She herself admitted her doubts that the book would attract such a major following outside of “educated white ladies in book groups”; in reality, Pachinko’s popularity has opened mainstream America’s eyes to the classist and racial obstacles that immigrants, refugees and their children have faced for generations.

Min Jin Lee creates activism out of authorship, telling us that her main goal in fiction writing is to give us the opportunity to live as someone else. In the case of Pachinko, she told her readers, “I want you to become Korean” - for about sixteen hours. As a young girl immigrating to the US, “America to me was generous, abundant and delicious”; her excitement to binge on cheap bananas and orange juice upon arrival reflected none of how developed nations tend to typecast displaced people as carrying “troubles, sadness and needs”.

Fiction’s utility is to combat mass fear, propagandized stereotypes and misconceptions about the other, the outsider, or simply someone in a different position as you. Min Jin Lee made it clear as she spoke that this offers a chance at peace - for some to recognize the peace they have, and in turn offer peace for refugees and outsiders who trade the threat of war for ostracism. “For my father, war was not an abstraction...it could separate families forever,” Lee said, noting the illusory ideal of national peace. Her father made the decision to leave precipitous stability in Korea to ensure his family’s peace, and left Lee to witness her family undergo the indignities that come with being an immigrant to America. She told the audience that her past resonated with her throughout writing Pachinko.

As a speaker (and as a person) Min Jin Lee is funny, enigmatic and compassionate. Her book challenges us to combat the categorical nature of society, and experience an unfamiliar life if only briefly. Her talk on Tuesday confirmed Pachinko’s influence - not simply an excellent and informative read, but also capable of bringing us closer to peace.

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