Singapore Writers Festival: Pachinko author Min Jin Lee wants to know all about Singapore's tuition centres

Korean-American novelist Min Jin Lee spent nearly 30 years, on and off, working on her bestselling second novel Pachinko (2017).
Korean-American novelist Min Jin Lee spent nearly 30 years, on and off, working on her bestselling second novel Pachinko (2017).PHOTO: ELENA SEIBERT

SINGAPORE - Korean-American novelist Min Jin Lee has two things she wants to do in Singapore: eat laksa and research tuition centres.

Lee, who turns 51 this year, is examining attitudes towards education around the world for her third novel, American Hagwon. A hagwon is the Korean term for a private learning centre or cram school.

One of the characters in her novel has worked in a tuition centre in Singapore, she reveals over the telephone from her home in New York. The invitation to speak at the Singapore Writers Festival provided the perfect opportunity to add to her research, for which she has visited tuition centres the world over and sat in on the recent Harvard admissions trial, in which plaintiffs claimed the university had intentionally discriminated against Asian-American applicants.

"Singapore has one of the most admired education systems in the world," she says. "In my understanding of global education systems, I realised that I had to look at Singapore and see it for myself.

"I want to ask why, why are we educating ourselves this way? What is the purpose of this education? How do we live good lives with or without it?"

Lee has an exhaustive research process. She spent nearly 30 years, on and off, working on her bestselling second novel Pachinko (2017), which she first got the idea for as a 19-year-old student in Yale University, when she heard in a lecture about the zainichi, ethnic Koreans in Japan.

Pachinko is a saga of four generations of a Korean family, beginning in the early 1900s when Sunja, a boardinghouse owner's daughter, falls pregnant after an affair with a wealthy fish broker. She is saved from disgrace when Isak, a Christian minister, offers to marry her. They start a new life in Japan, where their family endures wartime privation, poverty and discrimination from the Japanese.

"It was such a monumental task," says Lee, who researched her novel like "a journalist or academic", interviewed hundreds of people and rewrote it multiple times until she created the central character of Sunja in 2008. "It was an undertaking I was not prepared for and to be frank, I don't know how anyone prepares for it, beyond being a little bit nuts."

The novel takes its title from pachinko, a vertical pinball machine gambling game popular in Japan. The industry is dominated by ethnically Korean people, whom Lee says are "considered second-class, vulgar, and sometimes criminal" by the same Japanese clientele who gravitate to these pachinko parlours.

 
 
  • BOOK IT/ AN HOUR WITH: MIN JIN LEE

  • WHAT: Meet-the-author session

    WHERE: Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place

    WHEN: Nov 9, 4pm

    ADMISSION: $30 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

  • THE LANGUAGE OF LONELINESS

  • WHAT: Panel in which Lee will discuss loneliness with Singaporean writer Cyril Wong and Canadian writer Chelene Knight.

    WHERE: The Arts House, Chamber, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Nov 8, 8pm

    ADMISSION: Festival pass, $25 from Sistic

    For more information, go to www.singaporewritersfestival.com

"I wanted to talk about this game, which is based mostly on chance but is also manipulated to benefit the advantages of the house, and compare it to life," she says.

Pachinko was a finalist for the National Book Award and named by The New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2017. It is in development as a series for Apple TV+, though Lee says she is not legally allowed to speak about it. "I'm not pleased with it right now," she admits, adding later, "What I hope for is an accurate portrait of the history of the Koreans in Japan. I think that's a fair thing to ask for."

Diaspora has always figured in the works of Lee, who was born in Seoul and moved to the United States with her family when she was seven. Her parents ran a wholesale jewellery store, which Lee helped out in and was once held up in at gunpoint.

When she got into Yale, she felt out of place among other wealthier students. In an essay for The New Yorker, she writes about how she once asked a classmate to define the word Stonehenge. She did not know it was a prehistoric monument in Britain, to the shock of the rest of the class. She recalls: "I saw that Stonehenge was as familiar to them as having a gun held to my face was to me."

She became a corporate lawyer but quit because of the grind and her chronic liver disease, choosing to focus instead on writing.

In her first book, Free Food For Millionaires (2007), which took her more than a decade to publish, a young Korean-American woman gets disowned by her immigrant parents for giving up law school and tries to make her own way into New York high society.

Lee's books have earned comparisons to 19th-century social novels such as George Eliot's Middlemarch, which she finds so "deeply flattering" that she tries not to dwell on it too much.

"Novels take so much time and energy to make that I hope they have social relevance," says Lee, who is married with a son. "I want to tell stories that reflect our realities and create a sense of truth as well as hope in the way that we handle the tragedies, heartbreaks and beautiful wishes of ordinary people."

Pachinko opens with the line: "History has failed us, but no matter." Lee, who studied history at Yale, says she feels a sense of indignation when she thinks about how history has failed in representing women, people of colour and those who have been colonised or lost wars.

"I thought, does that mean we're defeated? And I realised that no, even though we're not represented in history, we persist. There's valour and dignity in that. It's important to recognise that we don't need to have glory to have good, decent, meaningful lives."