June 1932

There was a cool edge to the marine air on the morning Sunja went to the market to shop for the boardinghouse. Ever since she was an infant strapped to her mother’s back, she had gone to the open-air market in Nampo-dong; then later, as a little girl, she’d held her father’s hand as he shuffled there, taking almost an hour each way because of his crooked foot. The errand was more enjoyable with him than with her mother, because everyone in the village greeted her father along the way so warmly. Hoonie’s misshapen mouth and awkward steps seemingly vanished in the presence of the neighbors’ kind inquiries about the family, the boardinghouse, and the lodgers. Hoonie never said much, but it was obvious to his daughter, even then, that many sought his quiet approval—the thoughtful gaze from his honest eyes.

Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee’s debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, was one of the “Top 10 Novels of the Year” for the Times (London), NPR’s Fresh Air, and USA Today. Her short fiction has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts. Her writings have appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Times (London), Vogue, Travel + Leisure, Wall Street Journal, New York Times Magazine, and Food & Wine. Her essays and literary criticism have been anthologized widely. She served as a columnist for Chosun Ilbo, the leading paper of South Korea. She lives in New York City with her family. Her new novel, Pachinko, will be published in February 2017 by Grand Central.

Hannah Tinti on “The Quality of Your Life”

When we’re young, we tend to be idealistic. Everything is new and exciting—especially when it comes to love. A heart that has never been broken before is easier to give away. We do it without knowing the danger. We offer it with both hands. This kind of blind, joyous affection is beautifully captured in our new issue, Min Jin Lee’s “The Quality of Your Life.” Set in Korea in 1932, the story follows Sunja, a girl on the cusp of womanhood. Her days are filled with hard work and shopping at the daily market for the boarding house run by her mother. And then, in an instant, everything changes. Sunja crosses paths with an older man named Hansu, who travels for business between Korea and Japan. Soon the blossoming relationship between these two characters becomes as complicated and fraught as the relationship between those two nations. Sunja struggles to maintain her identity, just as her fellow Koreans work against the historical ties that bind them to Japan. This theme continues in Min Jin Lee’s forthcoming novel, Pachinko. Find out more in our Q&A, and then continue on Sunja’s epic journey, where she never gives up fighting for the people she loves.

Q&A by Hannah Tinti

HT: What was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote?
ML: I lived in Japan from 2007-2011, where I had the chance to interview many Korean-Japanese. My interview subjects would talk about childhood, employment history, gender roles, education, and family background. Often, I heard stories of lost loves. I was struck by how frequently a love story from the interviewee’s teen years would change the course of his or her life. Among other things, this story investigates love and intersectionality.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
ML: I wanted to write accurately about the lives of ordinary Korean women of this era, and it was tough because there were so few primary documents about illiterate working class women. I turned to academic ethnographies and recorded interviews, then I learned more about their lives from the children and grandchildren of such women.
HT: “The Quality of Your Life” is a section of your forthcoming novel, Pachinko. Can you talk a bit about where this falls in the story, and how this meeting between Sunja and Hansu affects the rest of the book?
ML: This story is the inciting incident, which propels the entire novel. As a result of the relationship between Sunja and Hansu, Sunja marries Isak, a Korean pastor and moves to Japan, where she settles and has two sons. She never returns to Korea. Pachinko is the story of Sunja and her family, set in the turbulent history of Koreans in Japan from the period of 1910-1989. One of things I am always puzzling through is the intersection of history, fate and personal choice, and I felt compelled by Sunja’s resistance and determination to live and flourish in a harsh and difficult environment.
HT: The details of Sunja being attacked by the Japanese students is chilling. Throughout this story, and the rest of your novel, you detail many ways Koreans struggle with their identity, especially those living in Japan. Can you talk a bit about what first drew you to this topic, and why you decided to explore it in Pachinko?
ML: I got the seed of the novel from a lecture about the Korean-Japanese that I attended in college when I was 19 years old. During this lecture, an American missionary who worked with the Koreans in Japan relayed a story about a middle school-aged Korean-Japanese boy who died as a result of horrific bullying by his classmates. That lecture changed my life; I could not let that story go. I felt that I had to understand the power of extrinsic hate that could compel one to hate himself. I also wanted to understand the love the hated can feel and enact for the one who hates him.
HT: Hansu’s father seems to have set him on a criminal path, while Sunja remembers her handicapped father fondly, and turns to him for strength. While most of Pachinko centers around women and mothers, can you talk a bit about the influence of fathers in your story?
ML: One of the metaphysical questions I wanted to understand is what makes a man. Sunja’s two sons must learn how to be men in a world where they are disempowered politically, socially, and financially because of their ethnic background. The role of fathers becomes extraordinarily important to both daughters and sons in this work. In connection with what makes a man, I am investigating what constitutes masculinity for men of oppressed classes. I wanted very much to understand what makes a man a father. The plot lines of the central characters are affected significantly by his or her relationship with a father, or in cases, the absence of a father.
HT: Sunja has a prophetic conversation with the ajumma at the market at the beginning of this story, when the older woman tells her, “The man you marry will determine the quality of your life...but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard.” Later in the book, Sunja becomes an ajumma herself, selling kimchi and sweets. It almost seems like she is visiting herself from the future, and giving herself this advice. Was this your intention? And do you think time and history factors into your writing—weaving together the past, present and future?
ML: Yes! You’re an excellent reader. It was my intention to explore this notion so widely-held by a specific generation of Koreans—that women suffer and that suffering is to be expected. Of course, men suffer, too, but as a woman, I found it disturbing to hear so many women from older generations repeat this sentiment so frequently. Also, when I heard older women say that a woman’s life is determined by her husband, it went without saying that romantic love must not be everything; in fact, perhaps romantic love was perilous. I wanted to question this ajumma’s prophecy, because the quality of Sunja’s life was certainly informed by her choice to love Hansu at this point in time, but I wanted to see how she can determine the quality of her life through her daily choices, too.
HT: How long did it take you to complete Pachinko? And what are you most excited about its publication next February?
ML: As I mentioned, I got the seed of this story when I was 19. After I quit lawyering, I wrote a fictionalized account of the original seed of the story and submitted it as a sample chapter for a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts, which I later received. Later, I wrote a related story about Koreans in Japan, called “Motherland,” which was published in The Missouri Review in 2002. (Yes, fourteen years ago.) Eventually, I had a full draft of a novel, which I did not show anyone because I didn’t feel ready. I worked on another novel, and in 2007, I published my debut Free Food for Millionaires. A few months after its publication, I moved to Japan. After interviewing Korean-Japanese in Japan and researching the subject in Osaka, I threw away the first version of the novel about the Korean-Japanese and wrote another manuscript, which became Pachinko. I’ve been working on this novel in some form or another since I was 19, and I am now 48 years old; it will be published in 2017 when I turn 49. In a word: nuts. I am very excited to be done. It sounds horribly dramatic, but I was possessed by this work for nearly three decades, and I am so very relieved and grateful to have the pages out.
HT: What are you working on now?
ML: I’m doodling my third novel, American Hagwon, which will focus on the role of education for Koreans around the world. When I write fiction, I do some cursory outlines, make some thin sketches then do extensive interviews with dozens of people, which are fun for me. Then, I shut myself up in my home and write. I throw out many drafts. I keep hoping I will learn how to be efficient.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
ML: I heard a sermon once where a minister said that one should “choose the important over the urgent.” I use this idea in my life and in my writing. There are things in my life, which feel so terribly urgent, but when I remember what is important to me, the urgency often fades. In fiction writing, drama requires urgency, but themes and theses should be important, and I believe the correct interplay between drama and themes makes for finer work. I think about this idea of choosing the important over the urgent all the time.