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National Book Review: Conversation with Sharon Pomerantz

Min Jin Lee’s 2007 national bestselling novel Free Food for Millionaires was set in the world of Korean immigrants and their children striving for success in New York. Addictively readable, it headed up “top ten novels of the year” lists everywhere from The Times of London to NPR and USA Today. Readers and critics alike found it both intellectually compelling and hard to put down (I remember several nights of turning pages at 2 a.m.). Both a feminist story of one young woman’s quest to break away from her immigrant family’s demands and find personal fulfillment, and a hard-hitting social commentary on the toll exacted by the American Dream, Free Food For Millionaires reads less like a debut and more like the work of a long established master. Liesl Schillinger, writing in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, compared the book to Middlemarch by George Eliot; Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Lee’s new novel, Pachinko, published by Grand Central Books, has already been hailed by writers like Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart and David Mitchell, and for good reason. Once again, I found myself up at 2 a.m., compulsively turning the pages. Lee is a master plotter, but the larger issues of class, religion, outsider history and culture she addresses in Pachinko make this a tour de force you’ll think about long after you finish reading. The book follows a family through four generations, starting in Korea in 1900, and then moving to Japan just before World War II, where they are stranded by history, fighting to make a life in a country that continually segregates and belittles them. Even for characters who learn Japanese and seek citizenship, or, as the novel moves into the later 20th century, are born, raised and educated in Japan, there is little relief outside the embrace of the family circle. Among other things, Pachinko is about the primacy of family love in the context of survival.

As someone who’s known Min Jin Lee for two decades now (how is this possible?), I’m not at all surprised to hear her described by Junot Diaz as one of our finest novelists. I’ve always been awed by the architectural intricacy and scope of her writing, along with its great psychological acumen and sense of intimacy.  Lee is not afraid of the large questions—of belonging, religion, class, love and sex–either in her work or in conversation over a cup of coffee. –Sharon Pomerantz

Q: Speaking of belonging, the question of home, and where characters belong comes up a lot in Pachinko. Just like in the Bible, where Jacob has to wait to die before his bones are carried from Egypt back to the Holyland, in Pachinko the Korean characters only seem to go back to the motherland in death. You lived your early childhood in Korea, and came to New York at age seven. Then as an adult, you spent several years in Japan with your husband and son. How did those experiences shape your feelings about home and exile?

A: If I had to draw a timeline of my life, I think seven is the age where I would divide childhood from an almost adult-like state of awareness. The memories I have of my life in Seoul before 1976 were the memories of a child—hazy and sunny with sounds of piano music and laughter; whereas, the memories I have of growing up in Elmhurst feel far more mature and sober, because I was aware of my family’s immigrant tensions.

My parents were middle class in Korea—my father worked as a cosmetics marketing executive for a well-known brand, and my mother was the neighborhood piano teacher with many students. Because my mother worked at home when she taught piano, the house was full of children, and the atmosphere was cheery. When we moved to America in March of 1976, we lived in a blue-collar neighborhood in rental apartments, which were not very nice. I didn’t speak English, and I was very shy so I found the local public schools very tough to comprehend.

Over thirty years later, we moved to Tokyo in 2007 when my husband Chris got a better job, and I couldn’t speak the language, and this time, I had to witness my son who was then nine years old go through what I had gone through in some ways. Thankfully, he was able to attend an English-speaking school, but unlike me, he didn’t have any siblings to soften the loneliness. I was working on my book and as a freelance journalist, and I couldn’t find the time to learn Japanese seriously. I think the experiences in Japan from 2007-2011 made me recall the feelings of isolation and alienation I’d fought to forget. As an American expatriate, I was able to appreciate the beauty and goodness of Japan in countless ways. However, interviewing many Korean-Japanese and studying the history of the Korean-Japanese altered my ideal perception as an admiring visitor. I think the historical correction was ultimately a good thing, but it affected my sense of ease and belonging in my temporary home.

Q:  I know you’ve been strongly influenced by the omniscient novels of the 19th century. Can you talk about your use of the omniscient, or God-like, point of view in both Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko? Omniscient is a great POV for creating narrative sweep and authority, but it’s technically difficult (arguably the most difficult of any point of view). What are the challenges and rewards of telling a story this way?

A: I think the omniscient point of view is ideal for community novels, and as you know, it is used in my favorite works of fiction. The challenges are that I need to inhabit the points of view of so many characters and find access to such characters. I learn about characters and their lives primarily through personal interviews. Doing 50-60 interviews per book and sorting through the stories take a lot of time and resources. Also, to get the right interview sometimes requires more than one introduction or meeting.

As for the rewards of using an omniscient point of view, I feel more expansive after having done the interviews and from having lived with such diverse characters for so many years. I may not agree with everyone, but I feel a lot more open to considering different kinds of lives, work, habits, families, political positions, class stations, and identities as a result of using an all-seeing, all-feeling and all-knowing point of view.

Q: Pachinko was meticulously researched over many years. I find research always changes my understanding of the story I want to write. Was this the case for you?

A: You bet. I find research humbling. I have this fantasy that I can write something good by sitting down and writing every day—just sitting is not easy and there should be some reward for this. However, I don’t think I’m that kind of writer. I am an anxious writer—worried about accuracy and story. I worry about beauty and balance—in a classical way of understanding aesthetics. I worry about how the research affects how a story is laid out in a structurally coherent way to achieve things like anagnorisis (recognition), catharsis (purgation), peripeteia (reversal)—that Artistotle discusses in Poetics; I mention this because I have the anxieties of a foreign-born writer from the East who is writing in English and in a Western literary mode. I think a lot about the rules and broken rules in literature, and how research can affect the requirements of aesthetics.

Q: I’m fascinated by the way you treat the issue of “passing” in this novel. Noa, in particular, lives his later life as a Korean “passing” for Japanese, and even his nephew, Solomon, though clearly identified as Korean, works for a British investment bank and thinks he’s going to get a fairer shot there, functioning in English. Passing is an issue that’s been written about a lot by minority writers in America—James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Tony Morrison, Patricia Highsmith, come to mind—but the idea of one Asian community passing within another brings up a unique set of challenges.  Did you witness this while you lived in Japan? As a Korean immigrant growing up in Queens, did you feel the pull of assimilation more strongly than your parents might have liked? How did you get into the head of a character as desperate as Noa?

A: I think most of us are Noa in some parts of our lives—most of us have a deeply held view that by the dint of our efforts, we will be accepted. Every successful person I have ever met assimilated at a very high level into the culture of her field—complete with its own rules, moral code and jargon/language. If we are not Noa, we have a Noa part within us. With that preface, I have to say that I met enough Korean-Japanese people who were literally passing in Japan for Japanese that I could not not write about it. Also, Noa suffered, the way Lily Bart in The House of Mirth suffered, because passing is a merciless and endless task. When I moved to America, I began the process of assimiliation that ended with me no longer being able to speak Korean fluently, and I think that loss of my first language is akin to a kind of death of a part of myself. I feel deeply for Noa, and I have known many, many Noas.

Q: We’ve talked a lot over the years about the challenges of rendering sex on the page.  In Pachinko, you show us a lot of different kinds of sex—everything from an erotically charged seduction at the beach at low tide, to great marital tenderness behind a screen, to sex offered in a limo in exchange for designer purses. Which kind of scene did you find the most challenging to render? Is sex that’s purely about money and/or power easier to write than a scene of true emotional intimacy?

A: Oh, gosh. Writing about sex is difficult, and I think you are very smart to think of the distinct frames/paradigms of sex. I had to write these sex scenes, because they helped to characterize the relationships in the book, and importantly, the sex scenes had to humanize some of my characters who had lives of terrible deprivation and despondency.

That said, I think we have to go through our discomfort because literary sex is always far more informative in a way that literal sex cannot be, because in literary sex, we get to watch, feel, hear and engage with everyone who is in the scene. I’m not sure which sex scenes are easier to write; I do know that I tried to be spare about them. What I find interesting is writing the scenes with the same characters immediately following sex, because sex, well, sex changes the molecules in the air and our perception.

Q: Lastly, I know you’re always working on something interesting. What’s next for you?

A: I’ve started outlining my novel American Hagwon, which is about the role of education for Koreans around the world. I see Free Food for Millionaires, Pachinko, and American Hagwon as my trilogy about Korea. Hagwon is the Korean word for cram-school or study center. I’m in the doodling stage, and I have started to do some research, and I hope to do many interviews this year.

Sharon Pomerantz, author of Rich Boy (Twelve), is currently at work on her second novel.

published: National Book Review