In Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko a dying Korean man tells his young Korean-Japanese son that “living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.” This profound sentiment can serve as a thematic summary of the novel and it is a familiar concept to marginalized persons in every part of the world. While the sentiment may be familiar, the setting may not as Lee illuminates and contextualizes an overlooked portion of our collective human history with specificity and grace. Familiar, too, are the stereotypes that follow these immigrants of Korean ancestry throughout out the book (the dichotomy of the “good’ vs ‘bad” Korean, the idea that they exist to do the dirty work citizens would rather not) and despite living in Japan for generations, they are considered foreigners, subject to discrimination and deportation at a moment’s notice, permanent guests in a land that is their home.

Pachinko brings life to the complex trajectories of Koreans in Japan, those who both thrive and fail in the shadowy not-quite-citizenship of unwanted immigrants residing in their colonizer’s land. It is rich soil for a writer to till and Lee digs deep, interweaving a myriad of conditions — gender, class, beauty — a nesting doll of oppressions that fully reflect the realities of the past and present. Gender in particular, specifically the choices women make to survive, steer significant portions of the novel, and one woman’s choice is the seed from which the novel blooms, yielding numerous characters with compelling stories to follow. And it is in rendering these individuals that Pachinko shines, as Lee uses omniscience to delve into the minds of even the most minor characters, dense asides that contextualize a person in a sentence or paragraph, lending a fullness to the narrative and breathing life that pushes characters beyond their historical context into multifaceted persons. The cumulative effect of this, of fully-realized major and minor characters, throws the past into relief, reminding us that history is composed of individuals who have done their best to endure. Spanning less than a hundred years, Pachinko is a dense and vividly layered account of this slice of contemporary Korean and Japanese history. Deeply moving, gorgeously rendered, intensely researched and whip smart, it is required reading that will stay with you for some time.

— Lesley Arimah
2018 finalist judge

Book Excerpt

Noa stared at her. She would always believe that he was someone else, that he wasn’t himself but some fanciful idea of a foreign person; she would always feel like she was someone special because she had condescended to be with someone everyone else hated. His presence would prove to the world that she was a good person, an educated person, a liberal person. Noa didn’t care about being Korean when he was with her; in fact, he didn’t care about being Korean or Japanese with anyone. He wanted to be, to be just himself, whatever that meant; he wanted to forget himself sometimes. But that wasn’t possible. It would never be possible with her.

"I will pack up your things and have them sent to your house by messenger. I don’t want to see you anymore. Please never come see me again."

"Noa, what are you saying?" Akiko said, astonished. "Is this the Korean temper that I’ve never seen that before?" She laughed.

"You and I. It cannot be."


"Because it cannot." There was nothing else he could think of, and he wanted to spare her the cruelty of what he had learned, because she would not believe that she was no different than her parents, that seeing him as only Korean—good or bad—was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.

2018 Fiction Runner-Up

Min Jin Lee, photo credit Elena Seibert
Click to see award video

(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Min Jin Lee

“The world is broken because we do not love enough. War, peace, and art require at least three elements: imagination, will, and action—and ironically, all three are enacted because men and women feel love. This is the central paradox—we love—the other, self, family, faith, or nation—and we use that love—of something, or someone, for anything—to justify our violence, compromises, and creation. We know that peace is far more difficult than war or art, because peace requires both forgiveness and restraint; so somehow, we must learn to love peace far more than war. If literature bears witness to true narrative and if it awakens compassion, reconciliation may indeed be possible. Where men and women have failed to love, literature may inspire greater love for all those we’d once thought we feared or hated. I write fiction because I believe that our love can refine our worse nature. I am deeply honored to join the Dayton Literary Peace Prize family of writers as we pursue our collective call toward global peace.”

— Min Jin Lee              

* * *

Min Jin Lee is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (2018) and the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard (2018-9). Lee’s recent novel Pachinko was a finalist for the National Book Award, a New York Times bestseller, a Top 10 Books of the Year for the New York Times, a joint book club selection of PBS NewsHour and the New York Times, and on over 75 best-of-the-year lists. Lee’s debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, was a Top 10 Books of the Year for The Times, NPR’s Fresh Air and USA Today.

Her writings have appeared in The New Yorker, Guardian, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Times Literary Supplement, The Times, Vogue, and Wall Street Journal. She has served as a columnist for The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s leading newspaper, for three seasons.


Implementation and ongoing support by Digital Stationery International, LLC