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Like poets and priests, storytellers bridge the gap between the seen and unseen worlds. A Presence hovers over their tales, one that disturbs listeners. It’s all about conversion of life.

One such storyteller is Min Jin Lee, Korean American author of Pachinko, a finalist in the 2017 National Book Awards competition. For thirty years, she toiled over this novel that addresses the plight of Koreans living in Japan that began with Japan’s 1910 annexation. Stripped of their heritage, taxed and abused into starvation, their language trivialized into a dialect, their natural resources exploited, Koreans groveled for existence. To survive, many immigrated to Japan for work. After World War II they watched the continued psychic and physical dissolution of their homeland under the Soviet Union and America.

Against this backdrop of atrocities, Min Jun Lee places Yangjin and her daughter Sunja, peasants living outside the port city of Busan, Korea (South Korea today). These intrepid women, undeterred by the meanest toil and filth, inspire their families for four generations, from 1911 to 1989 as they eke out their existence in Osaka and other cities in Japan. Decades of accommodation fail to deter their spirits.

The more I reflect upon the selflessness of Yangjin and Sunja, the sweeter they become. Their portrayal by Min Jin Lee challenges my narrow understanding of woman and my prejudice/uneasiness around third world people. There’s much to learn in this gripping story.

 

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The color line, first articulated in an 1881 essay by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, found resonance in the later work of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Each page of these fourteen essays fire-storms a deeper perspective upon America’s continuing racial divide, spurred by the greed of land owners and the arrival of slave ships to seventeenth-century-America. Thus began the systematic psychic killing of West Africans, a complex process Du Bois traces.

A Harvard-trained sociologist and deeply conversant in Western philosophy and literature and in Negro folk lore and its oral tradition, Du Bois was uniquely fitted to delve into the damaged psyches of his people, ground within slavery’s mills for two hundred and fifty years. A monstrous Evil held sway over them, evidenced by inhumane working conditions in all weathers, beatings, dogs, lynchings, and rape. While their psyches were being mashed—often to their deaths—their numbing toil on rice, cotton, and sugar cane plantations in the South fed a feverish economy, both nationally and internationally.

On paper, at least, this changed with the 1865 passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that outlawed slavery. Within days of the exhilaration among the slave hovels, however, the stunned freedmen awoke to their plight: how to eke out a living in the white world outside the plantation. Although no longer imprisoned by their Masters’ whips, they were still hobbled by economic and social sanctions that undermined their spirits. The Freedman’s Bureau, designed by the federal government to help them, left them even more confused and directionless.

However, the concluding essay “On the Sorrow Songs” bespeaks the Negroes’ intrepid spirit warring against the Evil, rained upon them. They have much to teach us as we deal with our own shackles.

 

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