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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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