Author Min Jin Lee, a fellow this year at the Radcliffe Institute, is best known for her epic novel Pachinko (2017). The story follows a Korean family from the nineteenth century through the 1980s, spanning Japan’s annexation of Korea, the central character Sunja’s migration to Japan and survival of World War II, and Japan’s rise as a wealthy consumer society. For many Americans, the novel was their first introduction to life in Korea under Japanese rule and to the social identity of Koreans in Japan, many of whom could not become Japanese citizens even after their families had lived there for generations.
The title of the lecture she gave at Radcliffe yesterday evening, “Are Koreans Human? Our Survival Powers, the Quest for Superpowers, and the Problem of Invulnerability,” comes from a question she had been asked by a European journalist: “What are Koreans like?” Throughout the talk, and the discussion that followed with law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, Lee considered what it means to ask that question, and how, through fiction, she combines glimpses of an answer. The talk was this year’s Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in the Arts and Humanities, a distinguished speaker series held by Radcliffe (last year’s was given by novelist Marilynne Robinson).
“I think that [the journalist] was trying to help Koreans. Help us tell our side of the story,” Lee continued. “If and whenever Korea is discussed in the media, especially the mainstream news, it is so often about that one young Korean man in the north who is trying to hold on to his power. . . . People around the world who want to see more of Koreans get such a small and dark window.” What the journalist was really asking, she said later, near the end of her talk, was “Are Koreans human? Are they like me?”