Lately, it can feel like there are far too many current events for anyone to process. Looking to the past is one antidote. Historical fiction has the power to grant us a reprieve from the present while also illuminating the contemporary world. Cuban-American author Cristina Garcia imagines post-WWII Berlin in her latest novel, Here in Berlin, through the eyes of a nameless traveler. Garcia found her story after spending three months in that city in 2013, intending to write a very different book. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a multigenerational saga about a Korean family that settled 100 years ago in Japan, where they face constant discrimination as they struggle to find their place. We asked these two writers about what it takes to rewrite history.
What got you started on your historical deep dive?
Garcia: The narrative ended up claiming me. I was essentially looking for any kind of evidence of Cuba’s long association with the Soviet bloc. But to my surprise I didn’t find much. Just as in Cuba, there isn’t much evidence. I started nosing around and going to museums and talking to people. I went to Berlin with a different mission, and these living ghosts are the ones who ended up hijacking the story.
Lee: I got the idea for the book in 1989 when I was an undergraduate in college. I attended a lecture featuring an American missionary who worked with ethnic Koreans in Japan. The missionary explained that Koreans arrived from 1910 to 1945, when Japan colonized the peninsula of Korea, and many remained even after the Pacific War and the Korean War. The missionary told a powerful story of a bullied 13-year-old boy, and it spoke to me. I could not get his story out of my head, so I had to write about it.
What did you have to do to bring the past to life in your imagination, or what were the challenges of writing a historical novel?
Garcia: The kind of information I got came quite informally. I was sitting in a cafe and struck up a conversation, or I was in a Zumba class and made friends. I met a young art historian who told me about his grandmother. I just sort of let the city talk to me. I also went to the Stasi headquarters museum in East Berlin. At one time, this was the most feared institution in East Germany. There were all kinds of family photographs hanging on the walls. One room was filled with news clippings and photographs of East German spies, just like you might find in a room with plaques celebrating someone’s achievements. That’s when the seed was planted: What happened to these people who were loyal to the system once the wall came down.
Lee: For me, writing a historical novel was really hard. I love history as a subject and majored in it in college. I think in a way, my training made it worse for me, because I knew how important it was to focus on document-based analysis, and I really didn’t want to get stuff wrong. Moreover, I couldn’t eliminate or disregard the points of view that are so often marginalized or erased in traditional historical works. I took such a long time with this book because I had this grave or absurd sense of responsibility to so many groups in my mind. I probably know a lot more than I needed to write this book, but it’s too late now.
What did writing these books reveal to you about the past that we still need to know in the present?
Garcia: Berlin is fascinating because it was built entirely anew after 1945. There was literally nothing left. They call it Jahre Null, year zero. Everything that has been built since the rubble was cleared is a vision of how the Germans want to see themselves, but to me the past still lives underneath these grand parks and bourgeois cafes.
Lee: When I first started, I thought it would be clever to call the book Motherland, because so many Korean-Japanese feel stateless. However, after my research and interviews, I realized that their primary response to their statelessness was not to feel homeless, but rather to be actively resilient in the face of their stark reality. The pinball-like game pachinko, which is deeply woven into the novel’s fabric, serves as a metaphor for many things, but for me, it is primarily an idea of responding to an unfair situation with a sense of playfulness and vitality; it is a wish to stay in the game and play anyway, because you choose to live.