Carrying the scars of war, famine, dictatorship, and a shifting political landscape, the characters in Krys Lee’s stunning debut story collection, Drifting House, experience the dramatic upheaval of the postwar decades in North and South Korea and in the Korean immigrant communities of the United States. Bold, honest, and ambitious in scope, Lee’s stories bring to life some of the darkest aspects of Korea’s cultural history yet also demonstrate a lightness of touch, revealing the hope and humor that fuel the human spirit.
The title story follows two young boys trying to escape the starvation and misery of North Korea and the horrific act their desperation inspires. Indeed, survival and sacrifice color many of the stories, whether in the struggle to stay alive in the face of deprivation or, more subtly, in the strength to endure and even rise above loneliness, isolation, family turmoil, or poverty. In many stories, the immigrant experience of navigating a foreign culture, of cherishing old traditions in a new context, and of living through both an American and a Korean self figure prominently; the makeshift family in “At the Edge of the World” attempts to create a life straddling the line between past and present, determined to find a degree of peace and break free from the guilt of painful memories.
Lee’s characters are bound by circumstances beyond their control and cultural rules they cannot ignore, no matter which side of the Pacific they live on. Whether through physical or emotional separation, the distance between parents and children and between husbands and wives resonates throughout the collection. While a mother’s death inspires the events of “The Pastor’s Son,” in “The Salaryman” a father sinks into degradation and homelessness rather than shame his family with his unemployment. When faced with the choice, characters sacrifice their own happiness in an attempt to improve the lives of those they love.
There is great heartache in Lee’s stories, but there is also the celebration of a culture, of the optimism and bravery necessary to create a new life for oneself, or even a new self entirely: a lonely father and husband is renewed through a bizarre friendship with his young tenant in “The Goose Father,” while a wife shares a moment of intimacy with her husband’s lover in “A Small Sorrow.” The desire to connect and the power of shared experience invigorate and sustain even in the direst conditions.
Drifting House offers challenging, frank stories that do not shy away from complicated cultural and political issues and demonstrate a deep respect for the history of a fractured nation and its resilient people. The work of a brave and honest writer with a sharp eye for detail, Krys Lee’s stories are subtle and elegant, graceful in offering horror and hope in equal measure. This arresting collection marks the introduction of a brilliant new voice in short fiction.
Krys Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in the United States. She was a finalist for Best New American Voices in 2006 and received a special mention in the Pushcart Prize 2012 anthology. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Narrative magazine, and Asia Weekly, among other publications. She divides her time between South Korea and the United States. This is her first book.
Q. Korea has been in the news a lot over the last year, particularly regarding the successor to Kim Jong–il. Could you say something about politics in Korea at the moment?
The death of Kim Jong–il on Dec 17, 2011, created great uneasiness across the Korean peninsula. The successor, his youngest Swiss–educated son Kim Jong–un, was known to be in his late twenties and inexperienced, and not fully supported by the government. One possible scenario was a power struggle between senior members of the government and army. As of Feb 2012, the transition looks smoother than before, though no one really knows how much control the government has. Even the so–called North Korean experts know so little of what goes on in that country; it’s one of the most mysterious countries in the world, an Orwellian bubble where little information gets out. It’s also a country notoriously brutal toward its own people, with an appalling human rights record. For the sake of its people, I hope––we all hope––that the country slowly opens up and changes for the better.
Q. The title story of the collection is bleak and heartbreaking, and the details make the boys’ experience very immediate. Do you have any personal experience with North Korean refugees?
For several years I’ve been close friends with defectors from North Korea. Some have experienced incredible hardship and loss, and others have been smuggled to South Korea with relatively less trauma through the help of family members who had defected earlier. The greatest trauma often occurs in the actual escape, and then, during the unprotected life of a refugee in China. Then they arrive in South Korea. For many, this high–tech, capitalist society is as strange as landing on Mars. They’ve been through so much, then meet suspicion and nearly insurmountable resettlement issues once they arrive in South Korea, so the focus of my friendships with them has always been on building a life and a future in Seoul. When you’ve lost your past, all you feel like you have is a future. I cook with these friends, go to bathhouses, go shopping, and, throughout, talk about education, saving money, getting a job, and all sorts of practical matters. I’ve been very lucky, given where I began in my own life, and am trying to be an older sister to my friends who are living in a strange new world.
My work with North Korea-related organizations is more complicated. I’ve played a part in the community in whatever capacity I’ve been needed in, from teaching to translating to organizing. Most recently I was required to be in the border area of China, which led me to encounter several unsavory aspects of the activism surrounding North Korean refugees. Afterward, I ended up cutting back my involvement in the community. I realized I’m not a joiner of groups, but I care about the suffering of others and do what I can to help. A man whom I had smuggled out of China arrived safely in Seoul and will soon leave the resettlement center. Bringing together a community of activists to help him navigate that difficult first year is my next, and most important, goal.
Q. The stories are arranged in a very deliberate order. Was this your original intention for the collection or did this plan develop organically? How do you think the reader’s response to the stories would change if “Drifting House” appeared earlier in the collection?
The order of the stories developed organically, as did the collection itself. I hadn’t intended to write a collection, but each story I wrote seemed to be linked to the greater story of a people and a nation. A reverse chronology became the order of the stories, but even if that hadn’t been the case, I wouldn’t have wanted “Drifting House” too close to the front, as I think it has the most impact when readers better understand the greater story of the Koreas surrounding that particular story.
Q. What is your writing process like? How long did it take you to write the entire collection? Which piece did you write first?
I try to start weekday mornings working on my novel draft at home, or else writing gets swallowed up by the day’s obligations and my lethargy. Occasionally when I’m writing a difficult scene or feeling the limits of my imagination, I’ll write on the subway to the end of one line and back, so there are no distractions. I don’t particularly enjoy riding the subway for three hours voluntarily breathing in fumes, but sometimes it’s the only way to write a scene I’m trying to escape. I also trick myself when words dry up by writing in longhand by the Han River or while camping, writing lying down on my stomach. The habit of writing is difficult; if I can squeeze out another sentence or idea by writing in the bath, I’ll do it. At least twice a day, I fantasize about a writing retreat or a clean cabin in the countryside without the Internet, complete with a large goblin outside as sentry guard. But I had many more work obligations when I was writing Drifting House, as well as fallow months when I didn’t have time to write at all, and somehow completed the stories.
The time frame is difficult to talk about because the oldest story, “The Salaryman,” was drafted when I first transitioned from poetry to fiction, but I was so afraid of failing that I committed little time to writing, even when I began the MFA program at Warren Wilson College. The program slowly helped me overcome my fear, and by the time I graduated, I was cautiously ready to commit myself to risk. I learned to have persistence and faith in the worlds I was creating.
Q. Do you have a favorite character within these stories or one that you found particularly challenging to write?
My favorite character is probably Mrs. Shin in “A Temporary Marriage.” It’s probably obvious that I’m obsessed with emotional, physical, and spiritual violence and how these forms of violence affect individuals. This story surprised me by revealing to me the self–hatred that remains with the victims of violence. While writing Mrs. Shin, I tried to protect her from this knowledge as much as I was protecting myself, but as you search for the truth of a story it leads you where it needs to go. When I could no longer protect Mrs. Shin, I was finally able to see who she really was.
Q. The challenge of being an immigrant is highlighted in a number of stories, particularly the need to separate from a difficult past while choosing which aspects of one’s heritage to preserve. Is this a struggle that can be surmounted with time, or is it simply a fact of life for new Americans? Which of your characters best demonstrates this?
Unless a person is well connected to the local community or privileged with money and education, I do believe it’s a fact of life for immigrants. The degree of hardship can differ depending on how traumatizing the circumstances were before leaving and, of course, how functional the family unit is. Koreans of a particular generation grew up with the Korean War in their DNA. A modern history with such catastrophic consequences—a divided country ruined on both sides of the thirty–eighth parallel, and often divided families, tyrannical rule on both sides of the border, widespread poverty—all of this has scarred several generations of people, whether they’re aware of it or not. I look at my family and my relatives, and I can see so many ways that the upheavals in Korea have affected them, then ultimately affected me.
Q. As someone who spends time in both South Korea and the United States, do you feel your identity shift when you move from country to country? Are you equally at home in either country?
I’ll state the obvious first: geography changes a person. In my case, living half my life overseas and the other half in the United States has left me between cultures, a kind of “drifting house.” Like most, I longed for a sense of belonging, so this used to disturb me. Over time I’ve come to be grateful for the fluid sense of home and identity that living between countries gives a person. You might always be an inside–outsider, but that also gives you an incredible perspective on many rich worlds, as well as a broad range of experiences that change you. There’s a loneliness that most people carry with them, whether they are conscious of it or not; in some sense, each of us is a kind of drifting house.
Q. Drifting House is your first published book. What has surprised you about the editing and publication process? Has your writing changed in any way because of this experience?
The amount of attention and care that such a large publishing house has given Drifting House has changed the way I view the publishing world. There are many stereotypes of publishing as soulless and mercenary, but the people I have encountered, from editors to marketing staff and booksellers, have shown me that publishing is also an industry of readers who love books. The entire process was collaborative, from the editing process, to the front cover, to publicity efforts. I’ve been told that first–time authors often don’t get any input into the process, but that wasn’t my experience.
I can’t say my writing has changed overall, as it’s important for me to keep the writing of an original rough draft as pure as possible. You have to leave the noise outside the door when you write and let your characters and their world take over. But the editing process certainly helped improve Drifting House. I’m looking forward to turning in my novel to my editors, as I know it will become a better book through their efforts.
Q. When the book is published in Asia, do you think Asian readers will respond to the book differently from American readers?
A Korean journalist recently read a galley of Drifting House and told me that I had captured the sense of what it is like to live in Korea and be Korean. That was important to me, as my fear was that the portrayals of some of Korea’s problems would be resented by the local population. Each story was written out of love and respect for the country and its people, so it’s a relief that so far, Korean readers who’ve read the galleys are responding to the characters as individuals, rather than as representations of a nation’s image to the world.
Q. Do you feel there are many voices in contemporary literature speaking for the Asian experience?
Yes, we’ve moved far beyond a time when half a dozen voices represented the experience of so many disparate countries and people. There’s a lot more daring in terms of the range of stories, styles, and voices surrounding Asian experiences, which is healthy for the Asian American community and for literature. There are still many more stories to be told, and hopefully to be told well and sensitively, by Asian and non–Asian writers about the culture that they navigate on paper. It’s upsetting when writers mine Asia for material without a true understanding of or sympathy for the people they are writing about, and that goes for writers both within and outside the culture.
Q. What is your next project?
Last summer I started a novel about the Los Angeles riots but abandoned it for a novel concerning North Korean defectors, a world that I’m more intimate with. It’s best not to reveal too much, except to say that it is about love, betrayal, the oblique nature of evil, and desired redemption within the complicated reality of escaping North Korea, then once again escaping China.
At first I tried to avoid this subject matter and urged a North Korean writer I knew to write a novel instead, but it was a world with immediate emotional ties to me, and a few defector friends expressed the hope that I would write their story in English; a friend even regretted that we had not co–written his memoir together. Only after reading existing novels about North Korean defectors with one–dimensional treatments of character, I decide to abandon my first project and embark on the new novel. The characters in what I had read had been made subservient to the greater political story or were mere types, while the North Koreans I know are anything but types. I’m not writing the novel based on the people I know or their stories, out of respect for their lives, but the people I know and the experiences I’ve had will hopefully make me a more sensitive and sympathetic writer.