Author Interview on Krys Lee’s “How I Became a North Korean”

Book cover

Krys Lee is a Korean-American writer living in Seoul and teaching at Underwood College at Yonsei University. Three years ago we talked about her short story collection, Drifting House. (Link) Recently we discussed her novel, which centers on three major characters who are kept in a safe house in China on the North Korean border—where exactly, she doesn’t say. Since much of the novel is inspired by Krys’s activism for human rights, I asked her to talk about her activism and the North Koreans who asked her to tell their story. We spoke over Skype when she was in Seoul and I was in the Philippines.

Krys’s story

Krys Lee, photo by Matt Douma

The novel is inspired by the people’s stories but not based on them. It was important for me that the characters not be recognizable people. I started the book over five years ago because it was the material I knew best and I understood best.

For over ten years I’ve had activist friends and North Korean friends. My involvement included being a mentor to North Korean friends, interpreting or teaching within an organization, working at a safe house near the border, trying to help right wrongs, tutoring people from when they arrived in South Korea to when they got into school, helping financially and being a spokesperson. For example, on Friday I spoke out about an individual who’s been victimized. Basically, I’ve done what anyone else would do in a particular situation; for example, if you’re with a group of single mothers and you help with whatever they need at that time—like anything in social work.

Before I started teaching I was more of an activist. People asked me to do things, and I had more time. When I first got involved there were so few people—definitely so few foreigners—and a real need, whereas now organizations in South Korea have so many people wanting to help that they are actually turning them down. These days they probably need money more than hands.

Activism will always be a continuing part of my life. Human rights in general is important to me.   The world and the community I was part of and which was closest to me included North Koreans. I call myself an “accidental activist” because it’s not a role I sought out. My experience was very different from those who start out wanting to write a book or do research and then seek out North Korean activists in order to do that.

What about the guy you helped get out of China, the one being held by a missionary like the characters in your novel?

In a safe house out on the border area, a man who’d escaped from North Korea was being held against his will. He begged me to get him out of the country. The missionary made it clear that he wasn’t going to get him out, and so the man had to pretend he was okay with the situation. Obviously, you’re not going to risk the modicum of safety you have by rebelling against the person who provided it. The man asked me to help him because he sensed that I was more receptive than the people who set God first, before the people they were looking after. That’s a very common situation, unfortunately. If you’re an escaped North Korean in the border area, what do you do? You don’t really have a choice. Are you going to get kicked out of the safe house and thrown out on the streets, where you run the risk of being captured and sent back to North Korea?

Who are the people helping North Koreans? NGOs or churches?

There are a lot of churches, there are individuals and a few non-denominational-related NGOs. There are some moderate Christians who get people out of China without imposing all kinds of conditions on them, but not many. Helping escaped North Koreans in China is life-threatening work. People who get involved have to have a real incentive, which can be God or money or both. It means they don’t want to let go of people.

I read that the missionary set gangsters after you?

Anyone who works at the border area in a developed, mature capacity has a relationship with gangsters. Otherwise you can’t do that work, which requires the escape, whole fake identification and everything. You need the aid of people who work in illegal capacities.  

Getting to your novel, I must tell you I really enjoyed it.  One of the things we talked about with your short story collection was your interest in how individuals are shaped by the country they live in. You talked about the country inside the person and the country outside the person. So with the novel, did you start with that in constructing Yongju, Danny and Jangmi? Say, with the idea of an elite North Korean who grows up sheltered from the realities of the country? Did you build the characters up from there? How did your process work?

I actually started with many more characters than the three who compelled me most. I couldn’t fit in as many stories as I wanted. I did want characters who represented different sides of North Korea. The famine was so powerful that people sometimes perceive North Koreans as just coming from a very poor place and being in great difficulty. With Yongju I wanted to show another side. He was also inspired by a North Korean friend of mine who is a poet and a very sensitive person. I very much wanted someone with that kind of gentle nature in the book.

Danny was inspired by a couple of articles I read in the Korean press and the English press about Korean-Chinese kids who were running with North Korean kids on the streets and providing them a certain amount of protection because they were not illegal and therefore had safety and more freedom.

Danny struck me as being different from the others in the sense of always having an escape door open. He also seemed a distinct individual and quite American, perhaps because we first meet him in the United States.

Danny’s more his own character because he doesn’t really belong anywhere, which may seem very American. He wasn’t accepted in America either. He has freedom that none of the others do—freedom of movement and freedom from fear. He isn’t afraid in the way that a refugee is. He doesn’t share almost anything about himself with anyone. For him it’s a masquerade that’s imposed on him. He enters the safe house, and he wants to be a part of the group. For the other two main characters, being North Korean means other people want certain things from you.

Jangmi was just inspired by countless women I’ve met and women’s stories I know of, variations of that terrible story of exploitation. Her story wasn’t taken from one person’s life, but I had so many models and examples. I felt I could very easily create my own character because I understood her best and felt so intimate with her.

Could you describe exactly what it means for each of these characters to become North Korean?  

As soon as you’re in China, you’re a target. When North Korean refugees cross into South Korea they face the same discrimination and perceptions by default of their identity alone. That also comes with privileges. North Koreans going overseas find that everyone wants to hear their story. This is not necessarily who they are, but just their nationality and the fact that they escaped. People who are truly complicated, sensitive individuals are stereotyped by their nationality as if it were a brand name. Obviously it’s important that their stories are listened to, but on the other hand there are consequences. A North Korean friend of mine has been constantly under surveillance and constantly taunted by a South Korean government official.

I’ve always been interested in identity, which appears here through the lens of national borders and national identity. The self is there, but the individual and the self aren’t always listened to. I didn’t intend to write this book in order to explore that, but writers can’t get away from their obsessions.

Do you think that over the last ten years or so there has been less discrimination against North Koreans in South Korea, or is the situation about the same?

I think it’s about the same but it’s better for a much younger age group because they’re growing up with more stories and more testimonies. Also, more North Koreans are being absorbed into the society. A lot of news agencies have at least one North Korean journalist, somebody who’s motivated to tell the powerful stories of North Koreans. That makes a big difference. You also have refugees coming of age here. They’re young and more vocal, which is definitely creating an understanding for everyone of that generation, but that’s a small group. People of an older generation have been too indoctrinated against North Koreans.

Change is slow. All the North Korean political issues can flare up and feed into the existing discrimination. Right now the economy is getting worse. When that happens North Koreans’ receiving subsidies and support become the target of envy. Poor South Koreans can feel left out.  “Look at the North Koreans. They get all this support, and I get nothing.”

When I was in Seoul I read The Aquariums of Pyongyang, and I was so moved that I decided I had to meet the memoirist, Chol-hwan Kang, to make sure he was all right. He was doing fine.

Right. He’s probably one of the most famous refugees. The educated people who came early and gave testimonies received a very different kind of treatment in South Korea than the others. They had a much easier time getting established. Because of his class and education and early entry into South Korea, Chol-hwan Kang has become part of the greater society in a way that a lot of others haven’t been able to.

Refugees leave South Korea because they think it’s a very difficult country to live in. It’s very competitive. The public is also not interested in or hungry for the stories of North Koreans, who aren’t listened to the way they are in the West. It’s just sad. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

There are a number of things about the craft of your novel that I really admire. For example, the three point-of-view characters have an average of seven chapters each–seven, eight and six. There’s a sense of real balance among the three.

Krys signing “Drifting House” in Manila in 2013.

That’s a relief, It was very hard to do a mixed point-of-view in a first novel. It took years of rewriting.

Well, I was impressed. Do you have any suggestions for other writers about how to do it?

It’s hard to say because I rewrote that book so many times. Chung-rae Lee said that if you’ve already written one novel you think the next one will be easier. Then you have to sit down and write the next one, and you see you have to learn how to do it all over again. Each book teaches you how to write that book.

I particularly liked the way you combined the character’s sensibility and point-of-view with place description. The character always seems to be there even though the subject may be a dark cave. Yongju says, “Each morning I woke up in the hollow full of orphans who had crossed out of hunger, to the music of misery in their arrhythmic breathing, the grinding of their rotten teeth. The morning cold burrowed into my bones and made its home there and my hands and knees became slippery on the cool earth, and my eyelashes thick with the loose soil that trickled down. It was so dark that the word dark was inadequate. So dark it was as if I was dead. The cave was full of haunted life and the stink of urine, and the only relief was to close my eyes and pretend that the darkness wasn’t there.”

I think when writing from a first-person point-of-view you have to totally enter the person’s perspective. With the first-person you have to know how they experience the world, how they see the world, what’s important to them in that world. Those details male up their vision of the world. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense. Entering deep point-of-view is actually the biggest struggle. With a novel it takes much longer and requires getting farther inside the character’s total complex world than it does with a short story. Fully inhabiting the character takes a huge amount of energy and imagination, more than I’ve ever experienced before. I’m in my third book now, and I feel exactly the same way. You can’t sit down for an hour and write. It takes an hour to get into the world.

When you were in China near the border and moving around in the landscape, did it speak to you and show you how a scene could play out?

I wasn’t thinking of my book at all back then. I was thinking about the people I was trying to get out, who were living in very terrible circumstances. I was there as a person who was asked to do something good and right. That’s all I was. Writing was so far from my mind—so, no notes, nothing. What stayed with me were those things I recalled later, and then I did a bit of visual research. Ironically, another activist who was working on a project asked me to take a bunch of landscape photos for him because he’d been banned from China. So I took pictures for him. If I’d taken notes they probably would have been very useful, but it’s like when I was in Japan last week. I was too busy experiencing Japan, experiencing Tokyo to take notes for a possible short story.

In the end your experience would probably be more useful anyway.

I don’t live to write. I live, and things happen, and sometimes magically they do something in my fiction. My problems are that I’m slow and that I don’t work nearly as hard as writers who devote their whole lives to their art. By comparison I feel like a dilettante. I don’t have to look for ideas. I see things all the time that I care about or that interest me, but not all ideas are all meant to be written about. If it stays with you long enough, if it haunts you—if the character or the voice or an image haunts you—then it might be a good thing to pursue. It’s so hard to finish anything, whether it’s a poem, a short story, an essay or a novel, that if you don’t care enough about it, if your interest isn’t deep and sustained, you most likely will not enjoy the process of writing it as much as you could, and it won’t be as rewarding. There are many ways of being a writer, but that seems to be my way.

In your novel each chapter seems to have its own kind of independence in that there is at least one event encapsulated in it. The chapter organization seems to be one of the reasons why it works.

There are very distinct arcs, I think because it was my first novel and I came from a short story background. And yet I’ve always had big story arcs which I struggled to fit into stories. The chapters were distinct shapes for me. It’s not a quiet falling away. I like a lot of tension. I think I experience the world and daily life dramatically, which forms my characters.

With my third book I did something totally different, not in chronological order. I actually started consciously in chaos and went in reverse. If something excited me—an image or a line—I just went with it. I’m rewriting the book now and trying to let it find its own shape. For me as a writer, enjoying whatever I’m doing sometimes means doing something different each time. I like to play with the form.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the book?

It is a political novel, and at the same time it’s real and yet not real. Since it was very important for me, it took a long time to get away from feeling that I had a responsibility to tell a certain story and to give myself the writer’s freedom to imagine. I think and I hope that I found a balance.

In many ways it presents a ghastly picture, but it does not feel polemic.

And I hope in the end there’s a little bit of hope there too. The book is over, but the characters live off the page. It’s an ongoing journey for them.

Toward the end Yongju summarizes the refugee experience beyond the scope of the novel: “This is how it happened. We fled in the broken footsteps. We scattered into small dark spaces in the backs of buildings, trains, and buses, through the great mouth of China. Our feet made fresh tracks as we weaved through mountains and made unreliable allies of the moon and the night and the stars. Every shadow a soldier, a border guard, an opportunist. Each body of water reminded us of the first river, the river of dreams and death, where we saw the faces of people we knew and would never know frozen beneath it. The children who had run and been caught and sent back. The pregnant women repatriated in our country and thrown in jail, forced to run a hundred laps until they aborted. The women who gave birth in the same jail and saw soldiers bash their new infants against a wall to save bullets. The countless others whose peaceful lives ended when an enemy informed on them—ours was one small story in all the other stories. We stumbled across the jungles and deserts of Southeast Asia, seeking safety and freedom. We would look and look. A few of us would find it.”