Stories of Korea and Koreans, Well Told

1. “A Temporary Marriage.” A woman comes to the US to search for her “kidnapped” daughter. 2. “At the Edge of the World.” A shaman moves in next door to church-going North Korean refugees. 3. “The Pastor’s Son.” After failure in the US a father and son return to Korea and the father remarries. 4. “The Goose Father.” After his family goes abroad, a man discovers love and his sexuality. 5. ”The Salaryman.” In the economic crisis, a company employee loses his job and family and becomes homeless. 6. “Drifting House.” North Korean children trying to get out of the country after mother has abandoned them. 7. “A Small Sorrow.” A woman comes to terms with her compromised marriage. 8. “The Believer.” Young seminarian finds the remains of a neighborhood boy in the garbage. 9. “Beautiful Women.” A mother and daughter live a marginalized existence near a US military base.

The storytelling of Drifting House is brilliant, the characters and their situations dark and haunting. Together the stories also present a view of Korea which could serve as either an introduction to readers who know the country very little or as confirmation to those who know it well. Krys and I talked over Skype recently when she was in Seoul and I was in Manila.

Krys Lee’s story

Krys Lee, photo by Matt Douma

I’ve read quite a few Asian-American writers who deal with the immigration and feeling disconnected both with the new culture and with the culture of their parents. Sometimes when writing about the old country these writers make rather telling mistakes or say they’re afraid of making them. After living in the US and the UK you’ve chosen to move back to Korea and obviously know it well. Could I call you a Korean-American Korean writer?

I’m not quite Korean-American at this point in terms of what I’m writing about or what I feel close to, but somewhere in-between. So Korean-American Korean sounds good. I’ll take it. I originally was going to stay in Korea for six months, and it’s been over a decade now. Seoul is pretty much home at this point.

I think factual accuracy is not as important as emotional accuracy, our sense of intimacy with the place and people. The dictum to “write what you know” doesn’t mean writing directly from autobiography, but you can’t write with conviction about a world and a people that you don’t feel intimately in your bones. That’s often the problem with writers who are trying to write outside of themselves. It may be important to them, but it’s not intimate somehow. For my first novel I tried to write about the LA riots, but I gave up after doing enormous amounts of research. I realized that at seventeen or eighteen I felt close to that West-coast community, whereas the person I am now feels much more intimate with the world in the East. So I write what feels closest to me. Writers should write about what they’re fascinated with and feel closest to on an emotional level, otherwise it shows in the writing. There’s a strange distance and a kind of abstract looking at a world that isn’t their own—emotionally, not necessarily literally.

On Facebook you mentioned the person inside the country and the country inside the person.

I’m not sure what I meant at that time, but I’m constantly obsessed by the way a country shapes a person, the way a person might be changed, reacting either with or against those influences and being changed by that process. Many of us think about it more than others, about the country inside and outside the person. That’s true of people who’ve lived as expats overseas, but it’s also true of people inside their own country. It’s the relationship we have with the nation around us, which some maybe care about more than others. Whether or not you think about it consciously, you end up writing about it.

So where did that concept appear in Drifting House?

It shows up in all the stories. I have a really hard time trying to write about characters without including the world around them as it is reflected in their values. We also reflect the values of our society when we turn away from them. An example might be “A Small Sorrow” or “The Goose Father,” where people have lived in a certain period of time and are shaped by the circumstances dictated by their society and their family circumstances. But then there comes an inner desire, a resistance to the values that have been embraced, consciously or not. I see that in my novel as well. The only way I know to write about characters is to constantly think about how they’re both reacting to or being influenced by their environment, which is their society.

In Drifting House, which story has a particularly strong connection with the characters or the place?

All of them, really. Until I feel like the characters are completely alive to me, that story does not get published. I won’t let it go unless the character feels like someone I know. In “A Temporary Marriage,” Mrs. Shin’s protective nature, her pride, her reticence is something I felt very strongly, I both admired and felt great sympathy for. Then of course “Drifting House,” the children who try to escape North Korea. I have a lot of friends in the North Korean community and was very active in it. I got into this idea of sacrifices, the unnamed sacrifices North Koreans don’t talk about. I feel great sadness and connection and admiration for all they’ve gone through and survived—and somehow emerged intact. That story was my way of recreating what a couple of kids might have had to go through in order to make it to safety.

It seemed so real to me because I had read Sandra Fahy’s research on North Korean famine refugees.

Of course the killing that does happen is also an act of mercy that requires incredible compromise. Because it’s an act of love, for the character not leave his sister there miserable and cold and dying slowly instead of what actually happens in the story. Just how does one live with having done this terrible thing in order to put someone out of pain? That’s like many decisions we’re faced with all the time. It’s such a heartbreaking decision to make for whoever has that responsibility and one you have to live with it the rest of your life. It’s just a terrible thing.

How do you think your perspective on Korea would have been different if you had never left the country?

It’s hard to say because I’m such a different person. Certainly I doubt I’d have the grace of the inside vs. outside perspective. But then a fiction writer like Kim Young Ha, who spent all his youth in Korea and has traveled so much and lived overseas for good chunks of time, he also sees Korea differently. So it seems to be a gradual transformation or awareness you develop over time. But I’m not sure in what exact ways I would have been different.

Well, one of the things that occurred to me was the undertone of criticism of the US, which seems like criticism an American would be particularly likely to make. For example, why didn’t we take better care of the Korean veterans of the Vietnam War? Or what kind of environment has been created around the US Army posts?

That’s true. Because I’m away from America in some ways I can say I see America better now with the distance.

A Korean who’d never left Korea might have been more critical of Japan.

Right. Although younger writers seem to care less about that. The concern in my book was the post-Korean War period. It didn’t stretch to earlier Korean history.

Your book should be particularly interesting for students of culture because you have so many different aspects of Korean society here—differences in social class, class conflicts within the family and differences in religion, like Christianity and shamanism.

The shaman story was very much inspired by my partner’s childhood. He grew up in a very religious family, and a shaman moved into their basement space. The story isn’t literally biography but it was definitely inspired by his story, which was quite crushing and sad. The concerns were very different from mine, but his story set off mine.

Your stories depend on the kind of writer you are. I’m so interested in the larger world, in class, in the way our place in the world pressures us and shapes us. In the different struggles of people from different classes and the way they might work together and also rub against each other as well. It shows up in the book.

You’ve also got a bunch of different occupations—pastor, artist, drying cleaner, private investigator, salaryman, seamstress and even mention of a democracy poet. Your settings are mostly urban, but also include pictures of the DMZ countryside and the areas around US Army posts, North Korea, the US. You have various political situations and characters who are very unlike each other. It made me wonder if you were consciously creating a well-rounded picture of Korea.

Krys signing “Drifting House” in Manila in 2013

No, I had nothing like that in mind. I would just write one story at a time, in a created world that felt real to me. The story had to be somehow true, and I would know that truth when I saw it, when it felt true. And when it moved me. The last line in “The Goose Father” broke my heart. I thought if I could be moved, if I could feel wonder, if I could laugh or be devastated by my own story, then maybe there was a chance that readers would feel that as well. It ended up being a collection that covered so much time and so much of Korea. Again, a book is a reflection of who you are as a person, and my interests are all over the place. My good friends, for example, tend to be of all different nationalities, classes, ages and occupations. My interests are so scattered that sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever have a particular focus. Yet my particular focus with the book is the human race. It just naturally reflected the way I am, the way I look and move around the world—by default. When editors said it covered X-number of decades, I thought oh, my goodness it does. My agent pointed out things to me that I hadn’t noticed.  I was too close to see those things.

My favorite was “The Salaryman.” I was in Seoul in 1997, so I knew the truth of it in terms of what appeared every day on the news and what other people said. So I thought probably this particular story arose from a situation rather than from a character.

It was the situation, but it actually started with a character. I was reacting to my boyfriend’s situation at the time I wrote the story. He had been a really vibrant, interesting person involved in the arts and painting and who then disappeared as he got a job with Hyundae. He wasn’t a human being anymore. He was too tired to do anything except sleep. I wrote part of the story out of anger. What came to me first was in the second-person point-of-view [addressed to “you”]. It felt right because there were so many people in the same situation. So it became a story about the people rather than one person.

How did you come to be working with North Korean refugees?

One of my good friends was a very central North Korean activist who’s been called the Joan of Arc of the North Korean human rights movement. Because of her I met other activists, got involved myself, met North Koreans and became friends with them. Once you become friends with the community, you care, otherwise you’re not really a human being. It hadn’t been company I was seeking. I knew so little of what was going on that it was in the abstract. But once you become friends with people who’ve lost their entire families or have lived in pigsties in China because they’re trying to escape, people who have been beaten because when they’re in hiding they have no rights. When you know the people and you’ve seen it with your own eyes, it’s intensely personal. I can’t talk about it without actually getting angry or upset because so many people have suffered.

Have you experienced a kind of strange reaction among South Koreans to your being involved with the North Korean movement?

My friends are not like that. I’ve had a lot of interviews with Korean newspapers and media in the last few months after I joined the Yonsei Underwood International College Faculty as a creative writing professor. Whenever I could I brought up North Korea, they didn’t react in a negative way or seem uncomfortable. Not so far. My relatives and a few other people, however, get very paranoid and afraid, and they ask me not to be involved. They don’t like it. They’re very uncomfortable when I bring it up. It’s because of their Korean education in the past. People the age of my aunts and uncles don’t feel comfortable even hearing about North Korea. They just get very wary.

These days there have been some North Korean spies who’ve come into South Korea posing as refugees, and that’s created problems as well. Many people think North Koreans might be real defectors or they might be spies. The vast majority of North Koreans are not spies at all. They’re just trying to get along and build a life here. So it’s really unfortunate, but I understand the wariness, and I try to respect it because it makes my relatives so uncomfortable. It’s not good news to them to be involved with anything having to do with North Korea. I think that attitude is pretty typical attitude for people of their generation. With younger people, college kids, for example, the problem is their indifference.

A lot of your plots seem to turn on failure and family dynamics and violence. You’ve mentioned that you’re obsessed with these. Do you want to comment on that or talk about it in relationship to any of the stories?

I think I’m preoccupied with those for very personal reasons. Your stories leak or betray you all the time. Things keep coming back for a reason. The violence in “Drifting House” is an act of mercy. In “The Salaryman” it’s very much about survival. At a certain point in a diminished life, even the smallest things can feel precious. You want to fight for that little bit of space, just to declare it yours. Family is an eternal subject. I can’t think of a writer since the beginning of time who doesn’t write about family. It’s probably one of the fundamental bases for literature.

In writing fiction we explore the intersection between life and the imagination. Kerrie Hudson, a Scottish fiction writer who just came to talk to my class, says 88% of her fiction is actually autobiography and 12% is fiction. I’m more the reverse, where 12% is autobiography and 88% is fiction, but that’s just in terms of the facts. The actual themes and ideas and obsessions are all autobiographical. So the combination is always a little bit ambiguous.

You the writer cannot get away from yourself, otherwise you’re just creating unnecessary distance. I mean, the book comes from one person’s brain, so there inevitably has to be some of you on the page. Otherwise it just doesn’t even make sense, actually.

I also went to Squaw Community of Writers, but I didn’t have the experience that you did, with the leader of your group mentioning you to an agent.

Things happened so magically for me. A famous, powerful agent took my half-finished book and loved it. She was really happy too.  She said it was the first time she had been able to discover someone at Squaw. She’d been wanting to, obviously. Agents come to those things for a reason. She was happy to have done something for that community as well. I felt really lucky, and it was a lot easier than it could have been going through the whole agent search. But I have friends who’ve done that in the traditional way who have also found someone they were really happy with.