The acclaimed short story writer talks about her debut novel, trying to understand her violent father and moving back from the US to South Korea
Krys Lees debut novel, How I Became a North Korean, opens with a description of a lavish banquet hosted in Pyongyang by the dictatorial Dear Leader. The guests wear fur coats and Rolex watches, and sit at a mahogany table, eating delicacies flown in from the Tokyo Tsukiji fish market by private jet. Following the meal, the host raises his hand: a glittering disco globe came down from the ceiling and the Joy Brigade began strutting in pink hot pants to a banned American pop song. One couple, a senior party official and his wife, whose story we are following, are among those obliged to dance. Suddenly the mood changes, and the evening ends with the official shot dead, and his wife and son, Yongju, forced to flee the totalitarian state across the heavily patrolled border into China.
Yongjus tale of escape is told alongside those of two other fugitives in the border area: Jangmi, a young North Korean woman who has become pregnant after a relationship with a married man; and Danny, a Korean-American. Betrayal, cruelty and violence lie ahead of them, as well as the possibility of salvation, in different forms. All three face desperate hunger; Jangmi trades sex for survival. When we meet, Lee says that halfway through writing her characters interlinked narratives, she wasnt sure herself whether they were going to make it.
Lee, whose book of short stories, Drifting House, deservedly won much praise when it was published in 2012, has been active for more than a decade helping defectors from North Korea, and draws on this work in her novel. She writes in English, having been educated in the US and the UK, but was born in Seoul, South Korea, and has lived there for some time. I am always going to be on the side of people who have survived, she says, and who have experienced things that most of us are lucky not to have faced.
North Korea is the site of one of the worlds refugee crises, and Lees novel is, among other things, a timely exploration of the fate of individuals who take desperate and perilous journeys away from persecution or extreme hardship. Over the years, she has listened to many nail-biting accounts of flight: the usual escape route for North Koreans is across the Tumen River, but because the DPRK is an ally of China, the Chinese authorities hunt down defectors and often send them back where they face torture, detention, even execution. They are thus forced to remain in hiding, while brokers and agencies with luck organise their onward journey.
Lee is keen to convey that behind the Orwellian grotesqueries of the North Korean dictatorship there are ordinary people, with family and community ties, aspirations and memories. (The title of the novel hints at the political identities imposed on us all.) She is scathing about Chinas human rights record on refugees from the DPRK and tells of South Korean activists being tortured by electrocution and even dying in Chinese jails. In contrast, she has always been protected by her US passport. The meaning of citizenship has troubled me for a very long time, why certain people have rights and privileges and others dont.
Lee is in no way a polemical writer, but the knowledge that informs How I Became a North Korean is hard-won. The starting point for the novel was when North Koreans became part of my world, she says. I did whatever I could, and then I got threats, which changed everything.
The threats came from an unlikely source a Christian missionary, someone ostensibly involved in a good cause, setting up hideouts for defectors. Lee and the missionary were working together to help a refugee, but when, on a rare occasion, the man was left alone with me, he got on his knees and begged me to get him out of the country, Lee recalls. He said: Youre different from the others. It turned out that the missionary wanted to keep him locked up in China, and claiming a conversion to use him to solicit donations.
Lee had always assumed that human rights and Christianity were on the same side in the border area, but its often not the case. After she had acted alone in organising a way out for the refugee, the missionary began to call her. He was furious, screaming at me, saying I wasnt going to get away with it. He was intent on revenge: I had stepped on his toes, his territory. Soon she began to receive calls from gangsters within South Korea, who knew where she lived. She was terrified, decamped to the US for months, and on returning to Seoul, moved house.
She still sees the refugee regularly, and has now taken her own form of revenge. A central figure in How I Became a North Korean is Missionary Kwon, who appears to rescue the three fugitives, and installs them in a safe house. But they are effectively imprisoned, never see daylight, and are forced to memorise passages from the Bible. Kwon wont let them continue their journey until he believes their souls have been saved; his sadistic, exploitative nature is gradually revealed.
Writers always return to their obsessions, Lee has said, and she counts religion along with violence, power and inequality among hers. In one of the stories in Drifting House, A Pastors Son, the narrators charismatic religious father abuses his new wife, pushing her head into a river. Another of the stories, The Believer, which features murder, insanity and incest, begins: For Jenny, G was always for God. God was there, God was everywhere. Religion has always been both something thats really close to me, and troubling to me, Lee has said; her father, I discover in talking to her, was both a violent man and a charismatic Christian pastor.
I write fiction to get away from myself, only to learn that this is impossible, she has admitted. Lee completed first drafts of Drifting House fully believing she wasnt writing anything related to myself at all. As a PK (preachers kid), she was always supposed to be good, and never to reveal anything everything in my life was a secret. Only in revising them did she realise that the stories are the most honest version of me. When we talk at her sisters house in a small city in California, two nervy dogs, one named Havoc, the other Mayhem, have been put outside, and spend much of the time desperate to get back in.
The collection is eloquent on such subjects as the tearing apart of Korea by the cold war; the wrenching dislocation felt by emigrants; and the traditional, patriarchal Korean family. My father was a God to me, she remembers. He would say to me all the time: You are my property. Lee realises now that writing the stories was partly an exercise in trying to understand her parents generation: Why were they the way they were? Why were so many people us and those around us so incredibly damaged? In The Pastors Son, the narrator begins to understand the violence that my father had grown up with and passed down to us.
Lee was four when her family moved from Korea to San Jose, California. At least she thinks so: My parents version of events is rather slippery. Her father had deserted from the harsh Korean Naval Academy, and claimed he had to leave the country because of his pro-democracy activities. He later said his phone had been tapped which was common in the context of late 1970s and early 80s South Korea. Lee doesnt know whether that was genuinely the case, but I believe his paranoia was real.
Her father had a strong Christian faith: in South Korea the church has long been connected to progressive views and social aspiration. Under its auspices, he emigrated to the US to study religion, later spending all the money the family had to bring out his wife and two daughters to join him. They all shared one bedroom in a basement in a pastors house, and spent the next decade moving every few years, always short of cash. They went to the US in search of a better life, but ended up failing rather spectacularly. Ive always been haunted by the spectre of that failure and its repercussions.
Lee grew up intimate with violence and remembers those years vividly; the easier times since seem a little like a dream. Her father was a deeply troubled man, who hurt everybody around him. The problem with living in a house where things were violent and unstable, she says, her fluency for a moment checked by emotion, is that you never knew what was going to happen, you were always afraid; always tense. Books were one vital way out. Both my sister and I had a desire not to be us. Books meant becoming other people. Like the wardrobe to Narnia or the rabbit-hole to Wonderland, they provided a gateway to another life.
She was also a good student; schoolwork was one thing I could control. Lee got a scholarship to UCLA; her mother, who had been ill with cancer for a long time, with no health insurance, died during Lees student years. She felt an inappropriate but overwhelming sense of guilt (when you grow up Christian, in a traditional Korean family, guilt is your third sibling) and, as soon as she could, got away, leaving for the UK on an exchange student programme, to escape my own history, and to allow me to discover who I was, without all the sadness and starkness.
She studied and wrote poetry at the University of York and became engaged to be married: I was too young, but I was desperate to find a man who was a decent human being. The most recent decades of my life have been in part about learning that not all men are terrible or dangerous. The engagement was broken off when she went to Korea for a short-term trip: It felt right; I started to understand my family and myself better; I needed to stay. She studied Korean, worked as an editor, and found enough stillness to be able to fully imagine another world Stories began to come to me that I felt compelled to write. Following a scholarship to an MFA programme in the US and a couple of writing workshops in California, she found that publishers were bidding in an auction to buy her first book.
The glowing reception given to Drifting House emphasised Lees precise style, cool tone and her stories small moments of beauty and connection (her publishers compare her writing to that of Jhumpa Lahiri and Chang rae-Lee). She is a fierce editor of her own work, stripping pages away, and revised her novel for four years. How I Became a North Korean, though it recounts harrowing journeys, is, she says, a more hopeful book than her collection of stories: When I look back and see my own patterns, I realise that I was in a much darker place when I wrote Drifting House. The novel is suspenseful, beautifully written and in its deft realisation of character, offers a reminder that each refugee in the totality of a crisis has a unique set of circumstances as well as a personal response to displacement and, so often, the bitter loss of family.
Lee now teaches creative writing at Yonsei University in Seoul, and as a professor is treated with far more respect by an older generation of Korean men than she is as a woman writer. She has decided, for the moment, not to have children with her partner, but regards it as a lifelong goal to help teenagers who have come from violent homes; she wants to be somebody they can turn to.
Still not fully part of Korean culture, Lee is now at home with not being at home. She is also at work on her second novel, which depicts a group of people who live underground, believing the world to have ended. The idea came to her in a dream about a couple making love on their knees in a confined space, with dirt falling in their eyes.
Having moved from poetry to short stories to the novel, Lee is getting used to the generosity of the novel form; the next book will have an explosion of voices, she says. Perhaps before too long she will again be praying as she did when writing How I Became a North Korean that her characters, like her, will survive.
- How I Became a North Korean, published by Faber, is available from bookshop.theguardian.com at 10.65.
Read more: www.theguardian.com