“Why are our lives so different, just because of where we are born?” asks Suh, a woman profiled in a recent Washington Post article on the plight of North Korean women sold to husbands in China. The question could just as well be posed by one of the many characters in Krys Lee’s moving debut novel, How I Became a North Korean. The book follows the marginal, difficult lives of Jangmi, Yongju, and Danny, three ethnic Koreans whose fates converge in Yanji, a Chinese city adjoining what is arguably the globe’s most closed nation, North Korea.
How I Became a North Korean called to my mind philosopher John Rawls’s idea that, if we were to form a society without knowing ahead of time what our place in it would be, this new world would be based on principles of justice fair to all. Instead, we have the world as it is; birth is a lottery, and Lee depicts some of its less favored participants. The universe of the novel is largely true to reality: since China’s official policy is to return North Korean refugees to their country of origin, where they’re likely to be jailed or killed, the Korean fugitives in Yanji are forced to live in hiding. In Lee’s novel, as in life, some find safe houses, with the hope of obtaining passage to friendlier countries; others are sold in marriage to Chinese men and try to blend in. Still others look for work with local farmers, always cognizant, as a fugitive in How I Became a North Korean learns, that “a North Korean man in China [is] less than a man, less than the dogs or cats,” and can be murdered without legal consequence. The least fortunate of Lee’s characters live destitute in the hills, or in captivity, and are forced to perform sex work for online viewers. “I often think about borders. It’s hard not to,” says Danny, a Korean American character who participates in the fugitives’ lives for a time but knows that help, for him, can be secured with a single phone call. He marvels at “the sheer existence of passports, twentieth-century creations, that decide who gets to stay and leave.” The book is a glimpse into a society that few on the outside know and few on the inside have been able to escape.
Lee was born in South Korea, raised and educated in the US, then the UK, and now lives in Seoul, where she teaches writing at Yonsei University. Before writing How I Became a North Korean, she published Drifting House, a story collection about Korean Americans in Los Angeles. She’s volunteered for years to help North Koreans through translating, interpreting, and mentoring refugees. At one point, the author received death threats for work she’d done while setting up a safe house in Yanji. Over several weeks of exchanging emails, we discussed accidental activism, LA’s Koreatown, why books about North Korea are unpopular in South Korea, and her “fierce will to live, accompanied by the equally fierce desire not to look back at the past.”
—R.O. Kwon for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve been an activist and have worked with North Korean refugees, both in South Korea and in China. What brought you to this work?
Krys Lee: I came to South Korea directly after graduating from university, and have lived in Seoul for well over a decade. In my second year living in the city, I learned about the famine in North Korea. People might think that North Korea and South Korea are different countries, but the historical divide is a recent, artificial one and the disparity between the lives possible in both countries was a physical shock to me. Soon after, I joined an NGO, and became close friends with several activists and North Korean defectors. I ended up becoming a kind of accidental activist, helping with everyday tasks, like translation, interpretation at events, teaching North Koreans English, mentoring, and forming task groups that focus on particular issues, such as single mothers. The most challenging work I’ve had to do was set up a safe house at the border area of China, which ended dramatically when, with the help of a human broker, I helped bring a North Korean man to safety in South Korea against the will of the missionary, who wanted to keep him in China. But when a man desperate with fear begs you to help him to a safe, third country, saying no is not an option. You find a way. I’ve never really thought about my involvement as work or a cause; it was about friends who had suffered enormously and lost family members and hometowns.
Guernica: In part because it’s such a closed and secretive place, there’s a lot of curiosity around North Korea, and you’re more informed about the nation than a lot of others who write about it. While working on your novel, did you think at all about the book as a kind of corrective to previous representations of North Koreans?
Krys Lee: Funny you mention this. Some people urged me to write about North Korea, rather than about North Korean refugees at the border, because it supposedly sells better. But I’ve never assumed I’d be able to make a living from writing. I’m more interested in the stories that compel me, and China’s terrible role in allowing the long-term human rights crisis along the Chinese-North Korean border area—and the international community’s silent accession to this—always felt very personal. I also strongly disagreed at the time with the dominant, negative perceptions of North Koreans that either portrayed them as a brainwashed people or people deserving of our pity, and with the Christian community’s complicated role in North Korean human rights. All this motivated me in writing [the novel]. Salvation is the primary goal for many Christian missions at the Chinese-North Korean border, and preaching the word of God to people at their most vulnerable the means to the goal. The depth of this mentality disturbed me most, as well as how power over those most vulnerable can play out. I grew up in the church, because my father was the Methodist pastor in a church of immigrants, and for me, the church represents power. All organizations are built on a hierarchy, and the church is no different. And when you give fallible people so much power over those who have no rights or recourse at the border area, anything can happen.
Each book for me is intensely personal, and even if the direct autobiographical connection may not be clear in, let’s say, the next book I’m writing—which partly takes place underground—they all have autobiography as their original trigger and, [sometimes], engine.
Guernica: Did you ever think of writing this book as nonfiction?
Krys Lee: The novel I wrote is true to the spirit of the world I knew, but it is not a string of actual people and events. It is fiction inspired by life, not life itself. If I were to write a nonfiction book, it would probably be on a different subject matter [and experiment] with form and style. Otherwise, no matter the subject, I don’t think it would sustain my interest as a writer. I’m a fiction writer at heart, and a fairly private person. I’ve only begun opening up publicly about my life recently—and that is with small bits of the surface, rather than the ugliest, darkest, hardest parts. Too many people can be exposed and hurt when writing nonfiction. I’m not ready for that.
Guernica: You’ve lived over half your life in Seoul, though you were raised and educated in the US. I think you’re the only Korean American writer I know who’s chosen to make a life in Korea. Can you talk about how you made that choice, and how it might have affected your writing?
Krys Lee: I came to America when I was four or five, depending on which story my parents felt like telling me that day, and I grew up with a vague, strong desire to leave the US as a college student—partially because books taught me early that the world was far vaster than the already complex American realities, and partially because I was melded in will and person to my family. Family was my first religion, even if what was required was harmful to me, immoral, or against the law; I was asked to break many serious laws when I was young by my father, which I did, but I won’t go into detail about that because I feel a residual protectiveness for the dead. I didn’t see myself as an individual, but instead as part of the family unit. When my mother passed away, and I learned that my full scholarship allowed me to also study overseas, I went to England for one year. One year turned into three years, and I assumed that I would settle permanently in London, but on a whim I postponed my wedding to an Englishman to first do a work-visit trip in Seoul. I ended up staying in South Korea, trying to understand what had happened to my family and the generation of immigrants that had left the war-ravaged, dictatorship-led country in search of a better life.
Now, living in South Korea with a Korean man who doesn’t speak English has made my life less an expatriate’s life than something else I’m still trying to understand. I speak Korean most of the time, watch Korean news and TV shows, conform to the stereotype when overseas of being unable to go a week without kimchi, and most importantly, over time have become immersed in—and a part of—another point of view. The obstinate patriarchal system, the struggle between generations, genders, and class, and the culture of passion and corruption are my own. Because I’m ethnically Korean, I’m also by default a part of the dominant group and am sheltered from “the gaze” that follows minorities. I experienced similar shifts in America, England, and even a bit in Italy, but I’ve now lived longest in Korea, a country dramatically different from Occidental nations. I’m not conscious of what it’s done to my fiction, but of course it’s done everything to it. The life, language, culture, and geography one lives through deeply shape the person, and the changes in one’s person, naturally, change the fiction.
Guernica: In speaking about your difficult childhood with a violent father, you’ve described how books gave you a “vital way out.” You’ve also said it’s a lifelong goal to help teenagers who have come from violent homes.
Krys Lee: I haven’t publicly shared most of what was unbearable—some would say horrific—about my childhood, but I’ve written to many college students who wrote me after reading Drifting House: Don’t give up. Even if happiness feels like a remote concept, and [you feel] that you will never be free, things get better. We even learn to live with the memories and realities that feel impossible to bear.
Guernica: You’ve said that LA’s Koreatown is the place that inspires your work, which I found intriguing, especially since Koreatown doesn’t really make an appearance in your novel.
Krys Lee: My first story collection, Drifting House, revolved around the Korean and Korean immigrant community, and LA’s Koreatown had a central role. I’m now working on my third novel, and the pattern I see in my work is that each book is very different. Otherwise, I don’t enjoy the writing, since the struggle with the unknown is where I feel most alive as a writer. One might not be able to trace it in my future fiction, but Koreatown was the locus of my ideas about power, religion, patriarchy, and family—themes I continue revisiting.
My father was a pastor and you could say that I grew up in churches mainly located in Southern California, where the church is the social and political structure for recent Korean immigrants. But when people are stripped of their original language, homes, culture, jobs, and most of all, their sense of identity and self-worth, the convening community—in this case, the church—is often a political and social maelstrom. The heart of the immigrant church may be love, but its counterpart is also bitterness. My father being the kind of man he was—a very troubled man of contradictions, a man of vast love and great anger—he was always in the epicenter of that maelstrom. You could say he was often its engineer. Maybe even a very sick man, I’m not sure. Many have said so. He died in his forties due to his self-destructive lifestyle, in Koreatown. As a result, the most powerful, terrible moments of my family’s life happened in Koreatown, and in the community of immigrants living a permanent state of non-belonging. These struggles of religion, inequality, violence, and love are how I understand myself and the world, whether I am in South Korea, Ecuador, one of the many countries I long to call home, or inside the fiction.
I share many things in common with [my character] Jangmi from How I Became a North Korean, which might seem odd considering our very different backgrounds. But so much of me is in her, including that fierce will to live, accompanied by the equally fierce desire not to look back at the past. The past for me was as dangerous as for Lot’s wife, or Persephone. The future—the dream of it—sustained me, as I think it does many for whom childhood was a state of fear.
Guernica: You tell How I Became a North Korean from the points of view of three characters. Why did you choose to switch between them?
Krys Lee: The novel started with many different point-of-view characters, partly because I experience the world as a constant negotiation between the self and the group. To experience the entire novel through a single character’s point of view with an issue that is so complex felt artificial to me, like the Alice Munro short story about a character who wrote a story, and attached a postscript at the end with everything that had been left out, for the sake of the creative writing instructor who had said there was too much in the story. Stories and novels can hold a lot. The world is choral and complicated, and I am, thankfully, a mere trivial character within a multilingual saga. I wanted the novel to reflect as much of the greater world, and imaginative world, as possible, but only managed to fit in as much as is in How I Became a North Korean. My second novel is more ambitious, or maybe just more confident in that sense, if only because I’m building on what I learned writing this first one.
Guernica: I read a review in which the writer said your book could have used a glossary, and that she was distracted by having to pause to look things up in Wikipedia. I thought of the idea that’s often attributed to Junot Díaz: that people are happy to read books liberally sprinkled with Elvish, but can’t handle a bit of Spanish. How did you decide which words you would write in Korean and which in English?
Krys Lee: It wasn’t a conscious decision, as I tend to write a sloppy, intuitive first draft and kept many of the Korean words that originally cropped up. Those words tend to be the most emotional, family-centered words, or words that seem a bit compromised in English. But I did re-translate a bit of the Korean into English in revision, where I had overused Korean and created an inadvertently frustrating reading. I was surprised by that comment in the review, though it was a positive review, as clarity was crucial to me in the case of How I Became a North Korean. But I recall the reviewer was also encountering a completely unfamiliar history and social context. And was probably pushing against a deadline and having to read quickly! I’m with Junot—I often read books peppered with words from a language I don’t know but I’m comfortable with not knowing. I like the music of words as they are, am often charmed by them. Often, just reading carefully will help me understand the meaning or the tonal intent, and if I really want to know, I can look it up.
Guernica: There’s an unadorned quality to the prose in How I Became a North Korean, a kind of starkness that almost seems to reflect the straitened world your characters inhabit. Was this a conscious choice, or is this intuitively how you write?
Krys Lee: Poetry is where I began as a writer, and I’ve always admired prose, whether lush or stark, where each word on the page adds meaning. Like most writers, I write a great deal in the first draft that never makes it into the revisions, and I am ruthless to my own prose, abandoning my “darlings,” whether they be entire chapters, scenes, or phrases. I like my own work to have an astringent poetry. That said, the material, characters, and world of the novel inevitably influence the prose. If they don’t, you’ve failed to enter that world deeply as a writer.
Guernica: How did you switch from poetry to prose?
Krys Lee: I wrote both prose and poetry when I was very young, but found myself turning to poetry when the work was centered around thought and language, and to fiction when a story or character compelled me but didn’t seem to work in the way that I wrote poetry. All forms were—and are—interesting to me, as they open up different possibilities of the way language can be used. Except the graphic novel—I can’t even draw a straight line.
Guernica: You translate from Korean to English, and you have a translated book coming out soon. Can you recommend other Korean books for Anglophone readers?
Krys Lee: There are so many but most are not translated. Yet. Early translations are also uneven in quality, some great, others not as well done, so it’s hard to recommend anything with confidence. One recently translated book I liked is Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. The translated version was strong, but the Korean version, sublime. Knowing that so much is lost in translation, no matter the efforts of the translator, is why I continue to study so many languages. Other contemporary books I recommend are Young-ha Kim’s Your Republic Is Calling You, as well as his haunting short story “The Man Who Sold His Shadow,” up on Words Without Borders. I’ve translated his next two books, the first, I Hear Your Voice, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July 2017. The short stories of Jo Kyung-Ran are wonderful, as is Jung Young Moon’s A Contrived World, a playful, absurdist, and yet profoundly sad work. Don Mee Choi’s translations of Kim Hyesoon’s poetry are very good, considering what an impossible poet she is to translate. Ra Heeduk is also another poet translated into English to look for. For classical and early modern poetry, Brother Anthony has translated and/or edited many excellent volumes that are available in English. I’d also read anything translated by Sora Kim-Russell. Many of my favorite Korean writers have never been translated, however, which will hopefully change.
Guernica: Is How I Became a North Korean being translated into Korean?
Krys Lee: Not yet, though it is being considered by two major publishers right now. But books about North Korea, both fiction and memoir, are generally unpopular in South Korea. This only makes sense when you live here and see how North Korean defectors themselves often feel ignored and neglected in the South and gain far more broad sympathy when speaking and living overseas. South Koreans are generally more interested in the reality of South Korea, which isn’t an easy one. There is still lingering resentment and suspicion of North Koreans that stems from the Korean War and everything that happened afterwards. I’m not sure why books on North Korea succeed anywhere, in fact—and am told that in most places, they actually don’t do well, except for the first wave of books that were published just after Kim Jong Il’s death. Interest was high then since no one knew anything about North Korea. I’m more interested in writing a book that needs to be written, that is as urgent, beautiful, and inventive as I’m capable of writing. The rest, one doesn’t really have control over.
Guernica: Were there parts of the book that were harder to write than others?
Krys Lee: The whole thing? I’m only being half facetious. The point of view in the novel changed repeatedly, so I rewrote the entire novel many times for that alone. I like to say, I survived writing a novel. And yet I’ve now also finished a draft of a second novel, enjoyed the thrill of discovering it, and am rewriting it all over again. Writing is a painful experience, but without it, I feel half alive.