Krys Lee is the author of the award winning short story collection Drifting House. She has recently launched a novel titled How I Became a North Korean, inspired in the stories of North Korean defectors, whom she met while setting up a safe house in China.

She talks to mART about her own past as an refugee, when her family moved from South Korea, in the 1970s, to the United States, supposedly because her father was a defender of pro-democracy activities. In an extensive interview on the sidelines of The Script Road — Macau Literary Festival, the author also mentioned her work, her goals in writing, her fears and her disillusion with non governmental organisations (NGO) helping out North-Korean refugees.

By Luciana Leitão


Your work has been focusing a lot on Korean refugees. Considering your personal background, is this a way of exorcising a bit of your past or is it also because you think people need to be aware of what’s happening?
In terms of my story collection Drifting House, that was very much about the past, because the personal past, my family past, the past of the immigrant culture and the collective past of a country that had recovered from war and come out of it and went straight into a dictatorship were so connected, and I didn’t see it until I was writing and started to see how the violence of the cultural and its history became part of the violence of a family.

In terms of my novel, How I became a North Korean, it was very much about the present, because my life, especially at that time, I was so involved and so close to the culture of North Korea, through the defectors that I knew in South Korea and my activist friends, it was so personal.

I’ve gotten to the point where I realised I just threw away 150 pages of a novel I’ve working on, because I realised I am interested in this topic, but I am not interested enough. I kept the first 50 pages, but it’s become a very different thing, because part of writing for me is to find out what really matters to me. (…) I have a very old fashioned desire for good and justice. I’m more flawed than the average person, but I have a desire for better things in life that I feel everything should be better, that political systems and people.

I expected more from many of the people I worked with and was around in the NGO and the Christian world. There are definitely people I’ve met who have inspired me greatly, but I met just as many and more that disappointed me, and so that was also personal motivation in writing it.

Is the novel you’re now writing — and those 150 pages you’ve just thrown out — about Korea?
It’s totally different. (…) It came to me in a dream and I was haunted by a couple who were stuck underground and they were being intimate with each other, in a such a small space that they are getting dirt in their mouth and their eyes. I felt great pity for them. What were they doing in there? Why can’t they stand? Who are they? That started the story, but it changed. (…)This interest in power and inequality, what is right and what is good, it comes back (…).

But are you keeping any of it?
I kept about 40 or 50 pages. I kept one section, so there’s six sections. It’s a much larger story in one sense and then in another way much more intimate. (…) This book required a lot more research than my first two books — I did a lot of research for my first two, but because they were things that were really present in my life, the research didn’t end up really creeping up into my world directly, because I had more direct research or it just didn’t require that kind of knowledge as much.

How much of your work, up to now, is autobiographical?
Let’s say thematically a lot of it is autobiographical. I did grow up with very violent roots and violence is a language I understand well. I understand quite intimately its relationship with power and social structures, whether it’s government or the church. It is something that fascinates me because of my family roots and my church roots. Hypocrisy again is a great part of many religious traditions. There’s the good and the bad in any religion, and that’s something again that comes back in my fiction a lot. (…) A sense of strangeness or being estranged — the way the father in my first book seeking desire or an elegy to love was very important and is very important to me. It’s the only reason why life matters. All forms of compassionate, kindness, understanding and empathy is a form of love, and it makes this world bearable. Those things are part of my searches and my journey. (…)

In How I Became a North Korean, one of the main characters is very much influenced by a pattern I kept seeing over time in many North Korean women I met. It’s not just one person, because I don’t like to take directly from a life, especially from a life that is already prayed upon. I became friends with many people from the community [North Korean], because I don’t ask questions and I don’t pry. They have a lot of researchers and they have scholars who see them as a source of information — they have already so many trust issues, that that becomes another issue. I did see the patterns that interested me. What schocked me was in writing her [Jangmi, a pregnant defector who is locked up in a video chatroom where she has to strip on camera for South Korean perverts] I realised I recognise this pattern very easily because they were my patterns in a lot of ways. (…)

My relationship with patriarchy and male figures was very much reflected in the stories of my first collection Drifting House, and I didn’t realise that until a woman at the BBC, when she met me as the book came out, introduced herself immediately and asked me that hard question about — she was trying to figure out my relationship with men, because it had intrigued her. (…)

Each book seems to me a reflection of what I’m struggling with at those times too and I did through my experiences at the NGO world as well as at the border area in China, I came in so idealistic and I was so disillusioned by all the mixed motives, people who are petty, people who said some terrible cynical things about the North Koreans around them or didn’t even care about them. It became a position of power quite often and I was really disillusioned. (…)

Krys Lee3

Image by Eduardo Martins

Instead of focusing on the problems that exist in North Korea itself, your work has focused more on the NGOs dealing with the refugees. Were you more affected by that than by what’s happening in North Korea?
You can’t actually do anything about the regime from outside of the country, but you can do something about and for the people who come out. (…) North Koreans say that the most difficult part of their time is not in North Korea, the most times is in China, it’s when they learn fear. That’s when they actually have their worst experience, because they’re unprotected people. That means everyone preys on them and you’re very lucky if you aren’t one of those people. (…) Meeting North Koreans in South Korea and meeting them at the border area they’re different human beings, even their eyes — I have never seen such fear.

You were very little when you came out
from South Korea and went to the US. Do you have memories from that time?
No, not really, little fragments. (…) What’s happened is I have very selective memories. I block things out. Psychologists say with children of trauma is one way of coping — you actually have selective amnesia. It’s become a way of my thinking (…). I try very hard not to think about those periods, because even my earliest photos, it’s clear that very bad things were happening to me — I was an infant and you could see I was terrified and that I was crying. I remember being very young — I was like four or five years old and I look at a photo of me as an infant, and I was crying and I looked uncomfortable, and was in my father’s arms and I though ‘what had happened to me’. I didn’t trust my family to have done the right thing, I didn’t trust my father to have done the right thing, even when I was not aware. My first memories are all memories of fear. (…) Many years have passed and I’ve been very happy (…), but I do know what it feels like to be totally at the mercy of someone who can hurt you very badly and to live in a complete fear.

Are you referring to your father?
Being a children can be a lovely time or it can be one the most terrifying experiences, because you have no power. Whatever happens to you — I was not surprised when I read in the newspaper things about children being scalded and killed by their parents, because I know things like that happen. I know that it’s capable of happening and I never knew it was going to happen to me. That’s something I see a lot in my fiction, coming up again and again — that desire of control or loss of control, or hiding privacy masks. I was also a pastor’s daughter, so I had to have a good mask.

Did your father’s violent behaviour have anything to do with his past as an immigrant, coming out of Korea to the United States?
He might have been very ill — mentally ill. That’s what my sister’s psychologist thinks, that he was probably very ill, never diagnosed, a very angry man, a very violent man. He was also a very sad man. (…) Both my sister and I did not have a childhood or youth, and my father is somebody who is both sick and also came from a country and a history where he had very little, and that had twisted him in many ways. Being incredibly poor, he had no father, he was an orphan more or less, his mother was gone all the time, so he was on his own a lot. But he was a very smart man — he went to school amongst the wealthy in Korea, and that affected him in many ways, but his anger, no one knows the source.

Writing comes to you as a way to escape your reality or to protest against the things that you have witnessed?

All the things you named are things that I do think of when I ask myself ‘why do I write’, but also I grew up reading and writing very young and books were an escape (…) I’m fascinated by those mysteries and the things that I don’t know, but also its language. I came to America around when I was five, based on what I’ve been told, and so when I started learning english, I didn’t know how to speak to people first and I read before I could speak. (…) I hear words even in different languages and I love that through fiction you get the stories of the merging of the world with the possibilities of language, the sounds of the world. (…) There’s so much joy in writing. (…) Who knows what this thing is? But it’s fun, writing is fun, the playing with language, just writing into and discovering a voice (…).

When you grew older, you went back to South Korea and stayed there until today. Was it because you needed to be closer to your roots?

I was in England, before I left I had a scholarship and I stayed on there with an academic scholarship and I was actually supposed to marry a British guy out there.

I had visited Korea for one month or two months before I went over to England. I recall now: my father was alive at the time and he was afraid, he didn’t understand us in a way, but he wanted us to be Korean, he was afraid I would go to England not be Korean anymore. So, I had a job lined up for the summer, but instead I went to Korea where I worked for a month or two, and it wasn’t an easy experience, because I had just lost my mother and I was living with a family I never met before, and I was young and immature. (…) We were ashamed of being Korean, it represented every thing we saw that was so broken around us. (…) Going back there I understood (…) I recognised something was broken in me in a sense and divided, and it didn’t have to be that way. (…) Each month the longer I stayed in Korea the more I did feel it was helping me to understand my family. Also, I became interested in the culture and the language. (…). Then, I fell in love with a Korean man who doesn’t speak another language.

When you left, South Korea was under a dictatorship. Now, the South is democratic while the North is probably the most closed regime in the world. How do you see the different development between the two Koreas?

The political ideologies and the realities of the world have changed people a lot, but it is so surprising, even though the language and ideology are different, the basic sense of family loyalties or ways of being or traditions — it’s been a country separated for 60 odd years, not 100 plus years — and the fundamental roots… (…) There’s a lot that’s shared despite the rift of history. (…)

How do you see the future for North Korea?

When the regime change happened, people were watching that very carefully. There was a wonder of what kind of leader would be next. The country has proven that it has gotten worse and not better, and the ways of isolating itself and fortifying itself, and being the big brother of its own people. (…) I’m not optimistic and I have no idea of what the country can do or what it’s capable of, and I do think about that, because I’m just across the border (…).
In terms of my story collection Drifting House, that was very much about the past, because the personal past, my family past, the past of the immigrant culture and the collective past of a country that had recovered from war and come out of it and went straight into a dictatorship were so connected, and I didn’t see it until I was writing and started to see how the violence of the cultural and its history became part of the violence of a family.

In terms of my novel, How I became a North Korean, it was very much about the present, because my life, especially at that time, I was so involved and so close to the culture of North Korea, through the defectors that I knew in South Korea and my activist friends, it was so personal.

I’ve gotten to the point where I realised I just threw away 150 pages of a novel I’ve working on, because I realised I am interested in this topic, but I am not interested enough. I kept the first 50 pages, but it’s become a very different thing, because part of writing for me is to find out what really matters to me. (…) I have a very old fashioned desire for good and justice. I’m more flawed than the average person, but I have a desire for better things in life that I feel everything should be better, that political systems and people.

I expected more from many of the people I worked with and was around in the NGO and the Christian world. There are definitely people I’ve met who have inspired me greatly, but I met just as many and more that disappointed me, and so that was also personal motivation in writing it.

The novel you’re now writing — and those 150 pages you’ve just thrown out — is it about Korea?
It’s totally different. (…) It came to me in a dream and I was haunted by a couple who were stuck underground and they were being intimate with each other, in a such a small space that they are getting dirt in their mouth and their eyes. I felt great pity for them. What were they doing in there? Why can’t they stand? Who are they? That started the story, but it changed. (…)This interest in power and inequality, what is right and what is good, it comes back (…).

How much of your work, up to now, is autobiographical?
Let’s say thematically a lot of it is autobiographical. I did grow up with very violent roots and violence is a language I understand well. I understand quite intimately its relationship with power and social structures, whether it’s government or the church. It is something that fascinates me because of my family roots and my church roots. Hypocrisy again is a great part of many religious traditions. There’s the good and the bad in any religion, and that’s something again that comes back in my fiction a lot. (…) A sense of strangeness or being estranged — the way the father in my first book seeking desire or an elegy to love was very important and is very important to me. It’s the only reason why life matters. All forms of compassionate, kindness, understanding and empathy is a form of love, and it makes this world bearable. Those things are part of my searches and my journey. (…)

In How I Became a North Korean, one of the main characters is very much influenced by a pattern I kept seeing over time in many North Korean women I met. It’s not just one person, because I don’t like to take directly from a life, especially from a life that is already prayed upon. I became friends with many people from the community [North Korean], because I don’t ask questions and I don’t pry. They have a lot of researchers and they have scholars who see them as a source of information — they have already so many trust issues, that that becomes another issue. I did see the patterns that interested me. What schocked me was in writing her [Jangmi, a pregnant defector who is locked up in a video chatroom where she has to strip on camera for South Korean perverts] I realised I recognise this pattern very easily because they were my patterns in a lot of ways. (…)

My relationship with patriarchy and male figures was very much reflected in the stories of my first collection Drifting House, and I didn’t realise that until a woman at the BBC, when she met me as the book came out, introduced herself immediately and asked me that hard question about — she was trying to figure out my relationship with men, because it had intrigued her. (…)

Each book seems to me a reflection of what I’m struggling with at those times too and I did through my experiences at the NGO world as well as at the border area in China, I came in so idealistic and I was so disillusioned by all the mixed motives, people who are petty, people who said some terrible cynical things about the North Koreans around them or didn’t even care about them. It became a position of power quite often and I was really disillusioned. (…)

Krys Lee2

Image by Eduardo Martins

Instead of focusing on the problems that exist in North Korea itself, your work has focused more on the NGOs dealing with the refugees. Were you more affected by that than by what’s happening in North Korea?
You can’t actually do anything about the regime from outside of the country, but you can do something about and for the people who come out. (…) North Koreans say that the most difficult part of their time is not in North Korea, the most times is in China, it’s when they learn fear. That’s when they actually have their worst experience, because they’re unprotected people. That means everyone preys on them and you’re very lucky if you aren’t one of those people. (…) Meeting North Koreans in South Korea and meeting them at the border area they’re different human beings, even their eyes — I have never seen such fear.

You were very little when you came out from South Korea and went to the US. Do you have memories from that time?
No, not really, little fragments. (…) What’s happened is I have very selective memories. I block things out. Psychologists say with children of trauma is one way of coping — you actually have selective amnesia. It’s become a way of my thinking (…). I try very hard not to think about those periods, because even my earliest photos, it’s clear that very bad things were happening to me — I was an infant and you could see I was terrified and that I was crying. I remember being very young — I was like four or five years old and I look at a photo of me as an infant, and I was crying and I looked uncomfortable, and was in my father’s arms and I though ‘what had happened to me’. I didn’t trust my family to have done the right thing, I didn’t trust my father to have done the right thing, even when I was not aware. My first memories are all memories of fear. (…) Many years have passed and I’ve been very happy (…), but I do know what it feels like to be totally at the mercy of someone who can hurt you very badly and to live in a complete fear.

Are you referring to your father?
Being a children can be a lovely time or it can be one the most terrifying experiences, because you have no power. Whatever happens to you — I was not surprised when I read in the newspaper things about children being scalded and killed by their parents, because I know things like that happen. I know that it’s capable of happening and I never knew it was going to happen to me. That’s something I see a lot in my fiction, coming up again and again — that desire of control or loss of control, or hiding privacy masks. I was also a pastor’s daughter, so I had to have a good mask.

Your father’s violent behaviour had anything to do with his past as an immigrant, coming out of Korea to the United States?
He might have been very ill — mentally ill. That’s what my sister’s psychologist thinks, that he was probably very ill, never diagnosed, a very angry man, a very violent man. He was also a very sad man. (…) Both my sister and I did not have a childhood or youth, and my father is somebody who is both sick and also came from a country and a history where he had very little, and that had twisted him in many ways. Being incredibly poor, he had no father, he was an orphan more or less, his mother was gone all the time, so he was on his own a lot. But he was a very smart man — he went to school amongst the wealthy in Korea, and that affected him in many ways, but his anger, no one knows the source.

Writing comes to you as a way to escape your reality or to protest against the things that you have witnessed?

All the things you named are things that I do think of when I ask myself ‘why do I write’, but also I grew up reading and writing very young and books were an escape (…) I’m fascinated by those mysteries and the things that I don’t know, but also its language. I came to America around when I was five, based on what I’ve been told, and so when I started learning english, I didn’t know how to speak to people first and I read before I could speak. (…) I hear words even in different languages and I love that through fiction you get the stories of the merging of the world with the possibilities of language, the sounds of the world. (…) There’s so much joy in writing. (…) Who knows what this thing is? But it’s fun, writing is fun, the playing with language, just writing into and discovering a voice (…).

When you grew older, you went back to South Korea and stayed there until today. Was it because you needed to be closer to your roots?

I was in England, before I left I had a scholarship and I stayed on there with an academic scholarship and I was actually supposed to marry a British guy out there.

I had visited Korea for one month or two months before I went over to England. I recall now: my father was alive at the time and he was afraid, he didn’t understand us in a way, but he wanted us to be Korean, he was afraid I would go to England not be Korean anymore. So, I had a job lined up for the summer, but instead I went to Korea where I worked for a month or two, and it wasn’t an easy experience, because I had just lost my mother and I was living with a family I never met before, and I was young and immature. (…) We were ashamed of being Korean, it represented every thing we saw that was so broken around us. (…) Going back there I understood (…) I recognised something was broken in me in a sense and divided, and it didn’t have to be that way. (…) Each month the longer I stayed in Korea the more I did feel it was helping me to understand my family. Also, I became interested in the culture and the language. (…). Then, I fell in love with a Korean man who doesn’t speak another language.

When you left, South Korea was under a dictatorship. Now, the South is democratic while the North is probably the most closed regime in the world. How do you see the different development between the two Koreas?

The political ideologies and the realities of the world have changed people a lot, but it is so surprising, even though the language and ideology are different, the basic sense of family loyalties or ways of being or traditions — it’s been a country separated for 60 odd years, not 100 plus years — and the fundamental roots… (…) There’s a lot that’s shared despite the rift of history. (…)

How do you see the future for North Korea?

When the regime change happened, people were watching that very carefully. There was a wonder of what kind of leader would be next. The country has proven that it has gotten worse and not better, and the ways of isolating itself and fortifying itself, and being the big brother of its own people. (…) I’m not optimistic and I have no idea of what the country can do or what it’s capable of, and I do think about that, because I’m just across the border (…).