Krys Lee: Outside-Insider

We’re delighted this month to publish Drifting House, a dazzling debut story collection from Korean-American author Krys Lee. As this review in Prospect magazine says, the characters in the stories – from both North and South Korea – possess ‘an almost ghostly quality’, as they struggle to integrate and adjust to life in either native or adopted countries with their respective cultures.

Krys was unable to be here for publication but on a trip last September to the UK, we took the opportunity to ask her to tell us more about herself and her stories. Last month, following the death of Kim Jong-il, Krys wrote a feature for the Guardian in which she described a feeling of uneasiness amongst the Korean people – a feeling which you sense too in her stories.

A Q & A with Krys Lee

You were born in South Korea, grew up in America, and now live back in Seoul. What prompted your move back to Korea? Do you consider yourself Korean, American, both, neither ..?

[blog] krys lee 200

Krys Lee

Originally I returned to Korea with the conscious intention of studying the language for a year before returning to England. But it was also an instinctual return to a wound – to find out what had happened to our family, and to understand the relationship between the individual and the country, and the past and the present that is always haunting it for so many families that have immigrated.

I stayed for many years, and have now lived in Seoul for nearly half my life, if I count my childhood. Those years have been a process of discovering the language, culture, and values that made the puzzle of what our family was in America complete. But as my formal education and formative years took place in the West, I will always be a kind of outside-insider in Korea, just as when I return to America, I return to an old self that is no longer me. At this point, I consider myself between cultures, a kind of drifting house that becomes a home wherever I happen to live.

Could you tell us a little about what the phrase ‘Drifting House’ means to you, and your characters?

I grew up with a restless father, so were always on the move at least every three years. There were no known relatives until much later, and really, no sense of being grounded to a place or belonging anywhere. We lived in America, but the physical home itself was Little Korea. I remember being so ill at ease and fascinated when I was invited to American friends’ homes because their basic way of being was so novel to me.

In addition, I understand best people who are ill at ease in their surroundings, who don’t quite fit in or strain to fit in. There’s a loneliness that most people carry with them, whether they are conscious of it or not; in some sense, each of us is a kind of drifting house.

Many of your stories explore the trauma of Korean history through its impact on individual families – married couples, siblings, parents and children. Are you particularly interested in family dynamics? Do you have any favourite novels or story collections in which family is a major theme?

I am pathologically obsessed with family dynamics. I’ve always believed that the political is the personal, and that the dynamics that disturbed and delighted me in society were merely a reflection of the same issues that began in the microcosm of family. People carry their history with them, but that history is not just a family’s history but the history and culture of a nation; how they absorb or react to these histories interests me.

There is so much literature that comes to mind, including plays. Favorites of the moment include Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and his stories; Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies; Alice Munro’s Rose and Flo stories; the stories of John Cheever and William Trevor; the novels of Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen, and Hamlet, the most broken of families. Hamlet I read at least once a year. As a friend recently said to me, “What novel doesn’t deal with family?”

You do voluntary work with North Korean refugees in South Korea. Has this had an effect on your writing?

Of course. Any meaningful experience that shifts your perspective affects your writing. More accurately, my experience of being friends with North Korean refugees and activists have changed me as a person and shaped my views of issues and ideas such as power, the media, and religion. All of this ends up changing me as a writer.

Korea has been in the news a lot over the last year, particularly regarding the potential successor to Kim Jong-il. Could you say something about politics in Korea at the moment?

[blog] drifting house 200Korean politics, and Korea in general, is dynamic, partially due to the changes that the peninsula has undergone in the past thirty years. Some North Korean experts have been predicting the collapse of the country up north, others believe that the inner power struggle at work right now will lead to a new government altogether, and still others believe that Kim Jong-eun, Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, will transition successfully into a leader, partially due to massive political purges throughout the existing party structure. But it’s difficult. South Korea is a stable country, but its stability is so dependent on what new tactic North Korea decides to take. As I live in Seoul, I am quite sensitive to the volatility of the leadership in Pyongyang. There’s no simple solution in politics, especially in the case of the Korean peninsula.

I’m most interested in the welfare of everyday people on both sides of the thirty-eighth parallel. In South Korea, the ways the history of the Korean War, the student movement of the 1980s, and rapid modernization affect people, whether they realize it or not, is fascinating to me. In North Korea, most of us now know there is suffering of oppression and inequality, food shortages, and general lack of freedom. We get the grisly North Korean news in the West, but the ordinary lives of people, the vast range of experiences even within the troubles of the nation, is under-reported.

Food plays a big role in many of your stories, from frosted birthday cake and American pancakes to kimchi and rice wine. Would you describe yourself as a foodie?

I’m not a foodie, as I don’t have a discriminating palate, but I love to eat. A good English friend of mine once traveled with me in Mexico. He is an intelligent, literary man, and had imagined that we would have all sorts of bookish conversations along the way. There was a bit of that, too, but much of the time, I talked about food. It’s difficult not to in Mexico! Later, he observed that, “You talk about what we’re going to eat for lunch directly after breakfast, ponder dinner directly after lunch, then agonize throughout dinner whether you will have any room left for dessert.” His description is, unfortunately, accurate. We’re still close friends, however, so my numbing travel mantras didn’t scare him away.

I also noticed that key scenes in your stories often take place in people’s homes – bedrooms, kitchens, cramped living rooms, small balconies. Could you say something about this?

This observation is an apt one. I suppose I’m obsessed with intimacy, love, family, and belonging, all ideas that are often associated with houses. I also wrote my MA thesis on Elizabeth Bishop and the Idea of Houses. I was around 22 or 23 at the time, so it seems I’ve always had a sustained interest in the house as an image.

What writers have particularly inspired you?

The list always changes because there are so many writers and books that I revere. Poets are high on that list, particularly W. H. Auden, John Donne, John Ashberry, Richard Hugo, and W. S. Merwin. Fiction writers include Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Charles D’Ambrosio, Anton Chekov, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Franzen, Junot Diaz, Anthony Doerr, and many other contemporary writers that I won’t get into as the list is so extensive. What this disparate group of writers has in common is a use of language and ideas that wake me up.

– Krys Lee was interviewed by Faber’s Sarah Savitt.


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