Krys Lee © Matt Douma

Interview: Krys Lee



Krys Lee’s highly-acclaimed 2012 collection of short stories, Drifting House, was shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award and was awarded the Rome Prize. Praised at the time for the ‘stark beauty’ (Daily Telegraph) and ‘rare clarity’ (Economist) of her writing, and for plumbing ‘the darkness on both sides of this divided nation’ (Financial Times), Lee’s latest work builds on her earlier achievement, this time in the form of a novel.

How I Became a North Korean, published by Faber & Faber in August 2016, has received similar accolades from such writers as Adam Johnson, whose novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, won the Pulitzer Prize. Yiyun Li speaks of Lee’s ‘empathy and insight and a deep sense of place’. That’s high praise for fiction based in the border areas of North Korea and China, about which there is much speculation and little informed knowledge. Krys Lee has worked closely with escapees on that border, and her own experience imbues her fiction with a startling sense of moral truth.

Lee’s three protagonists – a Chinese-American of Korean descent, a North Korean woman desperate to protect her unborn child, and a member of the Pyongyang elite whose father was murdered by Kim Jong-il himself – find themselves on the Chinese side of the border, where the novel follows their converging lives as they try to escape from their disparate pasts and find a route to freedom.

The Asia Literary Review recently spoke to the author about how she came to write the novel, and how she approached the challenges of conveying accurately the difficulties faced by refugees from North Korea.

What got you started on How I Became a North Korean?

I started How I Became a North Korean early in 2010, after I had been asked to help set up a safe house in the Chinese border area, between North Korea and China. Though I’d been good friends with North Koreans and activists for nearly ten years, and involved in the community, I had had no intention of writing about it because I thought it was a story that North Koreans should write themselves. But upon the prodding of North Korean friends as well as the growing sense that maybe I should write about what was central to my life and concerns at the time, I finally gave myself permission to begin the novel.

How did you come to write a novel rather than non-fiction? (Though the given assumption in the West is that the country is inscrutable, is it so opaque that it can be approached only through fiction?)

I chose to write the story in fictionalised form as it’s always been most important to me that the people I know are protected and no more is revealed about them that they would desire. And though North Korea is largely unknown to many, we still know so much, especially now compared to the past. I’m more interested in the North Korean people as individuals, frankly, and the identities we impose on them are the deeper concerns of How I Became a North Korean. Non-fiction would have required many betrayals or revelations that people might regret later, and though I’m aware that the memoir is a huge market, I’m far more interested in protecting the identities of real people.

You’ve said your work isn’t autobiographical, but the title suggests per­sonal involvement. Tell us about the ‘I’ in the title of your book, and about the process of researching for the novel.

It is and isn’t autobiographical, like much of my work. All my work is inspired by autobiography, and my concerns and themes well up organically from my life, but I’m a fairly private person. I was directly involved in the world I am describing. The situation in the North Korean–Chinese border area and its relationship with the Christian churches that operate there is very complicated, and made more so by the exchange of money and the dangers faced by those who are involved in the daily running of a safe house. Being a pastor’s daughter, I grew up in the church, which means I also grew up inspired both by the good people one meets in the church and also horrified by the power-play and hypocrisy that is rife.

The ‘I’ in the title, as well as the Danny character, is actually a version – and variant – of myself though, unfortunately, I lack his academic brilliance and energy. His concerns and his stance as witness, as well as his curiosity, his desire for a morally upright and equal world, his self-directed questions about sexual orientation and about home, nationhood, and belonging, are all issues that I have grappled or am grappling with. Like Danny, though I grew up in the church, I have been fundamentally changed by it but no longer attend services. I’ll stop there.

In terms of research, I did read many books and articles, but because I have known North Koreans and activists intimately for so many years, long before I ever imagined writing a novel or even considered myself a writer, my novel is more or less based on what I saw and experienced and knew personally, inspired far more by conversations and events that I either partook in or was witness to, than in traditional forms of research that only confirmed what I had known. That, however, doesn’t make those books any less valuable. My current novel in progress, which is not based on a world I know, has been my first book requiring intensive amounts of conventional research.

The plight of refugee women, in particular, is a key theme of the novel, along with that of sexual identity. How important are these issues to you as a writer and a woman, and to the perception of North Korea in the outside world?

The plight of refugees in general is important to me, whether they are men or women. Unfortunately, however, women are always incredibly vulnerable because they lack the physical strength of men and are more likely to be victims of physical aggressors. I believe most women, especially petite women like me, have experienced dangerous situations where their sexuality, or even their life, has been threatened by those who can physically overpower them. For North Korean women who cross the border, life becomes a relentless, exhausting and terrifying journey of such danger.

Being uncertain of one’s sexual orientation, or being deemed by the church as having the ‘wrong orientation’ is devastating for a Christian because you’re essentially told you’ll burn in hell. And if you’re a believer, as I was, it creates fear and guilt. There are some liberal pastors and denominations, but that wasn’t my experience or the experience of many. It’s already hard enough being pressured by society at large and sometimes by one’s family to fit into the so-called ‘norm’. I’ve always felt, and still feel, that it is a violation of one’s human rights to be told who you can love, whether that be a man, a woman, or a houseful of cats. The right to love is a fundamental part of being human, so long as you are not hurting other people. Sexual identity is a hugely contested area in Korea right now, and I think about this often as I have many friends who have been pressured to hide or flee in order to be themselves.

There’s no doubt about the regime’s vicious oppression of its people, but you have other villains in the novel. How did you come to see the ubiquity of evil in the political, religious and personal realms?

It’s impossible to think and write about individuals without the greater context, as it’s all connected. After all, families, organisations, corporations and nations are composed of individuals who are shaped and influenced by their society. I grew up in a complicated family where we as children were clearly reminded that we were at the bottom of the family power structure, that we were property, and that our very troubled but well-intended parents had the right to do anything they wanted to with us. I saw that structure of power and hypocrisy replicated in the church that I grew up in, then later, everywhere in society where Darwinian assumptions seemed to dom­inate. It frustrates me and sometimes makes me angry but, on the other hand, I’m also inspired by all that is good and true around me.

It seems that the device of Danny, a Chinese-American of Korean descent, both allows you to speak through him and to use him as a bridge between the outside world he comes from and the experience of North Korean refugees.

This is very true. He was my entrance into the book because Danny is me at an oblique angle, trying to come to terms with all I had seen and experienced over the years.

I began by asking you about how you got started. How do you think this will all end, and what effect would you wish your book to have on its readers?

I have no idea how it will end, and though many have been predicting the end of North Korea for years, the country has been remarkably resilient. China’s active financial support of the nation has helped to keep it propped up, though China has become warier of its unreliable ally. I hope very much for the sake of all the separated families that reunification happens soon, no matter the financial cost on South Korea, a burden that I would also share since I returned to South Korea and have lived there since graduating from college. To be separated from one’s home, one’s family and one’s culture – it’s the most terrible form of exile. The historical, artificial division of the nation needs to be righted, no matter the cost or the competing interests of more powerful nations. It’s a very old-fashioned, trite thing to say, but I strongly believe in justice, good, and doing the right thing, whether that is in one’s personal relationships or on a national scale. The people who inspire me most are not those largely considered successful, but those under the radar who have quietly done the ‘right thing’ though it may not have always been to their own advantage.

How I Became a North Korean is published by Faber and Faber (August 2016). 

Previously in the ALRDrifting House, reviewed by J. P. O'Malley.

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