Earlier this week, one of AGI’s resident reporters held a wide-ranging conversation at the London Review of Books cafe with a brilliant new writer, rising Korean American literary star Krys Lee, who is in London to participate in the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature. Her first book, Drifting House is a collection of short stories that was published last year by Faber and Faber in the UK and Viking (Penguin) in the US and has received rave reviews for its honest depiction of the Korean diaspora. Expect to see and read much more from this amazing author in coming years.
What made you decide to become a writer?
Krys Lee: I think I always wanted to be a writer. I grew up writing poetry. Seven years ago, I started writing fiction. I didn’t necessarily want to be a writer – I needed to be a writer. It was actually logically unappealing – spending thousands of hours doing something like that – but it was something I really needed. I think most writers feel that way. It’s like food; if I skip a day or two of writing, I don’t feel happy with myself, I don’t feel comfortable. Something is missing, something essential.
I needed to be a writer. It was actually logically unappealing – spending thousands of hours doing something like that – but it was something I really needed. I think most writers feel that way. It’s like food; if I skip a day or two of writing, I don’t feel happy with myself
Do you see yourself as a Korean author or an American author who happens to write about Korean people?
People have a hard time classifying me. Some of the literature festivals that I’ve gone to have called me a Korean writer; others call me a Korean-American writer, or an American writer; some mistakenly think I’m a Korean citizen [ed. note: she’s an American citizen, born in Korea]. I’m something in between. I left for America when I was 5; then I left America when I was 19. I spent 14 years there. I love the country but…what does citizenship mean? It’s outside of this formal belonging to an organization. I’m not quite sure what it is. I’m grateful to both America and Korea for different reasons. I love England for different reasons. I feel very mobile in terms of where I belong. In a better world, I would be a dual citizen [but the Korean government doesn’t allow this].
How did you start writing your first book, Drifting House ? It does seem to be like a panorama of Korean lives and modern Korean history. You write about individuals who could also be seen as archetypes in a way.
Well, I call it the book that saved my life. For me it’s transparently autobiographical. But for anyone who knows me they wouldn’t automatically see the connections. It was an expression of my own obsessions. Because I’ve lived a fairly complex life, on three continents, in a crazy family, the things that obsess me tend to be very broad. But it really is a kind of post-war collection of stories. Often I write out of a sense of anger and injustice – not that I’m an angry person, but I do think there are a lot of things wrong with the world. I’m interested in the relationship between society and individuals.
One of the stories in the book is about North Korean children. I heard this was inspired by your North Korean defector friends. How did you get to know them?
A friend of mine in Korea is a major activist, called the Joan of Arc of the North Korean defectors movement. Through her I ended up meeting a few North Korean friends and became part of LiNK [Liberty in North Korea], a big NGO over there. And I’m always aware of the fact that I have freedom of movement, which is a privalege of [American] citizenship. Then I think of the North Korean defectors and what they had to risk just to gain freedom of movement. But I never asked them about their past – it’s so painful; they don’t want to talk about it. What did they have to sacrifice? That question haunted me and it led me to that story. I wanted to write about that and the morally questionable acts the survivors had to perform [in some cases] in order to get out.
What is your view of the current state of Korean literature in translation?
LTI [The Literature Translation Institute of] Korea’s support of Korean literature right now is the most organized program in the world. There’s no other program like it in the world today. The amount of financial and structural support for Korean writers and translators is enormous. It’s being called the ‘Golden Age of translation’ in Korea. [For example,] the Dalkey Archive, a well-respected small press in the US, they’re putting out about 14 or 15 books [contemporary novels by Korean writers in English translation] this year. But there are a lot of things being translated that never see a publisher. I don’t know what it is about Korean literature so far, but it has not appealed to the English market as much as it could. It’s made some major waves in France. I think it’s just a matter of time; there are definitely changes happening.
What do you think about the so-called “Korean Wave”? Do you feel like you are a part of that in some way?
I think literature has always been a smaller part of that culture. I do a lot of events related to Korean literature these days and they are desperate to become part of that Korean wave. But there is an editor who made a really good point that literature has never really appealed to the same audience – sometimes they overlap but they rarely do – that likes K-Pop. It does seem a bit different; I like both but it doesn’t seem like they can be treated in the same way.
Since you are a guest of the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, can you recommend any other Asian-American or Korean authors?
Oh, so many! The author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid. I am so impressed with his work; just astounded. Last year, the book that really dazzled me was Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis. It’s a really tremendous book. I’ve been telling everyone to read these two. Of course I really like [Korean-American] Chang-Rae Lee’s books. I think he’s got great breadth and a real facility for language. As for Korean writers, I like a lot of Kim Young-ha’s work. And I’m translating his next novel for Houghton Mifflin. He also has an incredible short story called ‘The Man Who Sold His Shadow’. I think it’s one of the finest short stories written in the last ten years in Korea.
It’s a novel about the safe houses on the border between China and North Korea.
Can you tell us anything about your next book?
It’s a novel about the safe houses on the border between China and North Korea. I’m not going to give the title away because it’s not set. And my third book will be something utterly different – in a different continent with a different style.
Interview by Tim Holm