TOM LUTZ: Can we start by talking about your debut story collection, Drifting House?
KRYS LEE: Drifting House started as a small group of stories and I didn’t actually see it as a collection. It was just something that was growing. The title has been commented on quite a lot because it happens to be one of the stories in the collection, but I actually think of the title as something that speaks for the entire collection as a whole. The origin itself is a bit odd. I was at a workshop, and the workshop leader asked the students to tell each other what they’re working on at that moment and to give a title. I was second to last out of the 15 people. So as they were racing through the students, I was thinking, “What is my title? Do I have one?” And I thought, “Yes I do,” and it came to me: Drifting House. It stayed ever since because I think it really speaks to the themes of the book, this idea of some kind of a transcontinental drift, a place of belonging, both physical as well as a spiritual place of rootedness that I think is an elusive goal for most people, whether you’re in your own culture or estranged from your culture. We’re all a symbolic drifting house.
Do you feel rooted right now? Are you at home?
I’m at home now with not being at home [laughs]. Living in Korea as I do, having studied in England and the United States and having spent my youth here, I feel at ease in all the cultures and yet I never quite feel like I belong to the culture in the way that I want to. So, there’s always a sense of yearning. For example, when I was on the book tour in America, the first month or so was difficult because it felt like this is my world, this is my culture, but why do I not understand any of the references people are using in dinner conversations. It eluded me. And then in Korea at the same time, I feel like I’m very comfortable. I’m fluent in Korean, I translate Korean literature, I have a lot of writer friends, my daily friendships are Korean, and yet I’ll never be able to speak Korean the way they do, not the way Korean writers do. I speak like a Korean, but not like a Korean fiction writer. And again, that’s that place of yearning.
And you’re working on a new novel, is that right?
My new novel is about the North Korean defectors that leave their country looking for freedom, the opportunity to dream, and sometimes for safety. The novel takes place between the Chinese and North Korean borders. I’m interested in their stories because they’re all forced to leave home for various reasons. When they come to South Korea, or America or Norway or wherever they end up settling, they spend the rest of their lives yearning for home in a language that they are now cut off from. Even the Korean we speak in South Korea is different from the Korean that is spoken in North Korea. The language has evolved so much over time. So, there’s a yearning for all that is left behind, because behind that totalitarian government is a people — there’s a hometown, there’s a language, there’s memories. So, this place of non-belonging is where they end up living permanently. I’ve written a piece for a magazine about this predicament. I’ve had North Korean friends from my activist work that’ll leave again for London, illegally, with this fantasy that they’ll find this different place that they’ll belong; that it’ll be more accepting and easier somehow. They go and then they’re once again disenchanted.
Are there many North Korean defectors in Los Angeles?
There is a growing number of defectors, and they’re spread throughout the basin area. But the problem is that while the US government was the first to pass a human rights act that concerned North Koreans, a lot of that was just talk. There’s very little money and almost no support for the defectors when they come to the US. Actually, the American government tries to delay their arrivals as much as possible, enough so that North Koreans that are in detention centers for over a year in Thailand eventually give up and choose to go to South Korea. The Americans got a lot of great PR internationally for passing the North Korean Human Rights Act and they’re always berating South Korea for not having passed it.
When you say you’re an activist, what do you mean?
Well, I hesitate to call myself an activist at this point because it’s so part-time and in some ways informal, but I was heavily committed for many years. At a certain point I was going to be in China for an extended period because the US passport protects me in a way, if I’m caught doing something illegal, that a South Korean passport does not. South Koreans are routinely tortured in Chinese jails. I know someone that came out looking like a holocaust victim. Originally he was about 85 kilograms and came out 40 kilograms. He was declared dead three times through electrocution while he was in jail in China. And last year an activist that I knew well died in jail, he was tortured.
So, I wanted to go for those purposes, but my family was against it. Later, I did end up going anyway and I worked at the border area between North Korea and China, setting up safe houses and getting North Koreans out to safety. My work continues more informally now. The formal work has stopped because there was a death threat against me, actually. Ironically enough, it came from people at the border area missions. They were upset at me because I helped the North Koreans that they wanted to hold onto for a longer period. Basically, this is what inspired my novel. I thought human rights and Christianity were on the same side at the border area, but it’s often not the case.
Why did the missionaries want to hold on to the North Korean defectors?
They make money that way. It’s a lot of Christian money, and government support comes in, if you’re able to show that you’re caring for North Koreans. The defectors are very vulnerable, especially when they’re in China, and some of the missionaries think that this is a great time to break them in, to convert them. It’s informally called the lottery ticket to get the defectors to return to North Korea as missionaries themselves and risk their lives for God. I respect religions. I grew up in a religious family, but I’m not necessarily religious myself. But I do feel very strongly about putting peoples lives at risk for the sake of your beliefs. One of the activists I respect most is a pastor who says, “Safety, food, and shelter first … conversion later.”
You say that your passport protects you, but what about the Americans stranded in North Korea now?
That’s because they went into North Korea. That’s a different thing. I actually had been invited to work in North Korea, but I decided not to because I was afraid something like that was going to happen — at a diplomatic time when it’s convenient to suddenly grab someone with a US passport as say “let’s negotiate.” Which is what they really want: they want people paying attention to them right now. I didn’t want to be in that position.
How are you going to take this experience and turn it into the novel? And what is the difference between writing a novel that has obvious political force and a novel that doesn’t?
When you’re writing a novel that’s directly about a political situation that you care about, there’s a great sense of responsibility, because I’ve worked with these people. I’ve spent Christmas with North Koreans, I was at the graduation of a North Korean friend recently. You know the eyes are on you and the expectations are there as well. You have a sense of responsibility to tell the truth about the community, but then not to kill the art for the sake of a message. That was really the difficult thing. My real goal when I started this book was to write North Koreans as individuals, as human beings, as I know them. Such a simple thing, but so many of the books that were coming out in South Korea really didn’t know North Koreans, didn’t really understand them. The characters were either one-dimensional or they just didn’t seem like North Koreans at all in terms of their cultural context. So, that was one of my motivations.
My father is a pastor, so religion has always been both something that’s really close to me and troubling to me, but when I was writing this book I found myself drawn to religion again — partially because of my experience at the missionaries at the border area and how it shocked me, having the kinds of difficulties that I did, all-night arguments about human rights which seemed very obvious to me. Also because I think we, as writers, return to our obsessions, and my obsessions are always going to be about power, justice, religion, and survival. I think that these people are the greatest survivors in some ways. They’re really brave people. They’ve had to do some not-very-pretty things to get out sometimes, they’re not proud of it, they’re terribly ashamed and tortured sometimes by some of the things that both have happened to them and that they’ve had to commit. And I want to tell the story as truthfully as I can, but inspired by truth and not the literal truth. I do protect stories, and I’m not writing real people, but I want to write about real situations. That’s really the difference between writing a novel of political content and something that’s not; you are reined in, in a way, but hopefully that itself can be a kind of power.