Tales of Korean diaspora reflect a fascination with survivors
Krys Lee's literary debut, Drifting House, is a collection of short stories filled with Korean and Korean-American characters struggling with war, religion, and the secrets and complexities of damaged families. Lee speaks to Alison Singh Gee
Your characters are idiosyncratic and authentic. What do they say about the Korean diaspora?
My characters arise from a lifelong interest in people. Lorrie Moore has a story based in Ireland where her narrator observes that nature and its landscapes are not as complex as a single hello from a human being. That's a wise observation. My characters are people who happen to be Korean, rather than a type. The Korean diaspora is vast and idiosyncratic by nature, and the kinds of people I'm drawn to are different from those someone such as Lee Chang-rae may write about, because we come from different backgrounds.
You recently befriended a North Korean defector. Why? How did this relationship inform your writing?
I've been friends with defectors for many years and have done what work I can in the community when I'm needed. My relationships with defectors young and old have changed me as a person, which changes my fiction. I'm drawn to survivors, and North Korean defectors are some of the bravest people I've ever known. They're also often funny, quirky, and incredibly loyal to their friends.
How do you feel about reviewers comparing you to Jhumpa Lahiri and Lee Chang-rae?
It's flattering as I admire both writers tremendously. I learn from radically different writers, and I think it's important to be catholic in your reading habits. There are other writers one can learn that from, as well, including writers such as Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. Each writer is singular.
What is essential to being a writer?
The habit of writing, humility and sacrifice are essential. Having some kind of a routine is important. Faith in yourself helps a lot, but when you're starting out, that's hard to muster. To have a mentor, supportive friends, or a partner who believes in your work is enormously helpful. Courage to follow what feels true to your sensibility is probably most important. My daily writing life starts with a little writing in the morning, usually at home or the library. But depending on the day, I will write in a park, by the river, at a campground, or even on a subway. I also like having a writing partner whenever possible. Reading is an important part of my writing life, and to preserve that time, I got rid of my television.
Did your childhood inspire you to become a writer?
My childhood was grim. There was a lot of fear, violence, hypocrisy and other darker moments I'd rather not get into. An ex-boyfriend once noted that I was a survivor, and I do think that's what draws me to others who have experienced great difficulties. The story most parallel to my own life is probably The Pastor's Son, about a troubled pastor's return to South Korea after he has 'failed' in America.
What do you think the major themes of your stories are and why?
The themes I'm drawn to include violence, sex, religion, the individual versus society, survival, the darkness and humour in life, and especially, love. Nuns and criminals, bureaucrats and rock stars, all seek this same elusive quality in their families and lovers.
Your stories often end in tragedy. Why?
A few of the stories end tragically, but many end in what I call a moment of connection between two people. I think the tragic stories in the collection have got a lot of attention because they are big, dramatic stories.
In real life, you assertively move between two worlds - Korea and America. What is your daily life in Seoul like?
I live in a fun, artsy area called the Hongik University area, but I'm a 10-minute walk away from the noise. There are many intimate cafes, live music clubs, and interesting people in the area. I try to go camping and kayaking as often as I can, but am equally fond of parties and new restaurants. Many of my good friends are defectors, but I'm also close to people in the arts, Korean adoptees, foreign correspondents, human rights activists, and anyone introverted, kind but odd, humorous, and solitary by nature.
And what is your American life like?
Most of any year is spent in Seoul, where I call home. But I return to America more often now by necessity. When I'm back I try to eat everything that isn't as readily available in Seoul. I limit myself to one Korean meal a week, though I crave it.
How does living in two places help you as a person?
I count three places, as I spent three important years in England, and may live there again. Seoul, however, will most likely be my permanent home. If you've spent your entire life divided between a few countries, you never quite belong anywhere, which is a little sad. I like the freedom and mobility, however. I'm called a Korean-American writer, but someday I suspect there will be a new way to describe writers who return and stay in their parents' country of origin.