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The sun rises over the bridge that connects the Chinese border town of Dandong with the North Korean town of Sinuiju. Krys Lee’s novel looks at the experiences of those who flee North Korea. Photo: AFP

How novelist Krys Lee found her Korean identity after a traumatic and rootless immigrant childhood

Lee went to Seoul expecting a brief stay but the culture she encountered helped her understand the dynamics of her dysfunctional family – and especially her violent and insecure pastor father

North Korea

Standing in the heart of Koreatown in Los Angeles, novelist Krys Lee is turned around.

Was this direction to the Korean market that her family made a pilgrimage to every weekend, and where her mother would rent her cache of Korean videotapes? Which way was the tofu restaurant she and her pastor father walked to countless times after her mother died and there was no one to cook him Korean food?

And where was her father’s final apartment where he lived, broken, until he suffered a heart attack mid-sermon at the pulpit?

The gleaming new condos and countless new restaurants are disorienting, and in the years she moved around all over Southern California following her father’s restlessness and church assignments, Lee never actually lived in Koreatown. But it nonetheless holds an important place in her imagination, in the world she mines for her fiction.

“Koreatown, symbolically, imaginatively and literally, it is a kind of locus for me,” says Lee, author of the new novel, How I Became a North Korean.

“Coming to Koreatown was definitely a kind of ritual, in some ways one of the few positive family memories I have … This is the place that inspires my work.”

Lee’s novel, her first, is set in the harsh, unforgiving hinterlands near the border of China and North Korea, a world away from the sprawling, sun-soaked Southern California of Lee’s youth.

The book follows three young protagonists – two escapees from North Korea and an ethnically Korean Chinese-national runaway – who endure the family rifts, betrayals, abject despair and unbridled fear that abound along the human smuggling routes out of North Korea through China.

Author Krys Lee. Photo: Matt Douma

Their stories are inspired and informed by the time – more than a decade – Lee has spent working with and befriending North Korean refugees, both in Seoul, where she now lives, and at the China-North Korea border.

As the title of her novel suggests, it is only in being torn away from home, crossing a border and landing in a new, foreign place that Lee’s protagonists discover the ramifications of their identities and feel the yoke of where they come from – an experience many immigrants are familiar with, albeit on a smaller scale. The book also unflinchingly portrays the mixed motives behind the Christian missionaries who dominate the underground network.

There are tinges of Lee’s own life in the character Danny, who leaves behind the comforts of San Bernardino County, where he had immigrated with his family, to return to China. He ends up with a ragtag band of North Korean refugee boys, all in search of a place to belong. Danny’s meandering, convoluted path is not unlike Lee’s own lengthy, ongoing search for a home, for a tribe.

How I Became a North Korean.

After she immigrated with her family to the US as a toddler, Lee was raised as a “PK” – a pastor’s kid. In the Christian-dominated Korean immigrant community, that meant “you learn at a young age, everything will be private, everything will shame the family”, Lee recalls.

Her father’s insecurities and propensity for violence and the family’s financial struggles were never to leave the four walls of their home, Lee says over lunch at the bustling tofu restaurant, down the street from her father’s former apartment. To this day, Lee is unsure of many details of her personal history because of her father’s shifting stories.

Growing up in that environment, she came to resent and reject all things Korean, she says. Koreanness seemed to be synonymous with patriarchy, violence and inequality in the family where she felt silenced, she says.

That frustration is expressed by the protagonist Jingyu in the short story “Pastor’s Son” from her 2012 collection Drifting House. “I wanted to be part of a household where the father wasn’t king and his kids the subjects,” he says. The pastor father in the story was also cruel to his late mother: He was “a man who had terrified her into becoming invisible”.

Like Lee herself, growing up PK meant Jingyu was “unable to speak to people because anything that felt true about me was a secret”.

After her mother passed away from cancer during her college years at UCLA, and her family was left emotionally and financially in tatters – “No health insurance means you lose everything,” she says – Lee travelled to Seoul for what she thought would be a brief stay. Yet once there, she came to understand her parents and especially her father in a way she never had been able to before.

“It helped me really see Korean men as people with their own sufferings and insecurities and problems and complexes,” she says. “It taught me that this culture is incredibly rich and interesting and confused and how you can love a crazy culture. And recognising the madness in myself.”

Although she’d always been a writer, it was in moving to Seoul, Lee says, that she found her material.

“There were so many things I suddenly I felt like I had to write, the lives I saw around me that also felt like mine,” she says.

In her first years there, Lee saw a small notice in the paper about a meeting on human rights in North Korea. Possessing what she calls “the stain of really wanting a morally upright world” after growing up in the church, she went to the meeting and started volunteering.

North Korean houses as seen through barbed wire from Dandong in China. Photo: Simon Song

Among North Korean refugees, each of whom had survived harrowing journeys to get to Seoul, she found an unlikely “surrogate family” of those all trying to find their place in a new, strange home.

“They want to trust people but they don’t trust … They’ve been betrayed by their government, by governments, and so many people along the way,” Lee says. “I understand that place of loss very much.”

In the novel, Lee takes the reader along on the arduous path many of her North Korean friends braved to flee the country.

“We scattered into small dark spaces in the backs of buildings, trains, and buses, through the great mouth of China. Our feet made fresh tracks as we weaved through mountains and made unreliable allies of the moon and the night and the stars,” she writes in the voice of Yongju, a member of the Pyongyang elite forced to flee when his family’s stature falls overnight. “Each body of water reminded us of the first river, the river of dreams and death where we saw the faces of people we knew and would never know frozen beneath the Tumen River.”

Like most Korean immigrants in the US, many of Lee’s characters have two names. Danny is also Daehan, and we never learn the real name of Jangmi – “rose” – who is rechristened upon arriving in China from North Korea as a for-sale bride. In Seoul, Krys Lee is also Un Kyung, an accidental transplant, professor of creative writing at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College, and an activist for and friend to North Korean refugees.

Back in Koreatown, a place she left behind because she “couldn’t bear the history and the memories”, Lee says she flirts with the idea of setting a novel here or even someday penning that memoir her publisher keeps urging her to write.

As Yongju says in her novel, the years have made it easier for Lee to confront and talk about her past.

“Time has been generous that way,” he says, “releasing me from one detail then another.”