Meet the author of the newly published How I became a North Korean
Story by: Hadrien Diez
Photos by: Matt Douma (portraits), Nancy Resnick (covers), Krys Lee
Widely praised for her snappy style and poignant candour, writer Krys Lee gives a voice to outsiders and digs into the cracks of the Korean national psyche. The author’s début Drifting House (2012), a collection of short stories, depicted embattled characters struggling with estrangement and the trauma of exile. How I Became a North Korean, her first novel, takes these themes further, something which came as a surprise to the author herself. But this dark, violent and ultimately uplifting account of the ordeal of North Korean refugees has ultimately shown Lee that “the writing never lies about a writer’s obsession.”
Making Space for Genuine Stories
The plot of How I Became a North Korean begins classically, with accounts of escape and of hopes for a new life. The novel’s originality lies in the background of its characters. North Koreans are often represented as a faceless, uniform group in media reports and fiction, both of which typically keep the grotesque nature of the political regime as the sole point of focus. Between an apparatchik’s son whose fortunes have shifted and a poor peasant girl forced to risk it all because of an illegitimate pregnancy, Lee chooses to depict refugees who have nothing in common. “I wanted to rise above usual simplistic images of North Korea,” she says. “It was important to give a space to genuine stories.”
Lee got to know these stories first hand while assisting clandestine networks in China in bringing North Korean refugees to safety in the South. (As an ally of Pyongyang, China discourages attempts to help North Korean refugees and often sends them back to their country.) “I happen to know people who are engaged in that cause,” she tempers when explaining her involvement, “but I would rather describe myself as an accidental activist.”
Lee got to know these stories first hand while assisting clandestine networks in China in bringing North Korean refugees to safety in the South.
The plot of Lee’s novel is anchored in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, a Chinese territory adjacent to North Korea. Destitute, crippled by the terror of being caught and horribly exploited, the protagonists see their dreams of a new life evaporate. “Everything about North Korea is permeated by fear,” Lee states. “I wanted to capture that”.
The young refugees’ hopes shoot up when they meet a seemingly debonair Christian missionary who heads a people-smuggling network. Lured by the promise of a safe passage to the South, they find themselves trapped instead. The churchman insists that they learn the Bible by heart in a grim hideaway before continuing their journey. “Someday you’ll understand that though the body might be safe in South Korea, we’re keeping you here to save your soul,” he spits out at one point. This improbable situation was directly inspired by real events; during her time on the border, Lee encountered a North Korean refugee kept in perpetual hiding by a missionary as a poster boy for Christian conversion.
Claiming reality through fiction
To the author, the influence reality and fiction have on each other goes much deeper than the transposition of anecdotes, as vivid as they might be. The experience of being uprooted that she shared with the refugees that she encountered acted as a catalyst. “At first, I did not mean to write about North Korean refugees myself. Instead, I was encouraging some of them to pen their stories,” she confesses. “But I came to realise that their world was the closest to me at the time. It slowly imposed itself on me.”
To the author, the influence that reality and fiction bear on each other goes much deeper than the transposition of anecdotes, as vivid as they might be.
Born in South Korea, Lee emigrated to the US with her parents at the age of 4 and kept moving from city to city all her childhood. “The longing feeling was a constant companion,” the author recalls, to such an extent that she stills permanently feels in between places today. Indeed, Lee’s stories may vary but distinct patterns emerge in her oeuvre. The refugees of How I Became a North Korean share the same longing for the memories they have left behind as several of the protagonists in Drifting House. Once they reach a position of security, they develop the same uneasiness with their new, supposedly better lives. “My characters are often outsiders. They masquerade as people who belong, but they do not.”
Violence and religion are other themes that haunt Lee’s writing. Although the character is inspired by real events, the boorish missionary in How I Became a North Korean reminds the reader of the tyrannical churchman in Drifting House. The warped use of Christianity, with its emphasis on sin, guilt and having one’s soul saved, permeates the collection of short stories. “I grew up in a very religious environment. And my father could be very violent,” Lee says simply.
The author came back to Korea after her studies were completed, and an initially intended short visit unexpectedly turned permanent. “I needed to understand the other self in me. I wanted to become a Korean.” Writing came as a natural way of confronting the multiple issues that arose upon her return. “Georgia O’Keefe once said that there were things in herself she could only clarify in paint,” she quotes. “I clarify myself in words.”
Now a professor of creative writing at Yonsei University in Seoul, Lee ponders how her writing has been dependent on specific moments in her life. “I always remind my students of the urgency to write a story,” she explains. “If you wait too long, it will not fit with who you are any more”. As for now, the writer seems to have entered a more peaceful phase. The novel she is currently working on, a story of people who live underground and believe that the world has ended, will give space to different themes. “Grace and love are becoming important in my writing,” she reckons.