An Interview with Krys Lee
I spoke recently with author Krys Lee about her debut story collection Drifting House, for which she's currently touring the United States. Her prose has been called “limpid and naturalistic,” with “flawless internal logic reminiscent of the best of Katherine Anne Porter and Carson McCullers.” My interest in Lee spawns, most basically, from her interest in culture, her interest in language, and her loyal intimacy with characters tied to both. Encountering Drifting House and then, Lee, many of the previous considerations I’d had about what we call international literature had changed. Most importantly, it took a writer like Lee to get me to start asking some questions encircling an often overlooked issue in creative writing: language itself.
Krys Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, was raised in California and Washington, and studied in the United States and England. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Narrative magazine, California Quarterly, and Asia Weekly. She lives in Seoul.
It's somewhat of a particular kind of writing to craft the novel-in-stories, which you seem to have done in Drifting House. Is there an overall reason why you've chosen to write this way?
I didn't consciously write a novel-in-stories and Viking didn't market Drifting House this way, either. Like much of the book, the structure emerged organically, and what happened was that characters sometimes returned in stories that I hadn't expected to see again. That was a nice surprise. If it had been part of my original design, it would have been tighter in the way Olive Kitteridge was, but my structure is looser and more dictated by the broad landscape of history that Drifting House explores.
Why was it that you decided to return to Seoul after being raised (and even studying) in the United States?
Initially I had returned to study the language, but the six-month stay that I had anticipated turned into years as I learned about a country and family that I had thought I understood, but didn't. For anyone who is a second generation immigrant there is an entire history and life the traces of which are seen in the parents, but returning to and living in the country of your parents brings a much deeper, complicated understanding to one's origins and life lived in America. Living in South Korea helped me recover the lost half of myself; returning to America for long visits helps remind me of the other half.
There's a very important topic to address when talking about the novel, especially the transnational novel: language. What issues of language have you encountered in writing this book?
I've lived in South Korea so long that the people and the culture don't feel "foreign" at all, and I end up writing from what I call "within the culture," rather than viewing it from outside. It just happens to come in English. The few bits of Korean language that remain untranslated are bits that came out in Korean in the original drafts. I didn't change these because they were words normally so intimate in Korean that English didn't seem appropriate. I'll probably think about these issues far more in my second book, but ultimately my characters are individuals, grounded in and beyond their ethnic origins whether they live in America, North Korea, or South Korea. I was pleased that the UK's The Guardian noted that my stories grounded in history and large social issues were ultimately stories about individuals.
And what does it mean, to you, to write from "within the culture"?
To write from "within the culture" signifies an intimacy with a culture that has essentially become the writer's own. Korea has often been written about in English, but usually by writers who don't live in Korea and don't speak Korean. There's nothing wrong with this, but it does create a different kind of literature that looks at its subject from the outside peering in.
How much of a focus on locale have you given to your writing?
Geography -- both the geographies of the past and the present -- is part of an individual. In order for me to understand my characters, I need to understand the place, the social issues, and dominant ethical values surrounding them. As much as we'd like to think of ourselves as unique, no one operates in a vacuum. If my characters react to the dominant values of society, they are also shaped by that society. Like life, you can say. In order to deeply understand the characters, Drifting House travels across forty years of history and the complicated social and moral forces at work in each society, including the micro-societies of family.
There's a particular scene in "A Temporary Marriage," the first story in the collection, in which the character Yuri says, "My American name is Grace." Followed, shortly, by "I know who I am. I'm called Grace most of the time." This is a poignant moment because it shows a character coming to understand a dual nationality. How important to you is dual nationality in writing?
The sense of a dual identity is important to me in that it reflects the way we as human beings negotiate the world. No one is exempt from different roles that require different selves, and in the case of an immigrant, there is always the presence of the person who exists in the present and the person who was left behind.
And what about dual nationality in the books you read? Is that something you look for?
I'm interested in all books that introduce me to a world and culture I'm unfamiliar with, but I read primarily for a unique way of using language, a singular sensibility, and unforgettable characters and story. Ultimately, I hope readers come to Drifting House for the same reasons.
Though you've said that these are ultimately "stories about individuals," your characters have, in fact, remained true to multicultural context. How much of this, do you think, is influenced by your return to Korea?
The term "multicultural context" can be misleading. All individuals are shaped and influenced by their society and immediate environment; that is their context. In the case of my characters, like any other character, the culture surrounding them is the world that shapes and influences their dominant concerns. I write about the world I'm most intimate with, which is South Korea at this stage. The city I live in and my own passionate attachment to the country naturally became the subject of my stories.
How did you come to decide which aspects of yourself would make it into these characters?
I never consciously decide to give a character aspects of myself. Rather, I'm more interested in them being a creation as different from me as possible. It's only through the process of revision that I begin to see myself in my characters. I write fiction to get away from myself, only to learn that this is impossible.
In what ways have you begun to think about linguistic issues since you've finished Drifting House?
I'm revising my novel but still haven't considered the linguistic issue as deeply as I should. I did notice myself overusing Korean words out of habit in Drifting House, so I will probably be watchful of this and ask myself "when" and "why" more often while completing the revision.
Can you tell us more about the novel in progress?
It's about the North Korean refugee crisis that is hopefully more nuanced than previous portrayals, due to my firsthand experience of the people and the culture. I began the novel out of a need to address the injustices I saw happening before me, and in the process ended up falling in love with my characters and rooting for their survival and success. The North Koreans are a remarkable, tough people who have survived so much, and it's been a pleasure to be intimate with them in life and in fiction.