The Rumpus Interview with Krys Lee

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I wasn’t surprised to read recently that Junot Díaz, in last week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review, named Krys Lee’s story collection, Drifting House, as one of the two best he’d recently read. It is, as Díaz called it, “superb.”

Much like her title story, Krys is a kind of “drifting house,” moving between continents. She has lived in three countries—the USA, England, and South Korea—and went from speaking English as a daily language, to Korean. At this point, she describes herself as “Korean-American and yet not quite Korean-American, in that I write about Korea from inside the culture and not out.” Her homebase is Seoul, but more and more, she’s spending a lot of time on the road between the three continents, both because she finds the world-at-large so interesting, and because all three continents—very different in culture and values—keep something alive in her.

Krys was essentially “discovered” at Squaw Valley, where the workshop leader’s praise drifted over to her present agent; by the end of the week, the two had agreed to work together. Drifting House eventually went to auction with eight publishers, and Krys went with Viking/Penguin—who bid high, but not the highest—because she felt very comfortable with editor Kathryn Court, who had a real old-fashioned love for books that moved her. (Also, Viking had a great reputation, and, as Krys hoped, the house has lived up her expectations.)

To round off her accomplishments, Krys was a finalist for Best New American Voices, received a special mention in the 2012 Pushcart Prize XXXVI, and her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, Granta (New Voices), California Quarterly, Asia Weekly, The Guardian, The New Statesman, and is forthcoming in Condé Nast Traveller (UK).

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The Rumpus:  Hi Krys. First, let me add my voice to the chorus of admirers singing your praises. I couldn’t agree more: Drifting House is a stunning collection.

I’ll start by saying this book isn’t anything like I expected—and by that I mean, I thought I was somewhat familiar with themes common to the immigrant experience, but after reading these stories, I realized I knew nothing. For example, I can’t think of another collection where failure was such a central theme. Inter-generational tensions? Yes. The challenge of straddling two cultures? Sure. But failure—especially failure that’s as much a character’s internal feeling as an external, material reality? I don’t think I’ve ever come across that and yet, it’s threaded through your work. Can you talk about that?

Krys Lee: Drifting House isn’t autobiographical in the strictest sense, but its themes and preoccupations are influenced by my own experiences. My family immigrated to America in search of a better life, but ended up “failing” rather spectacularly. I’ve always been haunted by the specter of that failure and its repercussions, and that seems to have translated into an abiding interest in the idea of failure in individual lives, as well as the failure of governments. I’m equally interested in how people overcome these obstacles, which explains in part the re-occurring motif in Drifting House of survivors and their urgent desires.

Rumpus: I was struck by the frequent scenes of violence and brutality in your stories. Your characters aren’t just traumatized by their experiences, they inflict trauma upon each other and upon themselves—real violence and abuse. I’m thinking of scenes from “A Temporary Marriage” or in “The Pastor’s Son,” where the narrator’s father abuses his new wife:

It must have been ten yards ahead on the riverside walk. I was straining to see when I spotted my father thrusting New Mother into the river water. Closer, enormous bubbles—her ragged breathing—rose up from the water. When he yanked her back up, New Mother’s breast sagged out of her unknotted choguri, the skirt of her hanbok stuck to her heavy thighs.

Where does that impulse towards violence come from, both in you as the writer, and in your characters?

Lee: Unfortunately, this is also due to the life I’ve lived. I grew up intimate with violence, for various reasons, which marks you for life no matter how you try to get away from it. Growing up with violence from a young age actually changes the structure of a child’s brain—that’s how dramatic it is. And yet, I thought I had left the past behind until I began writing Drifting House and seeing all that was buried inside me coming out in fiction. Again, I don’t write the literal facts of my life—not because I’m averse to it, but because I’m so interested in the larger world and the sheer pleasure of imagining—but my obsessions are certainly autobiographical, and in some ways, the stories are the most honest version of me.

Rumpus: David Haynes, whom I know you studied with at Warren Wilson, talks about the “received story”—the idea that there are certain subjects writers of color feel obligated to discuss—as an issue writers of color often struggle with. Did you have that struggle? Were there stories or subjects you felt you had to address, or better yet, subjects you couldn’t explore?

Lee: That’s interesting—David and I never had that conversation! Living in Seoul, Korea for the last ten years has certainly helped protect me from pressure to represent race and culture. I lived within the culture, was part of the dominant majority in terms of color, and in some sense, that liberated me to think of the people around me not as Koreans per se, but as people, and my stories as stories about people.

If I had thought about these issues more, I probably wouldn’t have written at all because it would have been so daunting. How do you represent a group of people, a nation? It you’re meant to do that, it will happen anyways without constructing pre-conceived ideas and limitations concerning it. I wrote about whatever it wasn’t I couldn’t write about—my obsessions—and the themes and the broad landscape that inhabit the stories emerged from that. Frankly, I harbored very little hope of seeing the stories published—I didn’t even dare think there was anything I wrote that would be of interest to the world—and wrote, instead, the stories that felt pressing to me, the ones that I urgently wanted and needed to tell, as well as the stories that delighted and troubled me. So that’s my mantra as a writer: follow your obsessions. Also, follow your characters’ journeys to wherever they take you and follow the rhythm of your sentences, your love for language! Write to delight, frighten, and move yourself, which will hopefully communicate to others. Write because you can’t not write. Once you start considering audience, political correctness, and so forth, you become a timid writer. I’m much more interested in bold, brave writing that touches on larger truths.

Rumpus:  The title story, “Drifting House,” set in North Korea, is beautifully written and crafted, and yet, the subject matter is so bleak. I’m thinking of this passage from early in the story:

But  Mrs. Ku with child was beaten off the U.S. embassy gates by the Chinese police. Woojin, a boy of eight, was killed by border guards. Someone called Jaejon’s uncle, drowned in the monsoon-swollen Tumen River to China. A young and beautiful Seoyeon (they were always young and beautiful in the whispered stories), raped but lucky to be alive…

I think it’s hard for a writer to offer up a litany of disaster like that and not drive the reader away, and yet, you pull it off.  Did you have a narrative strategy for presenting so much dark material?  Was any of this inspired by real events?

Lee: Each story presents its own challenge, but normally when a sentence—a sentence that somehow feels authentic—arrives, I follow that sentence. That’s really my only narrative strategy. I didn’t worry about the dark nature of the material because it was a story that was important and dear to me. Also, terror and beauty, dark and light—that’s how I experience life. Each story in the collection, I think, recognizes that essential polarity. It’s how I judge which story to pursue or not—is it a topic of personal urgency to me? Without an emotional connection to the material, I feel it’s difficult to write anything that goes beyond the surface of looking finished and impressive.

I’m not so interested in reading or writing that kind of fiction, frankly. I’ve been friends with people in the North Korean community for many years in Seoul, and that invariably influenced my feelings about the North Korean government, China’s policies, and especially, about how the everyday person in North Korea survives. In particular, I thought a lot about the kinds of sacrifices that extraordinary circumstances require. On a smaller scale, I’ve been in circumstances that pressed me to limits I was too young to bear at the time, and I lived with the consequences of my actions. North Koreans, during the height of the famine, were forced to make incredibly difficult decisions people shouldn’t have to make in order to survive. The story “Drifting House” began with these three kids on a journey in a time of famine, and writing the story helped me imagine and understand the sacrifices that aren’t talked about very often, but happened during the famine.

Rumpus: One of my favorite stories was “The Salaryman.” Everything about it caught me off-guard, from the second-person narration to the final sentence. I read it on the plane, and when I got to the last line I couldn’t help myself. I kept repeating, “Wow! Wow!” The guy sitting next to me thought I was nuts. But I was so  impressed with your ability to sustain the tension and the sense of desperation from the first page to the last. What inspired that story? Can you talk about your decision to write this story in second-person? When do you think it’s the most effective choice?

Lee: First of all, thank you! The story was inspired by living in Seoul and being in a relationship with someone who became a salaryman. Watching what that did to his personality and his life, and feeling great anger and frustration at the company that seemed to devour the person I had known were the main motivations. I chose the setting of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 [because] the pivotal time period changed the way Koreans felt about their companies, and I wanted to write a story about the sacrifices that people made for their companies, because they believed in the job for life and company family mentality, and how companies had betrayed that trust.

The second-person point of view came naturally—I knew too little about the “craft” of writing at the time to know it was supposed to be a hard point of view to handle. The first sentence of the story had come to me in the second-person, probably because it was important for me to write about the lives of a group of people rather than about a single man, and I wanted readers to personally feel that betrayal and slippery trajectory from living a normal life to becoming a person intent on survival. Those animal instincts, when people stripped to their essential elements, that interests me. When the masks of our civilized façades drop, when we as individuals are pressed to our very limits, who are we really? I’ve always been fascinated by our illusions of ourselves, and those times when our illusions are tested. That’s why it’s hard for me to take people with self-aggrandized views seriously—whether it’s a sense of importance, influence, righteousness, or saintliness, I wonder who are you really, and why all this ego when in the vast scale of time, we’re a mere moment, not even a slight impression? All we can do is strive. When’s the best time to use the second? I’m still not sure, but for the right story or novel, such as Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, it can be a powerful point of view.

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Photographs of Krys Lee © 2012 by Matt Douma.


Natalie Baszile's debut novel, Queen Sugar, is forthcoming from Viking/Penguin. Natalie has a Masters in Afro-American Studies from UCLA, and earned an M.F.A from Warren Wilson's MFA Program for Writers, where she received the Holden Minority Scholarship. Queen Sugar won the Hurston Wright College Writer's Award, the Sylvia Clare Brown fellowship and was runner-up in the Faulkner Pirate’s Alley novel in progress competition. Natalie has had residencies at the Ragdale Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Hedgebrook. More from this author →