In a Quicksand of Language: A Conversation with Krys Lee


Krys Lee quit her formal activist work with North Korean refugees after receiving death threats. The threats came from a missionary with whom she was setting up hideouts in China. It turned out that he didn’t appreciate Lee’s helping defectors leave North Korea before he was finished using them to solicit donations. Gangsters in South Korea who knew where she lived began calling her, causing her to leave the country. She has since moved back, to a different address.

Lee grew up feeling both close to and disturbed by religion. The daughter of a pastor, she says she used to believe that, at the border, human rights and Christianity were on the same side. She discovered that this was not quite true. Lee began her first novel, How I Became a North Korean, with this disconnect in mind. 

Lee is also the author of the short story collection Drifting House. She’s a recipient of the Rome Prize, the Story Prize Spotlight Award, and the Honor Title in Adult Fiction Literature from the Asian/Pacific American Libraries Association. Her fiction, journalism, and literary translations have appeared in Granta, the Kenyon ReviewNarrativeSan Francisco ChronicleCorriere della Sera, and the Guardian, among others. She is an assistant professor of creative writing and literature at Yonsei University, Underwood International College, in South Korea.

We discussed the new novel through email.


The Rumpus: You’ve said that at first you didn’t want to write about North Korean refugees because you believed it was a story North Koreans should write themselves, even though North Korean friends encouraged you to do so. What made you change your mind?

Krys Lee: In my case, I considered them my people in that I was friends with them for a long time, and knew a lot about their world. Though reviews have primarily focused on How I Became a North Korean as a novel about North Korean refugees and their escape, for me it was equally a novel about power, outsiders, inequality, humanitarian politics, and the missionary culture. This was my entrance into the narrative because this was a world that I had experienced and understood intensely, and had strong feelings about that went beyond inhabiting voices. How could I not take it personally when I have friends who have seen their parents hanged in public executions, lost their entire family, paid five hundred dollars for a phone call to their brother in North Korea, have risked their lives again and again, only to face another incredible battle once they leave? My imperfect novel is an homage to them. It’s also a work of fiction where I desired to give my characters voice—and even a chance at revenge—in situations where they didn’t have one. I don’t know what it might have been like if HIBANK hadn’t grown organically out of my friendships, concerns, and convictions; I doubt I would have written it.

Rumpus: What do you think is most important for writers to consider when writing about populations that are not your own?

Lee: My sense is that it’s ideal if those populations feel like “your people” and that your motivations for writing the book grow out of genuine intimacy, concern, curiosity, and interest. Essentially, life happens first, and as so often happens, a book idea happened to grow out of the life lived. But there are many fine books written by those whose interests were intellectually, socially, and/or ideologically motivated without personal intimacy with the world they are writing about, so no general advice is really sound. Whatever one writes, it seems important to do a great deal of research, dreaming and imagining, and checking with others for all that is factual and emotionally false in the book. 

Rumpus: Brandon Taylor recently wrote an article for Lit Hub about the importance of empathy when writing about people whose experiences may be different from your own. I wonder what you think about white, privileged writers writing books about North Korea? Or about other marginalized populations? Is having empathy for your characters enough?

Lee: Empathy for people and in extension, for your characters, is a start. The next step is intimacy and understanding. Without many things going right, the chances are that a writer will unwittingly create different manifestations of a stereotype. I have empathy for many different groups of people I won’t name here, but it would be presumptuous to assume that my empathy can compensate for my lack of a complex understanding of how their lives, sensibilities, and values have been shaped. Is research ever enough? It isn’t for me, but it may be for others. I’m only one particular writer, whose approach is inspired by triggers in my life—autobiography—though that seed of life can turn into realism, fantasy, a ghost story, and more. A mother can turn into a goose, a fashion designer into a secret masochist, a gentle poet into an accessory to murder. The autobiography is a seed unrecognizable to most readers when they read my fiction. But at least in my own work, it’s what everything else grows from.

Rumpus: Did you always intend to tell this story with three characters? What about four, or five? Who came first?

Lee: I had many characters at first, as my idea of an outline is vague at best. Ideas grow out of writing, but so do characters. My medley of characters competed with each other for my interest and eventually, a few grew more dominant and became the core of HIBANK. 

Rumpus: You revised this novel for four years. What did this revision process look like? Are you the kind of writer who adds, or who takes away? How close was the first draft to the final product? 

Lee: My process seems more about rewriting than revising. That’s what happened with the first draft of How I Became a North Korean, and what is happening to the first draft of my novel-in-progress as well. The first draft is a thrill, a love affair. With the second draft onwards, however, I reconsider and rebuild plot, character, language, the world, and the structure. Why? Primarily because the first draft looks at me in the face and says: “You might be enamored with me, but this isn’t working.” Nothing matters from then onwards but writing that doesn’t feel like a lie. There is no publisher, no audience, no Krys Lee the writer. All that exists is the story and the characters that are lost in a quicksand of my language, and in the case of HIBANK, I spent the next four years adding and removing enormous amounts of material, until the book felt as if it was the best I could write at that time in my life.

Rumpus: Were there texts or authors you kept returning to when writing this book? 

Lee: I read widely in Korean and in English, but frankly, I knew the world and its people intimately enough that much was inspired by—but not is—personal experience. In that sense I could enter the fictional world much more deeply and immediately, I think, than I could other worlds. I’ve never interviewed people or pried. I was merely friends with activists and North Koreans, and sometimes more, and just knowing them for over a decade taught me in the deepest sense. The greatest challenge for me was to free myself from some of what I know, ironically, and let myself be a writer. Fiction is a play between the world and the imagination, and the challenge was to let myself be the writer I am as much as I felt a responsibility to the North Korean and activist community. To fully become these characters, to find the emotional core of each that I understood and felt deeply, to write until at least through the imagination, I became them for a moment, was the greatest challenge. It’s the greatest reason and reward of being a fiction writer.

Rumpus: What do you like about a novel versus short stories? Do you have a preference between the two? 

Lee: The short story lets me immediately enter different narratives and characters at the moment excitement ignites the writer in me; the novel lets me experience narratives and characters more fully. This also makes novel-writing challenging while working, since immersion into another world necessitates leaving the other world. I like how you can write a short story with the faith that someday, you will finish it. The novel, in contrast, produces fear. Still, ideas come to me as short stories or novels, and the inception of both—or receiving both, like a host to mysterious guests—excite me. 


Author photograph © Matt Douma.

Maria Anderson's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Sewanee Review, McSweeney's, Alpinist, and Best American Short Stories. She lives in Bozeman, Montana. More from this author →