A Matriarchy of Bees: Q&A with Christine Hyung-Oak Lee
This month, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee accepted the role of Deputy Managing Editor here at The Rumpus. Prior to that, she had been a Features Editor for several months. Christine is the author of a memoir, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember, and a novel, The Golem of Seoul, forthcoming from Ecco/Harper Collins. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Guernica, The Rumpus, the New York Times, and BuzzFeed, among other publications. She also has an urban farm—every time something in the world goes wrong, she turns towards her chickens and bees and fantasizes about going off-grid. You can read about her farm exploits on her blog.
Born in New York City, Christine earned her undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and her MFA at Mills College.
Rumpus Managing Editor, Lyz Lenz, spoke to Christine recently about what she hopes to do in her new role, what she looks for in an essay, and her new-found love of beekeeping.
Lyz Lenz: I was so excited to have you come on board as a Features Editor last June, Christine, and I’m just as excited that you’ve now assumed the role of Deputy Managing Editor. Can you tell our readers a little about yourself?
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee: The Rumpus feels like home turf for me. It’s where I experienced my breakthrough moment as a writer: my essay “Mint” preceded my viral essay at BuzzFeed by six months. While many people think “I Had a Stroke at 33” was my breakthrough moment, it wouldn’t have happened without “Mint.” Roxane Gay published “Mint,” and Isaac Fitzgerald, who had recently joined BuzzFeed as the founding editor of BuzzFeed Books, threw my name out in an editorial meeting. That led to “I Had a Stroke at 33” which in turn led to the book deal for my memoir, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember.
I owe a lot to the Rumpus and the writing community, and this is the place where I want to double down and make a difference for others.
Also, in more earthly dimensions: I live in Berkeley with my daughter and partner. My memoir was published by Ecco/Harper Collins in February 2017. And I have a novel in progress, tentatively titled The Golem of Seoul. I’m a hobbit and feel most comfortable in soft pants, a t-shirt, and my hair up in a bun. I also have an urban farm with chickens and bees.
Lenz: I want to know more about your bees.
Lee: I can geek out on bees until you go cross-eyed, so I’ve got to restrain myself here. But big picture: I ordered a nucleus (that’s mini-colony in non-beekeeping-speak) of bees in November 2016. No, that timing isn’t coincidental; I had to do something to combat what I saw coming down the pipe for our country. And a matriarchy of bees felt just right.
My bees are from Randy Oliver, who is a well-known and sometimes notorious beekeeper in Grass Valley at the foothills of the Sierras. He is focused on breeding varroa mite-resistant bees, so I know my bees’ exact lineage—all I wanted at the time was a nucleus and not a package of bees, so this wasn’t part of my decision calculus, but it makes me even happier that I made the right selection. My bees arrived in March 2017 in the nighttime, because bees are best transported in the nighttime. There were thirty of us suited up in bee suits waiting for our hives in a parking lot outside the Biofuel Oasis—I can’t imagine what people driving by must have thought. I spent the year in an apprenticeship visiting hives, and inspecting my own hive, and reading everything I could on bee behavior and biology.
Every single thing I’ve learned about them—the worker bees’ life progression from nurse to guard to forager, the queen bee’s interaction with the colony, their incredible organization—interests me further. I’m in love with my queen bee—she’s amber and she’s hard to miss. I gasp every time I glimpse her when inspecting my hive. It’s that serious. Also, I harvested honey. My daughter likes spinning the extractor, and I got to teach my five-year-old about centripetal force. I should stop now.
Lenz: You’ve been a Features Editor for a while now, and have already edited some of our best work. As Deputy Managing Editor, you’ll be helping me oversee all of our nonfiction. Tell me, what do you look for in an essay?
Lee: I want an essay that tells me something about the narrator and something about the world that I have yet to learn. Tell me something I don’t already know—or tell it in a way I’ve yet to see or feel. Make me lose my breath. Make me want to friend you on Facebook; a good number of my friends today are people whose work I read in a slush pile and who I then friended, because I Had To Get To Know That Writer.
Lenz: What do you hope to do here at the Rumpus?
Lee: I want to bring even more diversity to our content and continue to publish previously unheard voices and stories. I want to usher in the matriarchy. I want to make the Rumpus part of everyone’s conversation.
Lenz: What are some favorite pieces of writing you’ve read recently?
Lee: I read Seo-Young Chu’s “A Refuge for Jae-in Doe: Fugues in the Key of English Major” in Entropy—I wish I’d published that piece. It’s both an important topic and she tells it well and in a unique way. True to form, after reading it, I immediately went and friended her on Facebook.
And Randa Jarrar’s “Neither Slave Nor Pharaoh: Finding the Divine in BDSM” is the best BDSM essay I’ve ever read—and one of the best essays I’ve read in recently, period. It is complex in the way BDSM can be complex, and offered me a window into that world of trust and pleasure.
Lenz: What are your feelings about whiskey?
Lenz: Finally, tell us about your amazing forthcoming novel!
Lee: My book is about two Koreans who immigrate to New York City in 1972 in search of a long lost relative. One of them, the main character Yong Kim, has with him a tin of soil he collected in North Korea, where he was born. It is with this soil that he makes a golem to help him in his search. It is a cross-cultural retelling of a classic story, and one that also touches on the infinity of trauma. I just got notes back from my editor, so this may change—but that’s what my novel is about, to date.
Trying to write a memoir but can’t find your way? Christine is teaching a twelve-week online master class for our friends at Catapult on writing a memoir from start to finish. Get the full details here, and sign up today! Space is limited.
Featured photograph of Christine © Kristyn Stroble.