ANGELES — Standing in the heart of Koreatown, novelist
Krys Lee is turned around.
this direction to the Korean market to which her family
made a pilgrimage every weekend, and her mother would
rent her cache of Korean videotapes? Which way was the
tofu restaurant she and her pastor father walked to
countless times after her mother died and there was no
one to cook him Korean food?
where was her father’s final apartment where he lived,
broken, until he suffered a heart attack midsermon at
gleaming new condos and countless new restaurants are
disorienting, and in the years she moved around all over
Southern California following her father’s
restlessness and church assignments, Lee never actually
lived in Koreatown. But it nonetheless holds an
important place in her imagination, in the world she
mines for her fiction.
symbolically, imaginatively and literally, it is a kind
of locus for me," Lee, author of the new novel
"How I Became a North Korean," says.
to Koreatown was definitely a kind of ritual, in some
ways one of the few positive family memories I have …
. This is the place that inspires my work."
novel, her first, is set in the harsh, unforgiving
hinterlands near the border of China and North Korea, a
world away from the sprawling, sun-soaked Southern
California of Lee’s youth.
book follows three young protagonists — two escapees
from North Korea and an ethnically Korean
Chinese-national runaway — who endure the family
rifts, betrayals, abject despair and unbridled fear that
abound along the human smuggling routes out of North
Korea through China.
stories are inspired and informed by the time — more
than a decade — Lee has spent working with and
befriending North Korean refugees, both in Seoul, where
she now lives, and at the China-North Korea border.
the title of her novel suggests, it is only in being
torn away from home, crossing a border and landing in a
new, foreign place that Lee’s protagonists discover
the ramifications of their identities and feel the yoke
of where they come from — an experience immigrants to
the U.S. are familiar with, if on a smaller scale. The
book also unflinchingly portrays the mixed motives
behind the Christian missionaries who dominate the
are tinges of Lee’s own life in the character Danny,
who leaves behind the comforts of San Bernardino County,
where he had immigrated with his family, to return to
China. He ends up with a ragtag band of North Korean
refugee boys, all in search of a place to belong. Danny’s
meandering, convoluted path is not unlike Lee’s own
lengthy, ongoing search of a home, of a tribe.
she immigrated with her family to the U.S. as a toddler,
Lee was raised as a "P.K.," a pastor’s kid.
In the Christian-dominated Korean immigrant community,
that meant "you learn at a young age, everything
will be private, everything will shame the family,"
father’s insecurities and propensity for violence and
the family’s financial struggles were never to leave
the four walls of their home, Lee says over lunch at the
bustling tofu restaurant, down the street from her
father’s former apartment. To this day, Lee is unsure
of many details of her personal history because of her
father’s shifting stories.
up in that environment, she came to resent and reject
all things Korean, Lee recounts. Koreanness seemed to be
synonymous with patriarchy, violence and inequality in
the family where she felt silenced, she says.
frustration is expressed in the short story "Pastor’s
Son" from her 2012 collection "Drifting
House" by protagonist Jingyu. "I wanted to be
part of a household where the father wasn’t king and
his kids the subjects," he says. The pastor father
in the story was also cruel to his late mother: He was
"a man who had terrified her into becoming
Lee herself, growing up P.K. meant Jingyu was
"unable to speak to people because anything that
felt true about me was a secret."
her mother passed away from cancer during her college
years at UCLA, and her family was left emotionally and
financially in tatters — "No health insurance
means you lose everything," she says — Lee
traveled to Seoul for what she thought would be a brief
stay. Yet once there, she came to understand her parents
and especially her father in a way she never had been
able to before.
helped me really see Korean men as people with their own
sufferings and insecurities and problems and
complexes," she says. "It taught me that this
culture is incredibly rich and interesting and confused
and how you can love a crazy culture. And recognizing
the madness in myself."
she’d always been a writer, it was in moving to Seoul,
Lee says, that she found her material.
were so many things I suddenly I felt like I had to
write. The lives I saw around me that also felt like
mine," she says.
her first years there, Lee saw a small notice in the
paper about a meeting on human rights in North Korea.
Left with what she calls "the stain of really
wanting a morally upright world" after growing up
in the church, she went to the meeting and started
North Korean refugees, each of whom had survived
harrowing journeys to get to Seoul, she found an
unlikely "surrogate family" of those all
trying to find their place in a new, strange home.
want to trust people but they don’t trust … . They’ve
been betrayed by their government, by governments, and
so many people along the way," Lee says. "I
understand that place of loss very much."
the novel, Lee takes the reader along on the arduous
path many of her North Korean friends braved to flee the
scattered into small dark spaces in the backs of
buildings, trains, and buses, through the great mouth of
China. Our feet made fresh tracks as we weaved through
mountains and made unreliable allies of the moon and the
night and the stars," she writes in the voice of
Yongju, a Pyongyang elite forced to flee when his family’s
stature falls overnight. "Each body of water
reminded us of the first river, the river of dreams and
death where we saw the faces of people we knew and would
never know frozen beneath the Tumen River."
most Korean immigrants in the U.S., many of Lee’s
characters have two names. Danny is also Daehan, and we
never learn the real name of Jangmi — "rose"
— who is rechristened upon arriving in China from
North Korea as a for-sale bride. In Seoul, Krys Lee is
also Un Kyung, an accidental trans-plant, professor of
creative writing at Yonsei University’s Underwood
International College, and an activist for and friend to
North Korean refugees.
in Koreatown, a place she left behind because she
"couldn’t bear the history and the
memories," Lee says she flirts with the idea of
setting a novel here or even someday penning that memoir
her publisher keeps urging her to write.
Yongju says in her novel, the years have made it easier
for Lee to confront and talk about her past.
has been generous that way," he says,
"releasing me from one detail then another."