krys lee + krys lee & barbara demick!


2016 august 04 at greenlight!

what a delight!  krys lee (who is promoting her new novel, how i became a north korean [viking, 2016]) speaks thoughtfully and carefully, and you can feel the love she has for fiction, for stories, for north korean refugees.  it was an absolute pleasure to hear her read and in conversation.

lee described independent bookstores as "these curated spaces for discovering work -- i suppose, for discovering worlds."  she was in conversation with jessie chaffee.

re:  the seed of this novel

  • i'm a big believer of stories or plays choosing you.  you don't really end up choosing your material.  i didn't actually start out writing this novel -- i was very hesitant taking stories from north koreans, and i would try to urge friends of mine to write fiction, but they kept saying, "no, i want to go to seminary school."
  • i was working on a novel about LA and the LA riots there.  i thought this was my present novel, but, as it turned out, it wasn't.
  • i was responding in some ways to helplessness and anger and wanting to tell a human story.  i live in seoul, but many of the novels that were coming out there about north korea would be like, the parents would die or someone would die, and five minutes later, the girl would be like, "i want to be a movie star," like she didn't have the capacity to mourn for them.

re:  the three voices

  • i first tried to write the novel from the non-north korean voice.  it intrigued me because a lot of the research already confirmed, in some ways, what i'd already know -- i'm certainly not an expert, but i had a lot of friends in the border area.  what i'd learned is the chinese-korean kids were very useful for the north korean kids who crossed the border because they were protection in some way.
  • in some ways, danny was also a witness, and he was sort of me -- a smarter me.
  • i found i had to abandon the single perspective because i found that i couldn't tell the story i wanted with it.

re:  the research process

  • because i had worked briefly in the border area and on a kind of intense level, that helped me understand the situation.  that world was present for me, and south korea -- i live there, and i have many very close north korean [friends].
  • as i did the reading -- some of my friends have written the books -- a lot of that confirmed what i already knew about the area.  i'm discovering that -- i'm working on my third novel right now, and it takes place in a totally made-up world, and i'm discovering that's far more difficult because it doesn't exist.

re:  solitude and love

  • i recall gabriel marquez saying something like, he kept trying to write about different subjects, but he kept finding himself coming back to solitude.  and i think that's true about fiction.  i think i'm writing about something else, about someone else, and i'll find my common themes.
  • the companion to solitude is always love.  i define love as great fear.  when you love someone, you have the fear of losing someone.  and that's the way i imagine this novel -- that the fear of love is a condition of solitude.  my characters in different ways seek love or run from it.  unfortunately, love, solitude, and violence seem to be my trilogy.

re:  the multitudes of people we carry

  • it's almost a trope -- we are multiple selves, right? -- but i think especially in the context of national borders, identity is often something that one doesn't become aware of until you leave the country and people remind you of who you are or what you are.  that defines a sort of political identity and the rights that are provided you and the rights that are denied you because of it.
  • all these things play out in the border area because of an identity.
  • if you grow up in a place with multiple selves like america, you embrace the self and you're uneasy with the self because what is the self?
  • even my own writing career changes depending on what people decide my identity is.

re:  process

  • when you're translating, language becomes strange to you again.  the article is highlighted in a way.
  • some people are really great at discipline.  i am the most undisciplined of people who will do anything to create routine.  i'm not a great believer in discipline, but i'm a great believer in pleasure.  [i.e. the idea of working hard to continue to chase that thing that gives pleasure]
  • my routine is almost not a routine but is a kind of relentless endeavor to find whatever works that week, that day.


  • the novel was so hard for me because there was the burden of telling the truth but also the burden of it being fiction.
  • i'm very uncomfortable being the representative of anything.  that's why i write fiction.

2016 august 08 at AAWW!  in conversation with barbara demick (who wrote the amazing, incredible nothing to envy -- read it!) and sukjong hong.

re:  storytelling and using multiple voices

  • barbara demick:  in my case, since i was working with non-fiction, i wanted to have multiple voices because there's always a lot of suspicion with north korean defectors because you're not sure if what they're telling you is true.  so, by picking six people from one town, i was more or less able to cross-check what they were saying.  in addition, of the six people in my book, there were two couples -- a boyfriend and girlfriend and a mother and daughter -- and i interviewed them separately, and i had this heavy burden to make sure it was true.  i'm a journalist.  these six people -- i mean, i believe them beyond a shadow of a doubt because their stories meshed so neatly.
  • BD:  in terms of how i picked the six -- they were people i liked and who liked me because it required an enormous amount of time to interview them.  and i was doing this [as a journalist so] i couldn't pay them anything*.  i could give them gifts.
    • * it's common for subjects to be paid in korea/japan.
  • BD:  they were also good storytellers.  this dr. kim** -- she told me the story about her crossing the river and seeing the rice on the patio floor and realizing that was for the dog -- she told her stories in ways that were very compelling.  i found, in general, the ones who were well-educated couldn't tell stories; i don't know why that is.
    • ** demick read an excerpt from nothing to envy about a woman named dr. kim and her crossing of the tumen into china.
  • BD:  i picked people who are not activists.  most of them were like dr. kim -- they came across kind of accidentally.  they didn't mean to escape.  most of them were pretty loyal to the regime.
  • krys lee:  the great thing about fiction is that you have a lot more license in some ways.  i love all forms of writing, but my impulse is always toward poetry or fiction -- my first loves.  what drives me aren't things i can find out through research but the mystery, the endless question of the woman who didn't cross -- that's kind of the impulse towards the fiction and the stories.
  • KL:  there was a story i wrote in drifting house that was about the famine, and, then, at a certain point -- i had never planned to write this book until a north korean friend of mine came to me with five years worth of diaries and said, "please put these in a story."  i didn't end up doing that [but i began to realize that this was something i could do***].
    • *** this is a terrible paraphrase, sorry.
  • KL:  the characters themselves -- one of my characters is a chinese-korean who grows up in america and comes back [to china].  he was important to me because i'd read about these homeless chinese-korean orphans who become like a buffer [for the north koreans; the chinese-korean kids have status and speak both languages and act as a shield].
  • KL:  i love strong struggling women who have no help but themselves.
  • KL:  i also wanted danny [the chinese-korean teenager] there as a witness who knew more than they [the refugees] did in some ways about the global perceptions of north korea and the church community that hurts and helps north koreans.

re:  the project of writing about north korea

  • BD:  this is really a problem when you're doing nonfiction because you're not supposed to make up or change things.  it was a struggle.  it was easier in my book because the subtitle is "ordinary lives" and the people were ordinary.
  • BD:  i interviewed a family of defectors who had stolen a boat and come to south korea, and i spent quite a lot of time with them.  but then they freaked out because they would have been too recognizable.  [it was well within my journalistic right to publish, but] i pulled the story because i realized their relatives at home would have been penalized.  if they [refugees] speak to foreign media, the relatives back home will be penalized.
  • KL:  that's true.  they'll often change things [not to be deceptive] but because they know it'll affect their relatives back home.
  • KL:  the ethical dilemma would be really the missionary culture for me, the aid workers.  there are some very good people who help north koreans who are religious -- most of the people who are helping north koreans on the NGO level or on the activism level are christian.  [...]  whether you're a political leader or a religious leader, you are going to be an individual first.****
    • **** essentially, lee was trying to make the point that they have individual concerns, and, sometimes, those individual concerns must be met first.  she even said, "for them, it's a business."  like, there is the interest between getting refugees out and then there's essentially holding onto them and receiving whatever subsidies they receive because these missionaries/workers also have families to feed.

re:  borders and identity and belonging

  • BD:  i think the thing i found most interesting was their reactions to china.  every north korean i met had this great, almost epiphany when they came to china.
  • BD:  that's the tragedy of north korea.  it's in the middle of these economic miracles, but north koreans are just stuck there in this black hole [on] the wrong side of the border.
  • KL:  borders have always been interesting to me.  it's this idea of home and belonging and citizenship -- where you belong, you lets you in, who keeps you out are the things i've always been interested in.  identity, political identities, personal identities -- when you live in a country and never leave that country, you might not interrogate yourself as much.  to leave suddenly defines the place you are and the place you left.
  • KL:  this idea of becoming north korean -- that, when these people leave they are -- all sorts of things that happen to them because of their nationality.  and, when they cross into south korea, they start to change their identities and their names [to more south korean names], but, once they open their mouths, they're suddenly [made] aware that they're north korean.
  • KL:  this identity that's imposed on us -- that i think, again, happens to may of us -- but it's something that we struggle with, that north koreans struggle with.


re:  preventing spectacle

  • BD:  i think the point of reporting is to get people to empathize with people whose names they might not be able to pronounce.  you're supposed to see yourself in them.  and i've seen that in some of the better reporting about the refugees in syria as well.
  • KL:  when you think of north koreans not as capital-north koreans but as human beings, as individuals, when you become involved in the individual story, it no longer becomes a spectacle.  it's about a human life; it's about the dignity of honoring that human life.  i don't think it was a problem, but i think the problem with fiction is that you're honoring it so much that you're handling it with gloves.
  • BD:  i think it's especially important when it comes to north korea because they're painted as these robotic figures -- all these asian stereotypes are applied freely to north korea.  i think it's very important to humanize them, to show their personal side.

re:  maintaining relationships

  • BD:  i'm in touch with all the people in my book, and, when i go to seoul, i see a couple of them.
  • KL:  most of my friendships with north koreans -- some of them have been long over ten years, and some are more recent friends.  i would say that's the most rewarding part of any friendship; it's over time that [you see them change and grow].
  • KL:  there's a lot of communities [of/for north koreans] everywhere, but that doesn't mean they form bonds.

re:  what we can do on the ground level

  • KL:  when they first come to korea, they don't understand the language because there's so much english everywhere.  they don't understand the signage.
    • [there are many refugees who go abroad to learn and find themselves stuck because they've learned all the wrong things.  there are groups that provide tutoring and language help that we can get involved with.]
  • KL:  [as for monetary donations] NGOs i like and trust would be justice for north korea and citizens alliance.  if you're looking for a religious group that does good work, there's helping hands.  from my experience, these are the people i trust.

re:  writing as political

  • KL:  as a fiction writer, all language is political.  all stories are political.  it's nearly impossible to avoid revealing your worldview.  and our worldview is very much shaped by the societies we live in.  and i don't think that's a totally terrible thing.
  • KL:  sometimes, i think, in writing fiction, you discover what you believe in and what your characters believe in.  after i finish a book, i am no longer the same person.  that books has changed me and hopefully made me a better person in some ways and made me see the world in different ways.  it's a reward that really can't be measured in some ways.
  • KL:  we are all creatures negotiating our societies.