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A Language Is a Window: An Interview with Krys Lee

By Jessie Chaffee

Image: Krys Lee. Photograph by Matt Douma.

Words Without Borders caught up with writer and translator Krys Lee. Her novel How I Became a North Korean was just published by Viking/Penguin Random House.

Words Without Borders (WWB): You write in English and translate from Korean. What inspired you to begin working as a translator, and does your work as a translator influence your fiction and how you think about language?

Krys Lee (KL): Years ago over brunch, Young-ha Kim, a Korean writer I respect, asked me if I was interested in translating. I had translated short stories and poems before whenever the opportunity arose, as I was always interested in Korean literature. I also have a strong interest in languages and literature from around the world in general, so whether it is Korean or Italian, what originally drives me is a desire to read the national literature in the original language. This led me to work on longer novel projects. I ended up translating Young-ha Kim’s novel, and it will be published next year.

WWB: In thinking about your personal relationship with language, do English and Korean (and now Italian) play different roles in your life? And have you ever considered writing fiction in a language other than English?

KL: All three languages—English, Korean, and now, Italian—seem to mark phases of my life. I also become a slightly different person in each language, particularly in Korean, as the culture is, literally and metaphorically, another world, which is reflected in every sentence and inflection of the language. A language is a window, a different way of seeing, and my hunger for the languages and literatures of the world has much to do with a desire to see and understand as much of the world as possible. As well, I suspect, each language feeds a hunger in me to also become a different person. I’m also hoping to start Japanese classes in the next year or two, with no clear goal except that I have a passion for learning, and learning a language opens worlds.

A language is a window, a different way of seeing.

If I ever wrote in another language, it would be in Korean since I’ve lived over half my life so far in Seoul and I am engaged to a Korean man who speaks no English. I’m part of a generation that immigrated in reverse back to the country of their parents’ origins, and I have made my home here. It still feels like an audacious thing to say, however, as I’m not even satisfied with the way I write in English yet. A language is a journey, and each journey is a rich, endless quest with no point and no end. I do have one Korean language project that I’ll start next summer with my partner, however, which is a screenplay. I hadn’t planned for it, but while we were travelling, an idea that seemed right for a screenplay came to me fully formed. I wait for and trust those moments—when an idea comes to me in the form of a short story, novel, poem, or screenplay. Since my partner works in the Korean TV industry and understands the screenplay form far better than I do, my next project will be in the Korean language.

Cover of Krys Lee's novel How I Became a North KoreanWWB: Your first book, Drifting House, was a collection of short stories that focused primarily on the experiences of South Koreans and Korean immigrants in the United States. Your novel, How I Became a North Korean, is about North Korean defectors in China. How did the experience of writing in these two mediums—short form and long form—differ? With regard to the content, was there a specific reason that you decided to explore the experience of North Korean refugees at this moment in history and in your own life?

KL: Each genre feels so distinct from the other. Stephen King once said that a short story is a love affair, and a novel is a marriage. The intensity of each short story was thrilling and emotionally taxing, but the promise of completion was always there. A novel is a test of willpower and faith, and a humbling experience. One fails and fails again. The rhythm oscillates between fear and occasional delight and happiness—like life, at least the way that I experience life.

The years before I began How I Became a North Korean all led to the novel. I had been friends with North Korean activists and North Korean refugees before I began writing fiction, and when I first began a second book, I had deliberately tried not to write about the North Korean issues because I felt it was their story, not mine, and I didn’t want to appropriate stories. But as I struggled to write a novel based in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, and a few North Korean friends urged me to write their story for them because someone had to tell it right, I realized that the novel I was writing wasn’t working since the material felt distant from me. In contrast, the North Korean refugee issue was one I was intimately involved in and passionate about. And once I was asked to help in the border area of China and later, became disillusioned with what I saw, my anger and sadness grew, and watered the seed that became my novel How I Became a North Korean.

WWB: Both of your books are filled with vibrant characters. Though some of them are wrestling with similar conflicts, each one is unique and absolutely real with a distinctive voice and perspective. Where do you find your characters? How do they come to you?

KL: Each of my characters has a different part of me inside them, and certainly a lot of what I learned and who I knew informed my characters, but in the end the journey of writing a novel is learning who your characters are. As you also know, being a writer yourself, you learn your characters better than you do most “real” people you know your entire life. That kind of intimacy doesn’t come quickly, or easily.

You learn your characters better than you do most “real” people you know your entire life. That kind of intimacy doesn’t come quickly, or easily.

WWB: One of the most prominent themes in How I Became a North Korean is the many selves that are contained with us—the people we are in different contexts, cultures, languages, etc.—as well as the selves that get left behind. This is, of course, even more apparent when people are living in exile. “It is as though we were shedding our very selves to become someone else,” Jangmi thinks as she crosses the Tumen River to China. Is this something that you relate to as a writer or in your own life? And in your work as a translator—bringing narratives from one language to another—are there things that you have found to be untranslatable, that get lost in the crossing?

KL: You picked up on this! There are many sentences that haunt me in this book because they are so close to my life, and this is one of them. I had a pretty dramatic and difficult early life that I’m not going to get into here, but part of it required me to move homes every few years. Later in college an academic scholarship allowed me to transport myself to England, and then I began life again in Korea. My “self” was dramatically different at home, at church as the pastor’s daughter, in different languages and cultures, and each time I longed for a new life and new beginning—most likely because I didn’t like being me. I romanticized Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Each book was a different self. So when I became friends with North Koreans, I recognized the impulse in many of them to create a new self equally out of a desire for a new start and out of a longing to escape. But of course, an entirely new self is a fiction.

One translates out of a faith in and love for a language, then realizes that the gaps between two languages will betray each time.

Translation is a strange art. One translates out of a faith in and love for a language, then realizes that the gaps between two languages will betray each time. Many translators tend to translate books that are more “translatable” as a result. Books that do not seem as accessible in terms of language and culture, despite their merit, tend to be neglected. I’m guilty of the same tendencies. I read the poems of Kim Hye Soon years ago, and had a sudden desire to translate the fierce, original poems. The elaborate repetition and rhythmic line were impossible to replicate, however, and without the unique music of the line, I didn’t feel satisfied. Essentially, I lost courage.

WWB: In your recent interview with Han Kang, you asked whether there are ideas and obsessions that she returns to—that haunt her. Are there themes that you find yourself returning to again and again in your writing?

KL: There are so many themes I return to, some of which overlap with Han Kang’s, which was why we were delighted to read one another’s work and recognize our shared preoccupations. I return to the subjects of violence, religion, and issues of identity and the self—or, more accurately, they return to me. The struggle to survive and the need for control also figure largely, as do loneliness and love, the one frail possibility to escape the human condition of solitude.

Krys Lee is the author of the short story collection Drifting House and the novel How I Became a North Korean, both published by Viking, Penguin Random House. Her translation of Young-ha Kim’s novel I Hear Your Voice is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is a recipient of the Rome Prize and the Story Prize Spotlight Award, the Honor Title in Adult Fiction Literature from the Asian/Pacific American Libraries Association, and a finalist for the BBC International Story Prize. Her fiction, journalism, and literary translations have appeared in Granta, The Kenyon Review, Narrative, the San Francisco Chronicle, Corriere 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.

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Published Aug 3, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jessie Chaffee

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